Moore’s Captain Rock by Sydney Smith

Story type: Essay

[Memoirs of Captain Rock, the celebrated Irish Chieftain; with some Account of his Ancestors. Written by Himself. Fourth Edition. 12mo. London, 1824.]

This agreeable and witty book is generally supposed to have been written by Mr. Thomas Moore, a gentleman of small stature, but full of genius, and a steady friend of all that is honourable and just. He has here borrowed the name of a celebrated Irish leader, to typify that spirit of violence and insurrection which is necessarily generated by systematic oppression, and rudely avenges its crimes; and the picture he has drawn of its prevalence in that unhappy country is at once piteous and frightful. Its effect in exciting our horror and indignation is in the long run increased, we think– though at first it may seem counteracted–by the tone of levity, and even jocularity, under which he has chosen to veil the deep sarcasm and substantial terrors of his story. We smile at first, and are amused, and wonder, as we proceed, that the humorous narrative should produce conviction and pity–shame, abhorrence, and despair.

England seems to have treated Ireland much in the same way as Mrs. Brownrigg treated her apprentice–for which Mrs. Brownrigg is hanged in the first volume of the Newgate Calendar. Upon the whole, we think the apprentice is better off than the Irishman; as Mrs. Brownrigg merely starves and beats her, without any attempt to prohibit her from going to any shop, or praying at any church her apprentice might select: and once or twice, if we remember rightly, Brownrigg appears to have felt some compassion. Not so Old England, who indulges rather in a steady baseness, uniform brutality, and unrelenting oppression.

Let us select from this entertaining little book a short history of dear Ireland, such as even some profligate idle member of the House of Commons, voting as his master bids him, may perchance throw his eye upon, and reflect for a moment upon the iniquity to which he lends his support.

For some centuries after the reign of Henry II., the Irish were killed like game, by persons qualified or unqualified. Whether dogs were used does not appear quite certain, though it is probable they were, spaniels as well as pointers; and that, after a regular point by Basto, well backed by Ponto and Caesar, Mr. O’Donnel or Mr. O’Leary bolted from the thicket, and were bagged by the English sportsman. With Henry II. came in tithes, to which, in all probability, about one million of lives may have been sacrificed in Ireland. In the reign of Edward I. the Irish who were settled near the English requested that the benefit of the English laws might be extended to them; but the remonstrance of the barons with the hesitating king was in substance this: “You have made us a present of these wild gentlemen, and we particularly request that no measures may be adopted to check us in that full range of tyranny and oppression in which we consider the value of such a gift to consist. You might as well give us sheep, and prevent us from shearing the wool, or roasting the meat.” This reasoning prevailed, and the Irish were kept to their barbarism, and the barons preserved their dive stock.

“Read ‘Orange faction’ (says Captain Rock) here and you have the wisdom of our rulers, at the end of near six centuries, in statu quo. The grand periodic year of the stoics, at the close of which everything was to begin again, and the same events to be all reacted in the same order, is, on a miniature scale, represented in the history of the English Government in Ireland, every succeeding century being but a new revolution of the same follies, the same crimes, and the same turbulence that disgraced the former. But ‘Vive l’ennemi!’ say I: whoever may suffer by such measures, Captain Rock, at least, will prosper.

“And such was the result at the period of which I am speaking. The rejection of a petition, so humble and so reasonable, was followed, as a matter of course, by one of those daring rebellions into which the revenge of an insulted people naturally breaks forth. The M’Cartys, the O’Briens, and the other Macs and O’s, who have been kept on the alert by similar causes ever since, flew to arms under the command of a chieftain of my family; and, as the proffered HANDLE of the sword had been rejected, made their inexorable masters at least feel its EDGE.”–(pp. 23-25.)

Fifty years afterwards the same request was renewed and refused. Up again rose Mac and O, a JUST AND NECESSARY WAR ensued; and after the usual murders, the usual chains were replaced upon the Irishry. All Irishmen were excluded from every species of office. It was high treason to marry with the Irish blood, and highly penal to receive the Irish into religious houses. War was waged also against their Thomas Moores, Samuel Rogerses, and Walter Scotts, who went about the country harping and singing against English oppression. No such turbulent guests were to be received. The plan of making them poets-laureate, or converting them to loyalty by pensions of 100 pounds per annum, had not then been thought of. They debarred the Irish even from the pleasure of running away, and fixed them to the soil like negroes.

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“I have thus selected,” says the historian of Rock, “cursorily and at random, a few features of the reigns preceding the Reformation, in order to show what good use was made of those three or four hundred years in attaching the Irish people to their English governors; and by what a gentle course of alternatives they were prepared for the inoculation of a new religion, which was now about to be attempted upon them by the same skilful and friendly hands.

“Henry VII. appears to have been the first monarch to whom it occurred, that matters were not managed exactly as they ought in this part of his dominions; and we find him–with a simplicity which is still fresh and youthful among our rulers–expressing his SURPRISE that his subjects of this land should be so prone to faction and rebellion, and that so little advantage had been hitherto derived from the acquisitions of his predecessor, notwithstanding the fruitfulness and natural advantages of Ireland. Surprising, indeed, that a policy, such as we have been describing, should not have converted the whole country into a perfect Atlantis of happiness–should not have made it like the imaginary island of Sir Thomas More, where ‘tota insula velut una familia est!’–most stubborn, truly, and ungrateful, must that people be, upon whom, up to the very hour in which I write, such a long and unvarying course of penal laws, confiscations, and Insurrection Acts has been tried, without making them in the least degree in love with their rulers.

“Heloise tells her tutor, Abelard, that the correction which he inflicted upon her only served to increase the ardour of her affection for him; but bayonets and hemp are no such ‘amoris stimuli.’ One more characteristic anecdote of those times and I have done. At the battle of Knocktow, in the reign of Henry VII., when that remarkable man, the Earl of Kildare, assisted by the great O’Neal and other Irish chiefs, gained a victory over Clanricard of Connaught, most important to the English Government, Lord Gormanstown, after the battle, in the first insolence of success, said, turning to the Earl of Kildare, ‘We have now slaughtered our enemies, but, to complete the good deed, we must proceed yet further, and–cut the throats of those Irish of our own party!’ Who can wonder that the Rock family were active in those times?”–(pp. 33, 35.)

Henry VIII. persisted in all these outrages, and aggravated them by insulting the prejudices of the people. England is almost the only country in the world (even at present) where there is not some favourite religious sport, where absurd lies, little bits of cloth, feathers, rusty nails, splinters, and other invaluable relics, are treasured up, and in defence of which the whole population are willing to turn out and perish as one man. Such was the shrine of St. Kieran, the whole treasures of which the satellites of that corpulent tyrant turned out into the street, pillaged the sacred church of Clonmacnoise, scattered the holy nonsense of the priests to the winds, and burnt the real and venerable crosier of St. Patrick, fresh from the silversmith’s shop, and formed of the most costly materials. Modern princes change the uniform of regiments; Henry changed the religion of kingdoms, and was determined that the belief of the Irish should undergo a radical and Protestant conversion. With what success this attempt was made, the present state of Ireland is sufficient evidence.

“Be not dismayed,” said Elizabeth, on hearing that O’Neal meditated some designs against her government; “tell my friends, if he arise, it will turn to their advantage–THERE WILL BE ESTATES FOR THOSE WHO WANT.” Soon after this prophetic speech, Munster was destroyed by famine and the sword, and near 600,000 acres forfeited to the crown, and distributed among Englishmen. Sir Walter Raleigh (the virtuous and good) butchered the garrison of Limerick in cold blood, after Lord Deputy Gray had selected 700 to be hanged. There were, during the reign of Elizabeth, three invasions of Ireland by the Spaniards, produced principally by the absurd measures of this princess for the reformation of its religion. The Catholic clergy, in consequence of these measures, abandoned their cures, the churches fell to ruin, and the people were left without any means of instruction. Add to these circumstances the murder of M’Mahon, the imprisonment of O’Toole and O’Dogherty, and the kidnapping of O’Donnel–all truly Anglo-Hibernian proceedings. The execution of the laws was rendered detestable and intolerable by the queen’s officers of justice. The spirit raised by these transactions, besides innumerable smaller insurrections gave rise to the great wars of Desmond and Hugh O’Neal; which, after they had worn out the ablest generals, discomfited the choicest troops, exhausted the treasure, and embarrassed the operations of Elizabeth, were terminated by the destruction of these two ancient families, and by the confiscation of more than half the territorial surface of the island. The last two years of O’Neal’s wars cost Elizabeth 140,000 pounds per annum, though the whole revenue of England at that period fell considerably short of 500,000 pounds. Essex, after the destruction of Norris, led into Ireland an army of above 20,000 men, which was totally baffled and destroyed by Tyrone, within two years of their landing. Such was the importance of Irish rebellions two centuries before the time in which we live. Sir G. Carew attempted to assassinate the Lugan Earl–Mountjoy compelled the Irish rebels to massacre each other. In the course of a few months 3,000 men were starved to death in Tyrone. Sir Arthur Chichester, Sir Richard Manson, and other commanders, saw three children feeding on the flesh of their dead mother. Such were the golden days of good Queen Bess!

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By the rebellions of Dogherty, in the reign of James I., six northern counties were confiscated, amounting to 500,000 acres. In the same manner, 64,000 acres were confiscated in Athlone. The whole of his confiscations amount to nearly a million acres; and if Leland means plantation acres, they constitute a twelfth of the whole kingdom according to Newenham, and a tenth according to Sir W. Petty. The most shocking and scandalous action in the reign of James, was his attack upon the whole property of the province of Connaught, which he would have effected, if he had not been bought off by a sum greater than he hoped to gain by his iniquity, besides the luxury of confiscation. The Irish, during the reign of James I., suffered under the DOUBLE evils of a licentious soldiery and a religious persecution.

Charles I. took a bribe of 120,000 pounds from his Irish subjects, to grant them what in those days were called Graces, but in these days would be denominated the Elements of Justice. The money was paid, but the graces were never granted. One of these graces was curious enough: “That the clergy were not to be permitted to keep henceforward any private prisons of their own, but delinquents were to be committed to the public jails.” The idea of a rector, with his own private jail full of Dissenters, is the most ludicrous piece of tyranny we ever heard of. The troops in the beginning of Charles’s reign were supported by the weekly fines levied upon the Catholics for non-attendance upon established worship. The Archbishop of Dublin went himself at the head of a file of musketeers, to disperse a Catholic congregation in Dublin–which object he effected after a considerable skirmish with the priests. “The favourite object” (says Dr. Leland, a Protestant clergyman, and dignitary of the Irish Church) “of the Irish Government and the English Parliament, was THE UTTER EXTERMINATION of all the Catholic inhabitants of Ireland.” The great rebellion took place in this reign, and Ireland was one scene of blood and cruelty and confiscation.

Cromwell began his career in Ireland by massacring for five days the garrison of Drogheda, to whom quarter had been promised. Two millions and a half of acres were confiscated. Whole towns were put up in lots, and sold. The Catholics were banished from three- fourths of the kingdom, and confined to Connaught. After a certain day, every Catholic found out of Connaught was to be punished with death. Fleetwood complains peevishly “that the people DO NOT TRANSPORT READILY,” but adds, “IT IS DOUBTLESS A WORK IN WHICH THE LORD WILL APPEAR.” Ten thousand Irish were sent as recruits to the Spanish army.

“Such was Cromwell’s way of settling the affairs of Ireland; and if a nation IS to be ruined, this method is, perhaps, as good as any. It is, at least, more humane than the slow, lingering process of exclusion, disappointment, and degradation, by which their hearts are worn out under more specious forms of tyranny; and that talent of despatch which Moliere attributes to one of his physicians is no ordinary merit in a practitioner like Cromwell: –“C’est un homme expeditif, qui aime a depecher ses malades; et quand on a mourir, cela se fait avec lui le plus vite du monde.” A certain military Duke, who complains that Ireland is but half conquered, would, no doubt, upon an emergency, try his hand in the same line of practice, and, like that ‘stern hero’ Mirmillo, in the Dispensary,

“While others meanly take whole months to slay,
Despatch the grateful patient in a day!”

“Among other amiable enactments against the Catholics at this period, the price of five pounds was set on the head of a Romish priest, being exactly the same sum offered by the same legislators for the head of a wolf. The Athenians, we are told, encouraged the destruction of wolves by a similar reward (five drachms); but it does not appear that these heathens bought up the heads of priests at the same rate, such zeal in the cause of religion being reserved for times of Christianity and Protestantism.”–(pp. 97-99.)

Nothing can show more strongly the light in which the Irish were held by Cromwell than the correspondence with Henry Cromwell respecting the peopling of Jamaica from Ireland. Secretary Thurloe sends to Henry, the Lord Deputy in Ireland, to inform him that “a stock of Irish girls and Irish young men are wanting for the peopling of Jamaica.” The answer of Henry Cromwell is as follows:- “Concerning the supply of young men, although we must use force in taking them up, YET IT BEING SO MUCH FOR THEIR OWN GOOD, and likely to be of so great advantage to the public, it is not the least doubted but that you may have such a number of them as you may think fit to make use of on this account.

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“I shall not need repeat anything respecting the girls, not doubting to answer your expectations to the full IN THAT; and I think it might be of like advantage to your affairs there and ours here if you should think fit to send 1,500 or 2,000 boys to the place above mentioned. WE CAN WELL SPARE THEM; and who knows but that it may be the means of making them Englishmen–I mean, rather, Christians? As for the girls, I suppose you will make provisions of clothes, and other accommodations for them.” Upon this, Thurloe informs Henry Cromwell that the council have voted 4,000 GIRLS, AND AS MANY BOYS, to go to Jamaica.

Every Catholic priest found in Ireland was hanged, and five pounds paid to the informer.

“About the years 1652 and 1653,” says Colonel Lawrence, in his Interests of Ireland, “the plague and famine had so swept away whole counties, that a man might travel twenty or thirty miles and not see a living creature, either man, or beast, or bird, they being all dead, or had quitted those desolate places. Our soldiers would tell stories of the places where they saw smoke–it was so rare to see either smoke by day or fire or candle by night.” In this manner did the Irish live and die under Cromwell, suffering by the sword, famine, pestilence, and persecution, beholding the confiscation of a kingdom and the banishment of a race. “So that there perished,” says Sir W. Petty, “in the year 1641, 650,000 human beings, whose bloods somebody must atone for to God and the King!”

In the reign of Charles II., by the Act of Settlement, four millions and a half of acres were for ever taken from the Irish. “This country,” says the Earl of Essex, Lord Lieutenant in 1675, “has been perpetually rent and torn since his Majesty’s restoration. I can compare it to nothing better than the flinging the reward on the death of a deer among the pack of hounds, where every one pulls and tears where he can for himself.” All wool grown in Ireland was, by Act of Parliament, compelled to be sold to England; and Irish cattle were excluded from England. The English, however, were pleased to accept 30,000 head of cattle, sent as a gift from Ireland to the sufferers in the great fire! and the first day of the Sessions, after this act of munificence, the Parliament passed fresh acts of exclusion against the productions of that country.

“Among the many anomalous situations in which the Irish have been placed, by those ‘marriage vows, false as dicers’ oaths,’ which bind their country to England, the dilemma in which they found themselves at the Revolution was not the less perplexing or cruel. If they were loyal to the King de jure, they were hanged by the King de facto; and if they escaped with life from the King de facto, it was but to be plundered and proscribed by the King de jure afterwards.

“‘Hac gener atque socer coeant mercede suorum.’–VIRGIL.

“‘In a manner so summary, prompt, and high mettled,
Twixt father and son-in-law matters were settled.’

“In fact, most of the outlawries in Ireland were for treason committed the very day on which the Prince and Princess of Orange accepted the crown in the Banqueting-house; though the news of this event could not possibly have reached the other side of the Channel on the same day, and the Lord-Lieutenant of King James, with an army to enforce obedience, was at that time in actual possession of the government, so little was common sense consulted, or the mere decency of forms observed, by that rapacious spirit, which nothing less than the confiscation of the whole island could satisfy; and which having, in the reign of James I. and at the Restoration, despoiled the natives of no less than ten millions six hundred and thirty-six thousand eight hundred and thirty-seven acres, now added to its plunder one million sixty thousand seven hundred and ninety- two acres more, being the amount altogether (according to Lord Clare’s calculation) of the whole superficial contents of the island!

“Thus, not only had ALL Ireland suffered confiscation in the course of this century, but no inconsiderable portion of it had been twice and even thrice confiscated. Well might Lord Clare say, ‘that the situation of the Irish nation, at the Revolution, stands unparalleled in the history of the inhabited world.’” (pp. 111- 113.)

By the Articles of Limerick, the Irish were promised the free exercise of their religion; but from that period to the year 1788, every year produced some fresh penalty against that religion, some liberty was abridged, some right impaired, or some suffering increased. By acts in King William’s reign, they were prevented from being solicitors. No Catholic was allowed to marry a Protestant; and any Catholic who sent a son to Catholic countries for education was to forfeit all his lands. In the reign of Queen Anne, any son of a Catholic who chose to turn Protestant got possession of the father’s estate. No Papist was allowed to purchase freehold property, or to take a lease for more than thirty years. If a Protestant dies intestate, the estate is to go to the next PROTESTANT heir, though all to the tenth generation should be Catholic. In the same manner, if a Catholic dies intestate, his estate is to go to the next Protestant. No Papist is to dwell in Limerick or Galway. No Papist is to take an annuity for life. The widow of a Papist turning Protestant to have a portion of the chattels of deceased in spite of any will. Every Papist teaching schools to be presented as a regular Popish convict. Prices of catching Catholic priests, from 50s. to 10 pounds, according to rank. Papists are to answer all questions respecting other Papists, or to be committed to jail for twelve months. No trust to be undertaken for Papists. No Papist to be on Grand Juries. Some notion may be formed of the spirit of those times, from an order of the House of Commons, “that the Sergeant-at-Arms should take into custody all Papists that should presume to come into THE GALLERY!” (Commons’ Journal, vol. iii., fol. 976.) During this reign the English Parliament legislated as absolutely for Ireland as they do now for Rutlandshire, an evil not to be complained of, if they had done it as justly. In the reign of George I., the horses of Papists were seized for the militia, and rode by Protestants; towards which the Catholics paid double, and were compelled to find Protestant substitutes. They were prohibited from voting at vestries, or being high or petty constables. An act of the English Parliament in this reign opens as follows: –“Whereas attempts have been lately made to shake off the subjection of Ireland to the Imperial Crown of these realms, be it enacted,” etc. etc. In the reign of George II. four- sixths of the population were cut off from the right of voting at elections by the necessity under which they were placed of taking the oath of supremacy. Barristers and solicitors marrying Catholics are exposed to all the penalties of Catholics. Persons robbed by privateers during a war with a Catholic State are to be indemnified by a levy on the Catholic inhabitants of the neighbourhood. All marriages between Catholics and Protestants are annulled. All Popish priests celebrating them are to be hanged. “This system” (says Arthur Young) “has no other tendency than that of driving out of the kingdom all the personal wealth of the Catholics, and extinguishing their industry within it; and the face of the country, every object which presents itself to travellers, tells him how effectually this has been done.”–Young’s Tour in Ireland, vol. ii., p. 48.

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Such is the history of Ireland–for we are now at our own times; and the only remaining question is, whether the system of improvement and conciliation begun in the reign of George III. shall be pursued, and the remaining incapacities of the Catholics removed, or all these concessions be made insignificant by an adherence to that spirit of proscription which they professed to abolish? Looking to the sense and reason of the thing, and to the ordinary working of humanity and justice, when assisted, as they are here, by self- interest and worldly policy, it might seem absurd to doubt of the result. But looking to the facts and the persons by which we are now surrounded, we are constrained to say that we greatly fear that these incapacities never will be removed till they are removed by fear. What else, indeed, can we expect when we see them opposed by such enlightened men as Mr. Peel–faintly assisted by men of such admirable genius as Mr. Canning–when Royal Dukes consider it as a compliment to the memory of their father to continue this miserable system of bigotry and exclusion, when men act ignominiously and contemptibly on this question, who do so on no other question, when almost the only persons zealously opposed to this general baseness and fatuity are a few Whigs and Reviewers, or here and there a virtuous poet like Mr. Moore? We repeat again, that the measure never will be effected but by fear. In the midst of one of our just and necessary wars, the Irish Catholics will compel this country to grant them a great deal more than they at present require or even contemplate. We regret most severely the protraction of the disease, and the danger of the remedy; but in this way it is that human affairs are carried on!

We are sorry we have nothing for which to praise Administration on the subject of the Catholic question, but it is but justice to say, that they have been very zealous and active in detecting fiscal abuses in Ireland, in improving mercantile regulations, and in detecting Irish jobs. The commission on which Mr. Wallace presided has been of the greatest possible utility, and does infinite credit to the Government. The name of Mr. Wallace in any commission has now become a pledge to the public that there is a real intention to investigate and correct abuse. He stands in the singular predicament of being equally trusted by the rulers and the ruled. It is a new era in Government when such men are called into action; and if there were not proclaimed and fatal limits to that ministerial liberality, which, so far as it goes, we welcome without a grudge and praise without a sneer, we might yet hope that, for the sake of mere consistency, they might be led to falsify our forebodings. But alas! there are motives more immediate, and therefore irresistible; and the time is not yet come when it will be believed easier to govern Ireland by the love of the many than by the power of the few, when the paltry and dangerous machinery of bigoted faction and prostituted patronage may be dispensed with, and the vessel of the State be propelled by the natural current of popular interests and the breath of popular applause. In the meantime, we cannot resist the temptation of gracing our conclusion with the following beautiful passage, in which the author alludes to the hopes that were raised at another great era of partial concession and liberality, that of the revolution of 1782, when, also, benefits were conferred which proved abortive because they were incomplete, and balm poured into the wound, where the envenomed shaft was yet left to rankle.

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“And here,” says the gallant Captain Rock, “as the free confession of weakness constitutes the chief charm and use of biography, I will candidly own that the dawn of prosperity and concord which I now saw breaking over the fortunes of my country, so dazzled and deceived my youthful eyes, and so unsettled every hereditary notion of what I owed to my name and family, that–shall I confess it–I even hailed with pleasure the prospects of peace and freedom that seemed opening around me; nay, was ready, in the boyish enthusiasm of the moment, to sacrifice all my own personal interest in all future riots and rebellions to the one bright, seducing object of my country’s liberty and repose.

“When I contemplated such a man as the venerable Charlemont, whose nobility was to the people like a fort over a valley, elevated above them solely for their defence; who introduced the polish of the courtier into the camp of the freeman, and served his country with all that pure Platonic devotion which a true knight in the time of chivalry proffered to his mistress; when I listened to the eloquence of Grattan, the very music of freedom, her first fresh matin song, after a long night of slavery, degradation, and sorrow; when I saw the bright offerings which he brought to the shrine of his country– wisdom, genius, courage, and patience, invigorated and embellished by all those social and domestic virtues, without which the loftiest talents stand isolated in the moral waste around them, like the pillars of Palmyra towering in a wilderness!–when I reflected on all this, it not only disheartened me for the mission of discord which I had undertaken, but made me secretly hope that it might be rendered unnecessary; and that a country which could produce such men and achieve such a revolution, might yet–in spite of the joint efforts of the Government and my family–take her rank in the scale of nations, and be happy!

“My father, however, who saw the momentary dazzle by which I was affected, soon drew me out of this false light of hope in which I lay basking, and set the truth before me in a way but too convincing and ominous. ‘Be not deceived, boy,’ he would say, ‘by the fallacious appearances before you. Eminently great and good as is the man to whom Ireland owes this short era of glory, OUR work, believe me, will last longer than his. We have a power on our side that “will not willingly let us die;” and, long after Grattan shall have disappeared from earth like that arrow shot into the clouds by Alcestes, effecting nothing, but leaving a long train of light behind him, the family of the ROCKS will continue to flourish in all their native glory, upheld by the ever-watchful care of the Legislature, and fostered by that “nursing-mother of Liberty,” the Church.’”

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