The rise of agrarian based secret societies in Ireland, for the purpose of providing a viable resistance to the increasingly disputed rule of landlords, was becoming a dominating aspect of the 18th century, with the Whiteboys in Munster and the Hearts of Oak further north showing that the capacity for the underclasses to organise had not been completely wiped out in the previous years of war, repression or famine. British counter-moves had managed to settle the situation in Ireland down again, but it was only in the short-term: before the end of the 18th century, the violence involving such societies would spring up again, in more devastating fashion.
As with the Hearts of Oak, the focal point was the county of Armagh, which at that time was one of the most populous in Ireland, with a large population of both Catholics and Protestants. Resentment between the two communities was never completely hidden, though it only became a problem for the authorities on select occasions up to the final decades of the 1700’s. Catholics hated the Penal Laws and the Protestant Ascendency, which discriminated against them purely on the basis of religion and prevented them from improving their station in life. Protestants hated the underclass that had risen up before, and that they felt threatened their security and way of life.
As the Penal Laws were gradually relaxed, ignored more and more, and then underwent a process of abolition, Protestant fears and concerns grew. Special concern was given to the relaxing of rules prohibiting the recruitment of Catholics into the armed services, the arming of Catholics as part of local militia forces and increased voting rights for Catholics that held land of a certain size. For the first time in years, Catholics were outbidding Protestants for land in some areas, and in Armagh, where land was at a premium in conjunction with the vital local linen trade, this produced widespread Protestant dissatisfaction.
Where once only the occasional riot in urban areas would disturb the peace, now things began to get more serious. In the mid 1780’s, a several groups were formed after a series of incidents, to act, essentially, as armed sectarian gangs. Known as “fleets”, they included the Nappach Fleet of Edenknappach, the Bawn Fleet of Hamilton’s Bawn, and the Brass Fleet from the Bunker’s Hill area of Edenknappach, who would soon become more commonly known as the Bunker’s Hill Defenders. The first two were mostly Protestant, though the Bawn Fleet was actually led by a Catholic, while the Brass Fleet – better known eventually as just “the Defenders” – was predominantly Catholic.
The groups would clash, basing their actions around inter-personal feuds, with a barely disguised sectarian bent to everything. In 1785, the three attempted to engage in a large scale fight on Bunker’s Hill, but this was broken up by the actions of a local MP. In the aftermath, the Protestants and Catholics in the various groups started to coalesce around each other more, with the Nappach Fleet becoming what was known as the “Peep o’ Day Boys”.
The name came from their common tactic of raiding Catholic homes at daybreak. At first, the Peep o’ Day Boys did this in the name of enforcing the Penal Laws that prevented Catholics from keeping arms, obliquely encouraged by the lack of response from the majority Protestant Volunteers (an entity for another entry). This was really only a pretext of course: Peep o’ Day activities soon extended to looting, vandalism, the destroying of weaving equipment, and just general intimidation. House burning followed, and the existence of “wreckers”, members of the Peep o’ Day group who destroyed everything they could in Catholic homes, was soon even being debated in the British Parliament. To further confirm the view that the attacks held an economic as well as a sectarian motivation, poorer Catholic homes were rarely targeted, the Peep o’ Day Boys preferring the richer Catholic farms with closer connections to the Linen trade.
The activities of the Peep o’ Day Boys were condemned by the authorities, but it took a long time for anything to actually be done, with the Protestant Ascendency still being what it was. Local constabulary operated only during the day, and most magistrates had a fairly obvious anti-Catholic bias. Some Protestant gentry chose to take matters into their own hands by arming Catholics in their lands for the purposes of providing a means of self-defence, arguably just making the situation worse.
When it came to counter-moves, it was the Defenders making the biggest impact. They were no longer just that “Fleet”, but a series of different independent groupings, Catholics banding together to provide night-time patrols and to gather arms. As the disturbances lasted longer and longer, connections between all of these groupings, for the purposes of resource finding and common defence, began to be made. By the 1790’s, the Defenders had become a full blown secret fraternal organisation, with a defined leadership and structure. It is important to note that they still, and indeed nearly always, professed a loyalty to the British crown. But they simply had to do something to protect their homes against attack, though it is fair to say that they too engaged in their fair share of intimidation and offensive operations against Protestants, landowners or otherwise.
The Defenders and the Peep o’ Day Boys were soon clashing regularly in Armagh, and beyond, with vicious fights particularly noted in County Leitrim around 1793, that many contemporary commentators compared to all-out rebellion. A huge military response – a practical occupation of the county – stemmed the violence in Leitrim, but it was already spreading elsewhere. Night-time encounters as the Defenders attempted to stop the raiding of Catholic homes were common, but as time went by things escalated to the point that any major public gathering, such as fairs, markets or races, was liable to become a location for a clash between the two organisations. The fighting of fleets was no new thing in Ireland, indeed sources suggest that it part and parcel of life in some areas, but the scale and intensity of the fighting between the Peep o’ Day Boys and the Defenders caused a great deal of alarm. Deaths occurred, and a large amount of property damage also.
It was only several years into this low-level conflict – “war” would be a bit much – that the Dublin authorities made a move to do anything, first sending in light cavalry, and then infantry, to the areas in question. But they were essentially hamstrung by their inability, or refusal, to operate at night, and so the violence continued. When companies of the Volunteers attempted to keep the peace, their essentially Protestant nature resulted in the move backfiring. Seen by many Catholics as legalised Peep o’ Day Boys, fighting between Catholics and the Volunteers occurred frequently, with one incident at Tullysaren in late 1788 resulting in several deaths. All the while, the local courts continually acquitted those accused of Peep o’ Day activities, while convicting Defenders. The Volunteer intervention simply made things worse, and by 1789 churches of both religions were being targeted.
The circular nature of the violence – raid, counter-raid, attack, reprisal – would continue for several more years. The militia, founded in 1793, was soon being used regularly as a weapon against Defenders, with the result of numerous small clashes and skirmishes throughout Ireland, with a rising death toll. In 1795, probably the most famous incident of the period, the so called “Battle of the Diamond” took place. The Diamond in question was a crossroads in Antrim, between Loughall and Portadown, in a mostly Protestant area. Two sizable groups of Defenders and Peep o’ Day Boys had come to some sort of agreement to have a showdown at that point in September of that year; rumour and knowledge of the impending confrontation was widespread, to the point where it is practically impossible that authorities were not aware it was to take place.
The lead-up to the “battle” is a bit blurry, but it appears as if there were serious attempts to get the fight called off by those close to the respective parties, and an agreement to that effect might even have been reached. But on the 21st, for whatever reason, the Defenders, 300 or so of them, moved to attack the Peep o’ Day Boys where they had camped, on a hill north-west of the Diamond. The Peep o’ Day Boys, better led and better armed – allegedly with Volunteer muskets – resisted the attack successfully, killing 30 of the “enemy” for no losses of their own. In the aftermath, a group of the Peep o’ Day Boys present at the fighting founded the Orange Order, to act as a more organised group for the defence of the Protestant Ascendency.
In the more medium term, the result of the Diamond clash precipitated the so-called “Armagh Outrages”, a period in 1795 and 1796 when Peep o’ Day Boy activity became so large-scale that thousands of Catholics were forced to flee the county and, indeed, the newly constituted Orange Order, seeking to stake a claim to more legitimacy than its progenitor groups, was obligated to disassociate itself as best as it could from the more extreme element. “Defenderism”, in the face of this sectarian onslaught and the seeming lack of care from the British authorities, spread rapidly throughout other parts of Ireland. In those final years of the 18th century, ahead of the explosion of violence that would mark the year 1798, the Defenders would intermingle significantly with entities like the United Irishmen. But that is a story for another day.
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