Memoirs of Captain Rock, the celebrated Irish chieftain

Chapter VII.

Irish Revolution of 1782.—Symptoms of Degeneracy in the Captain.—Confession of his Weakness.-Wise Speech of Old Rock.—His Death and Character.

I was in my twentieth year at that memorable period, when the light that had arisen in America found its way to the shores of Ireland—when the Irish Parliament, in the very grave of its corruption, for the first time heard the sacred voice of Liberty, saying, “Come forth;” and the same warning voice said to England, “Loose him, and let him go.”

Powerful as England had always been in oppressing, she was now too weak to protect us, when menaced with invasion by France; and the Volunteers of Ireland took the defence of our coasts upon themselves. From being the defenders of their country’s shores, they soon rose to be the assertors of her rights; and with swords in their hands and the voice of Grattan sounding in their van-‘‘my lightning thou, and thou my thunder”—achieved that bloodless conquest over the policy of England, whose results were Freedom to our Trade and Independence to our Parliament.

And here—as a free confession of weaknesses 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.

This, I own, was weakness—but it was a weakness “plus fort que moi,” I ought to have learned better from the example of my revered father, who, too proud and shrewd to cheat himself with hope, had resolved to make the best of his only inheritance, despair. I might have learned better, too, even from the example of our rulers—who not only have never indulged in any castle-building for Ireland themselves, but have done their best to dispel, as soon as formed, the bright “dreams into the future” of others.

But I was young and enthusiastic, and this must be my excuse. 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 times 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 standisolated 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, and long as his name will live among her most cherished recollections, yet is all that he hath now done but a baseless vision of the moment—like one of those structures raised by the Genii of fable, to show the power of the spirit that called it up, and vanish!

“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 Acestes—effecting nothing, but leaving along 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.’

“Let me draw aside, for a moment, the curtain that hangs between us and reality, and show you what are the actual features of the country, in this hour of national jubilee and triumph—

“A Parliament, emancipated indeed from Poyning’s law, but rotten to the heart with long habits of corruption, and ready to fall at the first touch of the tempter—a conspiracy against the very existence of this Parliament, meditated even now, in the birth-hour of her independence, and only reserved, like Meleager’s billet, till the fit moment of her extinction arrives—an Aristocracy left free by this measure, without the restraints of an Appellate jurisdiction, to give the fullest swing to their tyranny and caprice—five-sixths of the population still shut out from that boasted Constitution, whose blessings, like the ‘sealed fountain’ kept by Solomon for his own private drinking, are still reserved for a small privileged caste alone;—a spirit of intolerance, even among those self-styled patriots, who “think it freedom when themselves are free;’ and who, though standing in the fullest sunshine of the Constitution, would not believe in the substance of their liberty, if they did not see it cast a shadow of slavery over others—an Established Church rising rapidly into power and wealth, and wringing her wealth from the very vitals of those, whom her power is employed in oppressing and persecuting:—such are the principal ingredients, of which this happy country is composed at present, and such the materials of future discord, on which the Dynasty of the Rocks may confidently calculate, for the long continuance, if not perpetuation, of their reign.

“Away then, my child, with all this foolish romance, and prepare yourself, as becomes a son of old Captain Rock, for that enlarged arena of contention, into which the Government and Church will soon summon you. I have but a little while longer to live in this world; but I should part from it without regret, if I thought I left a son behind me, who would follow worthily in the career of riot which I have marked out for him.” Not long after this, my excellent father died; and it is worthy of record, as a singularity in the annals of the Rocks, that he died in his bed. He had been wounded in a skirmish with some parish officers, who had seized the cow of a poor woman for Church Rates*, and were driving it off in triumph to the Pound amidst the lamentations of her little ones. My father, indeed, succeeded in obtaining one more day’s milk for the young claimants; but the wound, at his advanced time of life, was fatal, and he resigned his heroic breath on the 1st of April, 1783.

*“It seldom occurs that the parish officer is not on the walk, collecting what is called “Parish Cess. He is to be met with every day, driving some poor man’s cow to the pound, to enforce the payment of this charge, which is assessed by the acre. The poor peasantry are, as usual, the principal victims; as the cess is levied from the occupants exclusively.” Practical Views and Suggestions, &c., by Hibernicus.

The same intelligent and useful writer, in complaining of the wretched state of the Pounds, in general, says, “There is no public establishment so much used in Ireland as the Pound; and the fees paid to the bailiffs in charge of these for indulgences, or dues arbitrarily imposed, are comparatively considerable. In consequence of ill treatment in those places of confinement, it happens, not only generally, but almost universally, that the cattle are much injured, often depreciated a third or more in value, whereby the poor peasant is made a serious sufferer.”

My father’s character was an assemblage of all those various ingredients, that meet and ferment in the heads and hearts of Irishmen. Though brave as a lion, his courage was always observed to be in the inverse proportion of the numbers he had to assist him; and, though ready to attempt even the impossible when alone, an adequate force was sure to diminish his confidence, and superiority in numbers over the enemy was downright fatal to him.

The pride, which he took in his ancestry, was the more grand and lofty, from being founded altogether on fancy—a well-authenticated pedigree, however noble, would have destroyed the illusion. He had a vague idea—in which the school-master used to help him out—of those happy days when Ireland was styled the Island of Saints, and when such of our ancestors as were not saints were, at least, kings and princes. Often would he hold forth, amidst the smoke of his wretched cabin, on the magnificence of the Hall of Tara, and the wisdom of the great Ollam Fodhlah—much to the amusement, as I have heard, of the second Mrs. RocK, who, proud of her own suspected descent from a Cromwellian drummer, used to laugh irreverently both at my father and at old Ollam Fodhlah.

I was indeed indebted for my first glimmering knowledge of the history and antiquities of Ireland, to those evening conversaziones round our small turf fire, where, after a frugal repast upon that imaginative dish, “Potatoes and Point*,” my father used to talk of the traditions of other times—of the first coming of the Saxon strangers among us—of the wars that have been ever since waged between them and the real Irish, who, by a blessed miracle, though exterminated under every succeeding Lord-lieutenant, are still as good as new, and ready to be exterminated again-of the great deeds done by the Rocks in former days, and the prophecy which foretells to them a long race of glory to come-all which the grandams of our family would wind up with such frightful stories, of the massacres committed by Black Tom ( Lord Strafford) and old Oliver, as have often sent me to bed with the dark faces of these terrible persons flitting before my eyes.

His hospitality was ever ready at the call of the stranger; and it was usual with us at meal-time (a custom still preserved among the cottiers of the South) for each member of the family to put by a potatoe and a drop of milk, as a contribution for the first hungry wanderer that should present himself at the door. Strangers, however, to be thus well received, must come to pass through our neighbourhood, not to settle in it; for, in the latter case, the fear of their dispossessing any of the actual occupants, by offering more to the agent or middleman, for the few acres each held of him at will**, made them objects far more of jealousy than of hospitality—and summary means were always taken to quicken their transit from among us. When oppression is up to the brim, every little accident that may cause it to overflow is watched with apprehension; but where this feeling did not interfere, hospitality had its full course, and a face never seen before, and never to be seen again, was always sure of the most cordial welcome.

*When there is but a small portion of salt left, the potatoe, instead of being dipped into it by the guests, is merely, as a sort of indulgence to the fancy, pointed at it.

**The misery of a tenure at will, where there is no confidence between the landlord and the tenant, may easily be conceived, “On several estates in the highlands, (says Colonel Stewart,) tenants neither ask for leases, nor are any given; yet improvements are carried on with the same spirit as on estates where leases are granted. In the former case, much of the confidence of old times remains, the landlord’s promise being as good as his bond.” Sketch of the Highlands of Scotland.

In Ireland, on the contrary, the tenant is never sure that his little farm will not be canted, on the first opportunity, to the highest bidder.

Of my father’s happy talent for wit and humour, I could fill my page with innumerable specimens,—all seasoned with that indescribable sort of “vernacular relish*,” which Cicero attributes to the old Roman pleasantry. But half the effect would be lost, unless I could “print his face with his joke;”—besides, the charm of that Irish tone would be wanting, which gives such rich effect to the enunciation of Irish humour, and which almost inclines us to think, while we listen to it, that a brogue is the only music to which wit should be set.

*“Nescio quo sapore vernaculo.”

That sort of confused eddy, too, which the back-water of wit’s current often makes, and which, in common parlance, is called a bull, very frequently, of course, occurred in my father’s conversation. It is well known, however, that this sort of blunder among the Irish is as different from the blunders of duller nations, as the Bull Serapis was from all other animals of the same name; and that, like him, if they do not quite owe their origin to celestial fire, they have, at least, a large infusion of lunar rays in them*.

*The Bull Serapis was supposed to have been “non coitu pecoris, sed coelesti igne, seu radiis lunaribus conceptus.”

In the rapidity of his transitions from melancholy to mirth, my father resembled the rest of his countrymen. I have seen him and some of my uncles, bending for hours over their spades, with faces where Melancholy seemed to have written “concession a perpétuité”—when, suddenly, one of the party would jump up and fling his spade in the air, uttering at the same time a yell of mirth, which was echoed as wildly by the rest—and instantly the whole party would take to singing and capering, as if that dancing madness, which is said to have once seized the tailors and shoemakers of Germany, had suddenly come upon them all.

He was a great believer in miracles, both old and new—but the newer, the better; and, though sufficiently alive to the ridiculous on all other subjects, he would listen to any old woman’s tale of a wonderful cure, with a gravity of belief, which was by far the greater wonder of the two—nor was it altogether safe for a by-stander, on such occasions, to smile. This, however, I look upon as the natural consequence of his political position*. They, whom all human means are employed to torment, may be allowed, at least, divine interposition to comfort them; and as a relief to pride, if nothing else, it is a sort of set-off for the slave against the insolence of his oppressor, to represent himself as worthy of the peculiar agency of Heaven.

Hence, miracles have been the weapon of every persecuted faith. The Reformers in Queen Mary’s reign had their Spirit in the Wall, delivering speeches against Philip of Spain, and Popery**. We have seen, by the Depositions collected after the rebellion of 1641, how implicitly a Protestant Bishop could believe in psalm-singing ghosts;—and the French Protestants, at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantz, made themselves as ridiculous with their Little Prophets, their Shepherdess of Crete, &c., as ever my father did in his most cure-believing moments***. That learned divine, Jurieu, who was called the Goliath of the Reformed Church, was a most devout believer in these Protestant prodigies, and anathematized all who did not swallow them as implicitly as he did himself.

*Our rulers are the last that ought to reproach us with either our follies or our crimes:—

“If I am mad in others’ eyes,
‘Tis thou hast made me so.”

“Tous les Ministres d’Etat,” says Voltaire, “conclurent que le Taureau Blanc était sorcier; c’était tout le contraire, il était ensorcelé; mais on se trompe toujours à la Cour dans ces affaires délicates.”

**“An attempt was made,” says Mr. Southey, “by the Reformers to perform a miracle after the Romish manner, by delivering speeches against the Queen’s intended marriage with Philip of Spain, and the restoration of Popery.” Book of the Church.

***Among the swarm of pamphlets to which the late Hohenlohemiracles gave rise in Dublin,there is but one, (an “Attempt to explain by natural Causes,” &c.) which is at all likely to outlive the occasion that gave it birth. This very clever production is attributed to the Surgeon-general, Mr. Crampton.

It is in vain, therefore, to tell us that Folly confines herself to any particular creed-she is no such bigot, but, like Pope’s Belinda, “shines on all alike” in their turn.

Contempt of life, which in some places and circumstances is a heroic virtue, has been in Ireland despoiled of all its merit by our rulers,—who have contrived to reduce the value of existence so low, that it passes, like French assignats, for almost nothing. My father, of course, had this feeling in common with the rest of his fellow-slaves; and, rating the existence of others at the same price which he set on his own, played for lives with his masters as unconcernedly, as a gambling millionaire would for sixpences.

He could never, indeed, understand the horror that was expressed, at the occasional violences committed by him and his followers, in this desperate game between them and their masters. Regarding his situation as one of perpetual warfare,—there being always two camps in the country, that of the Government, and that of Captain Rock,—he looked upon all the plunder and bloodshed on both sides, but as the usual and natural result of attack and reprisal between belligerents; nor could be brought to conceive how his defeat of a band of tithe-proctors, or his burning of an oppressive landlord’s corn-stacks, was at all different from the surprise of a detachment, or the cutting off an enemy’s supplies in regular warfare.

Caesar is supposed to have sent a million of men out of the world, and Caesar is therefore a hero—while, if Captain Rock, in what the laws have taught him to consider as fair fighting as Caesar’s, puts a merciless driver hors de combat, or pushes a middleman’s middleman off his step in the ascending scale of tyrants, he is a ferocious, brutal and irreclaimable savage. This my father could never understand; and, if he was wrong, his betters are to blame, not he.

Voltaire is of opinion that all the united vices of all ages and places would not equal the miseries inflicted by one single campaign. What, then, is to be said of Ireland, whose whole history, from beginning to end, is but one, long, continued campaign—a warfare, too, combining both the sources of misery mentioned by Voltaire, since it has brought the vices of each party into play, as well as their swords!

To reproach a country thus trained, with its riotous and sanguinary habits—to expect moderation from a people kept constantly on the rack of oppression, is like Mercury, in AEschylus, coolly lecturing Prometheus, on the exceeding want of good temper and tractableness he exhibits—while the only grievance, forsooth, he has to complain of, is being riveted by his legs and arms to a rock, and having a wedge of eternal adamant driven into his breast!

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