Memoirs of Captain Rock, the celebrated Irish chieftain

With some
Account of his Ancestors.



Printed for:


By The Editor

In introducing to the reader the following account of Captain Rock, it may be as well that I should also give him some account of myself, and of the manner in which the manuscript of the Captain came into my possession.

I little thought, at one time of my life, that I ever should be induced to visit Ireland. Often, indeed, had I declared—so great was my horror of that country—that ‘I would just as soon trust my person among those savages of the Andamans, who eat up all new-comers, as among the best bred gentlemen of Kerry and Tipperary’. The circumstances that at length led me to muster up courage enough for the undertaking, were as follows:

In the small town of——where I reside, in the west of England, some pious persons succeeded, the year before last, in establishing a society on the model of the Home Missionary in London, with this difference, that the labours of the latter are principally confined to England, while ours were chiefly, if not exclusively, directed to the conversion and illumination of the poor benighted Irish.

The ladies of our town, in particular, were so impressed with the urgency, of raising that unfortunate race from darkness, that every moment of delay in sending missionaries among them, appeared, as it were, an age lost to the good cause. ‘What could be more imperative,’ they asked, ‘than the claims of those destitute souls upon us? If the County of Worcester, which has hitherto been accounted the Garden of England, is now (as the Report of the Home Missionary assures us) become, for want of preachers, “a waste and a howling wilderness”, what must the mountains of Macgillicuddy be?’

In this temper of our little community, it was my lot to be singled out—as knowing more of Catholic countries than the rest, from having passed six weeks of the preceding summer at Boulogne—to undertake the honourable, but appalling task of missionary to the South of Ireland.

To hint any thing of my personal fears to the ladies (all Christians as they were), was more than I had the courage to venture. As a brave man once said, to excuse himself for not refusing some coxcomb’s challenge, ‘I might safely trust to the judgment of my own sex, but how should I appear at night before the maids of honour?’

I, accordingly, prepared myself as speedily as I could for the undertaking; and read every book relating to Ireland that was, at all, likely to furnish me with correct notions on the subject. For instance, in every thing relating to political economy and statistics, I consulted Sir John Carr, for accurate details of the rebellion of 1798, Sir Richard Musgrave, and for statesman-like views of the Catholic Question, the speeches of Mr. Peel.

I was also provided by our Society with a large assortment of religious tracts, written expressly for the edification of the Irish peasantry; particularly, a whole edition of a little work by Miss——of our town, to the effect of which upon the Whiteboys we all looked forward very sanguinely.

With the details of my journey to Dublin I shall not trouble the reader, nor with any account of the curiosities which I witnessed during my short stay in that city. I visited, of course, the Parliament House, which is a melancholy emblem of departed greatness. In the House of Lords, the only relic of its former pomp is a fragment of an old chandelier, which they show mournfully to strangers, as ‘the last remaining branch of the Aristocracy’—and the part of this structure which was the House of Commons, is, since the Union, by a natural transition, converted into a cash office.

*The Rev. Timothy East, of Birmingham, states, in a published sermon, which we earnestly recommend to the attention of the Public, that the county of Worcester has been termed the Garden of England; but, in a moral light, it may be regarded as a waste, howling wilderness.

Having received all proper instructions from the manager of the Religious Tract Establishment in Sackville Street (to whom our fellow labourers of the London Tavern had consigned me), I left Dublin in the Limerick Coach, on the 16th of July, 1823, in company with a gentleman who wore green spectacles and a flaxen wig, and who was, in many other respects, a very extraordinary personage.

As he was one of those people, who prefer monologue to dialogue, he talked through the whole journey, and I listened to him with exemplary patience.

The first place of any note, on our way, was Naas—near which there is the ruin of a magnificent house, begun, but never finished, by Lord Strafford, when Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In pointing it out to me, my friend in the green spectacles said: ‘It is melancholy to think, that while in almost all other countries, we find historical names of heroes and benefactors, familiarly on the lips of the common people, and handed down with blessings from generation to generation, in Ireland, the only remarkable names of the last six hundred years, that have survived in the popular traditions of the country, are become words of ill-omen, and are remembered only to be cursed. Among these favourites of hate, the haughty nobleman who built that mansion, is to this day, with a tenacity that does honour even to hate, recorded; and, under the name of Black Tom, still haunts the imagination of the peasant, as one of those dark and evil beings who tormented the land in former days, and with whom, in the bitterness of his heart, he compares its more modern tormentors. The Babylonians, we are told by Herodotus, buried their dead in honey, but it is in the very gall of the heart that the memory of Ireland’s rulers is embalmed.’

From his use of metaphors, and abuse of the Government, I should have concluded, that my companion was a genuine Irishman, even if the richness of his brogue had not established his claim to that distinction.

In passing by the town of Kildare he directed my attention, to the still existing traces of that ruin and havoc, which were produced by the events of the year 1798, ‘one of those ferocious rebellions’ (as he expressed himself) whose frequent recurrence has rendered Ireland, even in her calmest moments, like those fair cities on the side of Vesuvius, but a tenant at will to the volcano on which she is placed! ‘Is not this singular?’ he added, ‘is not this melancholy? That, while the progress of time produces a change in all other nations, the destiny of Ireland remains still the same, that here we still find her, at the end of so many centuries, struggling, like Ixion, on her wheel of torture, never advancing, always suffering, her whole existence one monotonous round of agony! While a principle of compensation is observable throughout the fortunes of all the rest of mankind, and they, who enjoy liberty, must pay for it by struggles, and they, who have sunk into slavery, have, at least, the consolation of tranquillity—in this unhappy country it is only the evil of each system that is perpetuated—eternal struggles, without one glimpse of freedom, and an unrelaxing pressure of power, without one moment of consolidation or repose!’

At Roscrea, about half-way between Dublin and Limerick, I parted with this gentleman, having, in the course of conversation, communicated to him the object of my journey to the South, at which, I observed he smiled rather significantly.

From Roscrea I turned off the main road, to pay a visit to an old friend, the Rev. Mr.——, whom I found comfortably situated in his new living, with the sole drawback, it is true, of being obliged to barricade his house of an evening, and having little embrasures in his hall-door, to fire through at unwelcome visitors.

In the neighbourhood of my friend’s house there are the ruins of a celebrated abbey, which stand, picturesquely enough, on the banks of the river, and are much resorted to by romantic travellers. A wish had, more than once, occurred to me to see the effect of these ruins by moonlight; but the alarming indications of the gun-holes in the hall door had prevented me from entertaining any serious thoughts of such an enterprise.

On the third evening of my stay, however, the influence of the genial ‘mountain dew’, which my reverend host rather bountifully dispensed, so far prevailed over my fears and my prudence, that I sallied forth, alone, to visit these ruins. Of my walk I have no very clear recollection. I only remember that from behind the venerable walls, as I approached them, a confused murmur arose, which startled me for a moment, but all again was silent, and I cautiously proceeded. Just then, a dark cloud happened to flit over the moon, which, added to the effects of the ‘mountain dew’, prevented me from seeing the objects before me very distinctly. I reached, however, in safety the great portal of the abbey, and passing through it to the bank which overhangs the river, found myself all at once, to my astonishment and horror, (the moon at that moment breaking out of a cloud), in the midst of some hundreds of awful-looking persons, all arrayed in white shirts, and ranged in silent order on each side to receive me!

This sight sobered me completely—I was ready to sink with terror—when a voice, which, I could observe, proceeded from a tall man with a plume of white feathers in his hat, said, sternly, ‘Pass on’, and I, of course, promptly obeyed. Though there was something in the voice, that seemed rather familiar to my ears, it was not without exceeding horror that I perceived the figure that spoke, advance out of the ranks, and slowly follow me.

We had not gone many steps, when I politely motioned to him to take precedence, not feeling quite comfortable with such a goblin after me. He, accordingly, went before, and having conducted me to a spot, at some distance from the band, where we could not be observed by them, turned hastily round, and took me, with much cordiality, by the hand.

I now perceived—what the reader must have anticipated—that this personage was no other than the disguised gentleman in green spectacles; nor was it long before I learned, from his own lips, that I then actually stood in the presence of the great Captain Rock. What passed between the Captain and me at that interview, I do not feel myself, as yet, at liberty to reveal. I can only state that it was in the course of that short meeting, he presented me with the manuscript which I have now the honour of submitting to the public, requesting of me, as a favour, that I would read it attentively over, before I threw away any further labour or thought upon the mission which I had undertaken.

I lost no time, as may easily be supposed, in complying with the Captain’s wish. That very night, before I slept, I carefully perused the whole of his manuscript; and so strong was the impression it left upon my mind, that it is the Rulers, not the People of Ireland, who require to be instructed and converted, that I ordered horses early the next morning, returned with all possible dispatch to my constituents, called instantly a full meeting of the ladies of the Society, and proposed that a new mission should forthwith be instituted, for the express purpose of enlightening certain dignitaries both of Church and State, who are, in every thing that relates to Ireland, involved in the most destitute darkness.

The ladies listened to my proposal with apparent interest, but no steps have, as yet, been taken on the subject, and the only result of my communication to them has been a romance by Miss——, on the story of Captain Rock, which is, at present, I understand, in the printer’s hands, and which I shall not be surprised to find much more extensively read, than the Captain’s own authentic memoirs.

With respect to the style of the following pages, though frequently rambling and ill-constructed, it will, I have no doubt, surprise the reader, as being much more civilized and correct, than could be expected from a hero like the Captain. The classical quotations will also excite some surprise, but this kind of learning was once very common among persons of his rank in Ireland; and Smith, in his History of Kerry tells us, ‘that classical reading extends itself, even to a fault, among the lower orders of Ireland, many of whom have a greater knowledge in this way, than some of the better sort in other places’. March 31, 1824. S. E.

*Hickey, a pseudo Captain Rock who was hanged last summer at Cork, appears to have generally worn feathers in his nightly expeditions.

Dantonien Journal