While the Wild Geese were tramping up and down European battlefields, and Irish regiments in the British Army were going as far afield as the North American colonies, life continued in Ireland, where the Protestant Ascendency, thanks to the Penal Laws, remained firmly in place. The laws were on a gradual roll towards abolition, and the movement towards Catholic Emancipation would pick up steam well before the end of the 18th century. But the subservient position of Catholics remained a reality in Ireland in the 1760’s, when the first vestiges of a popular resistance began to become evident.
But it would not find its genesis in Catholic noblemen or French intervention, as many would have expected. Instead, it would be the lowliest peasants who would begin to form the latest pushback against the British authorities, initiating a long lasting low-level conflict with Protestant counterparts, which would mark much of the latter half of the 18th century.
It is the altogether thrilling world of land rents and cattle grazing that we must look to for an initial explanation. Throughout the 18th century, the amount of land used in Ireland for the grazing of cattle and for the rearing of beef cattle, increased dramatically. Part of this was due to financial factors, greater land reclamation and problems with land that could not adequately bear crops, but a major factor was the exception granted to land used for cattle from the collection of tithes, the 10% tax owed to the Anglican Church. Many landlords aimed to take advantage of this by closing off common areas of pasturage on their land, which had previously been allocated for the grazing of those tenant farmers paying rents. Rents had increased in lieu of this, but they stayed at the same rate even after common areas began to be closed off. The resulting agitation, from farmers who were largely of the subsistence variety, was inevitable, especially in the face of landlords who were often absentee. The smaller tenant farmers and labourer class were being forced off the land, and, of course, they were nearly all Catholic.
In 1761, what became known as the “Whiteboys”, due to their common clothing of a white smock that was worn by the membership, and the white cockades – a Jacobite symbol – that they often brandished as well, came into being. This was a secret agrarian society, who committed themselves to organising in numbers for the purposes of fighting back against moves towards enclosures, rack-rents, the collection of tithes and other things that were the source of friction between landlord and tenants. Beginning in Limerick and spreading out to large parts of the rest of Munster, the Whiteboy “outrages” were a major event of the 1760’s.
At first, their activities were non-violent. Secret meetings at night, military style “drilling” at assemblies, the breaking of gates and the destruction of ditches all took place. Soon, the hamstringing or killing of cattle became a common tactic, and soon after so did the posting of proclamations decrying landlords, tax and tithe collectors and those who rented lands that had once belonged to an expelled farmers. Threats became common, along with calls for boycotts (though they did not yet carry that name).
Initially, it would seem that the British authorities considered the Whiteboys to be a law enforcement issue, and not a threat to be taken with the utmost seriousness. But as time went on, the Whiteboy tactics and operations became more daring, and thus drew more attention. Whiteboy marches became more militaristic, with the playing of Jacobite anthems often accompanying. Whiteboy groups began gathering arms, taking them off local forces, or taking money that they claimed would be used for the procurement of guns.
This flew in the face of the Penal Laws, that banned Catholics from owning guns or forming such groups, and Whiteboys began getting more and more violent, firing weapons in the direction of barrack buildings, attacking houses of those who failed to support them, burning the homes of soldiers and, in one case, attacking a jail and freeing prisoners inside it at Tallow. Locals, Protestant and Catholic, were terrified of the group and the potential power they had, and exaggerated claims that tens of thousands of Whiteboys were ready to rise up violently against the government were widespread. Soon, any and every crime committed in the country was being blamed on Whiteboys, which simply aided in the aggrandisement of their campaign. For all that, it was not a decidedly bloody era, and only a few murders here and there could really be laid at the feet of the organisation, who were more likely to beat their targets and leave them tied up in a ditch than kill them. There are stories of the mutilation of faces, though even these were rare, and may well have just been an outcome of, and ample fodder for, anti-Catholic hysteria.
The local authorities realised they had to react in a stronger fashion than they already had. A major flashpoint of the period was the arrest and trial of Nicholas Sheehy, a Catholic priest and prominent campaigner against the Penal Laws. Arrested in conjunction with an investigation into the death of an informer, he was found guilty of being an accessory to murder and executed: the trial is regarded by most today to have been an example of judicial homicide.
Mass arrests, carried out by soldiers and Protestant militia, began to take place throughout the main areas of Whiteboy activity, in Limerick, Cork, Tipperary and Waterford. In a brief bit of violent engagement with alleged Whiteboys and sympathisers, several were killed in Clogheen, County Tipperary. Warrants and bounties were placed on the heads of Whiteboys, and the repression against them and any thought to be aiding them grew was great that the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland worried that a famine might result from the people abandoning their land for the safety of mountains.
The clampdown of the authorities, backed up by the armed element of the Protestant ascendency, diminished the activities of the Whiteboys for a time, but they would never go away completely, flaring up again in a larger sense in Leinster during the 1770’s and in some brief periods beyond.
The Whiteboys were only the beginning of agrarian societies in Ireland agitating for tenant rights. In Armagh, at around the same that the Whiteboys were forming in Munster, a similar group dubbed the “Hearts of Oak”, due to the common identifying mark of a piece of oak, usually on a hat, were coming together. Along with the usual disputes over tithes and pasturage, this group, who also went by the name “Oakboys” or “Greenboys” had a specific grievance over the requirement for the peasant class to devote a specific portion of their time and labour to building, repairing or extending road networks. By the 1760’s, a tax was also being levied for this purpose.
The Hearts of Oak, by reputation, could garner huge numbers for meetings, even taking into account the possibility of exaggeration. Degrees of community intimidation were probably a reality in order to swell numbers, but regardless, there were enough members that they had a potentially frightening capability. Standard Oakboy tactics were to assemble en masse, march to the home of whoever they had a grievance with, be they landlord, magistrate or clergyman, and insist that they make a sworn declaration in regards whatever grievance was being discussed. With the threat of violence – the Hearts of Oak are reported to have constructed gallows near targeted homes to get their point across – the declarations were usually made, but under such duress that they became largely meaningless. Actual violence was rare. Somewhat uniquely, membership of the Hearts of Oak extended beyond the expected Catholic underclass, to include Protestants of various sects, who disagreed with the “cess” tax as much as anyone else.
The Hearts of Oak won some success in the way they operated, to the extent that groups of them began to also pop up in other areas of Ulster. By 1763 the government had dispatched troops to the affected areas. The presence of armed soldiers was enough to cause many Hearts of Oak groups to disband without offering any resistance, though some brief fighting did occur in a few instances, at the cost of a few dead. Bu Autumn of that year, with the help of a general amnesty offered to all members, the Hearts of Oak had become largely defunct.
While the British military had done enough to limit or dismantle the activities of the above agrarian organisations, they were unable to stem the flow completely. Discontentment with the status of land in Ireland would never be assuaged, and when combined with the sectarianism that defined so much of Irish law and rights, further uproar, “outrages” and violence was inevitable. Armagh, with its large population balanced precariously between Protestant and Catholic affiliations, would be a hotbed for such disputes. British efforts to relax or abolish the Penal Laws in the 1770’s and after would provide a potent spark.
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