It was in the 1830’s that the agrarian unrest in Ireland, characterised by the emergence of the Ribbonmen movement, really exploded into something much more dangerous than the occasional harassment of an unjust landlord. It was a time in Ireland of great legal change that inevitably created the impetus for more to be sought, and this, in combination with old fashioned authoritarian over-reaction, produced the conditions for a new kind of conflict.
Much of it all went back to the historical behemoth that is Daniel O’Connell, arguably the most famous Irishman never to have a military career of any kind, leaving aside some brief and altogether un-noteworthy volunteer service in the 1790’s. Indeed, O’Connell had little time for violent attempts at political change, condemning the United Irishmen and men like Robert Emmett vigorously, as he studied the law and became an accomplished barrister. O’Connell foresaw that his fellow Irish Catholics would have more success if they sought change in their status via political means. To that end, he founded the Catholic Association in 1823 to campaign for Catholic emancipation, the defining political issue of the period in Great Britain. So worried were the establishment by the Association that they essentially attempted to ban it in 1825 with the “Unlawful Societies Act”, which also, coincidentally, targeted the Orange Order, the Protestant society that had rapidly grown out of control, and could no longer be tolerated by the more conservative members of the Ascendency.
After raising a great deal of money, dealing with a great many legal challenges and being elected to a Parliament he could not legally sit in without abandoning his faith, O’Connell won out. The British government, then led by the Irish-born Duke of Wellington, agreed that Catholic emancipation was not only inevitable, but a necessity, in order to forestall the possibility of another Catholic rebellion in Ireland, which would surely occur if O’Connell’s group continued to be held up at every turn. In 1829, legislation essentially repealed all that was left of the old Penal Laws, allowing Catholics to hold high offices and to sit in Parliament without disregarding their faith. At the same time of course, the requirements for voting – to own land of a certain value – went up, drastically reducing the voting power of Irish Catholics. It was the middle class that benefitted most, and not those scrapping a living off the land.
For them, recourse to the Ribbonmen remained one of the only options they had for redress against landlords and others who were denying them fair rents or fixity of tenure, and some manner of protection in the face of food shortages whenever famine hit: a bad one, for the pre-1845 days, arrived in the summer of 1830, causing food riots in places like Limerick and Leitrim. By the 1820’s the Ribbonmen had started to change somewhat though, becoming a more overtly political grouping, even if they were as scattered and inconsistent as ever. More like the Defenders of old, the Ribbonman name now began to be associated with a firmer rivalry with the Orange Order.
Catholic emancipation came as a shock and a blow for organisation like the Orange Order, who still remembered 1798 vividly and feared that granting the Catholic majority more power would lead to a loss of their own. The reaction was a violent one. The, by now, traditional celebration of the Battle of the Boyne, “the Twelfth” parades, were banned in Belfast in 1829 due to their inherent linking with the Orange Order, whose extreme actions and often violent sectarianism had made them unpopular in the very circles they had once found many members. The result was rioting and bloodshed from the Protestant class, that rapidly spread outside of Belfast and Antrim, into neighbouring Tyrone and Armagh. At least 20 people were killed before the nascent police authorities were able to enforce order.
The following year, the cycle of violence surrounding the 12th of July continued, now as the Orange Order began to more openly clash with those identified as “Ribbonmen”. Catholics would impede parades, or be targeted by them in their marching routes, and violence became inevitable, after which a wave of reprisals was the likeliest result. Home burnings became common in the period. The mostly Catholic village of Marghery, in County Armagh, was almost entirely destroyed by fire in 1830, set by Orange Order members angered after their marching drums were destroyed by Ribbonmen.
A booming population made up mostly of a Catholic underclass, the constant threat of famine, clashes with sectarian societies and political disenfranchisement: all of the conditions were there for the kind of rebellion that had started in 1798. It merely needed the right spark, and things could get rapidly out of control in Ireland.
And a major source of kindling was the tithe system. Those working the land in Ireland had a legal obligation to pay a tax, known as a tithe, to the Protestant Church of Ireland, regardless of their own religious affiliation (which was, of course, nearly entirely Catholic). The tithe system was long standing but ever hated: over 10% of the value of certain produce was required to go to the Church of Ireland, a crippling obligation for many farmers, who were often paying money or crops to absentee clerics.
All the while what little government support for the Catholic religion that existed was being eroded, such as with the discontinuation of the “Maynooth grant”, whereby a yearly stipend was paid for the upkeep of a Catholic seminary in the town of Maynooth, County Kildare. Catholic priests forced to live on voluntary contributions from the poor, while their Protestant counterparts enjoyed both government backing and a tax system to their benefit, did not find it hard to become agitators for change.
Inspired by the success of O’Connell’s political campaigning, a movement to oppose tithes began to form, which was to be non-violent in nature, essentially a mass non-payment that would force the authorities to recognise the injustice and impracticality of the tithe system. But sparks can come from unlikely sources: the tithe war was a result of one such spark.
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