The Hearts of Steel, also known as the Steelboys, an exclusively Protestant movement originating in County Antrim due to grievances about the sharp rise of rent and evictions, is involved in conflict in Ulster on December 23, 1770. Five hundred members of the Hearts of Steel force the release a prisoner in Belfast.
The Hearts of Steel arise in 1769 in opposition to unjust and exorbitant rents, chiefly exacted by middlemen, speculators or “forestallers,” who take lands from absentee landlords at greatly increased rents and make their own profit by doubling the rents on the poor tenants.
In 1770 in Templepatrick, County Antrim, a local landlord evicts tenants and replaces them with speculators who can outbid the locals for the land. At some point a local is arrested and charged with maiming cattle belonging to a merchant from Belfast, which spurs the farmers of Templepatrick to take up arms and march on Belfast to demand his release. The protestors surround the barracks and threaten to burn the house of Waddell Cunningham, who is one of the new speculators in Templepatrick. The soldiers in the barracks fire upon the protestors killing several and wounding others. The protestors eventually set fire to Cunningham’s house and as the fire threatens to spread and destroy the town of Belfast itself, the mayor decides to free the prisoner.
Further consternation is caused by the sharp increase of rents throughout Ulster. At the same time the leases expire for Lord Donegall‘s south County Antrim estate. While he keeps his rent at the old prices, he greatly increases their renewal fee. These coincide with several years of severe harvest failures which result in high bread prices. The result of this is that people are unable to support themselves or their families, being left in the utmost state of deprivation and destitution, with many evicted from their land for failure to pay.
The Hearts of Steel protests and uprisings quickly spread throughout the county and into counties Armagh, Down, and Londonderry, which are also subject to the Hearts of Oak protest movement with which it merges. One tactic of the protestors is the “houghing” of cattle, which involves laming cattle by cutting the leg tendons. They also force farmers to sell food at prices they set, and demand anyone letting out land to do so at the cost of 12 shillings per acre. Landlords are threatened that if they try to collect the cess from anyone that their houses will be destroyed.
The disturbances are so widespread in the affected counties that the Irish government passes legislation to severely punish the “wicked and disorderly persons.” By the later half of 1772 they send the army into Ulster to crush them. Men are hanged while many others are said to have drowned trying to flee across the sea to Scotland. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Townshend, privately blames the landlords and their actions for the disturbances and so issues a general pardon in November 1772.
(Pictured: The Hearts of Steel storming the barracks at Belfast, December 1770 | Linen Hall Library)