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Highwayman of the Irish Rebellion (1798): How did Hobbes envisage the State of Nature?

How were highwaymen perceived during the Irish Rebellion of 1798? How can Hobbes’ conception of the ‘State of Nature’ help us understand their callous way of life?

A Land Without Wolves (ALWW) is an historical fiction novel set chronicling the misadventures of an Irish highwayman during the troubled years leading up to the Rebellion of 1798. Thematically, it addresses the impact of solitude and a life of crime on the individual. It addresses how little ordinary people are remembered within the grand sweep of history as seen through the eyes of its protagonist, the outlaw Joseph MacTíre. The 1798 insurrection remains subject to much scholarly and popular debate. 2021, the year of the book’s publication, also marks the centenary of Ireland gaining independence from British rule, following a strenuous War for Independence (1919 – 1921).

At the time of the novel’s setting, Ireland was a dominion of Great Britain simmering with ongoing hostility to colonial rule. Redcoats (British soldiers) were a common sight throughout the Irish countryside. Moreover, the British Parliament-imposed Penal Laws stripped Catholic citizens of their fundamental rights to work and to an equal education with their Protestant counterparts. It was also the curtain call for the Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment’s key ideas – liberty, fraternity, the pursuit of happiness and the sovereignty of reason – may be useful in addressing ALWW’s thematic concerns.

Enlightenment thought features throughout the story, albeit as a framing device for the protagonist as much as a belief system he must grapple with. With gathering war clouds and daily life being a matter of survival, pure reason, as promulgated by Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire et al, is rejected in MacTíre’s pursuit of highway robbery. After all, a life of crime is probably no better to what mainstream society offers, in that both require underhand, illegal and occasionally violent tactics to ensure one’s survival. ‘Do you desire to see the world burn, or to see it progress?” a secondary character asks – a question worth asking of any potential galvanised insurrection.

According to historian Frank McLynn, the late 1700s were ‘a halcyon period’ for highway robbery. In Ireland, this manifested as many native Irish harbouring tacit support for their doings, as they regularly targeted Crown forces. Alice Curtayne has observed ‘The sympathies of the masses of the native Irish were always with the Rapparees… their activity is like a thread of light in a long, dark tunnel.’

Such sympathy for the criminal element is political as much as cultural. But MacTíre doesn’t fit the stereotypical trope of the romantic outlaw, embodying instead a darker side of freedom. His misanthropic existence more closely resembling that of Ted Kaszynski, aka the Unabomber. Kazynski’s 1995 manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future laments modern industrialised society’s effect on the individual, asserting that a life of elemental struggle is more fulfilling to the regimented conditions of civilian life:

‘To many of us, freedom and dignity are more important than a long life or avoidance of physical pain… we all have to die some time, and it may be better to die fighting for survival, or for a cause, than to live a long but empty and purposeless life.’

Kaszynski makes a good point regarding a calculated retreat from society. MacTíre’s object is not to dismantle the current social order and erect a new one in its place, whether through revolution or reform; upon being evicted from his home, he becomes:

‘A Cain booted out of Eden, mantled in leaves, the cold snaking damply into his bones like an elixir, to never again know hearth nor home. The lanes and borreens of Ireland became his new abode; in moments of crazed delirium brought on by starvation, he told himself they were his kingdom, not the mere holdings of merchantmen and absentee landlords.’

In this he embodies King Lear’s vow to ‘abjure all roofs, and choose/To be a comrade with the wolf and owl/To wage against the enmity o’ th’ air.’

Civilisation, for all the comfort and security it may provide, is nonetheless reliant on its denizens’ lawful acquiescence, with the implicit threat of state-sanctioned violence against all who do not comply. The mechanics of law and government and the Empire’s very function are underset by this threat. MacTíre embraces a retreat to nature, living instead by what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes has called Bellum omnium contra omnes, or ‘the war of all against all.’ By Hobbesian analysis, human nature and desire perpetually threaten the state’s wellbeing, hence the need for an absolute hierarchical state crowned by monarchy to temper, subdue and regulate such a lawless outcome. Much of this belief system was borne directly of political strife in Hobbes’ lifetime.

Unlike Hobbes, however, MacTíre embraces his savage nature, as if ushering in the state of nature ahead of time. While he might agree with Hobbes on the human capacity for barbarity, he does not believe such barbarity should be contained. If he is to be branded a Hostis humani generis (enemy of mankind), he does not become so in a vacuum. Living according to his own passions and instincts, does he not live more authentically than the society he antagonises, his propensity for brute force notwithstanding? Society requires its citizens’ utter submission in order to function, including a systematic stifling of human passions, the healthy expression of which is vital to the individual’s wellbeing. As David Hume observes in A Treatise of Human Nature:

‘But though, on some occasions… to resist supreme power, ’tis certain, that in the ordinary course of human affairs nothing can be more pernicious and criminal; and that besides the convulsions, which always attend revolutions, such a practice tends directly to the subversion of all government, and the musing an universal anarchy and confusion among mankind. As numerous and civilized societies cannot subsist without government, so government is entirely useless without an exact obedience… The common rule requires submission and ’tis only in cases of grievous tyranny and oppression, that the exception can take place.’

Freud has also echoed this sentiment, elaborating that societal structures actively work to inhibit humanity’s natural aggression, resulting in an efflorescence, not a cessation, of criminal activity: ‘Civilized society is perpetually menaced with… primary hostility of men towards one another… Civilization expects to prevent… brutal violence by taking upon itself the right to employ violence against criminals.’

That world of ‘Wolves’ boasts of a classical education and improved infrastructure, but there is much benightedness still. For all its material wealth, extreme poverty remains a mainstay of Irish life. Conflict between Protestants and Catholics forms the crux of many socio-political tensions. Yet MacTíre does little to improve any of this. He adds to society’s problems through his criminal activities, disrupting the flow of trade, attacking army regulars, and dismissing any notion of distributing his ill-gotten goods to people less fortunate than he.

If he stands for anything, it is an ideal of freedom in nature, detached from society and the rule of law. He fights not for a better world, but for a life that many of his peers and their descendants are cut off from – whether it be the crunch of boots into soil or the sensation of wind and rain on one’s flesh, the thrumming heat of blood. As D.H. Lawrence writes,

‘what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle. What do I care about knowledge? All I want is to answer to my blood, direct, without fribbling intervention of mind, or moral, or what not.’

With all these considerations in mind, the question is raised: is it worth engaging in a society which actively seeks to suppress one’s true nature, even with the comfort and security it supposedly provides? The reign of reason over both humanity and nature’s more barbaric aspects was a major hallmark of the 18th century, due in no small part to a belief in man’s supposed mastery over nature. And from Joseph MacTíre’s point of view, freedom is no intellectual abstraction that can be found in the pages of some voluminous text; his conception of freedom runs all the way back to pre-civilised standards – he is a man alone in the world, he relies only on himself to ensure his survival and belongs resolutely to the wilderness.

Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade is a poet, playwright and fiction writer from Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland. His debut collection ‘Rapids’ is expected to be published by Finishing Line Press in August of 2021, while his novel ‘A Land Without Wolves’ is due for publication in October 2021 with Temple Dark Books. His interests include philosophy, music, Italian cooking and classic film noir.