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Éire-Ireland 42.3&4 (2007) 60-103

Captain Rock:
Ideology and Organization in the Irish Agrarian Rebellion of 1821–24
James S. Donnelly, Jr.

There are numerous reasons why the Irish agrarian rebellion of 1821–24 known as the Rockite movement (after its mythical leader "Captain Rock") is deserving of close study.1 It involved a sustained outburst of agrarian violence greater than any that had previously occurred. This is no small claim, for there had already been a long line of organized and widespread rural protests stretching back to the first "Whiteboy" movement of the early 1760s—a movement that gave rise to common use of the term "Whiteboyism" to denote the seemingly endless succession of agrarian disturbances for which Ireland became notorious in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.2 It was once fashionable to insist that Whiteboyism was a phenomenon [End Page 60] that could be explained more or less exclusively in economic terms. But research carried out since the early 1980s on prefamine agrarian and popular political movements has clearly established that at certain important junctures, including the revolutionary 1790s and the period of the Rockite movement, millenarian and sectarian currents flowed strongly into Irish protest and revolt.3

There was once a tendency in writing about Irish agrarian rebellion to see the different outbreaks of protest and violence as arising mainly from local grievances and as led by local leaders whose authority was confined to narrowly circumscribed areas. Still one of the best-known writers on Whiteboyism in the early nineteenth century is Sir George Cornewall Lewis, whose book entitled On Local Disturbances in Ireland was published in 1836.4 Lewis embraced the concept of Whiteboyism as a type of agrarian trade unionism, but one that lacked any recognizable national or even regional organization. Instead, Lewis preferred to portray the phenomenon as involving a multiplicity of local bodies with complaints or grievances that were held in common in many different places.5 Some professional [End Page 61] historians have been inclined to view Irish agrarian secret societies of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as primarily local in nature, or they have asserted that other historians have exaggerated the degree to which meaningful supralocal cohesion prevailed among the agrarian rebels.6

This article takes strong issue with the localist interpretation and argues instead that the Rockites, like quite a number of their predecessors and successors, constituted a regional agrarian revolt that exhibited many supralocal features. The spread of the Rockite movement from its origins on Viscount Courtenay's estate around Newcastle West to other portions of west Limerick and to neighboring counties was the result of deliberate and carefully orchestrated activity designed to extend the sway of Captain Rock and his "laws" or "regulations" over a very wide geographical area. The insurrectionary phase of the movement at the end of 1821 and the very beginning of 1822 displayed a considerable degree of organization, even if the thousands of rebels who turned out in northwest Cork were not formidable militarily. The debilitating impact of the near-famine in the spring and summer of 1822 was in its own way a testament to the character of the movement: the subsistence crisis effectively shut down the campaign everywhere in the south, but once this crisis had passed, the movement resurrected itself and remained vital over much of Munster and in County Kilkenny until at least the early months of 1824. In this later period, too, the Rockites frequently manifested supralocal organization in the conduct of their operations. Admittedly, most Rockite actions (especially if all types are taken into account) involved small parties of a dozen or fewer activists, but there were a considerable number of major rebel enterprises before and after the spring and summer of 1822 in which [End Page 62] scores or even hundreds of Rockites were engaged. (The Rockites were most active in the two counties of Limerick and Cork, but they also made a deep impact on portions of Kerry, Clare, Tipperary, Waterford...


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