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New Hibernia Review 11.4 (2007) 47-72

Captain Rock:
The Origins of the Irish Agrarian Rebellion of 1821–24
James S. Donnelly, Jr.
University Of Wisconsin–Madison

In the dramatic succession of major agrarian upheavals that began with the "Whiteboys" of the early 1760s and persisted for decades thereafter, the adherents of "Captain Rock" in the early 1820s stand out for a variety of reasons. The Rockites became the most violent agrarian movement that Ireland had yet witnessed; they were especially remarkable for the frequency of their resort to murder and incendiarism as weapons of warfare. They garnered support extending far beyond the swollen ranks of the poor; their movement eventually embraced many of the better-off farmers in the southern region where they exercised an extraordinary sway—most prominently in Limerick and Cork, but also in portions of Kerry, Clare, Tipperary, Waterford, and Kilkenny. The intensity of their grievances, the frequency of their resort to sensational violence, and their appeal on key issues—especially rents and tithes—across a broad social front presented a nightmarish challenge to Dublin Castle. This challenge prompted a major reorganization of the police, a purging of the local magistracy, and the introduction of large military reinforcements. Adding fuel to the conflagration was a great upsurge in sectarianism and millenarianism that accompanied this agrarian rebellion. Prophecies of imminent Protestant doom gained a firm hold at the popular level among Catholics in the affected region—indeed, far beyond the immediate region. In short, the Rockites showed little inclination to submit to control by Catholic priests or members of the landed elite, and presented a stiff test to the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. The origins of such a widespread, powerful, and complex convulsion are therefore of unusual interest.1 [End Page 47]

Contemporary observers were all but 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.2 A longtime resident of Newcastle who authored a pamphlet titled Old Bailey Solicitor declared that the agent's administration was "a reign of tyranny and oppression, of meanness and artifice, that defies the page of history to produce a parallel."3 The chorus of bitter complaints against Hoskins arose partly from his abuses and irregularities as a magistrate, usually in connection with his management of the Courtenay estates. Eventually, as many as fourteen out of sixteen local magistrates told a high-ranking police official that the government should strike Hoskins's name out of the commission of the peace (OBS 60). Echoing this strong opinion among the local landed elite, William Gregory, the civil under-secretary at Dublin Castle, declared flatly in November, 1820, "I believe nothing can be more oppressive than the conduct of Lord Courtenay's agent."4 [End Page 48]

Courtenay himself was the antithesis of a "good landlord." The Courtenays were an old, established family in County Limerick. Ancestors of the subsequent earls of Devon, their original grant went back to the late sixteenth century, when Sir William Courtenay "became possessor of the great estates carved out of the earl of Desmond's principality."5 In addition to their Irish property, the family also owned a large estate in Devonshire, with a seat at Powderham Castle. In the 1820s the presiding representative of the family, the Third Viscount Courtenay, was a perpetual absentee from his Irish and his English estates because his open homosexuality made an ordinary life as a resident landlord in either country nearly impossible.

Courtenay was merely a boy when he became a central figure in one of the most notorious scandals of the late eighteenth century. At the age of ten, he became the object of the affections of his older cousin William Beckford, whose merchant father had been lord mayor of London and was generally considered...


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