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Captain Rock

The Irish Agrarian Rebellion of 1821–1824

James S. Donnelly, Jr.

Publication Year: 2009

Named for its mythical leader “Captain Rock,” avenger of agrarian wrongs, the Rockite movement of 1821–24 in Ireland was notorious for its extraordinary violence. In Captain Rock, James S. Donnelly, Jr., offers both a fine-grained analysis of the conflict and a broad exploration of Irish rural society after the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.
    Originating in west Limerick, the Rockite movement spread quickly under the impact of a prolonged economic depression. Before long the insurgency embraced many of the better-off farmers. The intensity of the Rockites’ grievances, the frequency of their resort to sensational violence, and their appeal on such key issues as rents and tithes presented a nightmarish challenge to Dublin Castle—prompting in turn a major reorganization of the police, a purging of the local magistracy, the introduction of large military reinforcements, and a determined campaign of judicial repression. A great upsurge in sectarianism and millenarianism, Donnelly shows, added fuel to the conflagration. Inspired by prophecies of doom for the Anglo-Irish Protestants who ruled the country, the overwhelmingly Catholic Rockites strove to hasten the demise of the landed elite they viewed as oppressors.
    Drawing on a wealth of sources—including reports from policemen, military officers, magistrates, and landowners as well as from newspapers, pamphlets, parliamentary inquiries, depositions, rebel proclamations, and threatening missives sent by Rockites to their enemies—Captain Rock offers a detailed anatomy of a dangerous, widespread insurgency whose distinctive political contours will force historians to expand their notions of how agrarian militancy influenced Irish nationalism in the years before the Great Famine of 1845–51.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vi-vii

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pp. ix-xiv

My first thanks must go to those who made possible the completion of a project begun long ago. The extraordinary generosity of the Centre for Irish Studies at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG), which hosted my stays in 2006 and 2009, enabled me to finish the writing of this volume and to shepherd it through the production...

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pp. 3-25

On the night of 29–30 October 1816 a large party of about a hundred men surrounded Wildgoose Lodge, the dwelling of Edward Lynch in the townland of Arthurstown in County Louth, about ten miles from Dundalk on the east coast of Ireland. Earlier that year, Lynch had successfully prosecuted three men under the Whiteboy Act of 1776 for...

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1. Origins of the Movement

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pp. 26-58

Contemporaries were practically unanimous in assigning responsibility for the origins of the Rockite movement to the harsh behavior of a single man—Alexander Hoskins, the chief agent of Viscount Courtenay’s 34,000-acre estates centered around the small town of Newcastle West, about ten miles from the Kerry border in County Limerick.1...

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2. Expansion and Retreat

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pp. 59-83

Like their predecessors in the long tradition of Whiteboyism, the original Rockites soon set out to enlarge the territorial scope of their fledgling movement. In Ireland as elsewhere, the effectiveness of collective popular protest heavily depended on strength of numbers. It appears that the earliest Rockites instinctively recognized that in...

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3. Ideology and Organization

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pp. 84-118

Although a great deal can be learned about the ideas and motives of the Rockites from examining their behavior, at least as much can be discovered about their ideology by analyzing the notices, proclamations, and threatening letters in which they directly revealed the character of their mental world. Hundreds of threatening notices and...

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4. Pastorini and Captain Rock: Millenarianism and Sectarianism

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pp. 119-149

Part of the reason why students of Irish history have undervalued the important role of millenarianism and sectarianismin providing an organizational and ideological basis for the Rockite movement may be that the negative testimony of certain contemporaries has been given far too much weight. A considerable number of contemporaries belonging to the middle and...

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5. Social Composition and Leadership

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pp. 150-187

In its social composition the Rockite movement of 1821–24 displayed a remarkable degree of complexity and diversity. Admittedly, like most other regional agrarian movements in Ireland during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it attracted support from the poor of the towns as well as the poor of the countryside.1 But unlike the so-called...

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6. The Issue of Tithes

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pp. 188-216

Complaint against the tithe system became deafening in the south of Ireland during the early 1820s. When the Rockite movement revived after the harvest of 1822, tithes were the issue around which popular protest centered, and overall this grievance was the most salient of those pressed by the agrarian rebels of 1821–24. At the popular level...

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7. The Issue of Rents

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pp. 217-245

Confronted with a punishing economic downturn in the early 1820s, the Rockites were as fully determined to lower rents and control the occupation of land as they were bent on reducing or abolishing tithes. This book began with the story of the violent campaign against the collection of the customary rents and huge arrears on the Courtenay...

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8. Patterns of Rockite Violence

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pp. 246-289

By the early 1820s agrarian murders were already a frightening commonplace of the deeply troubled Irish rural scene. What was so striking during the years of the Rockite movement was the scale on which the crime of murder, to say nothing of attempted murder, was committed. Detailed analysis of this important subject, however, is fraught...

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9. Repression of the Movement

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pp. 290-336

Apart from the tithe war of the early 1830s, the Rockite movement confronted the authorities with their greatest challenge of the early nineteenth century. With the exception of the tithe war, no other agrarian upheaval mobilized so many rebels or produced so much violence against both persons and property. Although the army had no...

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pp. 337-356

The close examination of the Rockite movement of 1821–24 undertaken in this book has permitted us to delve deeply into the dynamics of Irish rural society in the aftermath of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. We have seen in chapter 1 that the cradle of this movement was the great property of some 34,000 acres owned by the...


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pp. 357-438


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pp. 439-463


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pp. 464-508

E-ISBN-13: 9780299233136
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299233143

Page Count: 508
Publication Year: 2009