1798 Ireland


From The men of no property, Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the Late Eighteenth Century, by Jim Smyth, 1992.
Shortly after Earl Fitzwilliam took up office as lord lieutenant in 1795, he was shocked to discover that the Defenders, a militant Catholic secret society, were appearing every night in arms in County Meath. He had never, he remarked, heard of such a thing in Northamptonshire. His exasperation now seems almost comic, his ignorance of Irish realities lamentable. Yet the contrast between Meath and Northamptonshire is an instructive one. Although eighteenth-century England (and Scotland) witnessed their share of agrarian unrest, food riots and political agitation, they furnish no example of lower-class secret societies engaged in sustained, systematic campaigns of violence and intimidation. It is a significant contrast too, because, as Charles Tilly has pointed out, ‘the nature of a society’s collective violence speaks volumes about that society’. Whatever it might say to us, the persistence of collective violence in eighteenth-century Ireland certainly raises questions about the image and structures of that society. An examination of the forms of popular protest should therefore provide insights into the general political and social history of the period. More directly, some understandings of these forms is essential background to any discussion of popular politics in the 1790s, particularly to any discussion of Defenderism – the prime expression of lower-class disaffection during that decade.


An account of the secret societies could begin with the Elizabethan ‘woodkerne’, with the Tories and Rapparees at the Restoration period and the early eighteenth century, or with the Connaught Houghers of 1711-13. This account takes a more conventional starting-point: 1761 and the appearance of the Whiteboys. Indeed some historians, notably George Cornewall Lewis in the nineteenth century and Michael Beames today, have perceived so many recurring patterns of behaviour among the multitude of rural popular protest movements in pre-famine Ireland 9c. 1760 or 1780 to 1845) that they use the generic term ‘Whiteboyism’ to cover them all. Whiteboyism, according to this thesis, was southern and agrarian, while the Defenders (and their successors, the Ribbonmen) are seen as northern-based, sectarian and quasi-political. The distinction is valid, but it has been drawn too sharply. Each secret society had unique characteristics and specific origins. Defenderism was special. But the similarities between it and its southern cousins are at least as important as the differences. The Whiteboys provide an appropriate starting-point for the purposes of this discussion because the Defenders of the 1790s tapped into the Whiteboy tradition. The Whiteboy shaped a popular culture of protest which evolved modes of organisation, techniques of direct action and, most importantly perhaps, a communal ambivalence towards the law and civil authority, upon which the Defenders drew. Thomas Crofton Croker recognised the formative political potential of agrarian unrest when he observed of the 1798 rebellion that ‘two generations of the peasantry had been trained up to become actors in this event’. Croker referred to the Whiteboys, Oakboys, Steelboys, Rightboys, Peep O’Day Boys and Defenders. But he overstated their impact upon popular consciousness. He assumed too direct a relationship between the history of agrarian disturbances and the rebellion. Nevertheless two generations’ cumulative experience of organised illegality and violent did condition the mass politics of the 1790s.

The styles of protest action which stretched into the 1790s and the first half of the nineteenth century originated with the Whiteboys, in Tipperary in 1761. The name derived from their practice of wearing coarse white linen overshirts, and the movement grew out of local resistance to the enclosure of common land. With the suspension of the resistance to the enclosure of common land. With the suspension of the restrictive cattle acts in 1758-59 and rising demand in Europe, investment in pasture became more profitable. Landlords re-let to graziers who in turn curtailed traditional access to commons by smaller tenants. The Whiteboys attempted to defend these customary rights by tearing down – or ‘levelling’ – fences, hedges and walls, by fillings in ditches and digging up pasture, and by maiming or ‘houghing’ cattle. As the movement spread into most of the rest of Munster its programme widened. The primary grievance was the payment of tithes to the established church. The tithe was usually paid in kind – corn or potatoes – and, after 1735, pasture was exempt. These exactions were inflated, moreover, by the machinery of collection: a corps of tithe-proctors and farmers which administered the system on behalf of the clergy, at a price. Such ‘middlemen’ were a constant Whiteboy target. The Whiteboys also tried to regulate conacre rents, by unilaterally and publicly setting ‘fair’ rates, and by punishing those tenants who dared pay more. Between 1761 and 1765 Whiteboys were active in counties Waterford – where five of them were hanged in 1762 – Cork, Limerick and Kilkenny. The scale of the outbreak is indicated by the introduction of the introduction of the Whiteboy act in 1765. The key provision of the act made the administration of oaths by threat of violence a capital offence. This went to the heart of the problem. Oaths binding members to secrecy was the defining characteristic of Whiteboyism.

Although the Whiteboys sometimes turned out in contingents of 500 or more, some mounted on horseback, others marching in military array, the scale of violence was limited. Even so, the disturbances were labelled an ‘insurrection’. Insofar as he was rejecting contemporary allegations – repeated, predictably, by Sir Richard Musgrave 40 years later – of French intrigue and popish conspiracy, Lecky correctly depicted the movement as ‘unpolitical and unsectarian’. Since the Whiteboys drew their members and support from lower-class Catholics, and since most of the bigger landlords and the established church were Protestant, allegations of sectarian motives were almost inevitable. These charges, made against the background of the Seven Years War (1756-63), betrayed fears of French invasion. Local Protestant paranoia ensured that the agitation of social and economic questions was quickly sucked into the political arena. In Tipperary gentry reaction to the Whiteboy troubles was sharpened by a bitterly contested county election in which the successful candidate, Thomas Matthew, a member of a convert family, had been stigmatised as a representative of the ‘Catholic interest’. The local detail is crucial because the Dublin government at this time disregarded reports of the Whiteboys as papist insurgents. It is in the area of local or regional politics, for example, that the explanation lies for the trial and execution of the Clogheen parish priest, Nicholas Sheehy. Sheehy had ‘probably [been] mixed up’ in the disturbances in Tipperary, but it seems clear that he was the victim of sectarian animus and judicial murder.

Two years after the Munster unrest erupted a brief tumultuous spasm of popular agitation burst out in mid and south Ulster. The Oakboys or Hearts of Oak – a reference to the sprigs of oak which these agrarian rebels wore on their hats – first appeared in 1763 in north Armagh. On this occasion the main grievance was an increase in county cess (or tax) for road-building. As with the Whiteboys, the movement quickly spread. Oakboy incidents were reported in counties Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Monaghan and Cavan. Again the payment of tithes was opposed. The movement differed from other protest movements in the period, however, in the openness of its tactics. Mobilising at the signal of blowing horns, the Hearts of Oak marched with military precision, to the accompaniment of fife and drum.

‘Visits’ were paid to local gentlemen and Episcopalian clerics, who were then compelled to make public pledges to reduce the rate of cess and tithe. Large detachments of troops were sent to the region and after a number of skirmishes, in which all the causalities – 15 killed and one capital conviction – were on the Oakboy side, the movement collapsed. The next Ulster-based popular movement was the Hearts of Steel or Steelboys. The Steelboy disturbances, which ran from 1769 to 1772, were triggered by the re-letting, at higher rates, of farms on the great south Antrim estate of the marquess of Donegall. Increased rents, some evictions and local taxation – cess – were the principal sources of the disorders, which focused on Antrim and Down but also infected the adjoining areas of Armagh, Derry and Tyrone. The Steelboys used threatening letters and nocturnal raids to pursue their objectives. The parallels with the Whiteboys are obvious.

In fact, the unrest in Ulster coincided with the re-emergence of the Whiteboys in the south. This second agitation lasted from 1769 to 1776. Carlow, Queen’s County and Kildare. Among the targets now were those Catholic clergy who condemned Whiteboy outrages from the pulpit. Pastoral letters and the ultimate ecclesiastical sanction, excommunication, were ignored. Anti-clericalism of a sort was an even more pronounced element in the Rightboy movement of 1785-88. Named after the fictitious ‘Captain Right’ who set the rate of tithe by public notice, the agitation began in County Cork, then fanned out through the rest of Munster and into south Leinster. The early stages of the Rightboy troubles provide a striking example of how ‘agrarian’ movements could intersect with politics. John Fitzgibbon referred to the ‘independent gentlemen . . . who set them in motion’, an allusion to Sir John Conway Colthurst and other ‘independent gentry’ who had clashed with Lord Shannon and his allies in the established church during the 1783 election. By colluding with the Catholic lower classes in Cork these ‘gentlemen Rightboys’ succeeded in embarrassing Shannon and vented their own hostility to tithes. The gentry resented tithes, reasoning that money in the pockets of the Anglican clergy was money out of theirs. As the Rightboy campaign widened and they began to direct their attacks against cess, hearth tax, high rents and so on, gentry involvement faded. Catholic Church fees – for baptisms, marriages, funerals and the twice-yearly dues payable at Easter and Christmas – were rising during the 1780s and were regarded by the Rightboys as yet another unjust exaction. However, the priests escaped comparatively unscathed. While the Rightboy campaign had essentially run its course by 1788, the clandestine structure remained in place, reactivating, for example, in 1791, when tithe-proctors were visited by ‘Capt Right’s light dragoons, well mounted and armed’. Attempts were made to regulate wage rates and houses were raided for arms. As Protestants alone were entitled to bear arms, this ‘disarming of the Protestants’ provoked the usual fulmination’s about Catholic plots. Such ‘insinuations;, as he called them, were rejected by the county high sheriff, (borough) MP, and future United Irishman, Arthur O’Connor. With the national catholic revival under way the local accusations were more politically pointed than ever, and the Catholic Committee in Dublin publicly welcomed O’Connor’s intervention.


What ‘volumes’, in Tilly’s sense, does the collective violence of the secret societies speak about the nature of eighteenth-century Irish society? What needs to be explained is the pervasiveness and persistence of organised agrarian protest: the secret societies proved remarkably durable. How, in the end, do we account for the contrast between the disturbed condition of, say, Tipperary, and the comparative social tranquillity of Northamptonshire, or for that matter, Midlothian? At least two caveats should be entered immediately. Firstly, as Sean Connolly has suggested, the comparison is perhaps a misleading one. Although historians and commentators have understandably sought parallels and drawn contrasts with Ireland’s nearest neighbour, a more legitimate standard of comparison may be offered by contemporary Europe. Viewed in this light it is the exceptional character of English stability, not the distinctive nature of Irish collective violence, which stands out most strongly. Secondly, the extent of English public order should not be exaggerated. The systematic poaching in Windsor forest which led to the Black Act in 1723, or the Sussex smugglers’ war of the 1740s, remind us that England was not immune from organised or structured social violence. Nor did it escape ‘ordinary’ crime. According to Lecky, in the early eighteenth century ‘the neighbourhood of London swarmed with highwaymen, and many parts of England were constantly infected by bands which hardly differed from the Irish raparees’. Nevertheless, the increasing effectiveness of the modernising English State had largely quelled the banditry of highwaymen and smugglers by about the 1750s. Thereafter, urban and food riots became the characteristic form of public violence.

Ireland had a different experience. The peculiarities of the Irish, which seemed obvious to numerous contemporary commentators, are somewhat cautiously acknowledged by historians. The historian has good reason to be sceptical. The evidence of commentators – foreign travellers, for example – is impressionistic. Moreover, in Ireland a great deal of evidence of this sort is tainted by authors’ prejudices. Many of these social commentaries were written in the early nineteenth century, not as cool sociological surveys but as moral-reformist tracts. Some, like Robert Bell, pressed their case for social or educational reform by painting lurid sketches of a volatile, unregenerate peasantry. Others, like Edward Wakefield or Thomas Crofton Croker exhibit a kind of exasperated anthropological curiosity. Significantly, their observations were advanced not long after the trauma of the 1798 rebellion. Thus when Wakefield writes of the ‘disposition to revolt, which form[s] so conspicuous a feature of the character of the Catholics in Ireland’, it can be assumed that this judgement was coloured by his own memories of actual rebellion. Finally, these commentators casually resorted to racial and religious stereotypes which are now totally devoid of analytic credibility. Wakefield’s description of the Irish as ‘a people ardent in their pursuits, accustomed to act without foresight, and to determine without reflection’ tells us much more about Wakefield and the tradition – which stretches back through Edmund Spenser to Giraldaus Cambrensis and looks forward to the Victorians – in which he wrote, than it does about the ‘Irish’, Catholic, peasant, or otherwise. Such confident summaries of the ‘national character’ are about as conceptually valuable as ATQ Stewart’s wry suggestion that ‘the Irish have been made violent by some noxious element in the potato’.

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the evidence of social commentary in its entirety. It is difficult to believe that this voluminous literature and the remarkable unanimity of opinion and perception which it reveals, rested on nothing more solid than the fantasies, prejudices and moralism of hostile witnesses. The zeal and presuppositions of the reformers did undoubtedly distort their accounts, but these men were witnesses, and they did, at some level, describe social realities. In short, the fact that so many observers noted the lawlessness or disaffection of the Irish lower classes provides some grounds for supposing that this was so. As we have seen their perception is partly explained by post-rebellion jitteryness. On the other hand, similar perceptions can be identified before the rebellion. In 1796 John Fitzgibbon, earl of Clare, referred to ‘ the natural disaffection of the Irish’, while in the more peaceful 1770s Young was struck by ‘a general contempt for law and order’.

The recurrence of words like ‘natural’, ‘rooted’ and ‘hereditary disaffection’ imply the existence of a popular mentalité inherent in the structures or history of Irish society. Again, to contemporaries this seemed obvious. In the late 1790s the chief secretary, Thomas Pelham, ascribed popular support for the United Irishmen to ‘the religious distinctions which will always make the lower classes of the people more open to seduction than the same class of men in other countries’. Wakefield attributed the rebellious character of Irish Catholics to ‘the low and degraded state in which they have been kept’, or in other words, to the penal laws. Presumably this is what Lecky had in mind too, when he wrote that Catholics had ‘been educated through long generations of oppression into an inveterate hostility to the law, and were taught to look for redress in illegal violence or secret combination’. Ireland was divided along religious, ‘racial’, cultural and linguistic lines, and these divisions, entrenched in folk memory and perpetuated by the country’s legal, political and institutional structures, effectively prevented the evolution of a more integrated, deferential and stable society.

The contrast with Scotland is illuminating. This was a more homogenous society in which, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ‘specifically agrarian discontent [was] . . . notable by its absence’. Compared wit Ireland, Scotland enjoyed social ‘tranquillity’. TM Devine sees part of the explanation for these contrasting experiences in the different levels of social control. As an ‘hereditary elite’ the Scottish landed class exercised ‘inherited authority’. Ireland’s landed class was of more recent vintage, and Ireland, as Cullen points out, was ‘above all . . . a colonial society. Settlers were resented more than landowners’. Of course, in the eighteenth century the distinction between ‘settlers’ and ‘landowners’ could be next to non-existent. The Scottish landed elite also commanded the ‘vertical loyalty’ of its tenantry by virtue of their shared Protestantism. Religion and history reinforced deference and elite hegemony. In Ireland, religion and history undermined those ideological scaffolds of social control. And if religion – and this might equally be applied the Presbyterian Steelboys – separated the Irish lower classes from the (predominantly Anglican) landed class, it at the same time helped to forge a common sense of identity – a lower-class solidarity which facilitated organised protest.

There were, then, what may in the broadest sense be termed cultural determinants of the oft noted Irish ‘disposition’ to lawlessness or open disaffection. However, most modern historians, although they are usually prepared to incorporate a cultural dimension in their arguments, analyse the causes of rural disorder primarily by reference to economic change. For example, after summarising the different cultural bases of social control in Ireland and Scotland, Devine goes on explicitly to discount ‘the popular myth of an historic struggle between Catholic peasant on the one hand and an alien class on the other’ as an adequate explanation for the high incidence of agrarian unrest in Ireland. Ultimately he relates unrest to changes in the rural economy. Similarly, Connolly states that every major outbreak of agrarian protest from 1760 on was ‘linked in each case to major shifts in agricultural circumstances, most commonly a deterioration in market conditions’.

The advantage of such approaches over the ‘unregenerate peasantry’ school of analysis is that economic changes, whether rising prices or enclosures, are more precise and measurable categories than shared ‘dispositions’. The problem with such approaches is that although they may often – though not always – explain the origins of rural protest, they cannot account for the peculiar forms these protest movements then took: the secret societies. Economic change occurs in society. It affects men; men with values, expectations, ideas and aspirations. And it is these shared assumptions and beliefs, variously conceptualised as the ‘moral economy’, ‘popular culture’ or collective ‘mentalité’, which condition popular responses to economic change.

The pervasiveness and durability of the secret societies reflects and relied upon a popular mentalité not unlike that decried by Fitzgibbon or Wakefield. It is axiomatic that the ‘social bandit’ or insurgent cannot long survive without the active support of some, and the tacit consent of the majority, of the community within which they operate. To lower-class Catholics the Whiteboys came from ‘us’, while the tithe-proctors, landlords and magistrates belonged to ‘them’. In this respect, it has been observed, the recurrence of the word ‘boys’ in the names of so many societies was not accidental. The expression ‘the boys’, which is still used in reference to the IRA, implies a certain tacit approval. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ attitudes were embedded in the Irish ‘peasant’s’ notorious disregard for the rule of law. This phenomenon found expression in a number of ways. One striking manifestation of contempt for authority was the ‘rogues and rapparees’ genre of popular literature. The classic text of Irish social banditry, which went through numerous cheap editions during the eighteenth century, is Cosgrove’s A Genuine History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Notorious Irish Highwaymen, Tories and Rapparees The social bandit, familiar to several peasant societies, has been depicted as a Robin Hood-style figure, usually of gentlemanly birth, launched onto his outlaw career as the victim of official injustice. These colourful characters may have been robbers, but they were invariably friends to the poor. Criminals in the of the law, they were often folk heroes in public opinion. Cosgrove’s case-studies fit this pattern. One of these, Redmond O’Hanlon, was the ‘son of a reputable gentleman’ who ‘frequently [gave] share of what he got from the rich to relieve the poor’. Significantly, he ‘had a much greater antipathy to the English than to the Scotch or Irish’. That is to say he preyed on Anglican settlers but left local Presbyterians and Catholics unmolested. Significantly too, O’Hanlon operated with a band of ’50 effective men’ in south Armagh, an area plagued by Tory activity well into the eighteenth century. The Tories were dispossessed Catholics who carried on a guerrilla campaign against the settlers, whose effect in legitimising popular violence Lecky considered inestimable. It seems likely that books such as Cosgrove’s Genuine History, hawked around the country by peddlers and used by hedge schoolmasters, complemented a vibrant oral tradition or folk memory, endorsing and celebrating Tory resistance to confiscation. According to Michael Davitt, the Tory heroes, recalled in song and legend, perpetuated a popular belief ‘that Cromwell’s clan would one day loose again the lordship of the land’. Thus the Irish social bandit tended to be more politicised than his European counterparts. One pamphleteer, writing from the vantage point of the early nineteenth century, though the effect of ‘raparee literature’ pernicious in the extreme, claiming that ‘the transition from theory to practice was but short’. However, a modern writer who argues that the genre was more a symptom than a cause of lawlessness, is undoubtedly closer to the truth. In either case the popularity of the genre suggests the prevalence of attitudes sympathetic to banditti such as the Whiteboys.

Closely related to Tory folklore was the hold which Jacobitism retained on the popular imagination. There were, or course, no Jacobite risings in Ireland in 1715 or 1745, and by the 1750s Jacobitism had vanished as a realistic political option. Nevertheless, the imagery and symbolism of Jacobitism persisted. The first Whiteboys sported white cockades and marched to Jacobite tunes. Remarkably, as late as the 1790s, a renegade Defender claimed that some of his erstwhile comrades were attached to ‘the old family of Stuart’s’. This claim is unlikely but intriguing. The long survival of a, necessarily covert, popular allegiance to the Jacobite cause, and a Jacobite dimension to the rediscovered Tory ‘party’ before the 1750s, is now persuasively argued by a number of English historians. Regrettably, as one of these scholars has noted, the history of Irish Jacobitism after 1714, is still ‘almost terra incognita’. However, one area of this uncharted territory has been partially explored: the politics of the aisling (or vision) poetry of deliverance in Gaelic Munster. Cullen insists that the Jacobite aspirations expressed by the aisling had little direct political consequence, but concedes that the poetry ‘suggests alienation and may even have helped to keep a feeling of alienation alive’. Like Tory folklore, lingering Jacobite sentiment served as a reminder of dispossession.
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