Donnelly is discussing a relatively narrow period of agrarian rebellion, barely three years, but to understand it he has to locate it in the context of Ireland's wider rural history and in particular it's nature as a British colony. This fundamentally shaped the country's agriculture. British landlords (usually absentee) delegated the collection of rents and management of estates to a lower grouping of middlemen. They also were ruthless at using their legal powers to evict and punish those who failed to pay rents (in cash or kind). In addition the country operated with a dated system of tithes that heavily punished all levels of the agricultural population and, finally, the Westminster government used sectarian politics to keep down the majority Catholic population. Life, even when yields were high and prices good, was one of appalling poverty for the mass of the population.
Economic crisis in the 1820s triggered the Rockite rebellion. But the rebellion itself, argues Donnelly, was shaped by a number of other factors that have been neglected by other historians. It isn't enough to simply locate the uprisings in the context of economics, they have to be understood through the prism of sectarian politics and the influence of millennialism. These millennial ideas
assisted in integrating within the same movement Catholics whose material interests frequently clashed, namely landless labourers and cottiers on the one had and the larger farmers on the other. Acceptance of the prophesied ruin of Protestantism was concentrated among the lowest strata of Catholic rural society, but many middling and some substantial farmers also gave credence to this millennial vision.At times Donnelly emphasises that the Rockite movement was, to some extent, a cross-class alliance. But much of the book shows that this was a mass movement of the poorest. Time and again, the most radical, the most active and the most punished of those who rebelled came from the lowest orders. And while sectarianism played a major part in the struggle, there were some incidents when Catholic landowners were targeted by the rebels. Again, this should not surprise us. The millennial ideas that spread like wildfire through the rural population originated with the writings of Signor Pastorini (a pseudonym for Charles Walmesley) but they fit with a situation in which Protestantism could legitimately be seen as the religion of the ruling and oppressive class. Indeed, when the British sent troops to put down the rebels, they were
commonly cavalry units drawn from England and Scotland; they marched to Protestant churches in the south and southwest, helping to fill edifices long mostly bereft of parishioners and reminding the Rockites that the troops had come to serve the interests of a Protestant church and state bent on the oppression (economic, political, and religious) of Irish Catholics.Millennial ideas could co-exist with everyday demands. Donnelly quotes one prisoner's testimony that "talked of Pastorini and said that next year would be a year of war. He talked of many other things and said that the price of labour was too low."
The troops were needed because the Rockite rebellion was a mass movement of extreme violence. Incendiarism, assault, murder and robbery were all weapons used by the rebels against their enemies. Particularly at the start of the outbreak the rebels led assaults of homes and sometimes police stations to capture weapons. Short of ammunition they would attack churches for the lead on the roof as material for bullets. Often these attacks were mass affairs involving hundreds of attackers. While the movement used terrorism, it was not a minority affair.
Much of Donnelly's book explores the various tactics of the Rockites. Many of these have parallels with agrarian disturbances in England - the posting of warning notices, the pseudonym of Captain Rock disguising the real names, the firing of buildings and assaults on individuals. There are even, though Donnelly doesn't make the connection himself, examples of what EP Thompson called the Moral Economy. But the truth was that these events were far more violent than comparable events in England. I do not recall one mention of rural rebels in England destroying a Church for instance. Donnelly points out though that this was less about sectarianism and more about "more immediate grievances and mundane objectives" such as lead from the roofs. Incendiarism took place on an enormous scale, over a prolonged period, and the murder (and occasional rape) of enemies was also unprecedented.
Authorities were unable to do much about rebellion on this scale. The repression was brutal and extremely violent, though it failed to restrain the rebels, about 600 people were transported and 100 executed. Indeed, the rebellion itself was very successful. Rents and rent arrears were frequently reduced or annulled, evictions were reversed and so confident were the rebels that they would intimidate those who had taken up tenancies of evicted families, even up to seven years previously. Many hated landlords, their officers or their families were killed, injured or driven from the local area. Donnelly argues that longer term "Captain Rock" scared the landowners enough that they were wary of ever using mass evictions again.
This is an excellent account. It locates a few years of radical agrarian rebellion in the wider economic, political and colonial context. While there are parallels with events in England, Scotland and Wales, particularly in the practise of the Rockites, the context is quite different. These struggles did not end rural Irish poverty - but it was alleviated it somewhat though with an economic upturn the movement was to disappear. What Captain Rock shows most though, is that no matter how oppressed, downtrodden or poor people are, there is always the potential for mass rebellion, and the violence of that rebellion is proportional to the violence of the exploitation and oppression.
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