Ireland’s Wars: Ribbonmen

We move now into the 19th century proper, a period of vast political and social change in Ireland. In terms of military history, the 19th century is an understudied and undernoticed era, especially the time between Robert Emmett’s rebellion and the beginnings of the Great Famine. Much like Mountjoy’s Peace after the Nine Years War or the Long Peace of the 18th century, large scale uprisings and regular military clashes ceased to occur in Ireland, and wouldn’t again until the Irish revolutionary period of 1916-1923.

But some violence, be it politically, economically or religiously motivated, did occur, and smaller scale rebellions were plotted and enacted. I’ll be covering all, or most, of them as we move forward, but it is fair to say that the military history of Ireland itself, in the 19th century, is hardly fallow land.

But there is a much wider focus that I can, and will, take, in the form of both Irish involvements in the British armed forces, in a variety of wars and colonials campaigns, and Irish involvement in other armies and other conflicts, like the independence movements in South America, either side of the American Civil War, or even the Italian Wars of Independence, in defence of the Papal States. As we move forward, I’ll jump back and forth between events in Ireland and events abroad, but a word of explanation now is merited: I can’t possibly cover every event of military significance that involved Ireland or the Irish. As before, I prioritise the events surrounding Irish military units over Irish individuals, and use my own discretion when it comes to the picking and choosing of violent clashes: not every secret society donnybrook or British campaign in the Empire deserves attention. All that being said, let’s get into it.

The time after the final end of the United Irishmen in Ireland was one loaded with political, social, economic and religious tension. The Union of Great Britain and Ireland was still a new thing, and movements to repeal this union and undo anti-Catholic legislation were already getting underway, led by established political figures like Henry Gratten and later by Irish historical behemoths like Daniel O’Donnell, whose Catholic Association would be founded in 1823. The wars on the continent against France would be ongoing until 1815, sucking in a large amount of Irish soldiers and sailors. A succession of poor potato and grain harvests – often forgotten due to the scale of the later Great Famine – left the questions of land, tenant rights and evictions as prominent issues. And the continued dominance of the Protestant Ascendency, along with the existence of institutions like the blatantly sectarian Orange Order, maintained the religious divide in Ireland, at nearly every level of society.

It is the issue of land and tenants that concerns us today. As previously discussed, secret societies of farmers and labourers, who acted collectively in order to protect what they saw as their personal rights and liberties when it came to the ownership and tilling of land, had existed in Ireland for some time, in groups like the Whiteboys and Defenders, and had been countered by largely Protestant organisations like the Peep ‘o Day Boys. While the defeat of the Irish peasantry in 1798 – including elements of the now defunct Defenders – had temporarily left the Irish Catholic farming underclass browbeaten and subdued, the state of affairs in Ireland, with so much power nominally in the hands of landlords, meant that further agrarian “outrages” were inevitable.

In the years towards and just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, a new series of secret societies began to emerge, that became known as “Ribbonmen”, due to their common identifying mark of a green ribbon tucked into a front pocket. “Ribbonism” was like earlier agrarian secret societies in many ways, but found much of its driving force in the farm labourer class as opposed to the farm owner or tenant.

The period of 1813-1845 was a tough time for this section of society. The work was hard, and constantly in danger from blight and bad weather. The pay was meagre, keeping labourers essentially trapped at the low end of the economic scale. The gradual movement from crop to cattle farming was reducing the required workforce on many farms. The price of grain was prone to immense fluctuation depending on various factors, and when it went up, landlords often cut back drastically on those in their employ, or acted with cruel efficiency in dumping tenants who could not afford previously agreed rents.

Lacking the kind of union system we know today, and with the law of the land largely favouring landlords in both word and action, groups like the Ribbonmen stepped in to defend tenant and labourer rights, and to fight back against perceived corruption in landlords. Common throughout Ireland, but particularly in Ulster and the midlands, the Ribbonmen were a truly new breed of secret society to those that had come in the past, and a progenitor of more to come in the 19th century: not for them the often disorganised and largely criminal brawl with rival groups that had characterised the actions of the Defenders. No, the Ribbonmen were more calculating and more careful, rightly wary of official retaliation.

Utilising public meeting days, like fairs and other similar events, to organise their efforts, the Ribbonmen operated as much against the tenant farmer as the landlord, who was often of the absentee variety anyway. Attacks, carried out against homes at night, were based on perceived violations of a code: the offence could be something as general as raising a rent to an unfair level, or something more specific, like the hiring of cheaper labourers from a neighbouring county. The Ribbonmen saw themselves as justified entity, bringing a natural righteousness when the actual law failed, and were remarkably successful in places, where the threat of a visit from them in the dead of night, bringing pitchforks, pikes and torches to bare, was enough to keep landlords and renting farmers in line.

There would be no stand-out leader figures in the Ribbonmen, and it is a testament to their lack of large-scale uprisings or sustained campaigns that they little feature in Irish songs or folk memory, in comparison to earlier groups. The Ribbonmen were not, for the most part, politically, or even religiously motivated, though they were almost entirely Catholic. They were, instead, simply part and parcel of rural life for a time, a means for the underrepresented to strike back and protect their ability to earn a living.

But they did face retaliation themselves at times, and other moments of opposition. In 1814 the first version of Irish police, that would eventually become the Royal Irish Constabulary, was created by Robert Peel’s Peace Preservation Act, to take over from the yeoman and militia units that had formerly helped upkeep law and order, but who had demonstrated such stark deficiencies in general competence and discipline during the United Irishman rebellion. These new forces, initially organised provincially, would see their first serious tests going up against the Ribbonmen, and in attempting to quell violence between the same and other groups. Over a hundred of the burgeoning RIC would be killed in the years before the famine, and hundreds more wounded, by societies like the Ribbonmen.

Despite the Ribbonmen’s efforts to localise their activities purely against their preferred targets, clashes with entities like the Orange Order were practically inevitable. An early incident in July 1813, before the Ribbonmen truly became a recognised phenomenon, is a good example. In the town of Garvagh, a small urban area in County Derry, a group commonly recognised afterwards as “Ribbonmen” attacked a pub that was a known meeting place of the Orange Order. The pre-warned Orangemen fired a few musket shots and killed a few Ribbonmen, who subsequently dispersed. The incident, somewhat exaggerated as “The Battle of Garvagh” in Protestant song, led to no convictions for anyone involved but stands as an early instance of sectarian-based violence involving the Ribbonmen, who otherwise did not engage in such actions.

Until, that is, later in the 19th century, when sustained combat between Ribbonmen and the Orange Order erupted. But that’s a story for another day, and another war: the recurring issue of the Irish tithe system.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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7 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Ribbonmen

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Dolly’s Brae | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Fenians Prepare | Never Felt Better

  6. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Land War | Never Felt Better

  7. Political Tourist says:

    Did Ribbonism truly go away?

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