Memoirs of Captain Rock, the celebrated Irish chieftain

Chapter VI.
1778.

Relaxation of the Penal Code.—Alarm of the Rocks thereat.—Flattering confidence of my father in the English Government.—His sagacious speech to his children thereon.—Standing toast of the Rock family.

About this time there were symptoms of a disposition in our rulers to soften the severity of the Penal Code, which alarmed some members of my family considerably. Recollecting those lines of the prophecy, already quoted,

As long as Millions shall kneel down
To ask of Thousands for their own,
While Thousands proudly turn away,
And to the Millions answer “Nay,”
So long the merry reign shall be
Of Captain Rock and his Family,

they considered every approach to justice and liberality, as a step towards the discomfiture and downfall of our Dynasty.

The indulgences, it is true, were not of a very alarming description; for the first great favour granted to the Catholics was an Act empowering them to take leases of “unprofitable bog,”—half an acre of arable land being thrown in as a douceur with fifty acres of bog, “in case the depth of the bog from the surface, when reclaimed, should be four feet at least.” This liberal extension of the blessings of property to the Papists, though violently opposed, as a measure tending to encourage Popery, (reclaiming bogs an encouragement to Popery!) was at length carried in the year 1772.

The next great benefit bestowed upon the Catholics was the allowing them to take the Oath of Allegiance: and this kind permission to the victim to come and swear eternal fidelity to his tormentors,—though as insulting a piece of mockery as can well be imagined,—was received with the warmest gratitude by the Catholics; because it, at least, acknowledged their existence as subjects, and put an end to that lively fiction of the law, which would have returned “non est inventus” of two millions of people.

At length, in the year 1778, the fears of England—then suffering, in America, for her Saturnian propensity to devour her own offspring—and the gradual increase of a national spirit in Ireland, concurred in removing the most obnoxious of the Penal statutes,—of those laws, which had solong excluded the greatmajority of the nation, from all interest or property in the soil on which they trod; and by which our rulers, having first plundered us of the estates and possessions of our forefathers, set an interdict on our acquisition of any more for our descendants.

By the 17 and 18 of George III., any Catholic, subscribing the Oath of Allegiance and Declaration prescribed by a former Act, might take, enjoy, and dispose of a lease for 999 years, certain, or determinable on the dropping of five lives; their possessions were in future to be descendible, devisable, or alienable, as fully as if belonging to any other of His Majesty’s subjects: nor could a son any longer fly in the face of his father, and by a pretended conformity to the established, Faith, despoil him at once of all right in the disposal of his property, and bring his grey hairs in sorrow and beggary to the grave*.

Such reverence had the Romans for the deity who presided over Property, that, in making room for the temple of Jupiter Olympius in the Capitol, the seat of every god, except Terminus, was removed. Though our Irish legislature had never, heaven knows, shown any such scruples about this deity, but had shouldered him out of his place for every “malus Jupiter” that came, this first, late sacrifice at his shrine must be allowed its full share of importance; and the prospect of comfort and security, which it opened upon the Catholics, was viewed with alarm not only by the High-Church politicians of the day, but (as I have already observed) by some of the leading members of my own family—whose coincidence, indeed, with the views and sentiments of this High-Church party is, on most occasions, strikingly remarkable.

Being well aware that peaceful and comfortable habits always follow in the train of competence and security, my worthy relatives naturally feared that the rank and influence of our family might, in the long run, be materially diminished, and perhaps ultimately destroyed, by the spread of such tame and anti-Rockite propensities. Looking, too, upon this measure as but the precursor of more important concessions, which might gradually raise the Catholics to a level with their Protestant fellow-subjects, and leave them at last so entirely without any cause of complaint, that a rebellion could not be had for love or money—they began to regard the “latter days” of the Rocks as near at hand, and fell

Such reverence had the Romans for the deity who presided over Property, that, in making room for the temple of Jupiter Olympius in the Capitol, the seat of every god, except Terminus, was removed. Though our Irish legislature had never, heaven knows, shown any such scruples about this deity, but had shouldered him out of his place for every “malus Jupiter” that came, this first, late sacrifice at his shrine must be allowed its full share of importance; and the prospect of comfort and security, which it opened upon the Catholics, was viewed with alarm not only by the High-Church politicians of the day, but (as I have already observed) by some of the leading members of my own family—whose coincidence, indeed, with the views and sentiments of this High-Church party is, on most occasions, strikingly remarkable.

Being well aware that peaceful and comfortable habits always follow in the train of competence and security, my worthy relatives naturally feared that the rank and influence of our family might, in the long run, be materially diminished, and perhaps ultimately destroyed, by the spread of such tame and antiRockite propensities. Looking, too, upon this measure as but the precursor of more important concessions, which might gradually raise the Catholics to a level with their Protestant fellow-subjects, and leave them at last so entirely without any cause of complaint, that a rebellion could not be had for love or money—they began to regard the “latter days” of the Rocks as near at hand, and fell for some time into a state of despondency, which rendered the spirit of White-boyism in the South very slack indeed.

*The relaxing laws of this period, however, only related to real estates and chattels real, and did not affect goods or personal chattels; so that a child might still plead the Statute against his father in all cases connected with the latter sort of property: and the power with which this parricidal law armed the child against the parent may be judged of from the following specimen:—“But the policy of the legislature was not yet exhausted; because there was a possibility that the parent, though sworn and otherwise compellible, might by false representations evade the discovery of the ultimate value of such property on the first Bill—new Bills may be brought at any time, by any or by all the children, for a further discovery. Such property of the parent is to undergo a fresh scrutiny, and in consequence of this scrutiny, a new distribution is to be made; the parent can have no security against the vexation of reiterated Chancery-suits, and continual dissection of such his property, but by doing, what it must be confessed is somewhat difficult to human feelings—by fully and without reserve abandoning such property (which may be his whole) to be disposed of at the discretion of such a court in favour of such children. Is this enough, and has the parent purchased his repose by the total surrender for once of such effects? Very far from it; the law very expressly and carefully provides that he shall not; for, as in the former case a concealment of any part of such effects is made the equitable ground of a new Bill, so here any increase of them is made a second ground of inquiry; for the children are authorized, if they can find their parent has by his industry, or otherwise, acquired any property since their first Bill, to bring others compelling a fresh account and another distribution. They may bring such Bills toties quoties, upon every improvement of such property by the parent,” &c. &c. Introduction to a Digest of the Popery Laws, by the Hon. Simon Butler. When it is recollected that such monstrous laws were in force so late as the year 1792, can we wonder that a Government by Insurrection-Acts has not yet been able to efface the recollection of them?

My father’s views of the matter, however, were far more consolatory, and his dependence on the future injustice and absurdity of our rulers much more sanguine. “I grant you,” he would say in Irish—for he never deigned to use any other language to his children—“I grant you, that if the Government were likely to follow up, with a willing spirit, this first step of liberality towards Ireland, and to remove cordially, and at once, every link of her irritating chains from her, the future history of the Rocks would be a dreary and inglorious blank. “But there is no fear, my children, of such a deviation from the usual course of nature, as a wise and liberal administration of the government of Ireland would exhibit; and even did the Protestant Church condescend to work miracles, this is the very last she would willingly have a hand in. No, no—it may possibly happen again, in some moment of embarrassment and weakness like the present, that a few further concessions may be wrung from the fears of our rulers: but the very circumstances under which such boons are extorted, leave the giver without merit, and the receiver without gratitude; and the old system of exclusion and oppression under which our family have so long prospered, will—instead of suffering any material interruption, by these momentary aberrations into justice—rather return to its iniquities with a refreshed spirit, and take revenge for the loss of those few instruments of mischief which it surrenders, by a doubly vigorous use of the many that will still remain in its hands.

“So far, indeed, (continued my father,) from foreseeing any mischief to the Rock cause, in these partial measures of enfranchisement which our rulers so reluctantly grant, it is the very mode of proceeding, which, had I the means of influencing their councils, I would myself suggest for the perpetuation of that discord which is so dear to us. Give the Catholic (I would say) just enough of liberty and power, to inspire him with pride and make him feel his own strength; while, at the same time, you withhold all that could gratify this pride, and employ the strength which you have bestowed upon him against, instead of for, you. In short, loosen his chains no more than will enable him to be pugnacious with effect, and leave him nothing to be grateful for, but the power of doing you mischief.

“This, my dear children, is the very plan I would myself recommend, for keeping the flame of discord as lively among us, as the inextinguishable fire of St. Bridget at Kildare. Under the Penal laws we were benighted and hopeless—complete Enfranchisement would make us enlightened and satisfied;—it is only in the twilight state between, that those false lights and spectral appearances are abroad, by which men’s optics are deceived, and their imaginations led astray;—it is only after having tasted the cup of liberty, without being suffered to allay our awakened thirst, that that feverish and almost maddened excitement comes on, which is so favourable to the views of our ancient family, and which the Government—take the word of old Captain Rock for it—will long cherish and keep alive for our advancement and honour.

“Instead, therefore, of seeing in their present measures, any cause for the slightest despondency or alarm, we should, on the contrary, be most grateful for this admirable plan which they have adopted, of increasing the wealth and spirit of the Catholic, and, at the same time, keeping the ancient stock of his discontent and hostility undiminished-of placing him with a sword in one hand, and a hand-cuff on the other, in order that he may be incessantly reminded of his servitude and his strength, and, between both, be kept in a perpetual struggle.

“Let us hope, my sons, for this system the same success, which has attended all others, of a like tendency, pursued by our painstaking rulers, and let us still continue to drink, with the same cordiality as heretofore,—to ‘that best friend of the Rock Interest, the Protestant Ascendancy of Ireland.’”

So saying, my venerable father would toss off a bumper of usquebaugh, which was at that time his favourite beverage*;—and never, I believe, was toast drank with a more loyal sincerity, or with more perfect consciousness, on the part of the drinker, of the great advantages derived from the system which he thus solemnly commemorated.

*In Foote’s farce of The Orators, there is an unanswerable speech by an Irishman in favour of usquebaugh versus porter. “As for porter, (he exclaims.) if ’twas n’t for the hops and the malt, I’d as lief drink Thames water.” This is like saying, “If it was not for Mr. Canning’s fine fancy, abundant wit, felicity of diction, and gracefulness of delivery, I would as soon listen to Sir Thomas Lethbridge.”

By such speeches as these (and time has fully proved their sagacity and their truth) the hopes of my father’s family and followers were by degrees reanimated, and their confidence in the future incapacity and perverseness of our rulers restored.

Nor was it long before the Government itself took steps to undeceive any simple and short-sighted persons, who might have supposed that the reign of terror was drawing to a close. Just at the time when the long-enjoyed sport of hunting Catholics with Penal statutes was given up, a new pack of laws was put into training, of the very same blood-hound breed of legislation—which, under names as various as those of Actaeon’s kennel in Ovid, (Whiteboy Acts, Riot Acts, &c. &c.,) have kept the same game full in view ever since—thus contriving, with a care equal to that of the Game Laws in England, to preserve to our Orange country-gentlemen their right of a Catholic chasse, uninterruptedly, though under different forms, down to the present day*.

*From the following circumstance, related by the Bishop of Cloyne, as having occurred at this period, we see that a talent for flagellation is not new among Irish magistrates:–“In the County of Waterford, Sir Richard Musgrave, Bart. (High Sheriff for the last year) a gentleman of large property, of extensive and ho mourable connections, was reduced to the necessity of inflicting the punishment of whipping on a Whiteboy with his own hand.”

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