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.

The Battle of Benburb

The 17th century dawned in Ire-land during the 9-years war of the northern Chieftains against the Crown. By 1602 that conflict was over; Red Hugh O’Donnell had been poisoned, the Irish had capitulated, and Queen Elizabeth was dead. Against the treachery that threatened their heirs and families, the noblest Chieftains of the north – The O’Neill, the O’Donnell, and the Maguire – left Ireland forever in what be-came known as the Flight of the Earls.

The Irish were leaderless, the Clan system had been broken, the great Gaelic Houses destroyed, and a foreign power had been established in possession of the land. The conquest of Ireland was finally complete; or so it appeared. Beneath it all, the bards kept the heritage alive. Outlawed poets started hedge schools; Priests said Mass at stone altars in the glens; the music, the language, and the learning survived – but the British were determined to stop even that limited existence of Celtic culture. After the flight of the earls, James I of England, declared that the recently de-parted northern Chieftains had been conspiring to rebel, and their estates were forfeit to the Crown.

Four million acres of Ulster were given to men called Undertakers – that is, any loyal Englishman who agreed to undertake the dispossession of the Irish. Soldiers, drapers, fish-mongers, vintners, haberdashers, anyone seeking free land became the new owners of Ulster. A contemporary writer named Stewart, son of a Presbyterian minister, wrote that they were “for the most part the scum of both nations, who from debt or fleeing justice came hither hoping to be without fear of man’s laws.” They hunted the Irish like animals, drove them into the woods, mountains, and moors where thousands perished of starvation within sight of lands that their clans had owned from time immemorial. Before their eyes, an alien nation was planted on the fair face of Ireland’s proudest province.

But the Irish would not starve and die in their own fertile land. Their rage grew daily until a leader emerged in the person of Rory Og O’Moore. He had patiently worked for years among the leading Irish families, Irish Generals in the Continental armies, and other Irish exiles to oust the British. Then, on the night of October 21, 1641, the remnants of the northern clans burst forth sweeping the terrified Undertakers before them. Descendants of the old Clans O’Neill, Magennis, O’Hanlon, O’Hagan, MacMahon, Maguire, O’Quinn, O’Farrell, and O’Reilly burst forth from the hills and, in a few hours, made Ulster their own again. A few days later, Phelim O’Neill was proclaimed head of an Ulster army, and by early 1642, Leinster and Munster joined the fight for freedom; still later, Connaught joined. The Crown, poured men and arms into Ire-land to fight the rebels. The Irish gentry formed the Confederation of Kilkenny to direct the resistance, and, believing that the new King, Catholic-born Charles I, was a friend of Ire-land, they confirmed their stand for ‘faith, country, and King’. The Irish Chieftains yielded for the sake of unity.

In England, a struggle between King Charles and his Puritan Parliament developed into a civil war. As his situation grew worse, King Charles began to court the Confederation. Futile negotiations frustrated the fighting spirit of the Irish, and they began to suffer defeat after de-feat until, in despair, they considered coming to terms with the English. Suddenly, from the Boyne to the sea, Ulster shook with the news: Owen Roe is come!

On July 6, 1642, with 100 officers in his company, Owen Roe O’Neill, landed in Donegal. A mere boy when he had left Ire-land with his uncle, Hugh O’Neill, during the Flight of the Earls, he had won distinction as a military commander in the Irish Brigade of the Spanish Army. A trained soldier and military leader, he had returned to lead the fight for Ireland’s freedom. He was given command of the northern army which he rebuilt, and began to challenge the English on the field of battle. In short order, he regained all that had been lost due to the procrastination of the Confederation, but jealous of his growing power, they hampered his efforts at every turn.

Then, on June 5, 1646, England sent their best field commander, General Monroe, against Owen Roe. This would silence the young upstart forever. Monroe had 6,000 men and a full compliment of field artillery. O’Neill had only 5,000 men and no artillery. The two armies met at the junction of the river Oonah and the Blackwater adjacent to the village of Benburb – a place that would live forever on the lips of the storytellers, for it was here, in one masterful battle, that Owen Roe proved his superiority and the superiority of his army. Monroe’s men were fresh, and he set them up so that he would have the ad-vantage of the sun at his back. O’Neill kept Monroe’s nerves and the nerves of his men on edge for several hours in that hot sun while his men harassed them with hit and run skirmishing raids. Finally, when the sun had shifted to behind his back, O’Neill gave the word “Sancta Maria,” and launched a whirl-wind attack. His cavalry captured Monroe’s guns, and his infantry overwhelmed the English legions driving them into the river. In one short hour, O’Neill had wiped out the pride of the British army; 32 standards were taken; Lord Ardes and 32 officers were captured; cannon, baggage, and 2-months provisions were taken; and 1,500 horses were now in Irish possession. 3,300 of Monroe’s army lay dead on the field, while Owen Roe lost but 70. Ulster had been won by Owen Roe O’Neill. The Confederation, fearing his growing power, would eventually turn on O’Neill, and everything would be lost in the end. But for a brief while, all of Ireland was talking about Owen Roe O’Neill and the Battle of Benburb on June 5, 1646.