The distiller’s ability to function depended upon a conspiracy of silence in the community he served. The position of the poteen maker as a law-breaker endorsed by the community parallels that of the secret society. In fact the activities of the two sometimes merged. Perhaps the single most violent Defender incident during the 1790s – the murder of 11 policemen near the village of Drumsna, Count Leitrim, in April 1795 – was sparked off by a raid on an illegal still. Two years later the seizure of another still, near Ballybay in County Monaghan, precipitated serious clashes in which 15 local people and six soldiers were reported killed.
Illicit distillers functioned with impunity and the social bandit was celebrated in popular tradition. The collective mentalité thus revealed facilitated the operation of secret societies. In 1796, for instance, a newspaper attributed ‘various robberies and burglaries’ in the countryside to felons, to whom the common people, assuming that they were ‘connected with Defenderism . . . readily allowed asylum’. However, while the mentalité facilitated organised, illegal protest, it could not cause or activate it. An historically-rooted popular alienation from ‘legitimate’ authority merely helps account for the resilience of the secret societies. It cannot explain how, or why, they came into being. The best answers to those questions are the answers which, by their actions, the societies gave themselves. These were protest movements, actuated by immediate concrete grievances like tithes, high rents, and the erosion of customary rights. The first Whiteboy movement arose as a response to the enclosure of commons. The Steelboys reacted against new high rents, new leases and evictions. Significantly, before the Defenders, none of these movements challenged the system of land ownership, or sought to abolish rents or tithes. Rather they agitated for a reduction of those exactions to levels sanctioned by custom as ‘fair’. Moreover, the scale of violence against people – as distinct from property – was comparatively modest. According to one count, in 30 years of agrarian unrest only 50 or so people were killed. The Whiteboys sought to regulate the local economy. Whiteboyism was informed by a vision of social justice – Thompson’s ‘moral economy’ – was not social revolution. Pre-famine agrarian protest movements were what social scientists call ‘reactive’. Their motives were conservative, or backward-looking, their aims limited, their tactics pragmatic.
The conventions, patterns and purposes of direct action were thus clearly defined and adherence to those conventions required effective organisation, underpinned by a popular ideology. The rhetoric of justice, fairness and customary right expressed an alternative legitimacy to the laws of courts and magistrates. In their self-perception, and in the perception of the communities, from which they sprang, Whiteboyism enforced a rough popular or ‘natural’ justice.
Oath-taking – a defining characteristic of the secret societies – had a parallel self-legitimising function. Oaths were pioneered by the Whiteboys in the 1760s, and this is one reason why they provide a logical starting point (and a generic label) for any discussion of these movements. The first Whiteboy oaths instructed members ‘to be true and faithful to each other’. They were also enjoined ‘not to drink any liquor whatsoever whilst on duty’. Oaths, when obeyed, gave the perpetrators of ‘outrages’ security against detection and punishment, and offered the societies a sense of cohesion, solidarity and mystique. By laying down stiff penalties, including transportation and execution, for taking and administering oaths, the various Whiteboy acts and the Insurrection Act of 1796, acknowledged the centrality of this practice for illegal organisations. It is difficult, however, to assess how effective oaths actually were. William Farell of Carlow recalled that after they had taken the United Irishmen’s oath, ‘ the people were as merry as crickets, for every man that joined its as soon as he got the signs and passwords, thought there was some magic in it that would make them happy the rest of the day’. The United Irishman, James Hope, was more sceptical, and more succinct. ‘Oaths,’ he observed, will ‘never bind rogues’. Certainly, the casual manner in which William Carelton was sworn into the Ribbonmen in 1813 – almost without his realising it was happening! -- illustrates how not everyone considered oaths solemnly binding.
If oaths did not always guarantee secrecy or the commitment of the initiate, they did represent an attempt to impose rules of conduct upon a society’s members. The Whiteboys acted according to self-defined standards. A sense of legitimacy, distinct and opposed to civil authority, is evident also in the use of military terminology: The Steelboys ‘Captain Justice’ and Captain Firebrand’, for example. Finally, the fairly strict conventions governing violence suggest conformity to an unwritten code. In fact, as the low levels of personal violence indicates, more reliance was placed on the threat of force – the threatening letter, or public notice, usually given specious authority by the signature of some mythical ‘captain’ – than force itself.
Collective violence and intimidation were more readily accepted in a pre-democratic age. What were the alternatives? Peaceful forms of protest – appeals to the courts, political pressure or civil disobedience initiated by the lower classed – are all products of later, more sophisticated societies. Although some Defender lodges later operated an economic boycott, intimidation, personal violence or attacks on property were the most common and effective means of redressing grievances. Up to a point the authorities expected, indeed tacitly licenced, food riots and other types of direct action. Up to a point also – the point at which the military had to be called in aid of the civil power – the authorities proved unable to control rural protest. As local, unpaid amateurs, magistrates were as vulnerable as anyone to intimidation, and in every outbreak of unrest after 1760 the magistrates faced accusations of ‘supineness’. Nor could the authorities expect protesters to be squeamish in their methods. As Thomas Paine observed, ‘it is over the lowest class of mankind that government by terror is intended to operate, and its is on them that it operates to the worst effect. They have sense enough to feel they are the objects aimed at, and they inflict in their turn the examples of terror that have been instructed to practice.
The Defenders, and after them the Ribbonmen, diverged from Whiteboy patterns. Defenderism was ‘proactive’ and ‘associational’, as in the maelstrom of the 1790s it developed revolutionary aspirations. But just as the Defenders shared tactics and organisational forms with the Whiteboys, so they shared many Whiteboy concerns. Politics and sectarianism did not replace traditional socio-economic grievances: they fused with, the precedence of each varying from place to place. The behaviour of a group of Meath Defenders, ‘or as they now call[ed] themselves, regulators,’ who in 1796, ‘frequent[ed] each fair, market and ale house threatening to knock out the brains of every Protestant, and to regulate the price of labour, rent of land and value of provisions,’ illustrates how agrarianism and politics could merge. It is that combination of assertive anti-Protestantism (and of the crude nationalism or republicanism which often lay behind it) and standard Whiteboy objectives which gave Defender ideology its peculiar adaptability and appeal during the 1790s. It was a revolutionary movement certainly, but it carried within it 30 years experience of agrarian unrest. A Whiteboy leader in the 1760s was known as ‘Captain Fearnot’; the Meath Defenders in 1797 were led by a ‘Captain Fearnought’. There were even some continuities in personnel. A prominent rebel in south Antrim in 1798 was identified as a former Steelboy captain. The popular movements of the 1790s, the Defenders and the clandestine, militarised United Irishmen, continued the Whiteboy tradition as they were politicising it.
According to a contemporary account the first Defender lodges were formed after a brawl near the village of Markethill in Armagh in 1784. These lodges resembled other pre-famine factions which engaged in pre-arranged, ritualised ‘challenges’ or fights, at fairs and markets. Initially, the political and religious elements in the rivalry were muted. Catholics and Protestants mingled in both the Nappach and the Bawn ‘fleets’, as they were called. However, in the 1780s, the unique social, economic and demographic structure and denominational geography of the county ensured that the contest soon underwent ‘a thorough reformation from a drunken war to a religious one’.
In fact, the precise chronology of events leading to the formation of the Defenders and their rivals, the Peep O’Day Boys, is in some doubt. Although the account cited above pinpoints their origins in the quite specific circumstances of 1784, Young mentions Peep O’Day Boys in the area in the late 1770s. The Markethill affray, in other words, should not be blown out of proportion. The incident, minor in itself, only triggered such repercussions because it occurred in the already unstable conditions of late-eighteenth-century Armagh.
Armagh was the most densely populated county in Ireland, and the most complex. Each of the three major religions was represented in roughly equal proportions. Anglicans of English settler stock were concentrated in the north, Presbyterians of Scottish origin in the middle and the indigenous Irish, often Gaelic-speaking, Catholics in the south of the county. As the use of the Irish language demonstrates, time, intermarriage and acculturation had not obliterated racial distinctions. Racial differences buttressed differences of religions. Presbyterians were commonly referred to by the Defenders as ‘Scotch’. Linguistic, religious and racial diversity created, to use Cullen’s phrase, ‘cultural frontiers’, lines of tensions where Catholic Irish met Protestant settler. Cultural frontiers criss-crossed Armagh: sectarian animosities could quickly surface. These animosities were exacerbated by population pressure and, paradoxically, by the prosperity of the county.
The population explosion which was affecting the whole rural economy was particularly acute in Armagh. Competition for land became stiffer. As new leases came on to the market Catholics began to outbid their Protestant neighbours. It has been argued that the theory, most clearly formulated by Hereward Senior, that land competition fuelled sectarian rivalries, overstates the importance of land in a proto-industrial economy, (of which Armagh at this time provides a classic example). Nevertheless there is contemporary evidence to support the view that the granting of long leases to Catholics, made possible by the repeal of some property-related penal legislation in the 1770s and 1782, aroused Protestant resentment. For example, although the Steelboy troubles were supposedly free of sectarian rancour, one of their declarations announced that they were all ‘Protestants or Protestant Dissenters’, and one complained of ‘lands given to papists, who will pay any rent’.
The acquisition of property was one aspect of rising Catholic prosperity, participation in the linen trade another. Irish domestic textile production was most intense within the so-called ‘linen triangle’ of north Armagh and west Down. This zone accounted for 15,000,000 of an average 49,000,000 yards of linen manufactured in Ireland in the mid-1780s. ‘Between 16,000 and 20,000 weavers’ worked in County Armagh alone. Not surprisingly, the Peep O’Day Boys – the name refers to the tactic of raiding at dawn – were nearly all ‘journeymen weavers’. So, presumably, were their neighbours and rivals, the Defenders. On their earliest excursions to seize arms from local Catholics the Peep O’Day raiders were instructed to ‘cut the webs in the looms’ belonging to their victims. Some of the most substantial linen merchants and manufacturers such as Bernard Coile in Lurgan, the Lisburn Teelings and the Armagh Coiglys, were Catholic. All were targets for Orange mobs or official persecution after 1795. Catholic wealth and property was easily construed as a threat to Protestant Ascendancy.
The Armagh troubles, comprising about 100 separate incidents between 1784 and 1791, have been attributed to a break-down of social control. According to Professor Miller the linen boom and the consequent changes in Armagh’s economy produced a stratum of young, independent wage earners. As the financial importance of land relative to income accruing from weaving, spinning and bleaching, declined, generational and social discipline based on land and its inheritance collapsed. Miller presents an intriguing, closely-argued and well-documented thesis. Certainly the rapid economic changes are not in doubt. At the Lurgan linen market ‘nothing but ready money was taken’, and Armagh at the time was described as a ‘hotbed of cash’. As an explanation, however, it is insufficient. The emphasis is misplaced. The main motor of the disturbances was political.
Some penal legislation had been repealed in 1771, 1778 and 1782, and by the early 1780s sections of the Volunteer-reform movement had placed the Catholic question on the political agenda. It was a fiercely divisive issue. The Volunteer commander-in-chief, leading Whig and Armagh grandee, Lord Charlemont, himself opposed concessions to the Catholics. Some of the more politically advanced Volunteer corps nonetheless actually recruited Catholics and – in contravention of the penal laws – armed them. Another reported source of firearms, which seem in any event to have been readily available, was Lord Gosford. Gosford, ‘tired of having his orchards robbed, placed armed men to guard them. These happened to be Catholics. This was immediately laid hold of’. By seizing Catholic-owned firearms the Peep O’Day Boys unilaterally enforced the penal laws. Arms raids re-asserted Protestant Ascendancy. From the outset of the disturbances, right up to the mass expulsions of Catholics in 1795-6, the magistrates were accused not merely of ‘supineness’, but of complicity with the Peep O’Day Boys and Orangemen. If the Peep O’Day Boys are seen as a political phenomenon rather than a law and order problem, then the reason for the partiality of the wholly Protestant magistracy becomes clear. The leniency of the county assizes towards alleged Peep O’Day offenders strengthened local suspicions of official bias and signalled to Catholics that little protection could be expected from the civil authorities. The name Defender (the first lodge was founded at Bunkerhill near Armagh City) signifies the self-protecting vigilante role which the movement initially saw itself as fulfilling. The formation of secret societies was also virtually a reflex action. Some of the captains of the fleets had been veterans of the Oakboy and Steelboy episodes.
A minor vendetta, punctuated by a few more serious clashes, continued for the rest of the decade. A marked escalation occurred in 1787, when two troops of dragoons had to be stationed in Armagh City. On May 1, 1788, the Defenders publicly paraded from Blackwaterstown to Moy, and the rumour spread of an intended attack upon the barracks at Charlemont. Their new assertiveness received an instant reply with the establishment of new, aggressively Protestant, Volunteer corps at Benburb, County Tyrone, Tandragee and Armagh. ON November 21 the Benburb company, accused by local Catholics of being nothing more than a ‘pack of Peep O’Day Boys’, was attacked by defenders. Two of the attackers were killed. As a sequel the funerals of the two dead men were ‘attended by immense multitudes of Catholics from many miles around’ and a week later a large, heavily armed force of Defenders attempted to ‘apprehend and take’ two Benburb Volunteers at the bleach green where they worked.
The tensions which these incidents vented were sharpened by a mutual economic boycott and by rumours of planned massacres. A contemporary pamphleteer accused a ‘set of vipers’, including a ‘divine’, of ‘poisoning the minds of the unwary peasants with the dregs of the 41 rebellion’. In Ireland the fear of massacres was activated by political crises and during the 1790s Catholic belief in the existence of an Orange ‘extermination oath’, played a considerable part in the genesis of the rebellion. These fears were prefigured in the 1780s when local communities posted precautionary sentinels after dark.
By 1789 the focus of unrest had shifted to the south of the county and beyond, into south Down, north Louth and Monaghan. Already the new lodges were numbered, suggesting that Defenderism had at this stage a federal structure, if not yet a centralised, regional leadership. South Armagh’s environment was particularly suitable for Defender-style organisations. Almost bereft of a resident gentry to police, its terrain rocky and barren, the bandit could move with ease through the countryside and among the overwhelmingly Catholic, Gaelic-speaking population. Citing the standard index for lawlessness, more than one observer called attention to the widespread ‘private distilling and selling of whiskey’ in the area. It is against this background that one of the most horrific episodes in the whole ugly catalogue of sectarian strife – the murder of a Protestant schoolmaster at Forkhill in January, 1791 – should be understood.
At the beginning of 1787 a Forkhill landowner, Richard Jackson, died, leaving 3,000 acres to be ‘colonised by Protestants’. Some Catholic ‘squatters’ were subsequently evicted from waste land on the estate. The will also provided for the free education of local children, and four schoolmasters were appointed. This improvement scheme was administered by Lord Charlemont’s corespondent, the Rev Edward Hudson. But one man’s improvement is another man’s intrusion, and at one point Hudson’s horse was shot from under him. It was Hudson too, who reported that the defenders controlled ‘a great expanse of country to the south and east of Forkhill . . . [and] could assemble almost in an instant on signals given by whistle’. This well-drilled group was spurred to action by the appointment of a Protestant schoolmaster, Alexander Barclay, in place of a teacher prepared to give Catholic instruction in the Irish language. They were also provoked by the alleged involvement of Barclay’s brother-in-law in an attack upon Forkhill’s parish priest at the end of 1790. A month later a group of 50 or 60 Defenders struck. Barclay’s tongue was torn out and his fingers cut off. His wife and brother-in-law were mutilated. Their grisly work complete, the assailants held a torch-lit procession through the district. It was afterwards claimed that Barclay had been killed to prevent him appearing as a witness against some Defenders. This episode had a profound impact on Protestant opinion and inflamed the bitter opposition to Catholic relief which followed.
By the close of 1791 the Defenders were still a localised movement centred in Armagh and the adjoining areas of Down, Louth and Monaghan. After the Forkhill murders sectarian feuding had continued much as before. Two Defenders were killed during a riot at the Forkhill fair in August and in November Protestants came under attack at a fair in Monaghan. Viewed from Dublin Castle, the Defender troubles at this point probably looked like a sectarian variant of the by now familiar Whiteboy-style disturbances. They presented, it seemed, merely a law and order problem of manageable proportions. By the beginning of 1793, however, the scale of violence had escalated dramatically. Defenders were active in Meath and Cavan and were viewed by many Protestants as an instrument of the Catholic Committee. Lord Hillsborough called the committee and the Defenders, ‘Dublin papists and country papists’. His suspicions were shared by the government. ‘As yet we are not at the bottom of the plot,’ wrote Under-Secretary Cooke, in February, 1793, ‘which certainly is connected with the levelling factions of all parties and formed part of the plan which would have taken place if the Catholics had not been gratified’. How, during the course of 1792, had the defenders broken out of their parochial confines and become entangled in national politics?
Conspiracy theories, such as that advanced by Cooke, proved seductive because they offered simple explanations for discontent, attributed it to identifiable human agents. It is always tempting to dismiss such theories as paranoid and simplistic. Nevertheless historians would be negligent if, in their pursuit of more complex and convincing ‘underlying causes’, they automatically ruled out the possibility of actual conspirators. It is unlikely that the Defenders were being manipulated by some sinister coterie of Dublin merchants, but the contacts, the collusion, between the Defenders and the Catholic Committee remains intriguing. Equally important was the indirect effect upon Defenderism of the massive mobilisation and proselytising of the lower classes conducted by the committee. As the lord lieutenant, Westmoreland, informed his superiors in London, ‘the precise points which are selected [by the Catholic Committee] as the great objects . . . are particularly calculated to strike the popular mind’. Simultaneously, as Plowden suggests, when the Paineite ‘democratic rage’ began to grip Ireland in the last months of 1791, the ‘several seditious and inflammatory papers published in Dublin, and dispersed through the country seemed to have countenanced and encouraged the defenders in their proceedings’.
Such extraneous influences had an impact, but Defenderism also had a logic and momentum of its own. Most likely some principle of contagion operated: one parish being infect by, or copying the next. Moreover, the spread of Defenderism exhibited a definite pattern, a pattern which corresponded with the sectarian geography of the region. For over 100 years small numbers of Ulster Presbyterians had been moving into north Leinster and north Connaught. In the 1740s the process began to accelerate as these generally more skilled people followed the linen industry which was expanding in the same direction. This was a potentially explosive process because, in a colonial society, ‘settlers were resented more than landowners’. Cullen’s insight appears to be borne out by the distribution of Defender flashpoints. In Louth ‘a strong pocket of Protestant settlement had been created around Dundalk’, while Collon (the Speaker, John Foster’s seat) was ‘perhaps the most Protestant parish in the county’. In north Meath and ‘ the adjacent parts of Cavan, there reside[d] numerous tribes of Presbyterians, called by the common name Scotch’, the object of ‘hereditary animosity’. The grim logic of this cycle of ever-widening inter-communal conflict was given added impetus by the popular excitement generated by the Catholic agitation. Rising expectations and the extravagant benefits anticipated in the wake of emancipation fuelled a premature Catholic triumphalism. Local sectarian quarrels were infused with an almost millenarian zest. ‘Spirits were high in expectation of the change. Treasonable songs, scurrilously abusive of the Protestant religion were publicly sung by drinkers in tipling houses and ballad-singers in the streets. A ferment prevailed which seemed to announce an approaching insurrection . . .’ There was no insurrection in 1792, but the rumours of impending civil war did stimulate and condition the new ‘political’ Defenderism.