I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Singing Ireland’s Song

Maurice Earls

Books drawn on in this essay include:

Bard of Erin, The Life of Thomas Moore, by Ronan Kelly, Penguin Ireland, 624 pp, £25.00, ISBN: 978-1844881437

Memoirs of Captain Rock, by Thomas Moore, Longman 1824, Field Day 2008, 328 pp, €25.00, ISBN: 978-0946755370

Captain Rock Detected, by Mortimer O’Sullivan, T Cadell, 1824, 450 pp,


With the decisive Williamite victory in 1690, quickly followed by the surrender of Patrick Sarsfield and the overturning of the Treaty of Limerick, landed Catholics in Ireland faced a grim future. While the colonial order had a requirement for Catholic labour, it had little need for Catholics of means, particularly those who still observed Gaelic mores. Many gathered what valuables they could, and joining the stream of defeated Irish over the previous century, left the country.

There was some hope among the émigrés, and those who remained, that an invasion would be launched from Catholic Europe to deliver the Irish from their enemies and re-establish the Stuarts, who it was believed would repeal anti-Catholic laws. But nothing happened; the only significant Jacobite actions of the eighteenth century occurred in Scotland, and while it has been suggested that a continental intervention might have excited a greater response in Ireland, belief in relief from abroad diminished with the passing of the decades.

By 1750 the secular émigrés were substantially integrated with their host communities in Catholic Europe and had more or less lost interest in Ireland as the locus of their primary political and cultural loyalty. Even the religious institutions set up with the specific purpose of supplying clergy to Ireland were in decline from the mid-eighteenth century. It has been estimated that less than a half of Irish students trained in these Irish continental colleges ever returned to Ireland. The rest, perhaps naturally, were attracted by the opportunities that existed on the continent; they disappeared into the Irish diaspora and, in time, dissolved into their host communities.

Those who did not emigrate had fewer options, which must in part explain why Jabobitism lived on – albeit more as metaphor than as policy – in Ireland throughout the eighteenth century, and quite some time after the likelihood of a Stuart restoration had faded. In the earlier portion of the century, Jabobitism offered a survival possibility for the older Irish elites and for their cultures. But, over time, restoration became more a nebulous dream than a real possibility. Nevertheless, it was a dream which was clung to, particularly by poets. Part of its attraction was perhaps linked to its grammar of legitimacy, which derived from the world outside Ireland, where it was now apparent that real power lay. At the level of feeling, Irish Jacobitism was required to carry a much greater weight than legalistic outrage at legitimacy overturned and it melded with older  grievances, derived from the previous century, of intense dispossession and despoliation.

Eamonn O’Ciardha, the historian of eighteenth century Jabobite culture, described the persistence of Jacobitism in Irish poetry:

Contemporary Irish poetry indicates that Jacobitism survived as a popular ideology until the transition from Jacobite to Jacobin and O’Connell’s emergence as heir to the Stuart mantle.

Certainly, by the early nineteenth century, the transition was complete. But while there is little evidence of Jacobite sentiment in the new century, the older feelings of having been wronged were still very much in evidence. In his Memoirs of Captain Rock, Thomas Moore gave eloquent expression to these feelings in a creatively structured history of Ireland. Significantly, there were no kind words for the Stuarts, who were seen as just another band of expropriators, a type which, Moore maintained, had plagued the country since the twelfth century.

The suspicion must remain that the Stuart cause was, in essence, a tactical choice for a people who had survived the effective destruction of their civilisation, a people for whom there were few political options. The uncompromising political poetry of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries perhaps offers a surer indication of underlying feeling and memory.

The Wild Geese and their predecessors were well remembered by the stay-at-home Irish, providing a powerful metaphor which was adapted according to changing conditions. In contemporary times, that is to say in prosperous exporting Ireland, the emigrants are sometimes seen as almost prefiguring the business heroes of the open economy. With their ships, estates, castles, titles, precious possessions and splendid portraits, why would anyone feel sorry for them? If anything, they are to be emulated.  The booklet published to accompany the National Library’s current Strangers to Citizens exhibition points out that the Irish are an island people who have always emigrated and that migration is a completely normal human activity. It concludes – echoing a theme in contemporary immigration debate – with a celebration of their rapid integration:

Their achievement was considerable, permitting an ‘outsider’ people to achieve ‘insider’ status on the Continent and in the Spanish, French and Dutch colonies by the mid-eighteenth century.

These broad interpretive strokes would not have made much sense in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the émigrés were seen as figures of great pathos. Thomas Moore’s Tho’ the Last Glimpse of Erin was representative in seeing the vanquished Irish émigrés as immensely sorrowful figures driven from their native land:

To the gloom of some desert or cold rocky shore,
Where the eye of the stranger can haunt us no more,
I will fly with my Coulin and think the rough wind
Less rude than the foes we leave frowning behind

It is not particularly difficult to see why contemporary Ireland might wish to see the émigrés as thrusting proto-entrepreneurs. The focus has shifted and there is little appetite for keeping old grievances alive. However, in order to understand the world which Ireland became, including what it became from the later twentieth century, it is useful to have some sense of the authenticity and dynamics of historical grievance in pre-independence and penal Ireland.

In attempting this one question arises. Why did those who were, from the late eighteenth century, engaged in a gradualist politics of piecemeal compromise, one which involved entering into the forms and values of British politics, feel compelled in their art to celebrate a vanished and vanquished elite, one which represented  the ideal of martial valour and a total autonomy that was the very opposite of compromise?

In order to attempt an answer, we have to remember that the émigrés – colourful as they were – were of little real importance in shaping Irish history after their departure. They did not, after all, manage to organise an invasion. The political art of the new Catholic community in the nineteenth century can be understood only by reference to the dynamics of that community. Indeed, from the point of view of understanding Irish history, the crucial point is not that certain people left but rather that many remained.

Catholic culture was undoubtedly impoverished by the departure, over many decades, of prosperous and educated members of its social elite. However, most Catholics of property, particularly those a little down the scale in wealth, did not leave following Limerick, and most of those who remained got what education they could in Ireland. This class went on to shape the tumultuous politics of nineteenth century Ireland, a politics whose resonances are still felt today. Their history of accommodation and assertion is worthy of attention, as it reveals the origins, and perhaps the nature, of many long term patterns within Irish politics and culture.

The lesson of Limerick learned by the various Irish elites was simple; the English would not be defeated by any military force the Irish could muster. For those who remained, accommodation and discretion were the only publicly avowable options. The remains of the Catholic landed aristocracy made it clear that they accepted the Anglican settler hegemony. In remote parts landed families like the O’Connells went to great lengths to avoid notice. It seems that those similar to the O’Connells, if not always as wealthy, constituted the bulk of the non-émigré Catholic gentry.

In The Tree of Liberty Kevin Whelan offers a fascinating portrait of this class, who for the most part – at least initially – attempted to carry on in the Gaelic manner. Their efforts, of course, were doomed as their cultural and economic habitat evaporated. The newcomers, who held power, regarded them as repulsive and barbarous. In time some Gaelic elements began, as Whelan says, to function in both archaic and modern modes. The undeniable truth of the matter, however, is that Catholics of this class were politically effective in direct proportion to the degree to which they distanced themselves from Gaelic forms. Thus the great irony or paradox of modern Irish history: the disaster of the seventeenth century could only be tempered by accepting its calamitous effects.

Of course not all Catholic families of means adhered to Gaelic cultural mores. The families of Edmund Burke and John Fitzgibbon, like some 5,800 other families of property, opted for conversion to the established Protestant church as the means of progressing socially and economically. In choosing integration, it could be said, they took a path parallel to that taken by the continental émigrés. Integration was a rational decision under the circumstances, particularly as it became clear that keeping one’s head down was not really working as a survival strategy for landed Catholics, who as a percentage of landowners, shrank dramatically in the penal eighteenth century.

Integration through conversion, however, was not without its difficulties; it involved an implicit admission that the world of one’s ancestors, and, in some cases, the world one was born into, was fundamentally inferior to that of the Williamite settlers. Such an admission is not a natural psychological process, and significantly many of those who followed the integrationist route, such as Edmund Burke, Mortimer O’Sullivan and John Fitzgibbon, exhibited in their lives and work considerable evidence of emotional and intellectual turmoil.

Given the political ineffectuality of surviving Gaelic elements, it is clear that if the pre-seventeenth century Irish were to survive, as a distinct people or at least as a political entity, a new strategic departure would have to unfold. And this, indeed, is what appears to have happened. The new development, which only became fully realised after the Union, grew from the emergence of a modern and Enlightenment-influenced Catholic bourgeoisie, which was to constitute the new Irish political leadership. This group, rejecting both the hierarchical ideology of the settlers and, by implication, the conservative values and culture of a Gaelic Ireland which had failed to withstand the invader, found in the ideas of the eighteenth century Enlightenment a system of thought which could be adapted to support them in the straitened circumstances which history had bequeathed.

Catholics such as Edmund Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers, migrated from land to business – where penal regulation was less intense – and became bourgeois. In some cases, including that of Rice, Catholic businessmen became fabulously wealthy. His major intervention in public life reflected the new Catholic politics of passive assertion. His system of providing Catholic education for the lower classes was a deliberate measure to support a knitting together of the Catholic poor as a people, protecting their identity and preventing their cultural and religious absorption by the Anglican establishment.

This rise in influence of the new bourgeoisie was at the expense of the anglicised upper gentry and remaining aristocratic elements which tended to be deferential to the establishment. This process of replacement was paralleled in the Church hierarchy. As Daire Keogh remarks in his recent history of the Christian Brothers:

By the end of the century, however, Bishops were drawn increasingly from the ranks of the middle class … the religious founders of the late 18th and early 19th century came from similar backgrounds. Edmund Rice and Nano Nagle epitomise this group.

Nagle, interestingly, was a cousin of Edmund Burke. The founder of the Loretto sisters, another modernising order devoted to the education of the daughters of the Catholic middle classes, was herself the daughter of a prosperous Dublin silk merchant.

This emergent  bourgeoisie came to understand that Catholic identity was to be the hallmark and cohesive force for the majority which lay outside the Anglican establishment. It is hardly an exaggeration to describe it as a revolutionary class; imbued with universalistic principles and determined to find a replacement for the culture of the defeated and rapidly vanishing Gaelic world from which it had sprung. It was engaged in a reformulation and modernisation of the Irish in order that they might survive, and that a new battle with their conquerors might perhaps be undertaken. Consequently, in Rice’s schools the emphasis was on English, maths and religion rather than on the cultural forms and language of the Gaelic era. Rice was part of the same movement as Moore and O’Connell; his favourite song was Moore’s Oh had we some bright little isle of our own. Unsurprisingly, he was also a great admirer of O’Connell and the feeling was warmly reciprocated by the Liberator.

Thomas Moore, Mortimer O’Sullivan and Daniel O’Connell all issued from the eighteenth century Catholic dilemma; their lives and work offer varieties of Catholic response within the limited range of possibilities available. The new Catholic bourgeoisie was joined by smaller traders who managed to break out of the world of the poor and to amass some capital. Thomas Moore was the only one of these three with no connection to the land. His family were lower middle class on the way up, and, as it happens, they would have slipped down again had it not been for the spectacular success of their son.

Moore’s father, John Moore, was from Kerry and of modest means. He ran a wine shop in Johnson’s Court at a time when the city’s side streets were full of dilapidated and chaotic drinking establishments serving the needs of the city’s extensive underclass, some of whom, it may be assumed, were still prone to drinking the health of the Stuarts. Whether or not John Moore’s establishment was as respectable as his son’s memoir makes it sound is not clear. Nevertheless, he seems to have been diligent and hardworking, and over time accumulated sufficient capital to contemplate matrimony. Anastasia Codd, some years his junior was to be his wife. She was from Wexford, where the name Codd is still common. Her family appear to have been engaged in the textile industry, which was quite healthy in the later eighteenth century, and doubtless Anastasia brought with her a reasonable dowry.

Their combined capital enabled them to open a relatively upmarket grocery shop on the relatively respectable Aungier Street. John’s advertisement in Saunders Newsletter spoke of “Family lists and country orders executed with care and expedition”. Clearly the Moores planned to sell to financially stable elements of society. However, it is unlikely that they expected to count amongst their customers those from the social peaks, whether Anglican or Catholic; seriously wealthy Dublin commenced a little to the east of Aungier Street then, as it still does today.

While the Moores managed to make a reasonable living for two decades they must soon have become aware that the respectable quarter of the city was not moving in their direction. The exploding peasant population of the late eighteenth century meant that huge numbers of impoverished people were arriving in Dublin. Many were to settle in the Liberties area just to the west of Aungier Street. The liberties, from the early nineteenth century, were to Dublin what the Lower East Side was to become for New York. In time the poor spread from Francis Street and Patrick Street along Golden Lane and various other alleys to the very threshold of Aungier Street. These were not the sort of people who left lists with respectable grocers.

By 1803 John Moore was obliged to close the shop. Ronan Kelly, in his elegant and exceptionally well-written biography of Moore, mentions economic depression following the Union, and doubtless this too played its part. Thomas Moore, who was to become famous but not rich, wrote to his mother: “Darling Mother! Think how delightful if I shall be enabled to elevate you all above the struggling exigencies of your present situation.” And this is, indeed, what happened. Through Moore’s Whig friends, John was appointed barracks-master at Islandbridge. Thus the Moores’ hard won social status was, for the present, more or less secured.

Thomas loved and respected his father, from whom he learned patriotism and diligence. From his mother, with whom he had always a close bond, he learned patriotism and passion. From both he learned the importance of getting on and not getting into trouble with the authorities. Moore’s genius turned out to include getting on without compromising his politics, indeed while advocating his politics.

Perhaps stimulated by an awareness of the encroaching poor to the west, Anastasia was determined that her son would continue on the path upwards. He was sent to Whyte’s English Grammar School in Grafton Street, located on the site of Bewley’s café. There he excelled and Whyte regarded him as his finest pupil. One of the master’s fundamental pedagogical principles was that all traces of “false and provincial accents” should be eliminated. Again his finest student excelled. When Moore moved to London he was automatically accepted and, unlike Burke and Goldsmith, had not to contend with the consequences of speaking with a pronounced brogue. Moore’s acceptance into the drawing rooms of Whig London was exceptionally rapid, and it is certain that Mr Whyte’s views on the primacy of the upper class English accent were, in no small degree, responsible. His acceptance by the London establishment did not alter his politics however; in accepting Thomas Moore, Whig London embraced something of a Trojan horse.

There were, of course, other reasons for Moore’s success. Following major social and economic changes in English society in the eighteenth century, many were becoming uncomfortable with their inherited anti-Catholicism, which was beginning to seem odd and outdated. By the early nineteenth century, numerous Whigs – a party whose stock in trade a century earlier had been a visceral and almost psychotic anti-Catholicism – had become liberal on that and other questions. One of the effects of this development in English thinking was a gradual relaxation of the penal code and a potential openness to the idea that Ireland might have suffered from misgovernment.

Moore benefited from the relaxation of the penal law which prohibited Catholics from attending Trinity College. To ambitious Catholics, it began to look as if the world was a place of increased possibilities. Moore entered Trinity in 1797 at the age of fifteen; the idea was that he would become a lawyer, a prospect which, no doubt, gave great pleasure to Anastasia. At college he became a close friend of Robert Emmet, who shared his patriotic ardour, and about whom he wrote one of his best-known songs, O Speak Not The Name, which, like Emmet’s iconic image, was to be hugely popular over the following century.

Protestant national radicals, also strongly influenced by enlightenment rationalism but whose culture was not affected by the trauma of Limerick, came to believe in the likelihood of help from France and the possibility of a mass rebellion. Significant sections of the rural poor, who were suffering increasing misery, were open to the idea, and even some Catholic bourgeois came on board. Daniel O’Connell, who always claimed that the peasantry had been goaded into rebellion and that their upper class leaders were foolish and irresponsible (some 30,000 died) may even have taken the United Irishmen’s oath. (Needless to say, he regarded the Emmett rebellion as pure idiocy.) He was, of course, also a member of the lawyers’ yeomanry but had no involvement in the brutal suppression of the rebellion. One of his reasons for signing up was that, if he did not, he feared that Chancellor John Fitzgibbon – whose family were formerly Catholic – would find it possible to spike his legal career. This was the sort of ambivalence which defined Catholics, determined to survive, in a Protestant world.

As a young student of ardent national feeling, Moore was impressed by the Trinity radicals and supported the United Irishmen’s rebellion. The Press was a pro-rebel newspaper, and when business was done, the Moore family enjoyed reading and discussing the radical articles it published. They found one written by a Trinity student, which called on the student body to support the rebellion, particularly good. They were less pleased when they discovered that its anonymous author was their son and advised him strongly to keep his head down for the sake of his future.

Moore’s article appears to have brought Fitzgibbon thundering down on the students, who were required to answer questions on oath concerning their politics. Thomas Moore, in an indication of the steel in his character, acquitted himself better than some, declaring to the fearsome Fitzgibbon that he would answer any question about himself but would decline to incriminate any friend. He survived the visitation because he was able to answer that he had not taken the oath of the United Irishmen.

By the time the Veto controversy commenced around 1810, Moore’s thinking was still under the influence of the former Trinity radicals who, in consequence of some admixture of their Anglican background and their adherence to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, tended to think of Catholicism as an unsavoury phenomenon which, at a minimum, should be regulated by government. The proposed manner of achieving this was to grant to the government a veto on the appointment of Catholic bishops.

Neither Moore nor O’Connell, like many of their type, was particularly ardent in his Catholicism, but as a social badge it was to become the mark of those whose culture had been destroyed in the century that culminated in the Treaty of Limerick. On this occasion O’Connell was ahead of Moore in his political understanding  – it was sometimes the reverse. Moore initially supported the veto in opposition to O’Connell. Within a year, however, he changed his position and became fervently anti-veto. Indeed in the Memoirs of Captain Rock he argues strongly against the idea, which resurfaced in the mid-1820s. This time it was supported – but briefly – by O’ Connell who, echoing Moore’s earlier volte face, rapidly changed his mind, declaring his brief support to have been his greatest mistake.

Moore travelled to London in 1799 to continue his legal studies; his parents’ hard-earned cash was sewn into his clothes. O’Connell had made the same journey and, although he had much more money than Moore at his disposal, he did not integrate and at times found the going tough enough in the capital. Moore, the city boy, landed on his feet and was not at all fazed by the big city. O’Connell, of course, spoke with a strong Irish accent, whereas Mr Whyte had re-engineered Tom’s accent to function as a passport into respectable society. O’Connell was more an outsider in London, and therefore free to devote himself to drinking and the company of his, mostly Irish, friends.

Moore, on the other hand, quickly became friends with Lord Moira and through him gained entrée into the finest Whig salons. From his experience of Anastasia’s social gatherings in the parlour above the shop in Aungier Street, he knew how to behave in a drawing room. With his excellent voice and skill on the pianoforte, he found he was both accepted and celebrated. The attractions of poring over legal texts began to fade, and he turned to verse, some of which was decidedly erotic by the standards of the time. He later became a major literary figure in Britain and a close friend of Byron. He wrote on many topics and among his recurring themes were oppression, misgovernment and their effect on his native country. In this he drew directly on the culture of his household and class.

In 1807 he entered a contract with a Dublin music publisher for £500 a year. The result was Moore’s Irish Melodies, which ran to ten volumes, the final one being published in 1834. Love, loss, Erin, her many sorrows and the vanished glories of Ireland were the main subjects of these works, which were strongly marked by the modes and inflections of the age of sensibility. These were aesthetic values that the long romantic era could not easily accommodate, the recent past being always the most foreign. Davis – the early romantic- did not care for Moore’s work, nor did Yeats, whose dislike extended to Moore himself, whom he described as “an incarnate social ambition”, a description which some might find a bit rich coming from WB. The Melodies, he said “… are to most cultivated ears but excellent drawing room songs, pretty with a prettiness which is the contraband of Parnassus”.

As late as the 1960s the orthodoxies of romanticism continued to be voiced by at least some ordinary schoolmasters in independent Ireland.  At the school I attended, it was explained to us in tones of almost scientific certainty – by a teacher who regularly experienced dramatic transports in class in consequence of having read some line or other from Shelley – that, while Moore was technically excellent, he lacked inspiration. Today commentators regularly dismiss Moore’s work as mawkish and unreadable, and indeed apart from the sung melodies and satires, it has to be admitted it is hard going for a contemporary reader.

 While Moore’s melodies drew on traditional airs, which he appears to have altered more than a little, the lyrics were his own, and owed little to traditional Gaelic poetry. They were an exercise in recreating or modernising the essential Catholic Irish experience. It was a project for which there was an audience, and the Melodies were enormously popular with all sections of the Catholic middle classes throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Significantly, however, they do not appear to have been popular with the peasantry.

O’Connell peppered his speeches with quotations from the Melodies and led the welcoming party when Moore returned on a visit to Dublin in 1818. His son, John O’Connell, translated a selection of the melodies into Latin in the 1830s. Throughout the  nineteenth century and beyond, they were sung in Catholic middle class drawing rooms above shops and public houses, in parochial houses and in the homes of Catholic bankers, solicitors, professionals and business people. It is hardly surprising that they appear in the writings of Joyce, whose work, apart from everything else, is stuffed with representative Catholic middle class types. Leopold Bloom, the great admirer of the O’Connell-Parnell tradition, at one point fantasises about a Thomas Moore-type career for Stephen Dedalus: singing in the drawing rooms of the rich, his entrée ensured by his BA and fine singing voice.

In the pre-Famine decades the newly assertive Catholics could be seen as being in search of a culture to surround and support them. It came but slowly: such matters are not easily conjured up. Moore was the exception; he seemed to be able to pour it out. And if he did it was just as quickly adopted by a class who were removed from the Gaelic world and in need of something more than tridentine orthodoxy to support their enormous social and political ambitions. This class took Moore to their hearts and kept him close for many decades, hardly touched by the growing romantic sensibility in the greater world.

Moore operated in London drawing rooms in the immediate pre-emancipation era when there was no possibility of admission to Westminster. Yet London was the seat of power, London was the place O’Connell’s activities were designed to influence. Moore prefigured O’Connell and the group around Davis, who also planned to use the British electoral system to promote Irish interests. In focusing on London, Moore, who himself considered standing for parliament in the popular interest after emancipation, prefigured the whole line of popular nineteenth century leaders from Butt to Parnell and Redmond.

In London he worked to promote the Irish case among influential Whigs and to satirise and attack manifestations of intolerance. In 1808 he published Corruption and Intolerance: Two poems addressed to an Englishman by an Irishman. The Melodies followed at regular intervals. In 1812 he published a volume of satiric verses targeting his one time patron, the Prince Regent, whose attitude towards Catholic amelioration had altered. The work went through fourteen editions in one year. In 1817 he published Lallah Rookh, an extended oriental poem featuring Shia oppression of Sunnis and widely read as an Irish allegory. It was a huge success. Lady Holland was one of the few not to be impressed, declaring, as Ronan Kelly tells us: “I have not read your Larry O’Rourke. I don’t like Irish stories.” In 1824 he published Memoirs of Captain Rock, which was in essence a compelling and eloquent statement of the Catholic bourgeois case for political power.

Memoirs was published in London by Longman to wide acclaim. In 1824 alone it went through four editions. In Ireland the O’Connellites were delighted with this impressive statement of their case, and particularly with its popularity in London, where Catholics desperately wanted to send their representatives. The influence of  Memoirs of Captain Rock on English thinking was immense and it undoubtedly contributed to the English willingness to relax the last major anti-Catholic statute and grant emancipation.

Ronan Kelly generally recognises the close political kinship of O’Connell, as when he acknowledges O’Connell’s direct influence on the content of  Memoirs. At times, however, his sense of historical context falters, as in his treatment of the Clare election, when he leaves the reader in ignorance of the landlords’ assumptions that they owned their tenants’ votes and presents the relatively limited clerical involvement as somehow reprehensible. He is also a little squeamish on the peasants’ resistance to their extensive oppressions – as if there were other, nicer, options open to them. Curiously, he also tends to present O’Connell in a poor light, as if the nineteenth century anti-democratic propaganda directed against the founder of constitutional nationalism has been unquestioningly accepted. Of course it has to be acknowledged that, like many other supporters of the popular cause, Moore at times found O’Connell’s style hard to take, but he also knew they were on the same side and that his cause owed a huge debt to the colourful and forceful Kerryman.

Field Day have now reissued Memoirs of Captain Rock in a scholarly edition, edited by Emer Nolan and carefully annotated by Seamus Deane. In this fine and elegant production, well bound on good paper, the publishers appear to acknowledge the importance of Moore’s political classic and that it established, at a popular level in Britain and throughout Europe, the basis of the case which the Irish would make over the following century.

The ostensible subject matter is the organised peasant militias whom the apocryphal Captain Rock was supposed to lead; in reality Moore’s text has neither interest in, nor knowledge of, peasant resistance. It is merely a trope to catch the attention of the English, who would have read in their newspapers of midnight assassinations, house-burnings, cattle-houghing and the like. The implicit message is that the educated writer and the educated reader, of course, deprecate such activities, but that following many centuries of exploitation, culminating in the present extremes of misgovernment, it is hardly surprising that they occur. The solution is to include the class to which the author belongs, the obviously polished and able Catholic bourgeoisie, in the processes and fruits of political power.

As in the case of all first rate propaganda, there is something approaching an untruth, or at least an economy with the truth, at the core of Captain Rock. Moore, with superb skill, throws a veil over the elephant in the room. The elephant, of course, is the implicit demand for repeal of the Union, if not full and final separation. Nothing of the sort is mentioned, merely the desire that reasonable people like Thomas Moore be granted admission to Westminster and that the abuses of the establishment cease. Perhaps Moore could not have known the shape the future would take, but certainly the British are not warned that once inside their legislature, the Irish might use their position to campaign remorselessly for one of their own. Propaganda, then as now, is about getting people to believe what you want them to believe.

Small wonder that Irish Protestants, such as Mortimer O’Sullivan – apparently a friend of Moore’s sister Kate – were infuriated by the celebrated history. O’Sullivan was sufficiently provoked to publish Captain Rock Detected in 1824, in response to Moore’s work, which had been issued earlier in the same year. Unlike Moore’s work, it was not a bestseller. The problem for Irish Protestants, who also had to direct their appeals and claims towards Westminster in the wake of the Union, was that the English increasingly found them dated and boring. The English were moving on; Irish Protestant arguments, no matter how brilliant, sounded like their parents or grandparents – out of date. It was a problem which was to dog Irish Protestant politics over the following century and beyond.

O’Sullivan, who wrote under the nom de plume “A Munster Farmer”, was an Anglican clergyman and a convert from Catholicism. He is sometimes dismissed as a bigot because of his opposition to O’Connell’s Catholic Association. His views, however, were more complex than this simple categorisation would suggest. Although a convinced supporter of the English connection, O’Sullivan’s understanding of the Irish past was actually not very different from Moore’s.

Everybody, I dare say, is aware, that the misfortune befell Ireland to be conquered by a neighbouring country … The invasion of Ireland was originally little better than a buccaneering exploit; and the barons … blended the worst spirit of trade with the insolence of a storming party … it was the fate of Ireland to be mastered by adventurers … Accordingly the history of Ireland is a history of continued oppression – even to such an extent as that it caused hatred to merge in terror, and sent men, who detested the very name of England, to supplicate … the grace of English protection … and the barons, as was to be expected, opposed the petitions and the sovereign could not control nor correct them; and, in consequence, Ireland remained excluded from all the benefits of the English law, and harassed by petty feuds, which arose out of the jarring interests of the adventurers, and an ardent longing after the possessions of the natives – a longing which was kept continually alive by the swarms of new settlers who were constantly bringing themselves and their necessities into this devoted land – the Reformation came to be a new principle of division … It was not to be expected that the Irish nation should readily embrace the reformed religion. It was what they considered a novelty, and a novelty invented by their oppressors. England offered her religion but she had withheld her law; and the Irish people knew how to estimate, according to the boon which she denied, the value of the grace which she proffered.

Readers who were expecting a refutation of Moore’s arguments must have been puzzled. Indeed most readers, particularly those in England at whom the work, like Moore’s text, was primarily aimed, probably read it as a confirmation of Moore’s misgovernment thesis, and of the desirability of granting Catholic Emancipation. O’Sullivan looked on England kindly but disliked the settlers. In his writing, there is evidence of a resentment over dispossession which was common – albeit sometimes in a diluted or coded form – among other convert intellectuals such as Burke and Fitzgibbon.

O’Sullivan was a serious and reflective thinker within his constrained parameters. In Captain Rock Detected, the defining issues of nineteenth century Ireland, including mass famine, political separation from Britain, growth in Catholic power, the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, land reform and the dilution in the power of the landed gentry were all raised and discussed. Moore’s brilliant propaganda had a far narrower range but a stronger punch.

From O’Sullivan’s Irish Anglican viewpoint, significant dangers threatened from the Catholic Church and the new O’Connellite middle class. The country was being offered a false road to amelioration, one which would ultimately involve separation from England and the triumph of Romanism, with its unavoidable horrors.

The greatest danger, however, emanated from the parlous condition of the peasantry, which was not the fault of the rural poor but rather of their avaricious oppressors: the landlords of Ireland, whom O’Sullivan regarded as wholly worthless. His solution, however, was somewhat hare-brained, perhaps reflecting the minuscule wiggle-room available in his particular corner: Britain was, in effect, to reinvade Ireland, to take on the landlord class and to re-engineer the country’s social and economic forms.

It was a crypto-Jacobite vision percolated through O’Sullivan’s adopted Anglicanism. With this re-ordering of the country completed – he does not say how long it would take – Ireland would be ready to receive and embrace the English constitution, which presumably would involve an effortless, and acrimony-free, embracing of Anglicanism by the Catholic Irish.

In the meantime the danger of the growing and increasingly impoverished peasantry loomed:

What will the consequences be, when the population is much more numerous, and perhaps still more miserable than it is at present? The poor, alienated from their landlords by severe exactions, incited to rebellion by tempting offers … will never bear famine with the patience of the Chinese and let those at the head of affairs weigh well the consequences likely to follow from the very rapid increase of such a people, disaffected to the government, and increasing, in a state of misery, which, they imagine, admits but of little aggravation.


O’Sullivan’s family, with whom, contrary to the norm among converts lower in social status, he maintained cordial relations, were prosperous Tipperary farmers. Like many Catholics from that class, O’Sullivan embraced change and a modern cultural mode. But, in his case, it was not a bourgeois mode but an English conservative one. Mortimer and his brother Samuel – who also became an Anglican clergyman – were both anglophiles. Mortimer, describing himself as Church of England rather than Church of Ireland, adhered to standard conservative English concepts of social hierarchy. The inapplicability, in1820s Ireland, of his idealised vision of English social order did not deter him. If Irish reality was not ready for a self-evidently desirable organic Protestant order of seamless social layers, England would have to take the sort of decisions which would render the ideal possible. Captain Rock Detected described the prevailing situation and offered the English advice as to what these decisions might be.

The O’Sullivan brothers, it could be said, were an example of how, in their most benign interpretation, the penal laws were supposed to work in integrating the natives into the culture of their conquerors. The problem however, as it emerges from Captain Rock Detected, is that very few of the settler element were attached to the benign possibilities of the penal laws. Thus O’Sullivan demands that Westminster finally do what it had ineffectively attempted over the centuries, that is, impose its civilising norms on the barbarous settlers.

The fact that the anti- Catholic laws did not function benignly is seen as wholly the fault of the settlers:

I think it probable, that, had the penal laws been tempered by a kindliness of social feeling … If thus the rigors of the law had been mitigated by the intervention of private benevolence … the consequences would have been, that, while the Roman Catholics were precluded from the power of doing mischief, they would have been under a process of gentle treatment and good usage, which might have brought them finally into a union of sentiment with their rulers.

The great offenders within the Protestant establishment were not the clergy but the landlords, who were concerned to exact the maximum profit from their wretched tenants. The result was that disaster threatened not only the peasantry but the entire country. If the peasantry hoped that God would intervene to reverse the prevailing order, O’Sullivan’s hope was that that task would be undertaken by the English. Ultimately, of course, it was the mass famine that O’Sullivan wished to avoid which was to effect social and economic transformation. A solid yeomanry did in fact emerge from the disastrous 1840s, but the form it took, and the circumstances in which it existed, were quite different from those dreamed of by Mortimer O’Sullivan.

In his calmer moments O’Sullivan realised that the likelihood of Britain acting in the manner he advocated was remote. His knowledge of rural Ireland, which was vastly deeper than that of urban Catholics like Moore, left him dispirited. He understood the dynamics of what was happening in the Irish countryside and the scale of the threatening crisis:

As the population increased, it followed as a consequence, that rents were raised proportionably, because the demand was proportionably increased; and the population advanced, with great rapidity, because the means of subsistence were left amply to the peasant, although his comforts were gradually withdrawn. If Ireland had been an object of much interest to the politician, he could not look upon such a state of things without experiencing some alarm. To see a people so rapidly increasing, and under circumstances which must necessarily, destroy all their self-respect, would distress a benevolent man, and create some disquietude in the coldest politician; but the line of conduct adopted towards Ireland, affords a melancholy proof that our troubles and our dangers were very little regarded.

The Anglican Church was the institution which, above all others, in the eyes of O’Sullivan, offered hope for Ireland; those who sought to impoverish it were the enemies of all that was good and hopeful. Its leader, Archbishop Magee, had been attacked by uninformed voices, including that of Daniel O’Connell. O’Sullivan was infuriated because O’Connell was reported to have said in a reference to Archbishop Magee “that if there was a spirit of assassination in the country, the Archbishop would not be alive”.

On closer examination however, he seems, at least by implication, to regard the activities of the established Church of Ireland critically. He does not mention Magee’s endorsement of the campaign of proselytism directed at the Irish poor. Nevertheless, it is at the heart of his problem with Irish Anglicanism. O’Sullivan believed the anti-Romish crusade under way was, however well intentioned, misconceived and certain to fail. Moreover, he was unmoved by the lofty mentality of the proselytisers, which was largely unconcerned by the deteriorating living conditions of the poor. In so far as such things were even noticed by the advocates of the second reformation, the problems experienced by the peasantry were attributed to their attachment to false religion.

O’Sullivan’s view, born of his warmer feelings towards the Catholic poor, was the exact opposite of the representative evangelical position. He felt that improving the material circumstances of the peasantry was the central priority; that many benefits would follow from this and that these would include creating the conditions necessary to secure the release of the poor from their attachment to the demeaning practices of popery. In this he was out of step with the bulk of established opinion, which felt that a massive campaign of browbeating would transform the multiplying peasantry into Protestant loyalists. O’Sullivan knew enough of the country to know that this would not work, and that the Protestant missionaries had provoked the priests into a response:

Within latter years, the priesthood have become much more assiduous than they formerly were, in cultivating a spirit of disunion; they saw missionaries of various denominations spreading among the people, and at work to instruct them; and as they dreaded the influence of the bible and the zeal of the preachers, they aroused themselves into a vigorous opposition’

This new atmosphere appeared to have an effect even on the reading material of the poor:

… a considerable change began to take place in the nature of the little penny tracts and ballads with which the itinerant pedlars were supplied. Whether it was, that the priesthood  (in opposition to the attempts at proselytism) had the new kind printed, I cannot say; but the fact is certain, that love songs and stories were no longer the principle wares of the bookvenders; and that stories of martyrs’ deaths, and judgements and executions of obstinate heretics, and miracles performed in the true church were now in very general circulation. By one class of these productions … they learned how heretics ought to be treated; and the miracles lifted their minds high above the region in which missionaries could work to make them proselytes; and sustained them by a hope, that, God would fight for them and exterminate their oppressors. At the same time prophecy, the constant resource of a depressed people, afforded them its consolations. Pastorini circulated in various forms, verbally and in print, became a favourite study; and those who could not procure the book, but who were instructed in the principles of it, often gave the members of the bible society hope of making converts, from the readiness with which they received the Testament, of which they scarcely read any part but the Revelations.

So despite O’Sullivan’s apparent regard for the Anglican Church in Ireland, its major intervention in public life under the leadership of Archbishop Magee was, it is implied, fundamentally wrongheaded. Interestingly, O’Sullivan’s description of the Catholic response to the missionaries reveals the success and extending range of the Catholic modernising campaign, which actually predated the launch of the new reformation, but which was undoubtedly spurred on by it.

The passionate Protestant hostility to Catholicism was, of course, primarily fired by political concerns. Catholic leaders, many of whom were effectively agnostic, had slowly come to recognise the potential of religious identification as a means of preventing disappearance through absorption. Catholic identity became a central part of the modernising campaign, which in the nineteenth century, under O’Connell’s leadership, became a campaign for political power. O’Sullivan, who believed in an integrationist solution to Ireland’s problems, naturally opposed every manifestation of the new Catholic politics.

The rhetoric he employed in the assault, when Catholicism itself was the target, drew on the excitedly hostile language of the second reformation, and focused on the denunciation of what were found to be offensive doctrinal and organisational matters. Thus O’Sullivan characterised the Catholic Church as promoting a religion characterised by superstition, hostility to intellectual inquiry and a blind loyalty to the pope. The real problem, however, was less with Catholicism as a religion than with Catholicism as a signifier of the new politics of the majority. This was what had to be tackled, and the inventive O’Sullivan had a proposal to ensure its political emasculation:

And if the clergy of the church of Rome were paid by the government (which they ought to be in any case, for many reasons) and care taken that there should be no increase of the mendicant orders, we would no longer have that kind of opposition which now exists to all liberal views and principles; the Roman Catholic would become gradually more respectable; and, as they would blend with the higher classes in society, there could be little reason to apprehend, that they would yield themselves to the fomenting of acrimonious and turbulent feelings and passions among a people upon whom they were no longer dependent …

Clearly doctrinal matters were secondary to the key business of preventing political assertion by the majority. If their Catholicism, the force which bound them together, was not available for this purpose, the new political project would founder. In this circumstance, it seems, the errors of Romanism would excite a less energetic response.

O’Sullivan both despised and underrated the rising Catholic bourgeoisie. He probably knew many who had migrated from the land to trade and was irritated by this new class which had displaced the integrationist Catholic gentry and aristocracy from pre-eminence in Catholic affairs. The clamour for Catholic Emancipation he found a complete distraction from the issues facing the country.

Let nobody therefore suppose, that a measure should be precipitated from any regard to the harangues and exertions of the Catholic Association … Let the question of Catholic emancipation be discussed on its own naked merits; let the boon be granted at its own proper time; and let not the desire of extinguishing the association hasten the measures by a single day.

Anglicised Catholic gentlemen and aristocrats, a type replaced in the Catholic leadership by O’Connell and his followers, were the only Irish social grouping looked on positively by O’Sullivan, but he reveals them to be under pressure from the Catholic modernisers. The sons of Catholic gentlemen, for example, were previously educated in Protestant schools, but latterly such students were sent to Catholic institutions, like the recently opened Clongowes Wood College:

The consequence, in my opinion is this; that the Roman Catholic gentry, who are now approaching man’s estate, may be tainted by those odious opinions and principles, from which their parents were perfectly free.These, significantly, were political and had nothing to do with religious practice. They  were chiefly “the hatred of England” and “enduring zeal for what they call the old religion”.

O’Sullivan saw these developments as inimical to all he held dear. At present “the Roman Catholic gentry cling to the British connection as tenaciously as the generality of Protestants. If the gentry, as is happening everyday, move from this position they will – perhaps they are already – lead the inchoate peasant resistance towards a general rebellion.”

The state of the Roman Catholics is briefly this; a people increasing rapidly in numbers, and daily sinking into greater wretchedness, and yet possessing an energy and freshness of feeling, in which their minds are strongly contrasted with the monotony of their miserable lives; the old gentry those who would warn them against improper courses, and keep up in their minds a salutary belief, that their sufferings were capable of increase, dropping off, and a new class of gentry appearing one by one in different parts of the country, who … are … posessed by sentiments of immitigable hatred towards the nation which they are, perhaps, instructed to believe, by such cruel and fraudulent means, subverted the dignity of their country, and extinguished the splendour of their church.

This new gentry was really the new Catholic leadership, the Catholic Church led by Bishop Doyle and the Catholic Association led by O’Connell and including the Catholic literary giant Thomas Moore. O’Sullivan knew, as did most Protestants, that the ultimate logic of the new Catholic politics was separation. (The exceptions were some Protestant liberals like Maria Edgeworth who believed that political calm and social order would descend on the country once emancipation was granted.) Speaking of Bishop Doyle he said: “ … the approved champion and vindicator of the Roman Catholics, is held in his accordance with British rule, only by the operation of a stern and lamented necessity”. Moore, like O’Connell, also understood and accepted that repeal, and possibly separation, was a logical development of the new Catholic politics.

Now, with the publication of Moore’s Captain Rock, the O’Connellite movement was claiming to know what was best for the peasantry and falsely claiming amelioration in their condition would follow from Catholic Emancipation and a relief from the payment of tithes.

… the grant of Catholic emancipation might open places of honour or emolument to the Roman Catholic gentry; but the peasantry might as well expect warmth from the stars, as hope to derive any benefit from a measure, which could do little more that gild the very summits of society. Emancipation as the agitators represent it, may truly be called a phantom which only flies before the people to lure them to their doom.

However, much as the new Catholic politics annoyed O’Sullivan, his real emotional anger was reserved for the Protestant landlords, who were represented as remorselessly greedy, without a vision for the future of the country and prepared to sacrifice the established church in order to distract the peasantry from the real source of their oppression.

The landlords cry out, abolish the tithe, that you may give the peasantry an opportunity to breathe; and it is by those very landlords, that the power to breathe has been taken from them. The landlords who have extricated themselves from tithe, and left the people fettered, call upon the English nation to do what they themselves have left undone … but let them not confound the names of things by a hypocritical pretence, that they intend to benefit the poor … No the gentry will for a short time silently and fiercely revel in church possessions, and, when they have glutted themselves to the full, they will turn again to their sure resource – the miserable tenantry of Ireland; and they will cry out like the horse leeches’ three daughters ‘more! more! more!’

The landlords were the great oppressors of the peasantry, a situation which could only be redressed through government action:

And for their full relief what do I ask? I do not call for the return of the absentees; I do not call for English capital; I demand only that the landlords should join the government in giving some security that the tenant shall not be asked be asked to pay MORE THAN HIS FARM IS WORTH

As an Irish Tory, O’Sullivan had no difficulty with the idea of economic regulation. In this he was quite unlike the O’Connellite middle classes, who had witnessed penal regulation and were passionate advocates of free trade and the autonomous market. O’Sullivan, on the other hand, was willing to countenance vast and fundamental change, in the interests of his conservative vision, including overturning the rights of private property:

But what is to be done? Something must be done very much removed from the track of ordinary politics; something that requires a steady head to look upon, and which no faint heart can execute. Lord Liverpool, in his place in the imperial parliament, has declared that Ireland is not in a fit state to receive the benefits of the British constitution. He has declared, I believe, the truth; and let his declaration be acted upon. Let the government consider Ireland as at this moment a newly conquered country. Let them … examine with patient resolution the whole state of our distracted land … Let no-one say that the government should not interfere with private property

The arguments advanced in O’Sullivan’s text, while supported by much more detail, frequently echo Moore’s. In Memoirs of Captain Rock a would-be proselytiser, who encounters the captain, finally concludes: “… it is the Rulers, not the people of Ireland, who require to be instructed and converted.” Yet apart from their opposition to tithes, the O’Connellites, including Moore, were decidedly short on detail when it came to peasant amelioration.

In the 1820s the Catholic writers were unconvincing on the question. Their attachment to free trade left them unable to recommend intervention in the land market. And yet their instincts, if not the requirements of pan-Catholic solidarity, prompted concern and sympathy. This ultimately untenable position is reflected in the words of Michael Whitty who, following the success of Moore’s work, established a weekly journal called Captain Rock’s or the Chieftain’s Gazette. Its tone was one of deep sympathy for the peasantry, but its philosophy was free trade. Writing on the subject of land he says:

Land is a saleable commodity … some will want to sell and some will want to purchase … if the buyer and seller be left at liberty to deal with whom and when they please, it will always be bought and sold for its value. Nothing, I think, can be plainer than this.

The land and peasantry question was one which floated around the edges of O’Connellite thinking throughout the pre-Famine decades. It seems likely that had they won power, before the destruction of the peasantry through famine, Catholic politicians would have found it necessary to modify their free trade principals in arriving at a solution. The subject remained on the wings because the entire energy of the Catholic movement was focused first on Emancipation and later on Repeal. For O’Sullivan, who was not seeking constitutional change, it was a problem for the government to address now.

As a result of the unexpected events – that is, physical rebellion – which, in the early twentieth century, actually led to repeal of the Union, independent Ireland was ill- equipped to make sense of Moore’s life and politics. It is a failure which has only now begun to be addressed through such works as the Field Day republication of Moore’s novel and Ronan Kelly’s biography.

A widespread feeling from the first decades of independence was that there was something inherently shameful about singing in London drawing rooms. A significant element of confusion entered the culture – it is one which can still be felt – because independence appeared to have resulted from a rejection of the principles established over two centuries. The dynamics of the previous two centuries lost public legitimacy, even though the culture people lived in was fundamentally shaped during that period. The unstated assumption for many was that if Moore was a real patriot he would not have gone to Whig London but stayed at home ensuring his pike was kept well oiled for the next rising.

In the backward glance of the twentieth century, following rebellion and the winning of an independent legislature, the actively anglicising Catholic modernisers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century also caused considerable unease, and were frequently criticised for their apparent coldness towards the Gaelic world and their disinclination for rebellion. Somehow the full import of the seventeenth century defeats was glossed over, and the feeling took root that the option of armed rebellion – even when the circumstances appeared hopeless  –must always be the preferred one for a genuine patriot.

Looking at the circumstances following Limerick, it seems clear that there was, in fact, no viable alternative to the option taken, and that if those energetic and imaginative elements among the Irish had not taken that course, the people would probably have disappeared through absorption or, if serious rebellion had been attempted, through some form of extirpation. But departing the Gaelic world did not mean forgetting the trauma and destruction of the seventeenth century. The Catholic bourgeoisie remembered it well and celebrated that memory in Moore’s Melodies and other works which provided psychological support in the long struggle for piecemeal improvement. Images of past glories also functioned to keep fresh the desire and hope for a much more radical transformation in the relationship with Britain.

September 2008



Dublin’s Oldest Independent BookshopBooks delivered worldwide