Agrarian disturbance in West Cork 1822


By Ann Murphy, Terelton, Co. Cork




Being a predominantly agricultural country in the past, Ireland has a well-documented history of agrarian disturbances, particularly in the late 18th century and early half of the 19th century. Many counties all over the country can lay claim to having its own share of agrarian skirmishes and in the period of the 1820s, agrarian violence was particularly evident in Cork.

As historian Maureen Wall notes, agrarian societies had been a major source of aggression towards authority in the 18th century. However, the rise of the Whiteboys in the latter half of this century was to set a precedent for the agrarian unease in different parts of Ireland throughout the rest of the century and well into the next.

Born in Tipperary in 1761, the Whiteboy movement was an umbrella term for the different breeds of agrarian societies which emerged in different parts of Ireland at different periods of the following century. For example, groups involved in the Whiteboy movement in Cork in the 1820s were known locally as the Rockites while in parts of Connacht, societies such as the Defenders and Ribbonmen existed.

Preceded by such groups as the Rapparees and the Tories, the Whiteboy movement bred a new departure for agrarian groups. Unlike the former groups, the Whiteboy movement was made up of people from the local communities in which Whiteboy groups operated. For example, at the Battle of Keimaneigh which was made famous by Maire Bhui Ni Laoighre’s song "Cath Cheim an Fhia", local men including the sons of the famous poet were involved in the battle against a group of yeomanry led by Lord Bantry.

Characterising the nature of the Whiteboy movement was the anonymity of the leaders of the groups. This anonymity can be attributed to the names which were given to some groups. The term Whiteboy was born from the name signed to many notes left by members of the Whiteboys after an attack – often signed at the bottom of these notes was the name Captain White. The Rockites and Rightboys were so-called because "Captain Rock" and "Captain Right" signed their notes.

Throughout the period of the Whiteboy movement, different reasons sparked the different outrages of agrarian violence. While famine and poverty in the wake of the Napoleonic War have been hailed as being among the reasons why the Whiteboys became so aggravated in West Cork in early decades of the 19th century, the payment of tithes to the established Protestant church as well as the payment of rent were other causes of outbreaks of violence during the period.

Of particular significance may have been the belief which people put in the prophecies of Pastorini who predicted that Protestantism would be ended in 1825. In the following lines of Cath Chéim an Fhia, Máire Bhuí Ní Laoighre has drawn a close link between the activities of the Rockites at Keimaneigh and Pastorini’s prophecies – "Gurbh é deir gach údair cruinn liom sara gcríochna siad deire an fhómhair, Ins a leabhar so Pastorína go ndíolfaid as an bpóit (An authority has informed me that before the harvest ends the prophet Pastorini is declaring their measure).


The situation in West Cork

Such was the situation all over Cork in the early 1820s that a contemporary newspaper carried a report in April 1822 which showed that the number of prisoners (120) facing trial at the assizes for involvement in Whiteboy activities was only lower than the number of prisoners being tried for robberies and other petty offences (127). According to the report, the figures were


"a painful record of the increase of crime in this county compared with the two preceding years."


By this time, many of those men who had been involved in skirmishes all over Cork county had been tried for their crimes. These included those who had been involved in the disturbances in West Cork.

As already mentioned above, among the more well known skirmishes of 1822 is that which took place at Keimaneigh, west of Ballingeary. However, arguably as important in the history of West Cork and the outlying areas are similar skirmishes which took place at Deshure in Kilmichael, Kilbarry in Inchigeela, Carriganimma near Millstreet, and a further incident at Newmarket.

In order to realise the intensity of the disturbance in West Cork at the time, it is important to view the whole series of events chronologically. While sporadic bursts of action erupted throughout January, the most significant events occurred in a couple of days towards the end of the month. Following is the full sequence of events during that month:


Early January (dates are varied in different sources) – A group of Whiteboys attacked the home of Benjamen Swete at Greenville, Lissarda, east of Macroom, just three miles from Deshure. The objective of the attack was to secure ammunition, which makes one wonder if this haul was possibly in preparation for the incident at Deshure later in the month.


January 10th – The home of the Protestant clergyman Reverend Robert Kirchoffer was attacked at Clondrohid, north of Macroom. This attack ensured the support of the clergyman for the Muskerry Yeomanry (made up of the barony’s gentry) in their opposition to the Whiteboy movement in the area.


January 11/12th – A skirmish took place at Keimaneigh between members of the Rockites and the group of Yeomanry which had been mobilised by Lord Bantry and Captain White of Glengarriff. The skirmish occurred after the Whiteboys had raided the homes of the gentry in the Bantry area in search of ammunition, similar to the incident at Greenville.


January 21st – A major attack took place at Keimaneigh when a group of yeomanry travelled to the scene to take part in a battle with a large group of Rockites. During this incident, a number of Rockites were killed while Captain John Smith from the Yeomanry group was also killed. His body was buried in a bog at Gortafludig for some time before being moved to the graveyard in Inchigeela where his remains still lie. As a result of the incident, a number of insurgents were captured.


January 24th – A group of insurgents at Carriganimma attacked the mail coach which was travelling between Cork and Tralee. During the attack, a number of the coach’s passengers were injured. Following the arrival of a group of yeomanry from Macroom Castle, a group of prisoners were taken and one source states that two of the Whiteboys involved in the skirmish "were brought dead to Macroom."


January 25th – Three different incidents have been recorded in the broader West Cork area on this day. Among them was the incident at Deshure, where at least one of the insurgents was killed and 29 prisoners were taken to Cork. The second incident took place at Newmarket and three prisoners were taken after a skirmish in which many of the insurgents lost their lives. Close to Inchigeela, the home of James Barry of Kilbarry House was attacked that night by a group of Whiteboys and was burned. Barry had been active in opposition with the Muskerry Yeomanry to the activities of insurgents in the Macroom and Bantry areas throughout the month of January.


The incident at Kilbarry marked the end of the disturbances in the West Cork area, a fact which can be attributed to the implementation of an Insurrection Act in Cork in February. This move had been called for in mid-January by Sir Nicholas Colthurst, a member of the Muskerry Yeomanry Corps which had been re-embodied during that period in a bid to suppress the disturbances.

While the Insurrection Act was not implemented until February 23rd, more immediate action was taken in January when government in London recommended than no group of soldiers should be less than 20 men and that larger movable forces be stationed at Macroom, Millstreet and Bantry. The defeat of many of the Whiteboy insurrections in the area can undoubtedly be linked to this move.


In February, a Special Commission was set up in Cork to deal with the fate of the prisoners who had been taken at the skirmishes in January. Many of these were sentenced to death and a series of executions were held at the sites of the disturbances at Deshure, Newmarket, Clondrohid and Carriganimma. Three of the four taken at Keimaneigh escaped the death sentence and the remaining man, Edward Ring (also known as O’Brien) was hanged at Deshure with the local insurgents.

By this stage, Cork had returned to normality and in mid March, a Corkonian called Walter Lane wrote of the tranquillity which had returned to Cork. He blamed the peasant violence on a "presence of want caused by the low price of agricultural produce and the failure of the potato crop, not to political or religious feeling."