Ireland's forgotten 'Rockite' rebellion

Peter Berresford Ellis sheds some light on the identity of the mysterious 'Captain Rock' and the militant agrarian movement active in the south west of Ireland in the early part of the 19th century

When I first published my History of the Irish Working Class, in 1972, I wrote in the preface that I was conscious of many aspects of working-class history that deserved to be dealt with in more detail. Indeed, many aspects at that time were largely unexplored territories. In the last thirty years, some of the avenues of research that I mentioned have now been studied and written about.

Among them I felt that the militant agrarian organisations of the 17th to 19th Centuries should be investigated. Movements like the 'Whiteboys', the 'Ribbonmen', and the followers of 'Captain Steel' or 'Captain Right' and so on. In the south-west of Ireland during 1821-1824 there arose a movement, whose leader was a mysterious 'Captain Rock'.

The Rockites caused a serious insurrection in January, 1822, in Limerick, Kerry, Cork and Tipperary. It was so determined that five extra regular regiments had to be sent from England to reinforce the local garrisons. An Insurrection Act, with curfew at night and trial without jury, was proclaimed in the south-west counties and 1,500 Munster men were immediately arrested, more than 200 transported to the Penal Colonies and 36 executed in February, 1822, alone. But raids and ambushes continued.

Who were 'Captain Rock' and the Rockites and what did they want to achieve?

The movement started, like other Irish agrarian movements, initially as a reaction against the great English and Anglo-Irish feudal landlords and their absolute power in Ireland.

In 1776, the English traveller Arthur Young, had observed:

"A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order, which a servant, labourer or cotter dare refuse to execute. Nothing satisfied him but an unlimited submission. Disrespect or anything tending towards sauciness he may punish with his cane or his horse-whip with the most perfect security; a poor man would have his bones broke if he offered to lift his hand in his own defence… Landlords of consequence have assured me, that many of their cotters would think themselves honoured by having their wives or daughters sent for to the bed of their master; a mark of slavery that proves the oppression under which such people must live."

Between 1728 and 1845 the colonial landlord system in Ireland had produced twenty-eight artificial famines in which millions of Irish men, women and children had suffered death while their landlords sent off rich harvests and herds to the English markets.

This was the cause of the agrarian unrest among the rural population. Indeed, in 1822 a major artificial famine was about to occur. We have William Cobbett's horrendous picture of people starving in the midst of plenty in that year. In June, 1822, in Cork alone, 122,000 were on the verge of starvation and existing on charity. How many people died is hard to say. A minimum figure of 100,000 has been proposed. Most likely it around 250,000. At the same time, landowners were able to ship 7 million pounds (weight) of grain and countless herds of cattle, sheep and swine to the markets in England.

Some of the Rockite leaders saw a wider picture. Several notices around Mallow bore the signature of "John Rock, Commander-in-chief of the United Irishmen". Could the Rockites have inherited the United Irishman organisation? A government informer said that 'Captain Rock' was, in fact, "son to one (Arthur) O'Connor who went to France from this country".

John Hickey of Doneraile, who the English authorities suspected of being 'Captain Rock', also tended to use United Irishman rhetoric and mentioned that "assistance was to be given from France" to the Irish insurgents. He also acknowledged that one of the Rockite aims was placing "Catholics upon a level with Protestants".

Among the colonial landlords was Lord Courtenay of Powderham Castle, Devonshire, an absentee whose Irish estate was at Newcastle, Co Limerick. The estate was run with harshness by his agent, Alexander Hoskins. Even the Under Secretary, William Gregory, (the father-in-law of Lady Augusta Gregory), had been forced to comment "nothing can be more oppressive than the conduct of Lord Courtenay's agent".

In July, 1821, Hoskin's son, Thomas Hoskins, was assassinated. The assassin called himself 'Captain Rock'. His real name was Patrick Dillane.

Troops were called out to search for the assassin and cottages broken into, doors smashed with sledge hammers, the people ill-treated. In reaction, rural workers on other estates began to organise and raid for arms were made not only in Limerick but also in north Co. Cork, around Charleville, Kanturk and Newmarket. Between October, 1821, and April, 1822, it was recorded that 223 raids for arms and ammunition had occurred in Co. Cork alone. Raids were also occurring in Limerick and Kerry.

On September 15, 1821, a local magistrate, wrote to Chief Secretary Charles Grant (Lord Glenrig): "this insurrection will turn out more serious than any which has occurred in the south of Ireland for some years past."

Patrick Dillane had gathered a band of followers into the uplands on the Limerick, Kerry and Cork borders. At the time, it was an isolated region with roads too difficult for wheeled vehicles and for mounted troops to negotiate. But soon Dillane had handed his leadership to an elected body. Secret committees were organised with delegates sent to a central committee meeting in Mallow.

In December, 1821, magistrates in Duhallow discovered an oath. The administration soon found evidence of a widespread organisation with co-ordinated groups through the southern counties. By early 1822, the mountains of west Muskerry had become the central guerrilla base.

The insurrection occurred on January 24, 1822. The first major engagement between the Rockites and companies of Yeomanry troops, commanded by Lord Bantry, took place when Bantry, led his troops to the Pass of Keimaneigh. He was ambushed and several of his men were killed before he could retreat.

That same day Lt. Colonel Mitchell, commanding the garrison at Macroom, reported that hundreds of men armed mainly with pikes had surrounded the town, attacked and stopped the mail-coach from Cork City. The Rockites fought with "presumption and boldness although so badly armed".

Colonel James Barry, commanding the garrison at Millstreet, reported that upwards of 5,000 'rebels' had surrounded the town and many houses of loyalists between Inchigeelagh and Macroom were destroyed. The local Millstreet magistrate, E McCarty, added: "The people are all risen with what arms they possess and crown all the heights close to the town …" Cork City and Tralee were cut off for two days before troops fought their way through.

Reports of battles between the insurgents and troops were growing. Colonel Mitchell reported that he engaged some 2,000 insurgents at Deshure, between Macroom and Dunmanway. His men killed six, wounded many and took 30 prisoner for the loss of 'a few' of his own men.

Soldiers were among the casualties although the government reports make light of them and claim high figures for the insurgents. At Kanturk, Captain Stephenson reported his men had attacked a thousand insurgents, killed forty of them for one soldier slain.

It would seem that during this January, according to the local newspapers and military reports, many thousands of people from Limerick, Kerry, Cork and Tipperary were being mobilised by express orders to report to certain rallying points at certain times. This shows an organisation at a time when we are told that the United Irishmen organisation had ceased to exist and agrarian unrest was confined to small groups of 'disturbers' from isolated communities rising without co-ordination against local landlords.

The Rockite oath had the line: "I will plant the Tree of Liberty in as many hearth as I can depend my life upon" according to the Cork Constitution of March 24, 1823.

The so-called Rockite movement was more than just agrarian unrest. It was trying to give birth to another national uprising. The mobilisation of such diverse bodies of people, from such a large area, leads one to the inevitable conclusion that there was a directing committee with a single premeditated plan for insurrection.

In spite of the months of arms raids from loyalist houses and occasional barracks, the main bodies of insurgents seemed to have few weapons other than pikes. Most were unarmed as Reverend J Orpen wrote on February 25, 1822. "… by far the greater part were totally unarmed, driven like sheep to a slaughter house."

The events of January 24 and 25, 1822, constituted the main attempt of the Rockite movement and following the victories of government troops, many people began calling on magistrates for pardon, surrendering what arms they had and accepting a new oath of allegiance to the Crown. This opened the way for the introduction of more repressive policies by England.

The Insurrection Act was hurriedly passed and a new special police force set up in north Co. Cork where a chain of military posts, and two extra regiments to man them, were established.

However, this did not mean that the Rockites had gone away. In the following two years there were over 300 attacks in which arms were either taken or the produce of the great estates. If the produce could not be distributed to the starving people then it was destroyed to prevent it being shipped to English markets for sale.

Patrick Dillane, the first 'Captain Rock', seems to have disappeared. We know that in 1822 there was a trial held at Limerick Assizes of someone who was accused of the murder of Thomas Hoskins but it has proved difficult to find records of who was charged. We do know that in November, 1823, a farmer named Cornelius Curtin of Gortnaskehy, a mountain farm bear Newcastle, had his crops burnt in retaliation for appearing as a witness for the prosecution.

In March, 1823, John Hickey, a gardener by profession, was arrested near his home at Doneraile. According to A. Hill, reporting to Colonel Gough, Hickey had commanded 300 Rockites in committing agrarian outrages in Fermoy. Hickey was questioned with some severity by Major Carter but he refused to reveal the names of his associates and was executed. Hickey had indicated that the Rockites hoped for a national uprising. "When destruction of property and the (colonial) system is established in each county, then there will be a general rising," he assured Major Carter.

Hickey was a senior member of the Rockite leadership but he was not their leader.

David Nagle had been elected to lead the Rockite organisation. He was from Annakissy in the parish of Clenor, barony of Fermoy, and a member of one of the leading Catholic families in the county. The Nagles were moderately wealthy for Catholics at this time but clear in their politics. In 1798 they had their house burnt down by English troops. David's father appears as James Nagle Esquire.

There were many Nagles in the Fermoy area whose names appear on lists of suspected person, including that of David, then living at Ballydraheen.

David Nagle was betrayed by an informer and arrested near Cork City in July, 1823. He was reported to be an outstanding leader and was said to have been seen at the head of his men in a blue coat, a sash and sword and wearing a military hat with a big white feather.

Nagle was reported to have signed a confession before being sentenced to death but without naming anyone. It seems that, unwisely, some papers were found at his home revealing that there was a network of local secret Rockite committees. Mallow was where the central Rockite committee met consisting of sixty delegates, one of which had been Hickey.

The Mallow meeting in late 1822 had discussed ways of collecting money, manufacture and distribution of pikes and how to stage an uprising.

One of the Rockite committees, meeting in Charleville, in May, 1823, was arrested. They were fifteen men of various social backgrounds and professions.

Alas, I have not been able to trace any details so far about David Nagle's execution. The Connaught Journal's Cork correspondent did report, in the 4 September 1823, edition, that "R Nagle and Denis Barrett" were executed at Buttevant. However, they were charged specifically with raiding the home of Thomas Heffernan of Kilbarry for arms and ammunition.

However, there were several Nagles involved in the movement. It is dubious that 'R Nagle' was the same as 'David Nagle'. And there were several David Nagles, one of whom left for Québec in Canada, that very month of July, 1823. But he was only ten years old.

So much more research needs to be done on this hidden working class movement which has been almost ignored by those 'revisionist' historians who would have us believe how Ireland was happy under the 19th Century colonial system.

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