- Captain Rock: The Irish Agrarian Rebellion of 1821–1824
About four decades ago, when Donnelly and this reviewer were novices in the Irish historical profession, the topic of this book would have fallen into the category of “secret societies,” the title of a collection of essays that appeared in 1973.1 Local gangs demanding redress of agrarian grievances—like the Whiteboys of the 1760s, whose name would become a generic label for protesting groups with colorful names such as the Hearts of Steel, Rightboys, and Terry Alts during the century to follow—fell under the loose heading of “secret societies,” along with vastly different groups like the freemasons, the Orange Order, and various republican movements. The activities of the republican movements fit neatly into the then-dominant master narrative of Irish history—the rise of nationalism. The most influential contribution in the 1973 collection was an article by Lee—ostensibly a study of the Ribbonmen but really a speculative argument that agrarian violence pitted (Irish) agricultural laborers against (Irish) tenant farmers more often than (Irish) cultivators against (“English”) landlords.2 This “revisionist” assault on [End Page 451] the nationalist master narrative of Irish history—together with the influence of Thompson, Hobsbawn, and Rudé—led to a number of studies of agrarian protest, including seven impressive articles by Donnelly ranging from the original Whiteboys to the Terry Alt movement of 1829 to 1831.3 The book under review is a capstone of that endeavor.
Readers of this journal may well expect quantitative approaches to the inquiries suggested above. Unfortunately, prior to the 1840s, the government had no consistent process for recording agrarian “outrages,” despite the intense concern of the governing classes. The principal surviving sources are voluminous correspondence between local informants and Dublin officials, supplemented by newspaper accounts. From such sources, Donnelly constructs thick descriptions of the waves of violence carried out by “Rockites” claiming leadership by a fictitious “Captain Rock” during the agricultural depression following the prosperous economy of the Napoleonic wars. When possible, he makes numerical estimates of particular types of events with cautionary reminders of the shakiness of the data. The result is a complex but convincing picture of conflict among at least four classes—landed gentry, “middlemen” (who rented land to sublet it), tenant farmers, and landless or nearly landless laborers.
How does this analysis affect the standing of the nationalist master narrative? In the past four decades, events in Northern Ireland have created a rival master narrative of Irish history based on sectarianism rather than nationalism. Donnelly places great emphasis on the circulation (interestingly dismissed by Lee in 1973) of the “Pastorini prophecy” that predicted the collapse of Protestantism in 1825. He argues that this millenarian excitement, along with Protestant proselytizing, fostered a sectarianism that contributed significantly to the extreme severity of the violence. Given that the Rockite movement occurred in the southwestern counties, farther from the counties of present-day Northern Ireland than any other part of the country, this claim marks a noteworthy shift within the Irish historical profession. Master narratives being less the product of [End Page 452] professional historians than of the cultures—both academic and popular— within which they work, the professional’s duty is to challenge the history consumer’s tendency to interpret the past in terms of the present, and Donnelly has admirably executed that duty.
1. T. Desmond Williams (ed.), Secret Societies in Ireland (Dublin, 1973).
2. Joseph Lee, “The Ribbonmen,” in Williams (ed.), Secret Societies, 26–35.
3. Edward P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present, 50 (1971), 76–136; Eric J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movements in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Manchester, 1959); George F. E. Rudé, The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England, 1730–1848 (New York, 1964); James S. Donnelly, “The Whiteboy Movement, 1761–5,” Irish Historical Studies, XXI (1978), 20–54; idem...