1798 Ireland

THE RISE OF THE DEFENDERS 1793-5 (Continued. Part II)

From The men of no property, Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the Late Eighteenth Century, by Jim Smyth, 1992.
The Defender problem had persisted through 1794, sometimes flaring up dramatically. In May Defenders descended upon a fair in County Cavan declaring that "they would destroy every Scotsman or Presbyterian they should find". One estimate put the death toll from this riot at over 30. Two days afterwards the army confronted ‘several thousand’ Defenders at the nearby village of Ballinaugh. Another 15 were killed and the troops burned the village to the ground. By this stage the focus of Defender activity was moving from Meath and from the sectarian feuding in Armagh, to the south Ulster, north Connaught region. In July and August disturbances were reported from Cavan, Westmeath, Leitrim, Longford, Roscommon and Sligo. Nor did the arrival of Fitzwilliam at the beginning of January 1795, and with it the prospects of Catholic emancipation, bring any respite. In fact Fitzwilliam complained that not a day passed after his arrival that did not bring news of unrest in the countryside. His recall in February did, however, instantly raise the political temperature.

Fitzwilliam had handled his brief ineptly. He made powerful enemies in Beresford and Fitzgibbon, both of whom lobbied against him in London. The king likewise left Pitt in no doubt about his opposition to further instalments of Catholic relief. Pitt, moreover, believed that Fitzwilliam had overstepped his authority. On 23 February the lord lieutenant was sent notice of recall. A number of contemporaries later looked back to Fitzwilliam’s dismissal as the critical moment in the crisis of the 1790s. Charles Teeling called it a ‘national insult’ and recorded the indignation which he had witnessed at the Antrim freeholdres meeting called to protest against the decision. Such scenes of public outrage were repeated across Ireland and the United Irish ‘system’ began to assume a more ‘general and imposing appearance’. In Wexford Edward Hay collected 22,251 signatures. Some years later he wrote of ‘the cup of redress [being] dashed from the lips of expectation, and it cannot be wondered at that the anger of disappointment should have ensued’. Levels of violence markedly increased. As early as 3 march large areas of Cavan, Roscommon and Sligo were characterised as ‘actually in a state of insurrection’. The Northern Star suggested that ‘the rejection of the Catholic Bill [which followed the recall] . . . gives the insurgents a plea for disaffection’.

Now that the political option had been closed off – Camden, Fitzwilliam’s successor, was explicitly instructed that ‘a stand should be made against the further claims of the Catholics’ – the government turned to counter-insurgency. Within days of taking up office the new lord lieutenant informed his superiors in London that ‘the quiet of the country depends upon the exertion of the friends of the established government, backed by a strong military force’ The reasons why the British government abandoned its previous strategy of conciliation for the politics of confrontation are unclear. It has been suggested that after the relief acts of 1792-3 the British government considered the ‘conciliation account’ closed, or alternatively, that Pitt wished to hold concessions in reserve to barter, at some future date, for Catholic support for a union. Pitt may also have been reluctant to undermine England’s Protestant garrison in Ireland during wartime. Whatever the reasoning which lay behind the new hardline policies the consequences were disastrous: repression, disaffection and violence.

In April eleven revenue officers were ambushed an killed after raiding an illicit still at Drumsna, County Leitrim. Their bodies, ‘most inhumanly mangled’, were only recovered the next day. ‘Whether this event gave [the Defenders] spirit,’ wrote Camden:

or drove them to desperation from an apprehension of the consequences, I know not. But from that period the numbers assembled were greater, and they proceeded with more system and appearance of order than they had previously done. One of the first acts of violence and of system was to put all the smiths in requisition, compelling them to make pikes.

In addition to worrying indications of ‘system’ and ‘order’, the authorities must also have been concerned by signs of politicisation, for instance, by the information which they had received that ‘the insurgents assume alternately the appellation of Defenders – United Brothers – and French Militia’, and that there was a ‘confused notion’ amongst them that a ‘general rising’ would soon take place. Large numbers of troops under the command of General Carhampton were dispatched to Connaught. Although he did not anticipate ‘very strong measures’, Camden, confident of the English cabinet’s support, was prepared to sanction methods ‘beyond what the very letter of the law allows’. A stance endorsed by Whitehall as ‘perfectly just, manly and liberal’. In June a Dublin paper referred to accounts ‘from various parts of the country’, ‘of the most atrocious acts committed by the soldiery on the poor unoffending peasants’. By the beginning of October Carhampton, in a wholly illegal exercise, had arrested 1,300 ‘Defenders’ without charge or trial, and sent them aboard a tender anchored off Sligo, for service in the fleet. The lord lieutenant was ‘a little afraid of the zeal of the magistrates carrying this too far’, but felt that ‘it had frightened these fellows more than anything’. His under-secretary took a more sceptical – and as events were to show – more realistic – view of the efficacy of repression. ‘Defenderism puzzles me more and more,’ he confided, ‘but ultimately grows more alarming daily, as the effect of executions seems to be at an end, and there is an enthusiasm defying punishment’. Strongarm tactics could prove counter-productive.

After the Fitzwilliam episode and the mass arrests by Carhampton, the situation took yet another sharp turn for the worse. Remembered in Ireland as the incident which gave birth to the Orange Order, the so-called ‘battle of the Diamond’, which took place in north Armagh in September, 1795, and, even more so, the expulsions from the county which followed, are important in the 1790s for the effect which they had of further discrediting the ascendancy in Catholic eyes and of swelling the ranks of the Defenders and United Irishmen. Armagh had been plagued by sectarian feuding since the mid-1780s. In December 1794, for example, Defenders and Peep O’Day Boys, ‘young boys and idle journeymen weavers’, clashed at a fair. After the twelfth of July celebrations the following year a group of Catholics were attacked near Portadown. The tensions which such incidents revealed culminated in the set-piece battle at the Diamond, a townland appropriately close to Loughgall, over ten years before the ‘cradle’ of Defenderism. Although heavily reinforced by contingents from the neighbouring areas of Down, Derry and, particularly, Tyrone, the Defenders were badly beaten, suffering between 17 and 48 fatalities. This rout was then followed by the mass expulsion of Catholics. At least one church was burned down and Catholic homes and property – looms, webs and yarn – were destroyed. As the attacks continued through the winter and spread into Tyrone, Derry and Monaghan, the exodus was accelerated by the circulation of a prophecy foretelling great calamities about to befall the Catholics of the north. Estimates of the number of refugees ran from 3,500 to 10,000. Meanwhile the magistrates, many of them clergymen, displayed resolute partiality. In the opinions of General Dalrymple, then stationed in the north, ‘they seem[ed] inclined to give this contest an appellation that ought in prudence ever to be avoided, a religious dispute’. The county governor, Lord Gosford, addressing a meeting of magistrates there on 28 December, denounced the ‘ruthless persecution’ of the Catholics and ‘the supineness of the magistracy of Armagh’. This he noted, had ‘become a common topic of conversation in every corner of the kingdom’. If it had not, it was soon to be, as thousands of copies of the address were printed and distributed gratis. The refugees fled in many directions: to Antrim, Down and even Scotland. But by far the greatest number, maybe as many as 4,000, resettled in north Connaught. They carried with them tales of persecution and over the coming years the fear of ‘Orange’ massacres was skilfully exploited as a recruiting agent by the United Irishmen. The expulsions were not soon forgotten. The Defenders at the battle of Randalstown in 1798 carried a banner inscribed ‘REMEMBER ARMAGH’.

Undoubtedly the experience and perception of repression and injustice helped to spread and to deepen popular alienation from the government. It gave sustenance to Defenderism and the United Irishmen, just as the mounting tide of violence stiffened the ascendancy’s resolve. The ‘rise’ of the Defenders, then, was essentially a political phenomenon, inspired by Catholic agitation and the French revolution, and accelerated by repression and sectarian conflict. Yet traditionally they have been characterised, to use Lecky’s words, as a ‘revived Whiteboy system’. According to Thomas Pakenham their grievances were local, connected to the land and empty of political content. Although this view is no longer tenable it would be a mistake to entirely dismiss social and economic explanations. There is no necessary reason, after all, why such explanations should be incompatible with political ones. And in fact, the political and public order crisis of the 1790s was compounded by an economy and society under unusual stress. As the population explosion exerted greater and greater pressure on land, real wages plummeted against rising prices. As the government struggled to meet the bill for a hugely expensive war, taxation steadily increased. Relentless demographic pressure and severe economic hardship stimulated conflict between landlord and tenant – familiar terrain for the Irish secret society. Nor did the Defenders neglect agrarian matters. In Roscommon they even succeeded in forcing the graziers to raise wages and lower conacre rents. In another sense the movements’ ultimate aim, ‘to divide the land’, was agrarian too. Nevertheless, the classic Whiteboy grievances occupied a distinctly subordinate place among Defender priorities.

The significance of Defenderism, historically and for the politics of the period, lay in the way in which it transcended local and immediate issues – in the qualitative leap, which it represented, from rural discontent to mass disaffection. To the authorities this was a worrying and, as Cooke’s remark indicates, startling development. To the radical elite it offered rich opportunities. In order to tap the disaffection produced by the sequence of events from the militia riots to the Armagh expulsions, the United Irishmen had first to work out an accommodation with the Defenders, an accommodation which altered the course of revolutionary politics. What follows examines Defenderism as it has evolved by mid-decade; at the crucial moment when it was about to ‘merge’ into a revolutionary coalition with the United Irishmen.


Defender ideology is difficult to pin down. The Defenders did not have a set of politics, like a political party, and any discussion of their aspirations, prejudices and beliefs, runs the risk of imposing retrospective coherence on what was in reality a tangled skein of half-formed ‘ideas’. Bearing this in mind , the main elements which made up the Defender mentality are clear enough. The best evidence for this mentality comes from the movement’s oaths and catechisms. The symbolism employed in these documents, a protean, inchoate compound of Biblical allusions and references to Irish history and the French revolution, gave the Defenders an attractive sense of mystique. One example of obfuscation, the password ‘ELIPHISMATIS’, was seized upon by the government-sponsored Faulkners Dublin Journal, which obligingly deciphered it as:
Every Loyal Irish Protestant Heretic I Shall Murder And This I Swear.

With nice irony, but equal plausibilty, the rival Dublin Evening Post suggested a number of alternatives including:
Every Lunatic In Patrick’s Hospital I Swear May Answer That Is Silly.

The inspiration is probably masonic. In the early 1780s, for instance, the Belfast Freemasons had a toast which ran ‘May every mason who stands in need of friendship be able to say EYPHA – I have found it’.

Fortunately, not all Defender language is quite so opaque. ‘Are you concerned?’ begins a typical catechism,

I am
To what?
To the National Covention.
What do you design by that cause?
To quell all nations, dethrone all kings and plant the true religion that was lost since the reformation.
What do you fall by?
What do you rise by?
Where did the cock first crow that all the world heard?
In France.
What is your password?

According to another, ‘The French Defenders will uphold the cause and the Irish Defenders will pull down the British laws’. Defender ‘ideology’ combined elements of religious sectarianism, nationalism – the vague notion, as Emmet put it, that ‘something . . . ought to be done for Ireland,’ – francophilia and millenarianism. The theme of ‘deliverance’ jostles in these documents with Irish history; Saint Peter and Saint John with Patrick Sarsfield. When this sometimes bizarre collocation of imagery meshed with straightforward agrarian protest, Defenderism could mean almost anything to anyone. It was not a theoretical construct but a genuinely popular ideology, spontaneously generated from ‘below’ in response to the crisis of the 1790s; a loose, fluid cluster of ideas which tapped the sources of lower-class Catholic solidarity: religion and nationality.

The use of passwords and catechisms, as well as hand-signals, tokens and ‘certificates’, enabled Defenders to identify each other, maintained security, facilitated communication between lodges and indulged the perennial human taste for secrecy and ritual. These elaborate devices also had a self-legitimising function. A Defender ‘captain’, a schoolmaster, captured at Letterkenny in Donegal, had a ‘commission, with a large seal to it, a parchment muster roll’ listing 400 names, and ‘an address to the republicans of Ireland, signed Pichergru, General of the French Republic’. In Galway, Defenders raiding for arms ‘produced a card signed Captain Stout’.

The Defenders developed a remarkably sophisticated and flexible organisation. An expanding network of lodges had been built up through the agencies of ‘contagion’ – Defender territory ran across a geographically contiguous belt, stretching from north Leinster through south Ulster into north Connaught – emissaries and the militia. It was inevitable, given the system of balloting, that Defenders would be inducted into their county militia regiments. Members of these regiments, which were then stationed in other counties, administered the Defender oath to the locals. Unsurprisingly the Meath militia was particularly noted for this practice. As Defenderism spread it did not, at first evolve any formal hierarchy or central leadership. Rather it developed a loosely federated ‘horizontal’ structure. Lodges were numbered in sequence as they were established and co-ordinated in a low-level way by Masonic techniques. Once initiated any Defender might, it was claimed, travel through the country ‘ free of expense and in perfect safety, being supplied with liquor and lodged wherever they passed’.

The federated, cellular, structure was an effective form of clandestine organisation insofar as it proved more spy-resistant (though not entirely spy-proof) than the United Irishmen’s centrally-led pyramidal one, When an informer infiltrated a Defender lodge, he tended to stop there, whereas penetration of a local United Irish committee could give access, up through the baronial, county and provincial layers, to greater quantities of high quality information. For the historian, so often reliant on the same sources as were at the disposal of Dublin Castle, this presents more than the usual problems. Probably we will never know as much about the Defenders as we do about the United Irishmen, although more evidence survives, perhaps, than was once thought.

Beames notes the ‘striking omission from Defender documents . . . of any reference to agrarian grievance’. This observation, while true, is somewhat misleading. Agrarian grievances do feature in the reports of Defender activity. However, the omission does provide an important clue about the social profile of Defender membership. This was not a peasant movement. Weavers, blacksmiths, or Dublin’s urban craftsmen were as likely to be members as small peasant proprietors or agricultural labourers. Workers on the Royal Canal, for instance, ‘above 100’ of them refugees from Armagh, were organised into Defender lodges. Camden thought that the leadership was drawn from among ‘Alehouse-keepers, artisans, low schoolmasters and perhaps a few middling farmers’. This corresponds with other, ‘harder’, information. An imprisoned Defender from Longford named the committee-men in his lodge as a shopkeeper, a schoolmaster, a shoemaker and ‘two gentlemen’. Another Defender prisoner, this time form Louth, described the local ‘captains’ as ‘men of substance’. These descriptions, while many remain characteristically imprecise in the eighteenth-century style, are nonetheless revealing. Defender membership represents a cross-section of rural society below the level of gentry, it attracted the ‘middling sort’ as well as the ‘peasantry’ and men of no property.
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