Oakboys and Steelboys

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Oakboys and Steelboys

The agrarian violence committed by the Oakboys and the Steelboys was confined to Ulster and had sharply defined lifespans in the 1760s and early 1770s. The Hearts of Oak or Oakboys emerged in the summer of 1763, their insurrection lasting little over a month. Then in July 1769 the Hearts of Steel appeared, and this outbreak lasted, with ebbs and flows, until 1772. The causes for the two movements were different, as were the geographical areas in which they appeared and, on many occasions, the methods employed.

The spark for the Oakboys appears to have been the levels of cess, or county taxation, in Armagh and the efforts made by collectors to enforce their will on a barony in the north of the county. Violence was reported by 3 July 1763, with the news that large gatherings of people in the baronies of O'Neilland (the northern part of County Armagh) were forcing local landlords to swear that they would not collect or issue presentments to the county grand jury for more than one penny per acre in cess. These gatherings quickly spread in the following days to the surrounding county of Tyrone because of the surprising ease with which the local gentry capitulated to their demands. By that time the demands had broadened to incorporate the lowering of tithes and the abolition of "small dues" collected by the Church of Ireland clergy for funerals, weddings, and other ceremonies that they never performed. Emboldened by success, the Oakboy bands of Armagh and Tyrone sent what could be called agents to mobilize crowds throughout south Ulster and also to make a drive for Derry city, a move that was to cause the ultimate collapse of the movement.

The Steelboys, too, had specific beginnings that eventually grew into a wider agrarian rebellion, this time over a much longer period. Their origins lay in the reorganization of the huge Donegall and smaller Upton estates in County Antrim where leases were granted to middlemen. Many of these men, like Thomas Greg, were Belfast merchants and already tenants of Lord Donegall, who were pressed to find money for the large entry fines being charged. Upton's lands were released in July 1769, sparking the first outbreak, and the Donegall lands followed suit in June 1770. By that summer many of the undertenants on the Donegall estate were engaged in desperate resistance, fearing dispossession. This struggle peaked in December 1770, when a band of Steelboys entered Belfast, burned the house of Waddell Cunningham (a middleman and active magistrate), and freed one of their leaders, David Douglas, from the barracks. County Antrim was soon afterward overwhelmed with troops, and the trouble spread to the counties of Down, Armagh, and Derry in the winter and spring of 1771 to 1772. This was far from the original area of disturbance and the agrarian rioters in these areas may have used the Steelboy name to cover demands concerning cess, rents, and tithes. Another factor was the poor harvests of 1770 and 1771, which led to high prices and economic hardship. After substantial Steelboy mobilizations and a clash in Gilford, Co. Down, where a Presbyterian minister was killed, army reinforcements were sent north in March 1772 and brought a rapid end to the disturbances. The Oakboy and Steelboy organizations shared continuity in tactics and mobilization, but there were differences as well. The Oakboys organized daylight gatherings with large crowds (perhaps in the thousands), which only happened again in 1771 to 1772, when the Steelboy disturbances spread beyond County Antrim. In 1763 and 1771 to 1772, entire townlands and villages were sworn in at nominated times and places. Both movements saw violence against property and persons, but the second movement saw a greater concentration on nocturnal attacks (including burning of buildings, anonymous letters, shooting at houses, and maiming of farm animals) more reminiscent of the Munster agrarian troubles. The Oakboys also used a Munster tactic, portable gallows, to intimidate their targets. As to internal organization, there appears to have been some coordination of activity, such as the sending of agents, marches, and the raid on Belfast in December 1770, but no cell structures like later Ulster movements. Localized groups—some in west Down with their own distinctive names like Hearts of Gold or Flint—may have acted as a precursor for the later "fleets" of the Armagh troubles in the 1780s.

The Ulster agrarian movements were dominated by Protestants, possibly Presbyterians. The Protestant "tone" is most clearly seen in the propaganda, like Oakboy ballads and Steelboy newspaper statements. These purported to be the products of the Dissenters and, in many cases the indicted or tried leaders may have been Presbyterians. Indeed, in County Monaghan in 1763, leadership seems to have passed down to local Seceders, who espoused a rigid brand of Presbyterianism. However, there can be no doubt of Catholic involvement in both movements, particularly the Oakboys. Some of the areas involved and the evidence of a poem by Art McCooey, praising one of the O'Neills of the Fews (south Armagh) for leading an Oakboy band, suggest Catholic input. In both uprisings there seems little evidence in indictments or trials of "Gentlemen Oakboys," suggesting that the movements were led by tenant farmers and linen weavers. Tradesmen and craftsmen played minor roles, suggesting that rural towns, like Lurgan or Hillsborough, also gave support to the movements.

The effectiveness of the Oakboys and Steelboys is a difficult question. On the one hand, the response of the government was hardly an overreaction to the violence. There was just enough repression to curb the threat of the agrarian movements, and in the case of the Oakboys this was sharp enough in 1763 to prevent any recurrence in the following year. The problem after 1769 was that the Steelboys did not cease their activities, and few of their leaders were convicted at the assizes. By 1771 to 1772, the government was using a combination of methods, such as amnesty, alongside proclamations naming fifty-eight Steelboys, and a statute allowing trials of indicted rioters outside their county of residence. This extended and deeper repression hints at the greater effectiveness of the Steelboys. On the other hand, the collection of cess, rents, and fines recovered after both outbreaks had ceased. The apparently less successful Oakboys, however, managed to prevent cess collection in north Armagh between 1763 and 1770. Another mixed sign is that reforms were made to the way in which county grand juries raised the cess, though this did not automatically lead to lower levels or a fairer use of the tax.

The legacy of the Oakboys and Steelboys was probably much less prosaic than matters of rents or taxes. What these movements did was to damage the easy, complacent picture of Ulster held by those living in Dublin or London. The province had been seen, with some local exceptions, as generally peaceful and industrious, almost in spite of Presbyterian numbers there. After 1772, attitudes changed, and the expectation of quiescence was gradually replaced by one of suspicion of the motives of Ulster Protestants, first during the American War of Independence and later during the French Revolution. The Oakboys and Steelboys were not simple preradical movements, as some members were among the supporters of "Church and King" politics in Armagh and elsewhere in the 1780s and 1790s; they were early signs of independence and unrest in Ulster.

SEE ALSO Defenderism; Irish Tithe Act of 1838; Land Questions; Tenant Right, or Ulster Custom; Tithe War (1830–1838); Whiteboys and Whiteboyism


Bigger, Francis J. The Ulster Land War of 1770. 1910.

Donnelly, James S., Jr. "Hearts of Oak, Hearts of Steel." Studia Hibernica 21 (1981): 7–73.

Magennis, Eoin F. "A 'Presbyterian Insurrection': Reconsidering the Hearts of Oak disturbances of July 1763." Irish Historical Studies 31 (1998): 165–187.

Maguire, William A. "Lord Donegall and the Hearts of Steel." Irish Historical Studies 21 (1979): 351–376.

Eoin Magennis