Captain Rock: The Irish Agrarian Rebellion of 1821-1824

James S Donnelly, Jr

It’s the latest from a foremost authority on 19th century Ireland, Professor James S Donnelly, and while filed under history, it’s far from dry.

In fact, you can nearly smell the blood and burning flesh of one of Ireland’s many violent eruptions, in between the professor’s scholarly analysis and theorising.

The book is an eye-opener for those who thought Ireland’s history was relatively peaceful between the 1798 rebellion and Catholic emancipation in 1829.

On the contrary, in two and a half years, 93 murders in six southern counties were attributed to a rural uprising associated with a possibly mythical figure called Captain Rock, avenger of agrarian wrongs. Up to 1,000 victims may have been badly beaten or injured, and in November, 1821, as many as 16 perished in one arson incident at Mullinahone, Co Tipperary.

In two months early in 1822, according to Donnelly’s research, 60 dwellings were burned in Munster. Twenty-one of the murders, and 20 of the house burnings, were in Co Limerick.

In February 1822, a special commission in Cork charged 200 with Rockite or similar Whiteboy activity. Mercifully, only 15 were hanged.

In the same month, the Insurrection Act introduced a sunset-to-sunrise curfew and summary justice for lawbreakers, of whom up to 330 per year were being transported in convict ships to Australia.

Incidences of murder, arson, rape and mutilation are recorded by Donnelly in some detail, often gruesome. As a result, the comprehensive index, which names locations of more than 400 atrocities, gives modern residents anywhere in the southern counties a glimpse of their localities’ Rockite history and how much blood was spilt.

Perhaps the most telling symptom of the near breakdown of rural Irish society in the 1820s was the 50,000 applications to a scheme of assisted emigration to Canada.

Donnelly has theories aplenty for the historians and sociologists – for which the ordinary punter is advised to have their dictionary at hand.

But what sets his book apart for non-academic readers are the reports from officials and information gleaned from newspapers, depositions and other sources. The author uses them to drill down to local level and bring us into a countryside riven by atrocities which are the symptoms of a non-functioning powder-keg society which was always just a spark away from igniting.

Well before the trouble, trends were beginning in Irish agriculture which eventually set the scene for the rural protest movements of the late 18th and early 19th century. As livestock farmers expanded and took up more acres, a landless class of poor peasants and labourers also expanded.

While better-off landowners were thriving from the mid-18th century to the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1813, inflation was slowly crippling the poor. While the landed elite were building their Georgian townhouses and Palladian mansions, the landless and land poor were falling behind.

According to Donnelly, by 1841 there were 50,000 rich farmers averaging about 80 acres; 100,000 comfortable farmers averaging 50 acres; 250,000 family farmers averaging 20 acres; and 1.3 million poor peasants who laboured for the landowners and rented potato plots from them. The system offered the poor peasants just enough food, employment and land to ensure that their birth rates outstripped the rural Catholic middle class and that the rural social structure became more and more imbalanced with each year. At the top of the scale, absentee landlords worried little about the trouble brewing in Ireland, as long as sufficient rent came through to fund their high life in London.

Among them, William Courtenay was never seen on either his Irish or English estates, not least because of his flamboyant homosexuality and the homophobia of the time.

According to Donnelly, it was probably Courtenay’s lack of interest in his 34,000-acre estate around Newcastlewest in Co Limerick that helped light the spark that became the explosion of Rockite violence.

Alexander Hoskins was appointed as agent to look after the Courtenay estate. Living like a lord and behaving like a mafia boss, Hoskins evicted many tenants and treated others harshly, to the extent where he could only go about his business with a police guard. Nevertheless, his enemies succeeded in murdering his son, Thomas.

That incident, in May 1821, marked the start of three years of unrest and violence, resistance to the tithes which constituted the wages of the Anglican clergy and the emergence of the legend of Captain Rock, who may never have existed except as a bogey man used in intimidation by the Rockites.

This Zorro-like figure is a suitable accompaniment to another wild west image that springs from Donnelly’s pages – that of hundreds of Rockite rebels hiding out in the Mullaghareirk Mountains of Co Limerick, living on rustled beef and evading troops and police who made forays into the badlands.

By 1821, the government had 4,500 troops in Co Limerick, backed up by yeomanry and police, trying to keep the peace in the Rockite heartland.

The influx of mostly Protestant troops met with a sectarian response – seen at its worst in mid-February, 1822, near Kildorrery in north Cork, when a group of women travelling in advance of their soldier husbands, accompanied by children, were attacked. Several of the women were raped.

Donnelly, professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin Madison, examines the sometimes contradictory theories behind the violence and unrest of the times.

Sectarianism was involved – but there were also Catholics among the victims. Anti-landlordism and anti-English feelings were at work – but so was rural xenophobia, with even migrant labourers from neighbouring counties targeted by Rockites. And there were even well-to-do farmers with big acreages in the Rockites.

Perhaps the most telling feature of the Rockite movement is that it weakened when agricultural prices rose in 1824, allowing rural workers to return to a bearable level of subsistence. Surely the agrarian rebellion of the time could have been avoided if allowances had been made for the grain price collapse, the harvest failures in 1816 and 1821, the drought in 1818 and the fever epidemic of 1816-19.

Instead, landlords, agents, middlemen, sub-letters and the Anglican clergy failed to give adequate relief to peasants and Captain Rock was the rallying figure for retaliation by an underclass which had nothing left to lose.

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