When I first began researching the roots of the AOH, I found many groups in Ireland dedicated to opposing the landlord’s oppressive tactics over the years. The groups ranged from small local bands to regional alliances and although different in their methods, their common denominator was a passion for independence from foreign rule and the courage to stand up for that independence in spite of threatened dispossession, dungeon and death.
In 1776, the English traveler, 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.”
Some of these defensive groups, because of their size, have been remembered in the annals of history like the Whiteboys, Defenders, United Irishmen and Ribbonmen, but what of the others? What of the Whitefeet, Lady Clares, Terry Alts, Rockites and others who were not recorded by the British historian’s pen. They were no less courageous, opposed colonial aggression and deserve to be remembered. Take the Rockites, for example.
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 determined so serious that five regular regiments were sent from England to reinforce the local regiments. An Insurrection Act, with curfew and trial without jury, was proclaimed 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. Obviously the Rockites were a considerable size, but what did they hope to achieve?
The movement started, like other Irish agrarian movements, as a reaction to landlord’s abusive power in Ireland. Between 1728 and 1845 the colonial landlord system caused 28 artificial famines which laid millions of Irish men, women and children in their graves while the landlords sent off rich harvests and herds to the English markets. Then, in 1822 a major artificial famine threatened. Noted journalist, William Cobbett, wrote against the treatment of the Irish poor and painted a 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 was 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 posted notices around Mallow bearing the signature of “John Rock, Commander-in-chief of the United Irishmen”. That would seem to indicate that the Rockites had inherited the United Irishman philosophy. One informer said that ‘Captain Rock’ was, in fact, the son of Arthur O’Connor, former United Irishman and later a general in Napoleon’s army, who fled to France after 1798. John Hickey of Doneraile, another whom the English suspected of being ‘Captain Rock’, also used United Irishman rhetoric and resurrected the old promise of French aid. He also noted that one of the Rockite aims was placing “Catholics upon a level with Protestants”.
The movement started gaining ground back in July, 1821, when a particularly cruel landlord’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 were broken into, doors smashed with sledge hammers and the people ill-treated. In reaction, rural workers began to organize and raid for arms were made not only in Limerick but also in north Co. Cork. 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 in the isolated uplands on the Limerick, Kerry and Cork borders. As the movement grew, Dillane handed his leadership to an elected body. Secret committees were organized with delegates sent to a central committee meeting in Mallow. In December, 1821, British magistrates in Duhallow discovered a Rockite oath: “I will plant the Tree of Liberty in as many hearts as I can depend my life upon“. They also found evidence of a widespread organization with co-ordinated groups through the southern counties. By early 1822, the mountains of west Muskerry had become the central guerrilla base.
The insurrection started 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”. It was 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.
It would seem that according to the local newspapers and military reports, many thousands of people from Limerick, Kerry, Cork and Tipperary were being mobilized by express orders to report to certain rallying points at certain times. That shows an organization at a time when we are told that the United Irishmen 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 so-called Rockite movement was more than just agrarian unrest. It was trying to give birth to another national uprising. The mobiliztion 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 premeditated plan for insurrection. However, it was another example of pikes against cannon and the main bodies of insurgents had few weapons. Rev. J. Orpen wrote in February, 1822. “by far the greater part were totally unarmed, driven like sheep to a slaughter house.”
On January 25, came the main British victory and the Rockite movement weakened when agricultural prices rose in 1824, allowing rural workers to return to a bearable level of subsistence. Many insurgents called 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. An 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. The remnants of the Rockites kept the tradition of opposition alive and passed it to the next generation where it became a building block for a future organization called the Ancient Order of Hibernians.