Battle of Céim an Fhia was culmination of years of unrest in Cork in early 1800s
ON January 21, 1822, a battle or skirmish took place between Rockites or Whiteboys and the British Army at the Pass of Céim an Fhia/Keimanaeigh, just a short distance from Gougane Barra, which was the culmination of a groundswell of unrest and dissent over cruel landlords, famines, discrimination against Catholics and adverse economic conditions.
The battle was remembered at a number of ceremonies at the site of the engagement near Béal Átha’n Ghaorthaidh, the main one being organised by the local Coiste Forbartha in conjunction with the Ballingeary Historical Society, on Sunday.
Well in excess of 100 people gathered to hear a talk by local historian Seán Ó Suilleabháin whose knowledge of the history of that time, largely forgotten by mainstream society, is authoritative to say the least.
He has a theory about why that particular slice of history, which encompassed the most violent unrest in Ireland for a hundred or more years.
“It was unlike other uprisings in that it came from the people up, rather than being led by academics and the like,” he said.
The Rockites were a network of rebels whose leader adapted the nom de guerre, Captain Rock, and they were organised in parishes throughout Cork and Limerick in the early 1800s.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars with the French general’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 had spelt economic disaster for Irish farmers, including those in Cork, a Typhoid epidemic, a volcano eruption in Indonesia, also in 1815, which lowered by 1.5 degrees the average temperatures across Europe and led to a crop failure and famine.
Allied to that was the unjust regime of the landlords which had come into place because what was described as akin to a hedge-fund scandal of its time, when a company called the Hollow Sword Blade Company bought all of mid Cork from the British Government in 1703 and when they became involved in a scandal years later, they sold the land to raise funds. The parish of Ballingeary ceased to have one landlord then - now it had forty and one was worse than the other and they took advantage of laws which allowed them to summarily evict tenants at a time when eviction meant almost certain death through starvation.
The Rockites wanted Ireland’s parliament, which had been abolished with the Act of Union in 1801, re-established and Catholic emancipation into the bargain. They no longer wanted to pay tithes to the Church of Ireland.
Later they would be numbered among the supporters of Daniel O’Connell when he secured Catholic emancipation and, as Seán Ó Suilleabháin pointed out, he courted them as well, defending the two sons of Máire Buí Ní Laoghaire, whose poem ‘Cath Chéim an Fhia’ is a stirring account of the day and its aftermath, and securing acquittal for them both. No mean feat as the policy of the British at the time was to hang rebels as often as possible in order to scare the population into submission.
On the day of the battle itself there were early casualties, a man by the name of Ó Cróinín of Céim Corr a Bhuaile, who was armed with a dung fork slung over his shoulder when he was shot by the British, a squad of experienced soldiers from the 39th Foot Regiment led by Lord Bantry. Another man by the name of O’Mahony was also shot dead. His two sons had been transported by the British and his wife had died of a broken heart. He emerged out of the rocks to attack those who had left him bereft and he was immediately shot and fell to his death.
The British aim on that day was to kill or capture as many as possible and among those slain were Concubhar Ó Cróinín from Carraig Bán, Mícheál Ó Cáthasaigh from Reidh na nDoirí, Barra Ó Laoire and Amhlaoibh Ó Loingsigh who was also from Réidh na nDoirí. Another man who was involved in the battle, William Ring, given on memorials as Edward, was hanged following the battle, along with 29 others who met their deaths at hangings in Clondrohid, Carriganima, Deshure and Tarelton.
The most notable British casualty was Captain John Smith who was killed by Máire Buí Ní Laoghaire’s brother, Concubhar, and a soldier who was shot by Seamus Mór Breathnach who had lain in wait for the British forces as they returned by the path on the upper slopes of the pass.
Ten years after the Rockite uprising, a road would be built through Céim an Fhia which was meant to facilitate ease of access for the British military but ended up having the effect of revitalising the local economy. A brother of one of those killed in the battle was one of the main contractors for the building of that road.
While the Rockites didn’t achieve their aims on the day, and more hardship would follow, Catholic emancipation would be enacted by the end of the decade. Fifty years afterwards meaningful land reform measures would be introduced and a hundred years later, the spirit of rebellion which they had embodied would re emerge once more in Cork during the War of Independence.
Sunday’s event ended with a rendition of Cath Chéim an Fhia by local sean nós sing Eibhlís Uí Thuama.
As Seán Ó Suilleabháin reminded the crowd, the song was written in anger by a woman who had seen everything that happened on the day of the battle and the events which followed afterwards. These events from this forgotten history are still having an impact two hundred years later.