Memoirs of Captain Rock, the celebrated Irish chieftain

Chapter XIII.
1701-1727.

Reigns of Anne and George I.—Fate of Pope, if born in Munster.—Penal Code.—Swift–His Notions of Tolerance.—Wood’s Half-pence.—Independence of Ireland.—Barbarous Law against Romish Priests.-Hints for putting down the Rock Family.

IN the reign of Queen Anne, the degradation and enslavement of the great mass of the Irish nation was completed; and at a time when a Catholic poet was illuminating the literature of England, with that true light of genius which never dies, in Ireland to be a Catholic was to be an outcast from the commonest privileges of humanity;—so that, if Pope had been born a Munster Papist, instead of a London one, by Act 7 William and Mary, and 2 Anne, he would have been voted an irreclaimable brute, and hunted into the mountains.

The Penal Code, enacted at this period, will for ever remain a monument of the atrocious perfection, to which the art of torturing his fellow-creatures may be brought by civilized man. It was truly, as Burke calls it, “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, and as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”

There was more blood drawn by Dioclesian and other heathen bunglers in persecution; but the refinement of wasting away the hearts of a whole people by piecemeal was reserved for the Christian and Protestant legislators of Queen Anne. Let us not, however, give all our execrations to them, and their now half broken-up machinery of oppression—let us keep some for those persons (and they are neither few nor obscure) who at this moment still sigh after those good old penal times—who consider liberality and justice as degeneracy from their ancestors, and who try to infuse into every remaining fragment of that polypus of persecution, the same pestilent life that pervaded the whole.

With this part of his country’s history an Irish Chronicler has little else to do than to mourn over it and be silent.—The chief actors in the scene can hardly be called Irishmen, and the sufferers in the back-ground were all mute and nameless.

The best and most patriotic men of the time were but (as Swift styles Molyneux, and, by implication, himself) “Englishmen born here.” Swift’s own patriotism was little more than a graft of English faction upon an Irish stock—fructifying, it is true, into such splendid produce, as makes us proud to think it indigenous to the soil. How little his views of toleration expanded beyond the circumference of those about him, appears from the violence with which he always opposed the claims of the Dissenters; and for the misery and degradation of his Roman Catholic countrymen (who constituted, even then, four-fifths of the population of Ireland), he seems to have cared little more than his own Gulliver would for the sufferings of so many disfranchised Yahoos.

The following passage not only proves the inoffensiveness of this race of victims at that time*, but is a specimen of the truly Spartan sang froid, with which even the patriot Swift could contemplate such a system of Helotism. “We look upon them,” he says, “to be altogether as inconsiderable as the women and children. Their lands are almost entirely taken from them, and they are rendered incapable of purchasing any more; and for the little that remains, provision is made by the late act against Popery, that it will daily crumble away. In the mean time, the common people, without leaders, without discipline, or natural courage, being little better than hewers of wood and drawers of water, are out of all capacity of doing any mischief, if they were ever so well inclined.”

*His pamphlet, also, entitled “Reasons for repealing the Test in favour of the Roman Catholics,” in which he ironically brings forward the claims of the Catholics, as far superior to those of the Dissenters, abundantly proves to what a hopeless state the former class were reduced, when the very justice of their cause could be sported with so safely, and the strongest reasons for their enfranchisement adduced as a sort of argumentum ad absurdum, under the perfect security that such a result was impossible.

Sometimes, indeed, his good sense, as well as his hatred to the Whigs, led him to laugh at the prevalent alarms about Popery; and, in one instance, the circumstances to which he alludes show to what ludicrous lengths the Ascendancy Spirit was at that time carried. In the Journals of the Irish House of Commons, there is a Petition presented by the Protestant porters of Dublin against one Darby Ryan, “a Captain under the late King James, and a Papist notoriously disaffected, who bought up whole cargoes of coals, and employed those of his own persuasion and affection to carry the same to customers, by which the petitioners were debarred and hindered from their small trade and gains.”

On another occasion it appears from the Journals that the Hackney Coachmen of Dublin asserted the Ascendancy of the Box with a similar spirit, and prayed the House that it might be enacted that none but Protestant hackney coachmen might have liberty to keep and drive hackney-coaches, &c. &c.

To these circumstances Swift is supposed to allude, when, with his usual happy humour, he remarks that, if the Dublin Cries are allowed to continue, “they ought to be only trusted in the hands of Protestants, who had given security to the Government.”

The affair of Wood’s halfpence, upon which so much of Swift’s wit was lavished—“aere ciere viros”—though magnified at the time into more than its due importance, is interesting even now, as having been thefirst national cause, round which the people of Ireland had ever been induced to rally. What neither Christian charity nor the dictates of sound policy could effect, an influx of brass halfpence brought about at once—and Protestant, Catholic, and Presbyterian, uniting for the first time, opposed themselves to their English governors, and triumphed over them and their halfpence.

The danger of such a union—momentary and unimportant as it was—to the precious Palladium of the Protestant Interest, did not escape the observation of those who, as usual, founded that interest on the eternal division and disunion of the people. Accordingly we find Primate Boulter complaining thus in a letter to the Duke of Newcastle: “I find that the people of every religion, country, and party here, are alike set against Wood’s halfpence, and that their agreement in this has had a most unhappy influence on the state of this nation, by bringing on intimacies between Papists and the Whigs, who before had no correspondence with them.”

This war against Wood’s halfpence is also remarkable, for having incidentally brought into discussion that once animating, but now extinguished, question of the Independence of Ireland—and it shows how the higher Spirits of this world, like those of the world above us, “Cry out one unto another,” through the waste of time; for, the same principles which Swift asserted at this period, were echoed by Grattan at the glorious era of 1782, when the dream of both patriots was, for a short moment, realised.

Among the many freaks of wanton and exuberant cruelty, in which the legislators of these two reigns luxuriated, there was one measure respecting Popish priests, which I know not how to describe, except by saying that it deserves perhaps, par excellence, the designation of a Penal Law, and by referring, for the atrocious particulars, to Curry, Plowden, and other historians. This proposition, it is said, was not only heard, but acceded to, by the Irish House of Commons, and transmitted, with the particular recommendation of the Lord Lieutenant, to England. But the Cabinet there, not quite so far gone in barbarism, rejected it with indignation.

So low in the scale of humanity may men be reduced by that false spirit of religion,

“Which boasts from heaven the sacred spell,
But reads it by a light from hell*!”

If I am asked what became of my ancestors during this still and stagnant interval, I feel somewhat at a loss how to answer—being aware that in acknowledging them to have been as quiet and well-behaved, as an American bear in his winter quarters, I give a triumph to those sages, both of Church and State, who consider Penal laws to be the only true sedatives of the Rock spirit.

But I will even go farther, and grant that the Penal system, as then organised, was most eminently calculated to ensure tranquillity; and that a people in the state described by Swift, must have been as tame and harmless as the petrified population, of that City described in the fables of the East.

There are but two ways, in short, of keeping down the Rock family—either by restoring the Penal code to its full, original perfection, or by abolishing, in spirit as well as in deed, all the odious remains of it. The former of these modes our rulers cannot adopt, and the latter, I know, they will not. Thus secured by the strength of the people from one remedy, and guaranteed by the eternal folly of our Government against the other, what have I to fear for the permanence and prosperity of our race? May I not rather hope, that, like our namesakes, the Romans, we shall be hailed throughout all time,

Romanos, rerum dominos, gentemque togatam.

Law, peace, and justice, at our feet shall fall,
And the white-shirted* race be lords o’er all!

*Curran.

**The costume adopted by the White-boys, Shanavests, and other Rock associations.

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