Memoirs of Captain Rock, the celebrated Irish chieftain



Chapter I.

Birth of Captain Rock.—Some Account of his Father.—Penal Laws.—Enactments with respect to Property.—Beggary of the Rock Family.—Levellers.—White-boys.—Christening of the Captain.— Brought up to the Tithe Line.—Remarkable Prophecy.

I was born in———, in the province of Munster, about the beginning of the year 1763. My father, though the head and representative of our ancient family, had been for a great part of his life as quiet and suffering a Papist, as the Protestant Ascendancy could, in its most fastidious moments, require. Even the Scotch rebellion of 1745 appealed in vain to his hereditary sympathies; nor could all the pains taken by the Government, on that and other occasions, to persuade him and his family that they were notorious rebels, produce any overt-act that at all resembled such a propensity.

One of the Counsellors of the Crown, in the year 1743, when there was an alarm of a French invasion, went so far as to suggest, that as the Papists one hundred years before had begun a massacre on the Protestants, the Protestants ought now to return the compliment, by falling in the same unceremonious manner upon the Papists. But even this hint was lost upon my imperturbable father. Not only he, but fourfifths of his countrymen seemed sunk into such a close resemblance of beasts of burthen, as might have gone far to satisfy that doubter mentioned by Bolingbroke, who said “he never could believe that slavery was of divine institution, till he beheld subjects born with bunches on their backs like camels, and kings with combs upon their heads like cocks.” Whether the Papists of that period had bunches on their backs, is not ascertained—but that they were treated as if they had, is agreed on all sides. An event, however, happened a few years before I came into the world, which at length roused all the family spirit in my father, and drove him to take that station in the affairs of Ireland, which the House of Rock seems destined, at all times, to assume.

As Property and Education are the best securities against discontent and violence, the Government, in its zeal for the advancement of our family, took especial care that we should be as little as possible encumbered with either. Of the quantity and quality of our education I shall speak in a subsequent chapter; but of the pains taken by our rulers to prevent us from being spoiled by property, some idea may be formed from a few of their enactments on the subject.

By the laws which existed when I was born, and for many years afterwards, Papists were declared to be incapable of purchasing estates, or of taking lands, farms, or houses, for a longer period than thirty-one years; and lest, under this short and precarious tenure, they might contrive to acquire a dangerous degree of competence, there was a clause in the Act obliging them to pay two-thirds of the profit-rent to the landlord, leaving them only the other third for the expense of tillage and subsistence. Upon any infraction of these provisions, either from the lenity of the landlord, or from any private arrangement between him and his tenant, the whole property so situated became the prey of the first Protestant discoverer, who was lucky enough to detect the transaction, and bring it before the courts of law.

If, notwithstanding these difficulties, a Roman Catholic contrived to secure a few gleanings from the scythe of the Law, any one of his sons (no matter how young—for Protestants of all sizes were thankfully received) might, by professing to become a convert to the Established Church, not only enter into immediate possession of a considerable part of his father’s fortune, but constitute himself, by this act of conversion, heir-at-law to the whole, with full power to mortgage, sell, or otherwise alienate the reversion of it from his family for ever*.

My father was one of those industrious Papists, who had managed to “deceive the Senate” and make themselves easy and comfortable. He had even purchased privately a small estate, which he was about to transfer in trust to a poor Protestant barber, who had long made himself convenient to Roman Catholic gentlemen in this way**; and who, though his own property did not exceed a few pounds in value, actually held in fee the estates of most of the Catholic gentry in the County. Let me add, too, for the honour of human nature and periwig-making, that, though the Legislature had set a high premium on perfidy, and even declared by a Resolution, which is to be seen on their Journals, that “prosecuting and informing against Papists was an honourable service to the Government,” this Protestant barber was never known to betray his trust—but remained the faithful depositary of this proscribed wealth, which an “honourable” hint to the law officers would have made his own for ever.

Before, however, my father was able to effect the transfer, an informer had put the proper authorities in possession of the secret, and—I blush to state it—this informer was one of his own sons***; who, the day after he had thus betrayed his father, was received a welcome convert into the bosom of the Established Church. This precious system of proselytism, which hoped to make good Protestants out of bad sons, and to improve the religion of the people by ruining their morals, succeeded but little with the obstinate Irish, who remained attached to their faith and their fathers in spite of it. My unlucky brother, indeed (or rather half-brother, for he was by the second Mrs. Rock, and I by the third), formed a sad exception to this honourable character; and was altogether a convert worthy of a Church, which could take such means to recruit its ranks. In his double capacity of informer and proselyte, he entered into possession of all the earnings of many a long day of toil, and my father and the rest of the family were reduced to beggary.

*In an address presented by the Catholics to the late king, in the year 1775, this grievance is thus stated:—“By the laws now in force in this kingdom, a son, however undutiful or profligate, shall not merely by the merit of conforming to the established religion deprive the Roman Catholic father of that free and full possession of his estate, that power to mortgage, or otherwise dispose of it, as the exigencies of his affairs may require; but shall himself have full liberty immediately to mortgage or otherwise alienate the reversion of that estate from his family for ever;—a regulation by which a father, contrary to the order of nature, is put under the power of his son, and through which an early dissoluteness is not only suffered but encouraged, by giving a pernicious privilege, the frequent use of which has broken the hearts of many deserving parents, and entailed poverty and despair on some of the most ancient and opulent families in this kingdom.”

**Instances of this highly honourable humanity were not uncommon among the Protestants at that time. “Neither the menaces of power,” says Mr. O’Connor, “nor the contagion of example, nor the influence of religious hatred, nor the prejudices of party, could eradicate the seeds of humanity. They connived at, encouraged, and aided evasions of the penalties and provisions of these iniquitous statutes. Many of them concealed proscribed priests in their houses, and became trustees or purchasers of properties and settlements of estates for Catholics, in order to favour their industry, and protect them from the ruin of the gavel act.”—History of the Irish Catholics.

In order, however, to frustrate this humane interference, the spiteful Legislature brought in a Bill, enacting that “all leases or purchases, in trust for Papists, shall belong to the first Protestant discoverer, and that no plea or demurrer should be allowed to any bill of discovery, relative to such trusts, &c.”

***I must say, for the honour of the family, that the mother of this unnatural young Rock was suspected of having some of the Cromwell blood in her veins, being descended, as it was whispered, from an Oliverian drummer; whereas, the third Mrs. Rock was a regular O’Brien, counting back in a right line, through Aoife, the daughter of Dealbha, the son of Cas, the son of Conall-Eachluath, and so on, up to the Munster knights of Tradaire, ante Christum.

Let it always be recollected that the laws which encouraged such crimes, were not the relics of any dark superstitious age, but had been enacted in one of the golden periods of English literature, and remained, like “phantoms, wandering by the light of day,” amidst the general and increasing illumination of Europe.

Thus beggared, and, as it were, disinherited by his own child, my father (the antiquity of whose ancestry was, as the reader has seen, sufficiently venerable, to justify the mortification which he felt at this reverse) was obliged, in the decline of life, to “join the labouring train,” and sink into that class of wretched cottiers, who then, as now, occupied the very Nadir of human existence.

It was not long before he felt the good effects of poverty and oppression, in quickening and bringing into play the hereditary tendencies of his nature. The first public occasion, however, on which he displayed his talents (though traceable, like all our other opportunities of distinction, to the measures of the Government) was less directly connected with Church and State than those which succeeded.

The origin of my father’s debut in Insurrection was as follows:—
In the year 1762, the landlords of Munster, tempted by an increased demand for pasturage, had inclosed those commons* on which they had given their poor tenants a right of feeding; and either turned whole swarms of those wretches out of their scanty holdings, or left them at the mercy of greedy monopolists (at that time called “land-pirates,” but since honoured with the less offensive name of Middle-men), who, having bid an enormous rent for these newly-inclosed lands, wrung a proportionate rent out of the miserable tenants to whom they underlet them. Such was the first occasion, on which my father’s talents were brought into active service.

Though our family had been so little heard of for the last seventy or eighty years, yet, in one respect, they had been by no means idle. They were, as Swift says, “the principal breeders of the nation;” and when to this enormous increase of their numbers, we add the large stock of misery and ignorance, which, undertheauspices of the Government, they had been laying in all that time, it must be granted that, on their re-appearance in public life, they came eminently qualified to attract attention—and to take that lead in the affairs of Ireland, which, under the same government patronage, they have maintained to the present day.

The first title which my father and his adherents assumed, was that of Levellers —their interference with public matters being as yet confined to levelling inclosures of commons, turning up new-made roads, and other little praeludia of outrage and violence. They were soon, however, summoned to a higher sphere of action. The Tithe system began to attract my worthy father’s attention**; and to disclose to him those inexhaustible sources of discord, which have made it one of the best cards in the hands of our family ever since.

As the Clergy found the sources of their incomes diminished by the extension of pasturage, they pressed in proportion more heavily on that indigent class of occupiers, whom the quantity of land thrown out of tillage left chiefly chargeable with their support. To be ground down by a hardhearted landlord was galling enough to the poor Catholic; but to have both body and spirit wasted away in thankless labour, in order to support in luxury the ministers of that religion, by which his own faith was proscribed, his children tempted to turn traitors, and himself chained down in misery and bondage—this, indeed, was a refinement in misery,—a sort of complicated infliction, which, if ever the art of driving a people mad should again become the study of a Christian government, deserves to be remembered among its most efficacious rules.

*In the reign of Edward VI, there were insurrections in England from the same cause. “Whole domains” (says Mr. Southey) “were depopulated for the purpose of converting them into sheep-farms. To such an extent was this inhuman system carried, that a manifest decrease of population appeared in the muster-books.”—Book of The Church.

**Attempts have been made to prove that Tithes were not considered a grievance before this period(See an Inquiry, &c. by J. N.) but the following passage in an “Essay on the Trade of Ireland,” by Arthur Dobbs, Esq. published in 1729, will show that they have been consistent in their obnoxiousness throughout—indeed where, or when have Tithes not been considered a grievance?—“The present method of setting, levying or recovering Tithes in this kingdom is frequently the ground of complaint, and an occasion of differences and coldness between the Clergy and Laity in many places; which obstructs the Clergy’s being useful as spiritual guides, and has lately been made a handle to induce thousands of the Protestant dissenters to go to America.’

To reform this grievance was the object of my father’s second appearance in the field, and his followers on that occasion took the name of White-boys—a title adopted, as I have already explained, on account of the white shirts they wore, and long the most favourite of all those “vagrant denominations, by which,” as Mr. Grattan says, “tumult delights to describe itself.”

And here we have an instance of the truth of that memorable saying of Lord Redesdale—that “there is in Ireland one law for the rich, and another for the poor;”—a sentence which ought to be written up like the “Lasciate ogni speranza,” over the door-way of every inferior Law court in Ireland.

In 1735, the land-owners had combined against the Agistment tithe, -had formed illegal associations in almost every county, to defray the expenses of resisting this claim, and indemnify those who had suffered by resisting it. But did the Legislature punish these gentlemen White-boys? On the contrary, they turned White-boys themselves; and, defying both judges and clergy, settled the matter as summarily as Captain Rock himself could have done.

In 1762, 1786, &c. &c. the miserable and starving cottiers upon whom those Protestant land-holders had thrown the whole support of the Protestant church, dared to imitate their betters (in all but injustice), and combined against an exaction unparallelled in the annals of tyranny. It is needless to say what was the difference of their fate—transportation—hanging—Acts “calculated for the meridian of Barbary;*—everything but relief, compassion, or even inquiry.

*Arthur Young, in speaking of the White-boys of this period:- ‘Acts were passed for their punishment, which seemed calculated for the meridian of Barbary; this arose to such a height, that by one they were to be hanged, under circumstances, without the formalities of a trial; which, though repealed the following sessions, marks the spirit of punishment: while others remain the law of the land, that would, if executed, tend more to raise than quell an insurrection. From all which it is manifest that the gentlemen of Ireland never thought of a radical cure, from overlooking the real cause of disease, which in fact lay in themselves, and not in the wretches they doomed to the gallows. Let them change their own conduct entirely, and the poor will not long riot. Treat them like men who ought to be as free as yourselves. Put an end to that system of religious persecution, which has for seventy years divided the kingdom against itself. In these two circumstances lies the cure of insurrection: perform them completely, and you will have an affectionate poor, instead of oppressed and discontented vassals.”—TOUR of IRELAND.

Here is sound sense, spoken fifty years ago—and yet how little good it has done ! Well may we say, with Congreve, “Who would die a martyr to sense, in a country where the religion is folly?”

It has been supposed that, in addition to his organization and command of the Whiteboys, my father also lent his powerful aid to the Oak-boys and Hearts-of-Steel; the former of whom took arms the following year, 1763, to get rid of a species of Corvée, called the six days labour, and the latter, some years afterwards, in consequence of various acts of oppression on the estate of an absentee nobleman—like those, by which the agent of Lord Courtenay lately drove the County of Limerick into revolt.

As the two latter insurrections were eomposed chiefly of Northern Protestants, some over strict Catholics have doubted whether my father would condescend to meddle with them. But the Rocks are no bigots in fighting matters; nor indeed at all particular as to whom they fight with, so it be but against the common enemy,—i. e. generally speaking, the Constituted Authorities for the time being. I can easily, therefore, believe that my venerable parent belonged not only to White-boys, Oak-boys, Heart-of-Steel boys, but to all other fraternities of Boys then existing, whose sports were at all likely to end in the attitude thus described by Virgil:—“Ludere pendentes pueros.”

In the midst of all these transactions I came into the world,—on the very day (as my mother has often mentioned to me, making a sign of the cross on her breast at the same time,) when Father Sheehy, the good parish priest of Clogheen, was hanged at Clonmell on the testimony of a perjured witness, for a crime of which he was as innocent as the babe unborn. This execution of Father Sheehy was one of those coups d’etat of the Irish authorities, which they used to perform at stated intervals, and which saved them the trouble of further atrocities for some time to come.

As Tithe matters seemed likely to occupy so much of the attention of our family, and I happened to be my father’s tenth son, it struck him, that the ancient Irish custom of dedicating the tenth child to the service of the Church, might be revived in my person with considerable propriety. He accordingly had me christened Decimus (which he had learning enough to know was Latin for “Tenth”), and resolved, if my talent lay that way, to bring me up exclusively to the Tithe department. How far my career in this sacred line has justified his fond paternal hopes, it is not for me to determine. I can only say, that it has always been my pride aud ambition to uphold the glory of the name of Rock, and transmit it with, if possible, increased lustre to my descendants.

I should mention also, among the motives that determined him to this step, a singular Prophecy, which had long existed in our family—and which, though little heeded by him in the time of his comfort and hope, he now clung to with that fondness of belief of which a good Catholic, driven to despair, alone is capable. It ran thus:

As long as Ireland shall pretend,
Like sugar-loaf, turn’d upside down,
To stand upon its smaller end,
So long shall live old Rock’s renown.
As long as Popish spade and scythe
Shall dig and cut the Sassanagh’s” tithe;
And Popish purses pay the tolls,
On heaven’s road, for Sassanagh souls-
As long as Millions shall kneel down
To ask of Thousands for their own,
While Thousands proudly turn away,
And to the Millions answer “may”—

So long the merry reign shall be
Of Captain Rock and his Family.

*The Irish term for a Protestant, or Englishman.

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