Memoirs of Captain Rock, the celebrated Irish chieftain

Chapter III
1189–1509

Period between Henry II and Henry VIII.—The Irish Partial to Justice.—Ineffectual Efforts to Obtain It.—Parallel between the Barons of Edward I and the Orange Ascendancy.—Rebellion of the Macs and Os.—The Rocks in Danger.—Penal Laws under Edward III.—Captain Rock’s Taste for Music.—Surprising Ingratitude and Obstinacy of the Irish.

A short review of some of the reigns that preceded the Reformation will sufficiently account for the distinguished part, that my ancestors played during the whole of that period.

My unlucky countrymen have always had a taste for justice, a taste as inconvenient to them, situated as they always have been, as a fancy for horse-racing would be to a Venetian.

In the reign of Edward I, that part of the native population which came in immediate contact with the English settlements, and which it was, therefore, a matter of the utmost importance to conciliate, petitioned the King to adopt them as his subjects, and to admit them under the shelter of the English law. They even tried the experiment of bribing the Throne into justice. ‘An application was made,’ says Leland, ‘to Ufford, the chief governor, and eight thousand marks offered to the King, provided he would grant the free enjoyment of the laws of England to the whole body of the Irish inhabitants. A petition, wrung from a people tortured by the painful feelings of oppression, in itself so just and reasonable, and in its consequences so fair and promising, could not but be favourably received by a prince possessed with exalted ideas of policy and government, and, where ambition did not interfere, a friend to justice.’

But, though the King was well inclined to accede to their request, and even ordered that a convention should be summoned to take this petition into consideration, luckily for the lovers of discord and misrule, his wise and benevolent intentions were not allowed to take effect. The proud barons, to whom he had entrusted the government of Ireland (or, in other words, the Orange Ascendancy of that day), could not so easily surrender their privilege of oppression,* but, preferring victims to subjects, resolved to keep the Irish as they were. The arguments, or rather evasions, by which they got rid of the question altogether, so closely resemble the shallow pretexts which have been played off against the claims of the Catholics in our own time, that their folly, though of so old a date, appears to us quite recent and modern, and they might have been uttered by Mr. Goulburn last week, without breach of costume or appearance of anachronism: ‘Edward was assured that an immediate compliance with his commands was not possible in the present state of things; that the kingdom was in too great ferment and commotion, &c. &c.’ ‘And such pretences,’ adds Leland, ‘were sufficient, where the aristocratic faction was so powerful.’

Read ‘Orange faction’ 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 every thing was to begin again, and the same events to be all re-acted 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 renewed 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.

*‘The great English settlers found it more for their interest that a free course should be left to their oppressions; that many of those whose lands they coveted should be considered as aliens; that they should be furnished for their petty wars by arbitrary exactions; and in their rapines and massacres be freed from the terrours of a rigidly impartial tribunal.’—Leland.

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 all the other Macs and O’s’* who have been kept upon 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.

Still, such a hankering had the poor Irish after law and justice, that, about fifty years after, in the reign of Edward III., they again tried to soften the hearts of their oppressors, and “addressing themselves once more to the Throne of England, petitioned that all those odious distinctions, which had so long deluged the land with blood, should, at last, be abolished, and that the Irish inhabitants should be admitted to the state and privileges of English subjects.”

We need not ask, what was the fate of this second memorable petition. Had it succeeded, Captain Rock would not have been here to tell the story. Gibbon says, in speaking of some early action in which Mahomet was engaged, “At that moment the lance of an Arab might have changed the destinies of the world;” and it is not less true, that a stroke from the pen of Edward III. might, at this period, have changed the destinies of the Rocks for ever.

*According to the following distich, the titles Mac and O are not merely what the logicians call accidents, but altogether essential to the very being and substance of an Irishman.

Per Mac atque O tu Ycros cognoscis Hibernos:
His duobus demptis, nullus Hibernus adest.

Thus translated by one of our celebrated poets.

By Mac and O,
You’ll always know
True Irishmen, they say;
For if they lack
Both O and Mac,
No Irishmen are they.

**The system of free-quartering, which was so successful in provoking insurrection in the year 1798, is, like all our other blessings, of ancient origin. “The compendious method,” says Leland, “of quartering the soldiers on the inhabitants, and leaving them to support themselves by arbitrary exactions, was adopted with alacrity and executed with rigour. Riot, rapine, massacre, and all the tremendous effects of anarchy were the natural consequences. Every inconsiderable party, who, under pretence of logalty, received the king’s commission to repel the adversary, in some particular district, became pestilent enemies to the inhabitants. Their properties, their lives, the chastity of their families were all exposed to these barbarians.” A historian of the Rebellion of 1798 might transfer this passage to his page with perfect truth and fitness.

But “Dis aliter visum est”-that spirit, which has always watched over the Anglo-Irish councils, never suffering them, in a single instance, to deviate into right, prevailed as usual, and the result was as follows :-“The petition was remitted to the Chief Governor, Darcy. He was directed to refer it to the Irish parliament, and, as usual, it was either clandestinely defeated, or openly rejected.” Up rose the O’s and Macs again, and again did the flame of war extend as before, through Meath, Munster, and those other classic regions of turbulence, which still “live in numbers and look green in song;” and so weakened were the English by the hostility they had thus provoked, that (as the historian remarks)” it was only the want of concert and union among the Irish that prevented them from demolishing the whole fabric of English power.”

The following laws passed during this glorious, but arbitrary reign, abundantly prove that the spirit of the Penal Code did not wait to be evoked by religious rancour*, But was as active and virulent when both parties were Papists, as it has been since Henry VIII., made it a war of creeds as well as nations. -“It was enjoined by Royal mandate that no mere Irishman should be admitted into any office or trust in any city, borough, or castle in the King’s land.” Again, by the parliamentary ordinance, called the Statutes of Kilkenny, it was enacted, “that marriage, nurture of infants, and gossipred with the Irish should be considered and punished as high treason;” and “it was also made highly penal to the English to permit their Irish neighbours to graze their lands, to present them to ecclesiastical benefices, or to receive them into monasteries or religious houses.” Even the poetry and music of the poor Irish were proscribed, and it was made penal “to entertain their bards, who perverted the imagination by romantic tales.”

*”In the reign of Edward III.” says Leland, “pride and self-interest concurred in regarding and representing the Irish as a race utterly irreclaimable.” Four hundred years after, in the time of Swift, it was the fashion, in England, “to think and to affirm that the Irish cannot be too hardly used.” A hundred years hence, perhaps, the same language will be repeated.

In the reign of Henry IV., the Irish “Enemy” (for so the natives were styled in all legal documents) showed, naturally enough, a disposition to emigrate-but by a refined mixture of cruelty and absurdity, which is only to be found, genuine, in Irish legislation, an Act of Parliament was passed to prevent them. Those whom the English refused to incorporate with subjects, they would yet compel to remain as rebels or as slaves. “By an Act of the Irish Parliament, in the eleventh year of Henry IV., it was ordained that no Irish enemy should be permitted to depart from the realm.” We have heard of a bridge of gold for a flying enemy, but an Act of Parliament to compel him to stand his ground, could only have been passed by an Irish Legislature.

This unvarying system of hostility and oppression, which had been hitherto directed only against the natives, was now extended to such descendants of the old English settlers, as had adopted a more natural policy than the government, and by marriage, commerce and other peaceful mediums, become gradually mingled with the native population**. Upon these, as lying most within the reach of their insolence, the new comers of English birth indulged in the most wanton tyranny; and thus not only gave birth to the distinction of an English and Irish interest, but by identifying some of the oldest English families with the latter, arrayed a new force on the side of their enemies, and gave an additional strength and respectability to rebellion***.

Perfect policy, throughout!—never, in the paths of legislation, were there “meilleurs guides pour ségarer.” So uniformly, too, has the same tree produced the same fruits, that, at three such distant epochs as the reigns of Henry IV, Elizabeth, and George III., we find the noble and English name of Fitzgerald “flaming in the front” of Revolt!

Among many minor points of resemblance, between our Popish rulers of those days and our Reformed ones of the present***, may be counted that quick and distracting change of Lieutenancies, succeeding one another like the groupes of a magic lantern, each in its separate frame or slider, each differing from its predecessor in plans and opinions—and thus rendering the government, like Penelope’s web, a mere system of doing and undoing.

*In remarking upon this coalition, Leland sensibly and candidly remarks—”It may be doubted whether such effect could possibly have been produced, if the old natives had ever been possessed invariably and unalterably with that inveterate national aversion, to which their repeated insurrections are commonly ascribed. The solution was easy, and might have served the purposes of a selfish policy, but there are other causes equally obvious to be assigned.”

**“English by birth and English by race were become terms of odious distinction; and every day produced violences, which gradually became considerable enough, to require the immediate interposition of the King.”

***There is no end to the resemblances between the two periods. The following passage was not more applicable to the English colonists of those days, than it is to the English capitalists of the present: “Such conceptions had been formed of the state of Ireland and the disorders of its inhabitants, that even they who had received Irish grants could neither be persuaded to repair thither, nor to send any persons to the custody of their lands, notwithstanding the reiterated edicts of the King.”

Again, in the reign of Henry V.—“The king’s personal appearance in Ireland is most earnestly entreated to save his people from destruction.” And, in the same reign,—“the infection of party and jealousy spread through all orders, and was caught even by the Clergy, who should have restrained and moderated it.” The following coincidence is still more curious:—“Talbot conducted the government with the greater ease, as he seems to have resigned himself entirely to the reigning faction.”

Thus, “ semper eadem” (and generally according to the Irish translation of it, “worse and worse,”) is destined to be the motto of Ireland to the end of time.

The account given by Spenser of this motley procession of Lord Lieutenants is like a picture painted yesterday—so fresh are all its colours and so living its likenesses. “The governors (says he) are usually envious of one another’s greater glory, which if they would seek to excel by better government, it would be a most laudable emulation. But they doe quite otherwise. For this is the common order of them, that who cometh next in place will not follow that course of government which his predecessors held, either for disdane of himself, or doubt to have his doings drowned in another man’s praise, but will straight take a way quite contrary to the former: as if the former thought by keeping under the Irish to reforme them; the next, by discountenancing the English, will curry favour with the Irish, and so make his government seem plausible, as having the Irish at his command. But he that comes after will perhaps follow neither the one nor the other, but will dandle the one and the other in such sort, as he will sucke sweet out of them both and leave bitternesse to the poor country.”

Our modern plan, it must be confessed, improves upon the distraction of this—for not only have we Governors of discordant politics succeeding each other, but every new Governor is provided with a Secretary, to differ with him for the time being, and both receive their instructions from a Cabinet, not one member of which agrees with another. If this is not sounding the pitch-pipe of discord, Captain Rock has no ear for that kind of music.

I have thus selected, 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 skillful and friendly hands.

Henry the VIIth 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 subject 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 predecessors, 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 Atalantis 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!

Heloisa 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 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?

*Leland gives this anecdote on the authority of an Englishman.

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