There is a sense in which John Curry was the right man for the job of revising the rising. His Catholic family had been stripped of their lands in the Williamite settlement since his father had fought in support of James II, and they were, therefore, effectively driven into the middle classes; Curry’s father became a merchant, and John himself moved into medicine. During the last Jacobite rebellion of 1745, Irish Catholics did not rise to the challenge of the moment to express a loyalty with the Pretender but instead remained quiet and acquiescent. This earned them a certain respect in English intellectual opinion, and Curry, already greatly irritated by the continuing animosity towards Catholics in Ireland, took the opportunity to post his attack on traditional Anglican versions of the 1641 debacle with A Brief Account from the most Authentic Protestant writers of the Causes, Motives, and Mischiefs of the Irish Rebellion, on the 23rd Day of October 1641 (1747).
What was especially daring about Curry’s intervention was that instead of being released under his own name, he decided to perpetrate an act of literary cross-dressing. The study was published as ‘a Dialogue between a Dissenter, and a Member of the Church of Ireland, as by Law Established’ (a description which sounds suspiciously like the start of a joke). This impersonation was to have serious implications in the literary war which broke out over the pamphlet, but Curry effectively created a version of a liberal Irish Anglican in order to exacerbate the divisions in the Anglican enclave which would later become evident in the reaction to the Money Bill dispute. Curry played the ecclesiological cross-dressing with a certain amount of tongue in cheek. Scandalously, he has his Dissenter harangue his Anglican interlocutor at the end of their dialogue for being such an intrepid advocate for Irish Catholics: ‘you have today so zealously pleaded the Cause of the Rebellious Irish Papists, that I suspect you are not so good a Protestant at the Bottom, as I would have you to be’.70 This self-referential undermining of the enterprise injects a jovial tone into what is otherwise a deadly serious literary and historiographical game as Curry attempts to wrest interpretive control of the 1641 rebellion out of the hands of those he considers zealously committed to an anti-Catholic agenda. The act of speaking in tongues not his own, of wearing ecclesiastical garb belonging to different (and adversarial) denominations, is a radical one in a period when all three Christian churches were mutually antagonistic.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have argued that when women crossdress it is as a ‘dream of prophecy and power’ because by appropriating the clothes of the more powerful gender some of that power is also appropriated.71 However, what cross-dressing also does is question the very notion of such a strict division between categories. For Marjorie Garber, cross-dressing is a way to offer ‘a challenge to easy notions of binarity, putting into question the categories of “female” and “male”, whether they are considered essential or constructed, biological or cultural’,72 and the same problematisation occurs when a reviled and hated other adopts the language and wears the clothes of those who revile him. While there is one sense in which this denominational cross-dressing could be read as the typical act of a monstrous traitor as he disguises himself in order to pass as normal and perpetrate his crimes much more easily, given that Curry is genuinely attempting to convince liberal Anglicans that Catholics are not the bogeymen of the 1641 fairy tales, a radicalisation of identity is the better interpretation of his pamphlet.
What Curry effects to do is no less than unmonster the Irish Catholic, and to do it through the voice of a liberal Anglican, largely by forging a connection between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants based on their common nationality. As the liberal Anglican asserts, he speaks ‘In Justice . . . to that People (whom, notwithstanding the difference of their Religion from mine, I shall ever regard as my Brethren and Countrymen . . .)’.73 Crucially, for his revisionism, Curry has his liberal depend only on Protestant testimony (the histories written by Protestants in the aftermath of the rebellion) to prove that the traditional view of the rebellion, and therefore of Irish Catholics, is simply untenable, while also asking some other serious questions including why, as the rebellion happened over a century prior to the publication of the pamphlet, and given their dutiful and submissive loyalty displayed ever since, the ‘inhumane Exaggerations’ of 1641 are being bought up against Irish Catholics at this time.74 In other words, Curry speaks with an Anglican voice through his sources as well as his dialogues, according the scholarship of his enemy a certain amount of respect.
Where Curry meets with problems, however, is in his inability to completely abandon the discourse of the monster. If the Irish Catholic is no longer to be accepted as monstrous, then Curry believes he has found another group who can be read as bestial. He reverses the general accusations against Catholics and here accuses Protestants of desiring the ‘extirpat[ion], by all possible Means’ of ‘that useful and inoffensive set of Men [Irish Catholics] from the Face of the Earth’.75 Instead of Catholics being guilty of numerous massacres in 1641, the whole affair was really caused by the massacre of peaceful Catholic families in Islandmagee (populated, he claims, by about 3,000 people), a massacre which started the entire chain of murderous events.76 More important than these reversals, however, is Curry’s attempt to distinguish between Catholics. While some are indeed bad citizens and dangerous there are also ‘sober and unbigoted Roman Catholics’ who ‘did, and do, sincerely condemn, and abhor’ the terrible behaviour by their co-religionists during 1641.77 Thus, rather than being ‘essentially’ evil, Catholics are an (ordinary) group of people with some flawed members, but far more judicious and moderate ones. Curry’s book attempts to produce a ‘category crisis’, introduce a porous membrane between hitherto distinct categories and allow for ‘border crossings from one (apparently distinct) category to another’.78
As always, attempts to challenge the impervious nature of a border produces an immediate reaction, and Curry’s struggle to gain interpretive control of 1641 did not go unchallenged. Walter Harris, a Laois lawyer and Anglican antiquarian (with a reputation for tolerance and sympathy towards Gaelic culture) quickly responded in the white heat of intellectual battle. In Fiction Unmask’d; or, an Answer to a Dialogue lately published by a Popish Physician (1752), Harris attempted to skewer Curry by revealing the fictional strategies involved in his original intervention: as if he were the host of a masked ball reaching the end of the evening, Harris felt the need to remove the visor from Curry’s face and reveal his true nature. Fiction Unmask’d is not unlike that moment in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) when Stephen Rea discovers that the beautiful young woman with whom he had fallen in love is in fact a man, shocking both Rea (who immediately throws up) and the audience, which has been taken in. Of course, there are always those who claim that they are never duped by transvestism, no matter how elaborate the disguise, and like them Harris insists that he was never taken in by Curry’s trickery, representing himself as a penetrating observer alert to the subtleties of the Catholic faith. For Harris, Curry’s Anglican drag performance was weak and unconvincing from the start. Much of Harris’s response is couched in the terms of a theatre critic who is very unimpressed by the acting talent in front of him, or an anti-theatricalist terrified of the sublimated power of impersonation to transform and change, who insists again on fixity and stability.
Harris complains about Curry’s ‘personation’ and regrets that ‘weak People, believing it to be a real Discourse, must entertain strange Notions of the Protestants’.79 He later insists that no Protestant would argue the way Curry’s Anglican does. What disturbs Harris most, however, is not really the fact that Curry felt it his right to publicly intervene in the discourse of 1641, an event so central to Anglican mythology that it would be difficult to overestimate its importance. What is more disturbing is that some Anglicans actually bought his disguise, actually found themselves convinced by it. In other words, the threat to the Irish Anglican community comes not from the disguises or the rhetoric of a member of the Catholic community but from the failure of some members of the Irish Anglican enclave to sign up fully to the official interpretation of 1641. The first was a threat from without, one that the Irish Anglicans had suffered periodically over the course of a century; the second was symptomatic of an internal fissure, a division within the self that needed to be healed or rejected.
Some Anglicans were too amenable to the discourse of unmonstering, and Harris is very clear that these Anglicans need to be treated as traitors who have been infected by a Catholic disease – or perhaps, fallen in love with their own destruction. Harris configures those liberal Anglicans as having been seduced by a perverted desire, railing against the ‘infatuation of many who call themselves Protestants. Monstrous Infatuation! when Protestants act a Popish Part’.80 Curry pretended to be a Protestant; now, Protestants are ‘becoming’ (dressing as, fixated upon, infatuated by) Catholics! Intellectual assent is here configured as a kind of perverted lovemaking; the lovemaking is so intense that two have really become one, and worse, the Anglican Self has been replaced by a Catholic Other, the true self displaced by a false self (in a version of demonic possession). This slippage of identity makes it easier for Catholics like Curry to feel a right to ‘personate’ Anglicans. Curry’s transgression has engendered an era of transgression where identity Fiction becomes fluid and out of control. Like the transvestite who tricks the heterosexual into an act of sexual betrayal, so the denominational crossdresser who seduces an Anglican into congress with a Catholic through rhetorical seduction.
Harris’s fear is that such a thorough interpenetration of denominational identities is so radical that some will find it difficult to distinguish one from the other. He further warns that such impersonation is not confined to book publication. He claims that during the Scottish rebellion of 1745 several ‘weekly scraps’ written by a ‘Romish priest’ were published under the title ‘Impartial Examiners’.81 One response to this kind of role playing and theatrical performance of history is a return to the facts, and to ‘true’ identities, but – bizarrely – Harris does not opt for this, and instead continues with a different kind of fiction, one where he too can dress up, and here he decides (logically enough) to impersonate a Catholic. Instead of providing a rational history of 1641 as a rebuke to theatrical revisionism, the reader is given even more dramatic dialogue – this time between a Catholic (clearly intended to be Curry himself) and an extraordinarily knowledgeable Protestant, knowledgeable not merely about the 1641 rebellion but about Catholic/ Protestant relations in the round. It must be said that whereas Curry’s Dissenter is remarkably stubborn and finds it difficult to accept anything put forward by his Anglican interlocutor, Harris’s Catholic is a less robust figure who caves in quickly to the arguments amassed by the Anglican. Often his responses to an extraordinarily prolix exposition on the evils of Catholicism are cursory and intellectually passive as if he has been overwhelmed by the subtlety of a far more engaged thinker. Where the real Curry would undoubtedly have entered into a disputatious disagreement with what he had just been told, Harris’s extremely amiable Catholic merely responds, ‘Well, proceed with your Observations’.82
Considering the loyal behaviour practiced by Irish Catholics in the period, the invective contained in Harris’s pamphlet is extraordinary, but it tells us much about the centrality of anti-Catholicism to Irish Anglican identity, and the dangers posed by any sense that some Anglicans were willing to make an accommodation with these monsters. For Harris, Catholicism is a mental masquerade, a vast theatre of lies and deceptions where ordinary speech cannot be trusted because of the ‘doctrine of Equivocation and mental Restrictions’ (or reservation) where Catholics are permitted to lie, even directly, depending on the intention behind their words.83 For example, the ability of Curry to impersonate Anglicans comes from the Catholic comfort with impersonation and lies more generally so that Catholics even swear ‘by Double Entendre’.84 The traditional accusations against Catholics are trotted out by Harris, although he laces these accusations with considerable bile: Catholicism, or ‘Popery’ is a ‘deformed’ system, whose entire ambition is to ‘enslave the Majority of Mankind’ through its preaching of a series of doctrines opposed to true Christianity, doctrines including Transubstantiation, Auricular Confession, purgatory, the worship of saints, indulgences, the right to depose heads of state, and hundreds of others, and what is required is a cleansing ‘Antidote’ to ‘a Poison, with which some [Irish Anglicans] have been infected’.85 Catholics are an infectious disease for which Harris has the cure.
Harris argues that the case of Irish Catholics is a special one. Unlike minority populations which could be treated with pity by the ruling elite, Catholics always have to be discriminated against because Catholics are by definition always already disloyal to all non-Catholic authority. Indeed, the discourse Harris is attempting to undermine is, he believes, part of a wider Catholic conspiracy to restore the Pretender: ‘surely such Books were calculated for some expected Season of Conspiracy and Murder’ for which the Gunpowder Plot and the 1641 rebellion stand as models.86 Regarding 1641, Harris re-confirms that between 40,000 and 50,000 Protestants were killed, and, in response to Curry’s claim that many of the Depositions are inherently untrustworthy because they relate stories of ghosts appearing on Portadown bridge, he affirms that the ghosts did appear since the apparitions have been ‘attested by some many Witnesses of Reputation’.87 Harris offers here a narrative of an epidemic, sourcing the disease in the Catholic faith and tracing its impact on a host population, Irish Anglicans, who are being turned into zombie-like followers through exposure to such contagious germs. The supernatural support given to Harris’s theory of epidemic links back to a pre-Hippocratic view of diseases as ‘caused’ by the gods, rather than natural occurrences. The satanic origin of the Catholic infection is central to Harris’s argument, as it is a disease which strips the manly Anglican of his identity and replaces it with the identity of the parasite. The problem is that the average Irish Anglican is spiritually weak enough to be open to catching this disease – the Anglican disbeliever was essentially inviting the Catholic to invade and pervert his body. It is also clear that such vulnerability on the part of the Irish Anglican community would be made worse by the divisions highlighted and exacerbated by the Money Bill dispute, and a community divided against itself was sure to fall.
The heightened rhetoric of Harris’s ‘unmasking’ of Catholic theatricality could not prevent the appearance after the Money Bill dispute of a growing constituency of Irish Anglicans which was no longer convinced that Catholics were evil incarnate – that Catholics were quite simply monstrous – and many of the members of this constituency actually saw the Catholic population as potential allies. The standard interpretation of the 1641 massacre was considered a great obstacle in the way of a translating the increasingly friendly relationships between individual Anglicans and Catholics into concrete political change, including the dismantling of the penal laws. This necessitated a rewriting of Irish history from a partisan to what had become known as a ‘philosophical’ viewpoint, by which was merely meant the lack of any apparent subjective or prejudiced position. What was believed to be needed, really, was what is now called ‘Irish revisionism’, an objective, ‘value free’ rewriting of Irish history which would examine controversial episodes from a ‘neutral’ perspective.88
There was certainly a sense of fatigue in the air given the sheer intensity of the historical disagreements and, as Jacqueline Hill explains, ‘everyone (or so it seemed) was waiting for the “philosophical” history of Ireland which would identify the real lessons of Irish history’.89 The agenda was already clear for such a rewriting: the invidious nature of Irish Catholics would have to be neutralised or rebutted and the place of Irish Catholics in the kingdom made much more palatable to Irish Anglicans, who could then, with a clear conscience and without excessive fears for the consequences of such actions, pass the necessary repeals of the penal laws and admit Irish Catholics fully into political life. However, given the reaction to the work of John Curry, it was also very clear that it could not be an Irish Catholic who wrote this ‘new history’, as such a figure would simply lack credibility; what was needed was a believable, moderate, respectable and respected Irish Anglican who could claim the approval of both sides of the religious divide. It quickly became obvious who the right person for such a rewriting would be: Thomas Leland, classicist, historian, and also author of Longsword, another significant text in the emergence of the Gothic in Ireland.