Profile of Kerry Moonlighter, Jack Hickey of Brosna

He was the last of a generation of men whose deeds of valour, honesty
of purpose and souls of cheer will long live in historic old Ahane.


In 1925, Jack Hickey, otherwise John L Hickey of Ahane, reminisced on his involvement with the Moonlighters:


Not very many came to aid the poor Irish to free themselves from slavery.  I believe the names of most of the landlords and the agents of those days will be ever associated with those of the greatest and most unrelenting tyrants that the world ever produced … Under these tyrants of landlords the people scarcely existed.  The wolf of hunger was constantly hovering near, the landlords’ bailiffs daily seizing what little effects the people had in lieu of rent.[1]


‘The wretched houses were falling for want of repair,’ recalled Hickey, ‘which they could not afford because every penny the unfortunate people were making should be given to the grasping landlords’:


If the rent was not paid on the day it was due, the unfortunate people and their young children were thrown to starve and die on the side of the road.  Neither could the farmers keep any kind of dog for fear he would disturb the game.  Neither could they fish in the rivers because they might lessen the fish and that wouldn’t do for the landlords when they would come with hosts of their friends, shooting and fishing in the summer.  When an election would be on the landlords would issue instructions how the people should vote.  The man who refused to vote for this candidate would be evicted the following day.


Hickey recalled how the harvests were bad from 1870 to 1879 and 10,000 families were evicted during the five years that preceded the year 1880.  ‘Famine was again raising its hungry head.’  Can it wondered, asked Hickey, that the people became exasperated:


Michael Davitt stepped into the breach and started the Land League and Plan of Campaign movements … England passed a new Coercion Bill empowering her to imprison without trial and for any length of time all those who were active in the Land League Movements.  The gaols were soon filled but this only incited the people more.[2]


Hickey described the Moonlighters as ‘the backbone of the Land League and Plan of Campaign movements’:


The Moonlighters went through the country and intimidated the rack-renters, evictors and grabbers in such a fashion that they had to give up their nefarious work.  It was generally at night these men went out intimidating, that is the reason they were called Moonlighters.  The Kingdom of Kerry did its part in the Moonlighting business too.  I was in this business myself.


Hickey recalled how on one occasion, a mysterious white bird seems to have been his saviour:


One night we got word to go to a certain landlord in the Co Limerick who was notorious for persecuting the people.  We went there and did our work that night so that he persecuted no more people.  We were coming along home about the break of day when we heard a bird, about the size of a thrust, but pure white in colour, singing so beautifully that we were rooted to the spot.  We stood there on the road listening until the bird ceased singing and flew away.  Then we awoke from the entrancement and realised the danger we exposed ourselves to, standing there on the public road at a time when peelers were very busy trying to make V’s for their jackets.


They hurried on for half a mile until they reached a house where they went in for something to eat.  No sooner had they been seated when their host told them how fortunate they were they had not arrived earlier:


If we were there half an hour sooner every man of us would be arrested as three cars of peelers passed down the road, and turned another road at a cross between where we stopped listening to the bird, and this house.  If we were arrested every man of us would go up at the end of a rope for what happened to the landlord that night.  I often thought that someone in the crowd must have a very kind Guardian Angel who sent that bird to save us that night.


‘The Moonlighters were a respectable body of men,’ said Hickey, ‘whose object was to put down grabbers and landlords’:


I think they accomplished it in a large measure. They were well treated by the majority of the people but another section went out as Moonlighters who did deeds that were unworthy of Irishmen.  But on the whole the Moonlighters deserved well of the Irish people for many of them suffered severe hardship through imprisonment, etc.  One thing I noticed in the Tan War was that many IRA men bore the same names as many of those Moonlighters I knew in the good old days.


Hickey’s reminiscences caused a correspondent to respond as follows:


Brosna holds the record of the first moonlighting raid in Kerry when John L Hickey, Ahane, with a few chosen followers successfully raided Mount Eagle Lodge and solemnly warned ‘Old Black and his equals’ that the day of his power was gone in Kerry, and to hand over his gun to the men who were out for the rights of the down-trodden tenant farmers of Ireland.[3]  A demand which Mr Black took very good care to obey and needless to say, the whole district was swarmed with peelers the next day in search of the daring moonlighters who would challenge a landlord’s agent in his Castle.[4]


The correspondent paid tribute to Hickey:


To his great credit, let it be said, and many of the old moonlighters of Castleisland and Coole will agree, that there was never an occasion when courage and daring was needed but Hickey was the first in and the last to leave … he was held in high regard by such men as O’Donovan Rossa, Joe Twiss and John Devoy … Brosna is proud in the knowledge that it has given a son who has helped in the country’s service and hour of need and we hope Mr Hickey will be long spared to enjoy the old age pension he has been lately awarded; men like him should be also included in the Military Pension for it is the fighters of the old Moonlighting days that made Easter Week possible.


A photograph of Feale’s Bridge published in 1928 prompted the following memory of Jack Hickey’s role in the salvation of the structure during the Civil War:


Word was conveyed to Mr Hickey of what was taking place and he hurried a distance of four miles to the scene and mounting the parapet wall, he appealed to the crow-bar brigade not to demolish this splendid bridge and put the ratepayers of the district to the expense of rebuilding it.  He could tell them, as an old Moonlighter, who had the Republican faith deep in his soul, that a Republic could never be achieved by making war on the people and destroying their property.  It is well known that his efforts on another occasion saved Guiney’s Bridge on the main road to Newmarket.  We are under a deep obligation of gratitude to Mr Hickey for his patriotic and courageous stand at that period.[5]


Jack Hickey died in November 1932:


The long concourse of people which assembled at Brosna on Thursday to pay its last respects to the memory of that rollicking sportsman, daring Moonlighter and ever staunch Nationalist, John L Hickey, bore ample testimony of the deep regret that was felt at his death.  Jack Hickey was an old man in years but who, a few weeks ago, listening to him, raising the songs of his fatherland – the land he loved and served so faithfully – in his splendid tenor voice could ever imagine him as growing old.  Ahane, the townland in which he lived was one time called Tir-na-n-og (land of the ever young) and Jack might well be called its prince.[6]


John L Hickey was survived by his widow, Mrs Hanorah Hickey, two daughters, Mrs Nora Broderick, Knocknagoshel, and Mrs James Woulfe, New York, and three sons, Larry (New York), Timmy and David (Brosna) and Mr T Downey (Lavalla) brother-in-law.


[1] ‘Reminiscences of Land League Days’ as told by John Hickey, Ahane, to ‘Kerry Rover.’ Kerryman, 22 August 1925.  ‘Kerry Rover’ was the pen-name of Liam O’Neill of Ahane.  The following may be relevant: ‘The death occurred of a grand old character, Liam O’Neill, Ahane.  Liam was local Press Correspondent for The Kerryman for many years and was a frequent contributor to the ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ series on Radio Eireann.  To his wife Betty, daughter Katty, and son Derry (Indiana) sympathy is extended’ (Kerryman, 17 February 1978).

[2] The author tells a tale of Davitt as follows: ‘Davitt was arrested and thrown into prison and he was then sent to an English convict prison … he was not long in prison when one day a bird came into his cell through a small aperture that was called a window.  The bird was wounded and Davitt nursed it back to health as tenderly as it if were a child.  When it was fully restored to health he took it to the window and released it but it would not go away.  So it remained his faithful companion for many a year passing many a dull, monotonous hour for Davitt by its cheerful singing.  One morning when he arose from sleep he found the bird dead and he shed many a big silent tear for his little warbling friend of many a lonely year.’   He adds, ‘The name of Michael Davitt should be revered, honoured and enshrined as long as grass grows and water runs in Ireland for he laid the foundation which made every farmer in Ireland master of his land.’

[3] The following is taken from Divane’s Calendar, 1998: ‘Mount Eagle Lodge: Major Charles Fairfield, the one-time High Sheriff of Kerry was in residence there from 1830 until his death in 1853.  Later the lodge became the property of Colonel Drummond whose agents Mr and Mrs Black resided there.  In 1879, the local Moonlighters attacked the lodge taking hunting rifles and ammunition.  In 1880, the new agents were Robert and Elizabeth Teer from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, who served as gamekeeper and cook.  In due time ownership passed to the Teer family whose name is synonymous with Mount Eagle.  The last resident, Jimmy Teer, died in 1976.’

[4] Kerryman, 29 August 1925.  ‘While the Peelers were scouring the country to find a clue to this daring raid, nobody enjoyed the excitement better than the hard working, quiet going, but resolute farmer, Jack Hickey of Ahane.  Hickey also has the distinction of being one of the first ‘cattle drivers’ in Ireland … It is hard to estimate the services rendered to Ireland by men of the Hickey stamp in those days.  Parnell and Davitt were certainly great leaders, but they would be as a voice in the wilderness if there were not brave men like Hickey to answer the call and shoulder the gun to give effect to the teachings and speeches of these great men.’ 

As an aside, in September 1924, a terrific storm broke over Brosna village and district and John Hickey had a very narrow escape when a large tree fell across the roadway just as he passed.  See Kerryman, 27 September 1924.

[5] Kerryman, 14 January 1928.  ‘The picture of Feale Bridge which appears in the current issue of the Kerryman carries one’s thoughts back a few years and one may wonder why it was that young men living in the district tried to destroy it.  This picture shows portion of its artistic parapet wall demolished and it took a tremendous lot of force to displace the huge blocks of well-chiselled limestone from their closely jointed bedding.  Had this beautiful structure met the same fate as Mallow Bridge what a sad day’s work it would have been for ratepayers and taxpayers of the three adjoining counties which it served.  It was saved by the efforts of the old Fenian and moonlighter, John Hickey, Ahane, Brosna.’

[6] Obituary (by C.M.M.), Kerry News, 22 November 1932.  ‘His deeds for Ireland have been recounted in detail in the columns of the Kerryman during the appearance therein of the ‘Story of Brosna.’  Jack figured there in many episodes – in cattle raiding, attacks on land-grabbers and their agents, and in many social functions of the place (no company was complete without him).  During recent years, owing to failing health, Jack was not seen much at his best but even then, the more youthful of us who at times had the pleasure of his company, grasped an idea of the times and the atmosphere in which he spent his youthful days.  His services were sought by many visiting sportsmen for his knowledge of the hiding haunts of game was vast, and no salmon dared to hide in him.  His heart was light and may mother-earth now lie lightly on his breast.’

‘The Story of Brosna’ by ‘M.G.M.’ appeared in the local Kerry press in serial form from February to June 1930.  The instalment published in the Kerry Reporter, 12 April 1930, named Moonlighters from Brosna in an ‘authentic Roll of Honour.’