Captain Moonlight – A Hero of the Land War of the Eighties is Dead

The original Captain Moonlight, Robert ‘Bob’ Finn the Castlegregory born Land League leader who lived his life from infancy in Castleisland. He is photographed here in a studio in Tralee in 1931 at the age of 71.

Writing in the Kerry newspapers on this day, August 10th 1935 the ubiquitous, Church Street based, writer, TM Donovan laments the death, a few days earlier, of his friend and neighbour, Robert ‘Bob’ Finn.

Unambiguous in his language against the landlord class and culture of the Land League era, Donovan traced the life of the original Captain Moonlight from soon after the cradle and right up to the grave.

The following is his account from this day in 1935

Robert Finn, the first Captain Moonlight in Ireland is dead. After a very serious operation in the Mercy Hospital, Cork, in June last, he died in his Corner-House home in Castleisland on August 6th.

His son, Maurice, from England and his daughter Mrs. Haniver, of Dun Laoghaire, were at his bedside when he died, fortified by the rites of the Church.

By TM Donovan – August 10-1935

As I have written in ‘The Kerryman’ Robert Finn was the original Captain Moonlight of the Revolutionary Land War that, towards the end of the 19th century, drove land-lordism out of Ireland bag and baggage for ever.

The inventor of the secret organisation, Robert Finn who was elected Captain Moonlight by his comrades in 1879 had imitators in nearly every parish in Munster in the early eighteen-eighties, and by the end of that decade Moonlighting, as an adjunct to the Land League, had spread all over Ireland.

It was the right hand or spearhead of the Land League’s fight against a powerful and ruthless land-lordism. Without its help Land League meetings and resolutions, speeches and loud cheers, would be unsuccessful against the centuries old power of the alien land-holders.

They were established by the conquest of the 11th century and confirmed in their unlawful possessions by the sword of Cromwell.

That sword of conquest was broken by the Land League, the Irish Parliamentary Party, and by the gun of the Moonlighters.

“Who will take your place,” asked someone of Parnell, “if you are imprisoned ? “Captain Moonlight,” answered Parnell. He knew the real organisation that helped him to break the backs of the alien landlords.

Land Grabbing

An account of how these Castleisland Moonlighters started out to put down land grabbing are to be found in the files of The Kerryman. Land grabbing was the principal agent used by the landlords to screw the last shilling out of the unfortunate man of the land; and when it came about that no one would take the evicted farm, land-lordism was doomed.

It was the moonlighter that nipped the land grabber in the bud, stopped grabbing forever, and thus brought the unholy system to an end.

The absentee landlord and the ruthless land-agent were hamstrung in their evicting stride, and The Land League and the Irish Parliamentary Party, helping to dig the grave all were cleared off the land: landlord, agent, bailiff, rent-warner and grabber were buried in the same pit, and The Gael possessed his father’s land once more.

It must not be forgotten that is was Bob Finn’s Moonlighters that first killed off the grabbers who were the foundation stone of the cruel system of the rack-renters .And it must be forever remembered that in doing so he and his men never committed an act that would bring a blush of shame to the face of an Irishman.

On the contrary he, as I have shown in my ‘History of East Kerry’ prevented many a meditated crime when he found out the instigators were only out to satisfy some private feud or to revenge some fancied wrong. While he was in command no man or group could induce him to do a wrong to the humblest man in the county. I give a few instances of this in my book and in my writings in ‘The Kerryman.’

Moonlighting on the Downgrade

At the end of most revolutionary periods there is a tendency to decay and degeneration – the beautifully clear water of the mountain spring becomes muddy down in the plains. This the great danger in times of revolution: an idealist movement often ends in carnage and anarchy.

During the latest phase of moonlighting activities, it often degenerated into criminal deeds of the blackest dye – into deeds of private revenge, when you could get an honest man murdered for a ten pound note, and into petty larcenies when a poor man’s ounce of tobacco was not safe.

These robberies and worse – robbers of woman’s virtue – brought disgrace and shame to the fair fame of Ireland. When Captain Bob Finn used to hear of small farmers and cottiers being robbed of even the ‘grain o’ tay and sugar’ on the way home from the market, the big farmer robbed of his sheep, and the mountainy farmer robbed of the money he got for his heifer that he had ear-marked to pay the rent, and the poor old widow at Currow robbed of her life’s savings, he fell into despair: and he often regretted that he had hand act or part in founding the Moonlighters’ Association.

On these occasions he was in a great rage – ropable and helpless – no matter how he longed to wipe out the looters and savages, and the terrible disgrace they brought to our race and nation.

If then to the credit side we acknowledge the great help the Moonlighters gave to the farmers of Ireland, it is just as well to remember there was a discredit side to the account as well.

One thing is certain – that a more pure souled patriot than Bob Finn could not be found in the Kerry of the 19th century.

A Gay Young Heart

Anyone who looks at Captain Moonlight’s photograph in my ‘Popular History of East Kerry’ where a full account of his career is given, is sure to think he is looking at a man of 35 years, whereas as a matter of fact, Bob was in his 71st year when this photograph was taken in Tralee.

He kept wonderfully young until a few years ago; but he always had a light heart. One great consolation in his lonely old age was the comfort he derived from his violin.

He delighted to go out to his friends in the country and gather the young folk around him for a real Kerry dance. He had a fine voice and even in the hospital he kept the ward alive with his old – time songs.

He had a great turn for verse – making; looking over his home exercise account book the other day, I met with more rollicking rhymes than items of cooperage.

For many years he wrote a most amusing Skelligs list, at which the most sensitive maid or bachelor could take offence.

It is sad to think that while he was away in hospital his fanlight should have been smashed and his windows spotted by youths who made a ball alley of his house and a gambling saloon and a pitch – and – toss school of his old coopers shed. It shows a terrible lack of civic decency in our young men.

A Brave Man and a Fine Athlete

In his young days he was a great athlete. As a runner and jumper he was in the first flight; and even as a weight thrower he held his own among bigger and more broad-shouldered men.

He jumped the River Maine at a place where the writer, after getting his feet on the opposite bank, slithered backward into the pool. Bob cleared it with a few feet to spare.

He was the first to own and ride a boneshaker bicycle – the high ‘penny-farthing’ solid -tyred machine that preceded the pneumatic cycle of the present day.

When he became the first Captain Moonlight in 1879, he was physically one of the finest young men in East Kerry. Fifty years ago he took part in a great football match between Currow and Castleisland and For 18 years he was the captain of the local Gaels.

I may mention that, as the front of his old home in Market Place could then be seen from the windows or the gate of the R.I.C. Barracks he had to climb the high wall which separated his father’s cooperage shed from the back yard of the late Maurice Reidy, who used to leave his door on the latch for Bob to enter and his mother used to leave the back window open so that he get in any time during the night.

One great help to him then was that he had one of the R.I.C. men in the Barracks who gave him tips about the movements of the ‘enemy.’

A few days before his death I reminded him that now, when he was going before his Maker and nearing his journey’s end, it was a consoling thought for him that he loved God in his early manhood.

He answered very slowly – for he found it difficult to speak – word by word, solemnly and fervently: “Yes thank God, I always had to love of God on me.”

“Towards the end of my life I was alone. Our Lord was my best friend.

Born in Castlegregory

Robert ‘Bob’ Finn was born in Castlegregory in March 1860, when 12 months of age his parents brought him to Castleisland , so that East and West Kerry can claim him as a son.

Only that the farmers are feeling the pinch of the bad times so keenly, I was going to ask them to subscribe a small sum – a shilling or two each – towards a fund – that I only have in my mind at present – to put up a small Celtic Cross at the head of his grave in the New Cemetery.

I am quite sure that there are many of his friends , and the children of his comrades in the United States , who would be glad to help us commemorate the memory of such a great Gael and such a fine type of an educated Catholic Irishman.

All his life, if it were necessary, he would gladly die for his faith and for his fatherland.

May the brave soul of Robert Finn, the first Captain Moonlight of the Land League days, rest in peace.

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