Such evidence of continuing Defender unrest has so far failed to dislodge the idea of an hiatus before Fitzwilliam. Perhaps this is because the standard accounts of the 1790s have proceeded from the twin perspective of high politics and the rise of the United Irishmen: the basic narrative history of the defenders has still to be written. In one respect this omission is surprising. A glance at any Irish newspaper over this decade or at, say, Sir Richard Musgrave’s Memoirs of the different rebellions in Ireland (1801), immediately confirms the defenders’ contemporary impact. Yet it is only in recent years that historians have begun to glimpse their significance – to the politics of the period and as Ireland’s first ‘associational’, ‘proactive’ movement. Before the United Irishmen began to build a mass-based revolutionary organisation in the later nineties – a mass-base largely consisting of defender lodges integrated into the new paramilitary structure – Defenderism represented organisational expression of popular disaffection. Lecky realised this, but he did not follow through the insight. No discussion of popular politics, therefore, can reasonably neglect the development of Defenderism.
The Defender movement expanded and politicised during 1792 as it interacted with the Catholic agitation conducted at parish level. One indication of these developments was the extension of defender activity, mainly arms raids, from Armagh along the Ulster border counties into Louth and Meath. Another was the increasing scale of violence perpetrated both by the Defenders and by the authorities. The number of capital convictions handed down at the spring assizes in 1793 was unprecedented. The aggressiveness of the Defenders and the harshness of ascendancy repression were conditioned by the crisis atmosphere generated by the Catholic and reform campaigns, and, from the spring, by war with France. The former were inspired by expectations of catholic ‘victory’, even a reversal of the land settlement, and by the prospect of French aid; the latter felt threatened by the possibility of French intervention and by a resurgent Catholic community. Protestants also felt abandoned by Britain. During 1792 the Defenders were said to have convened ‘little parliaments . . . (for so they did name themselves),’ and to have asserted that they would soon ‘have their own again’. In February 1793, during the parliamentary debates on Catholic relief, Dr Duigenan complained that:
the Catholics of the lower ranks are at this moment assembled in large bodies, with arms in their hands, breaking into, robbing and burning the homes of the peaceable Protestant inhabitants of the counties of Louth, Monaghan, Cavan and Meath, and even in the county of Dublin, making public declarations that they will not suffer any Protestant to reside within these counties, or in the kingdom, and the contagion is spreading through the nation.
Duigenan, a Protestant ‘ultra’, had an interest, in the context of these debates, in stressing Catholic disloyalty. Nevertheless his speech did voice real Protestant fears, and the reality of the situation which it described is corroborated by other evidence. Irish society had become tense and polarised. Extremism thrived. The consequent escalation in violence was first witnessed on 22 January, 1793, at Coolnahinch on the Meath-Cavan border, where 38 Defenders were killed. The breakdown of the comparative restraint which had hitherto governed rural unrest was then confirmed by the wave of anti-militia ballot riots which swept virtually the whole country between May and August.
The militia, established by an act which became law on 8 April, was designed as a domestic defence and peacekeeping force to replace the recently suppressed Volunteers. Volunteering had been suppressed because of its political interventions, and because even ‘loyalist’ corps did not come under government control. The militia was organised by county, officered by the local (Protestant) gentry, and composed of (mainly Catholic) conscripts, raised by ballot. The element of compulsory service provided the key grievance. When magistrates began embodying regiments in May, the persons, sometimes Catholic priests, who compiled the lists for balloting, were frequently targeted by the crowd. Another major grievance stemmed from the widely-held belief that militia units would be posted overseas. Popular resistance was fierce. Artillery had to be used at the town of Bruff in County Limerick, and the county as a whole was described as in ‘a state of insurrection’. In nearby Kerry on 18 June troops opened fire on some 5,000 rioters in Dingle, killing at least 12. There were serious clashes also, in Connaught, in counties Mayo, Sligo and Roscommon, at the Castlecomer intersection of Carlow, Kilkenny and Queen’s County, in Wexford, Meath, Fermanagh and Down. According to Bartlett, ‘in just over eight weeks as many as 230 lives had been lost . . . over five times the number of causalities sustained in the previous 35 years of agrarian disturbances in Ireland’.
The underlying – as distinct from the immediate – causes of the militia riots, the form which the riots assumed and their legacy, all testify to the widening gap that was opening up between the Protestant establishment and lower-class Catholics. In the politically fluid 1790s alienation from the ruling elite could quickly turn to active disaffection, particularly since there existed an alternative, middle-class and radical, elite, eager and ready to exploit popular discontents. Not that the division was purely sectarian. Yet politics were conducted in terms of the challenge to, and defence of, the ‘Protestant Ascendancy’. All conflict whether agrarian, class or ‘national’, tended to intersect at some level with the Catholic question. Bartlett argues that after such factors as unfavourable economic conditions and hostility to the method of recruitment are taken into account, the unique extent and violence of the militia disturbances can only be explained by reference to the previous year’s Catholic campaign. The populist style of the campaign had stimulated general expectations of imminent change, ranging from relief from tithes to a Catholic restoration. What the Catholics were in fact offered was a limited franchise, reluctantly conceded amid torrents of anti-papist rhetoric and, it seemed, the militia. There were even suspicions that the Catholic gentry and clergy had made a ‘deal’ with the Castle, engaging ‘to raise 10,000’ men in exchange for ‘their late emancipation’. Thus the insult of a ‘sell-out’ was added to the injury of expectations baffled. Once mobilised the Catholic masses had acquired a momentum of their own. Writing at the time of the militia riots Chief-Secretary Hobart reasoned that ‘the pains which have, for these last 18 months, been taken to persuade the people of the irresistible force of numbers, has given them such an idea of strength, that until they are actually beaten into another opinion, they will never be quiet – half the country is sworn to support the Catholic cause’.
Denis Browne, MP for Mayo, placed the disturbances in a broader context, attributing them to ‘the new political doctrines which have pervaded the lower classes – that . . . spirit [which] has been produced by the circulation of Paine’s Rights of Man, of seditious newspapers, and by shopkeepers who having been in Dublin to buy goods have formed connections with some of the United Irishmen’. While the United Irishmen did, in classic Whig fashion, condemn the militia as yet another source of government patronage, it is doubtful that they played any significant role in directly stirring up trouble. However, Queen’s County magistrates blamed ‘emissaries’ for provoking the unrest there, and in Tyrone George Knox referred to ‘the opposition fomented by the Jacobins’. It would probably prove impossible to separate the facts of radical involvement from the assertions of the paranoid official imagination, but clearly popular responses to militia balloting were sharpened by the larger political crisis. Following Whiteboy precedent, the full roster of ‘agrarian’ grievances – wage rates, the price of provisions, rents, tithes and taxes – were soon added to the original source of contention. What was new in the 1790s was the explicitness of the political dimension. Rioters in Westmeath told a magistrate that ‘it was well Lord Westmeath was not there, as he was the person who imprisoned [the United Irishman, Simon] Butler’. More ominously, some crowds invoked the cause of the French.
Since the political slogans adopted by the rioters bear all the hallmarks of Defenderism, it may be useful, at this point, to draw a distinction between ‘Defenderism’ and the Defenders. The first denotes a loose, pro-French anti-ascendancy, popular ideology, the second a specific organisation. While the anti-militia rioters in Meath were almost certainly Defenders the description of their counterparts in Limerick or Wexford as such probably only reflects the contemporary habit of blaming every outrage on ‘Defenderism’. The political undercurrents of the disturbances and the mass experience of armed conflict with State forces – the army – which they entailed, must, however, have facilitated the spread of the Defender organisation. For instance, Connaught, the region that witnessed the most violent opposition to the militia, emerged as a defender stronghold in 1794-5.
The extent and violence of the riots registered a shift in popular and ascendancy attitudes. This has been read as evidence of the breakdown of the ‘moral economy’. Patterns of paternalism and deference had already been eroded by the Defender tactic of raiding gentry homes. For these men at least, the ‘big house’ no longer held any terrors. Under the stress of polarisation and the communal antagonism generated by the Catholic resurgence, gentry hegemony collapsed. An analogous development was the historically unusual position in which the Catholic clergy now found itself. Whiteboys had ignored excommunication in the past just as Rightboys had resisted the payment of ‘excessive’ church dues. But the relationship between church and people was never under greater strain than in the summer of 1793, when priests involved in compiling lists for ballot attracted the popular wrath. Chapel doors were ‘nailed-up’ in Connaught, Cork and Kerry. At Athlone a priest was hanged almost to death and one newspaper reported ‘attacks on the persons of the clergy in many parts’. Two years later Arthur O’Connor remarked, ‘ask the Catholic clergy and they will tell you that their power is declined. Ask the Protestant gentry from one end of the kingdom to the other, and they will tell you that that superstitious power of the Catholic clergy is at an end’. They key word here is ‘superstitious’. O’Connor was making a case for the political maturity of the Catholic masses. Nevertheless such observations as his were not uncommon at the time. During the 1790s the influence of the clergy momentarily faltered. Since this was generally a law-upholding, conservative influence – ‘the Defenders’, it was pointed out, ‘are surely in a bad way – hanged by the laws here, and damned by [Archbishop] Troy hereafter’ – its weakening suggests growing political self-reliance among lower-class Catholics.
The political, as opposed to the direct, causes of the anti-militia riots, and the novel and dramatic form which they took, are indicative of deep and widespread popular disaffection. What were the consequences of the disturbances? The militia’s historian, Sir Henry McAnally, plays down the impact of these events. They did not, in his opinion, leave ‘in the popular soul any such bitter memories as remained after other episodes in Irish history. May 1793 is not one of the black months in that story; it is not the first chapter of 1798’. Given the scale of the bloodshed this seems a curious conclusion. Bartlett’s judgement that the riots ‘helped to create that atmosphere of fear and repression that made the ’98 possible and some sort of ’98 inevitable’ is more convincing. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, popular tradition in Wexford characterised the events of 1793 as the ‘first rebellion’. Coercion fuelled disaffection. As one pamphleteer observed, such measures were ‘ill-calculated to inspire men with a veneration for the government under which they live[d]’. The resulting disaffection was then channelled through, and expressed by, the Defenders.
If the militia riots had the effect of embittering ‘the people’ against the government, this process can only have been aggravated by the ‘show trials’ of certain Catholics in 1794. The trials had their background in the troubled county of Meath, from the start of 1793 the site of the most sustained Defender activity in Ireland. Meath was religiously mixed, with ‘Scotch’ Presbyterian settlements in the north and east, a thinly-spread Anglican landlord and farmer class and an overall, sometimes Irish-speaking, Catholic majority. Of an approximate population, in 1792, of 112,000, about 2,800 were ‘Protestants. As well as enjoying weight of numbers, the Catholic ‘interest’ was far from negligible in social and political terms. Nine hundred Protestant freeholders, worth £10 or more, polled at the last election before the Catholic relief act. By 1794 at least 170 Catholic freeholders had registered in the county. As in south Ulster this complex denominational and ‘ethnic’ geography ed to the drawing of ‘cultural and settlement frontiers’. Defenderism and the politics of sectarianism flourished.
In October 1792, at the peak of the Catholic agitation, a Catholic meeting was held at Trim, a town bitterly described some years later as ‘remarkable for being the residence of great numbers of the descendants of the prostitutes of Cromwell’s army’. The meeting, at which the Navan mill-owner John Fay was secretary, publicly regretted the ‘severe disposition of our Protestant brethren’. A Protestant counter-meeting quickly replied. At the end of that year a number of Protestant gentlemen, including Thomas Butler, formed the County Meath Association to counteract Defenderism. These were the men who routed the Defenders at Coolnahinch. Butler the chaplain to the bishop of Meath, lived at Ardbracken, a prosperous ‘English’ settlement, with the largest rural Protestant community in the county. By February 1793, when the heavily fortified bishop’s palace was likened to a ‘Bastille’, it was a community under siege. As a magistrate Butler played a leading role in combating the local Defenders and had allegedly ‘declared openly a determination of taking off as many papists heads for insurrection as there were royalists murdered in France’. Certainly he had earned a tough reputation and his life was repeatedly threatened. On 24 October the threats were fulfilled.
The local ascendancy party responded immediately. County magistrates met twice in quick succession and offered rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killers. Both meetings were attended by the bishop of Meath’s brother-in-law, and a landowner in the county, the Speaker, John Foster. A few days later John Fay was arrested for the murder of Butler. Foster’s part in these events, and the political implications of Fay’s arrest, aroused a good deal of speculation (and suspicion) at the time. Fay’s home town, Navan, had been forward during the Catholic campaign and hosted its own society of United Irishmen. The whole affair
In January, 1794, three Drogheda merchants who had been active in the Catholic Committee were charged, along with four others, with
Defender attacks in Louth in 1792. At the trial in April John Philpot Curran, in a masterly and witty cross-examination, demolished the credibility of the chief crown witness. During the course of this confrontation the witness admitted that he had, while a prisoner in Dundalk, spoken with Foster, but denied Curran’s heavy hints that he had been bribed to give evidence. Summing-up the judge pointed out ‘such circumstances as tended to discredit the witness’. The jury retired for three minutes before returning a verdict of not guilty. Some years later Curran remarked that the trials were ‘scenes of more atrocity and horror than he had ever seen exhibited in a court of justice’. The imprint which these trials left on the popular consciousness can be imagined. As late as 1810 Walter (Watty) Cox’s Irish Magazine alluded to Foster’s less than impartial role in these affairs. What was the law, radicals could now ask, only an instrument of persecution?
By reinforcing popular perceptions of the State as enemy, ‘persecution’, judicial and military, had ‘negative’ politicising effects. That interlocking process of repression and disaffection became particularly acute in the years from the summer of 1795 to the summer of 1798. One fed off the other. The ascendancy resorted to repression because it was under attack and because its representatives were themselves frequently the victims of this campaign of violence; repression stimulated counter-violence, and so the cycle continued. This relationship is illustrated by the often personalised nature of Defender attacks. Active magistrates like Butler were prime targets. Another Anglican clergyman and active magistrate in Meath,
This tougher ‘security policy’ was pursued within the context of a perceptible hardening of British attitudes towards Ireland. Again the Catholic question determined the situation. Shortly after the Portland Whigs formed a wartime coalition with Pitt on 11 July, 1794, the duke of Portland’s close associate, earl Fitzwilliam, emerged as the prospective lord lieutenant for Ireland. Fitzwiliam, a friend of Edmund Burke, had land and political connections across the Irish Sea. In August Grattan and George Ponsonby were invited to London, and Dublin was soon buzzing with rumours of an impending political shake-up. Fitzwilliam did, indeed, contemplate a ‘clean sweep’ of the existing administration, and within three days of his arrival in Dublin on 5 January, 1795, he sacked John Beresford, the first commissioner of the revenue. This rough handling of entrenched politicians was one reason for his undoing, the Catholic question the other. When it became known that this well-intentioned man would succeed Westmoreland hopes of full Catholic emancipation revived. In December the Dublin Catholics held a meeting attended by Keogh, McCormick and MacNevin, and issued a call for further Catholic relief. As in 1792 the leading Catholics then set about mobilising public opinion. A report of the proceedings of the meeting was circulated ‘throughout the kingdom’. At the end of January Grattan presented parliament with petitions from Antrim, Roscommon, Mayo, Leitrim, Waterford (town and county), Queen’s County, the cities of Galway, Kilkenny and Limerick and the towns of Newry, Navan, Castlebar and Sligo. As in 1792 an upsurge of Defender activity accompanied the rising political excitement.