Co Kerry in 1820s

Co Kerry in the 1820s

It is unlikely that we will ever know the crime for which William O’Neill was convicted, because court records were largely destroyed when the Public Record Office was consumed by fire during the Irish civil war in 1922. However, there is much evidence that helps explain why he might have been caught up with unrest in the county. The following, gleaned from many sources, gives a sense of the problem. We acknowledge Dr. Jennifer Harrison, Honorary Research Fellow in History at the University of Queensland, for some of the final content.

Agrarian unrest

Firstly, farm labourers such as William were required to pay tithes – one tenth the assessed value of a crop – on any crop they grew on their allotments. Tithes were paid to the Protestant Church of Ireland, and, particularly in Munster, Catholics had a long history of objecting to paying tithes, finding them unfair and payments difficult to meet. This became critical during times of famine. Co Kerry experienced partial famines in 1818 and 1821. Some commentators point out that these were largely artificial, with landlords sending off rich harvests to England while the poor suffered and died.

Poverty was the norm amongst the working people. Jobs were non-existent, and the return of soldiers from the war against France exacerbated the problem. The population increased dramatically during the thirty years leading up to 1821, putting added pressure on the land to support them.

Political unrest

Discontent among farm labourers was growing and resistance against the payment of tithes was rising. Peasants formed disorganised groups, often disguising themselves, burning haystacks, attacking tithe collectors stealing arms and engaging in riotous behaviour.

Movements agitating change had risen and fallen over decades – movements such as Whiteboys, Oakboys, Rightboys, Dissenters. In Co Kerry and neighbouring counties, a movement grew up in 1821 around a person who came to be known as Captain Rock. Members were known as Rockites. As James S. Donnelly writes in the New Hibernia Review 11:4:

In the dramatic succession of major agrarian upheavals that began with the “Whiteboys” of the early 1760s and persisted for decades thereafter, the adherents of “Captain Rock” in the early 1820s stand out for a variety of reasons. The Rockites became the most violent agrarian movement that Ireland had yet witnessed; they were especially remarkable for the frequency of their resort to murder and incendiarism as weapons of warfare. They garnered support extending far beyond the swollen ranks of the poor; their movement eventually embraced many of the better-off farmers in the southern region where they exercised an extraordinary sway — most prominently in Limerick and Cork, but also in portions of Kerry, Clare, Tipperary, Waterford, and Kilkenny. The intensity of their grievances, the frequency of their resort to sensational violence, and their appeal on key issues — especially rents and tithes — across a broad social front presented a nightmarish challenge to Dublin Castle.

An Insurrection Act was passed in 1815 to combat political unrest. However, by 1821, raids for ammunition and arms escalated throughout the southern counties, and the unrest became more and more organised.


Insurrection broke out in January 1822. On the Cork-Kerry border, on January 24, 1822, a company of Yeomanry troops, commanded by Lord Bantry, was ambushed at the Pass of Keimaneigh and several men were killed.

On the left is a photo of a memorial at the Pass of Keimaneigh taken by Mick O’Neill on a visit to friends whose farm lies a few hundred metres from the pass. Casualties from both sides are remembered.

In February 1822 in Co Kerry, over 300 men were in goal awaiting their court appearance. To combat the rising insurrection, the House of Commons reintroduced the Insurrection Act. It became law on February 11, suspending habeas corpus in the process.

Click here to view the full Act on Peter Mayberry’s webpage:

Anno  Regni  GEORGII IV, Britanniarum Regis Tertio.

‘At the Parliament begun and holden at Westminster, the Twenty first Day of April, Anno Domini 1820, in the First Year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord GEORGE the Fourth, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, King. Defender of the Faith; and from thence continued, by several Prorogations, to the Fifth Day of February 1822, being the Third Session of the Seventh Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.’

An Act to suppress Insurrection and prevent Disturbance of the public Peace in Ireland, until the First Day of August One thousand eight hundred and twenty two. [11th February 1822] … etc

The website summarises the main elements of the Act:

  • Proclamation shall warn inhabitants to remain in their houses between sunset and sunrise
  • Person found unduly out of place of abode brought before Magistrates, if not out lawfully, will be deemed idle
  • Justices may enter houses
  • Absent persons will be deemed Idle unless they prove otherwise
  • Persons administering or taking oaths for seditious purposes, or not giving information concerning the same, will be deemed idle and disorderly
  • Persons circulating notices to excite riots or demanding money, will be deemed idle and disorderly
  • Persons having arms will be deemed idle and disorderly, unless they prove otherwise
  • Persons found unduly in public houses will be deemed idle
  • Persons found tumultuously assembled will be deemed idle
  • Persons convicted of being idle will be transported for seven years

The Act was certainly effective in (eventually) dampening the uprising, but it wasn’t always used with good intentions. While researching William O’Neill’s background, we came across an article in the Dublin Evening Post for Thursday April 25, 1822. It described an infamous trial in Co Cork of a William O’Neil (no relation), who was “charged with being found out of his dwelling house” on a night in April. It turned out it was a fabricated charge brought on by a neighbour who hoped to have William transported and thereby gain his land!

On April 2, 1822, the Dublin Evening Post reported that 183 persons went to trial in the Kerry Spring Assizes, 62 for Whiteboy charges.

Millenarian aspect

From Wikipedia, millenarianism is the belief by a religious, social, or political group or movement in a coming major transformation of society after which all things will be changed in a positive (or sometimes negative or ambiguous) direction.

The year 1822 coincided with an important event for Irish Catholics. In 1771, a Benedictine monk Charles Walmesley (1722-1797) and former Bishop of York, England, published a book (The General History of the Christian Church, from Her Birth to Her Final Triumphant State in Heaven: Chiefly Deduced from the Apocalypse of St. John, the Apostle and Evangelist) under the pseudonym Signor Pastorini. In this book he predicted the end of Protestantism and a revival of Catholicism 50 years from the time of writing. (The book is digitised by Google, see in particular pages 340 and 355.)

In regard to the vial of this age, we shall add nothing more, to what has been said of it in its place, than the following admonition. If the true servants of God, faithful members of the Catholic Church, observe that towards fifty years from the present date,” the state of kingdoms and the course of public affairs seem to presage the approaching effusion of the fifth vial, accordingly as we have intimated, then ” Go out from her, my people: that you be not partakers of her sins, and that you receive not of her plagues,” Apoc. xviii. 4: fly from tile countries of wrath and perdition. (From P355)

The prediction became known as Pastorini’s Prophecy and naturally caused a great stir in Ireland. While a literal reading would have the prophecy fulfilled in 1821, it was popularly thought to be 1825. Pamphlets started to appear leading up to 1821, adding to the political ferment in the country. In an article in Medicine, disease and the State in Ireland, edited by Greta Jones and Elizabeth Malcolm (1998), Laurence M Geary gives the following example of a pamphlet circulating at the time:

Eighteen hundred and twenty-one
Great tumuts are begun,
Eighteen hundred and twenty-three
Dreadful wars by land and sea,
Eighteen hundred and twenty-five
Not a Protestant left alive,

Eighteen hundred and twenty-seven
Widows cry for vengeance to heaven,
Eighteen hundred and twenty-nine
A Millesian king shall reign,
Eighteen hundred and thirty
All shall end in peace and plenty.

Millesian [Milesian] Celts are said to be one of six Celtic peoples to invade and control Ireland. Their priests were known as Druids. Ed.


It is not hard to understand why William O’Neill, a newly-married, poor, landless catholic, was caught up in the political and religious unrest of the times. Records do not show his actual crime. A seven year sentence was the minimum and applied to those “deemed idle” for reasons such as being outside one’s home after dusk!

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