The stage was set for yet another clash between the authorities and the Irish peasantry. The issue of tithes was now centre stage in the Irish political and cultural arena: government overreach and tenant retaliation would do the rest.
Efforts to create a consistent and common platform of tithe resistant were well and truly underway by 1831, with men like Patt Lawlor of Queen’s County, a future MP, pivotal to its survival in the early days. The process was simple: if enough of the lower class simply refused to pay the tithe, there was no way that the system could survive. The movement was not intended to be violent, but passive: those in vague leadership positions were prepared to deal with the consequences.
The campaign took off in the midlands and spread outwards. At first the authorities were of a mind to let things be and allow local clergy to sort out the matter themselves, if they could. Many attempted to do so, if they weren’t of the absentee variety. But with the growing refusal to pay, a need for a government counter push grow for those the tithe was owed to.
The first instance of the tithe resistance turning into a tithe war took place in the village of Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny, in March of 1831, when a particularly vehement curate demanded a tithe payment from a local Catholic priest. When the order was refused, the curate had the priest’s horse ceased in lieu of payment, stoking outrage in the vicinity, and even more non-payment from tenants and labourers. The situation quickly escalated: the local magistrate, with yeomanry forces, attempted mass cattle seizures, but was only partially successful, the locals banding together to keep watch and “hurry” their cattle away at the first sign of any government units marching their way. The efforts were largely pointless regardless: when the cattle or other livestock were sent for public auction to try and raise funds, locals would either organise a boycott of the auction, or attempt to violently disrupt it, sometimes leading to farcical scenes of horses or cows being sold next to an artillery escort.
It was at one of these bizarre auction scenes that first blood was shed. At Newtownbarry, County Wexford, a running battle erupted between locals and the Irish constabulary at the attempted auction of cattle seized by a local rector. Local authorities called in armed yeomanry, who opened fire on crowds pelting them with rocks: at least 12 were killed. The auction was called off.
Newtownbarry proved the start of something much more serious. The peasantry became more organised, using Church bells to warn of approaching troops or yeomanry coming to seize lifestock, and began to more actively target the Protestant clergy actually trying to get the tithe. In December of 1831, at Knocktopher, County Kilkenny, the local rector, Hans Hamilton, refused a request for the tithe to be reduced if not stopped entirely: mass non-payment was the result. Hamilton appealled to Dublin for help, and the government there authorised tithe processes relating to the defaulters.
A large constabulary bodyguard accompanied the men tasked with serving notices to the tenants, who antagonised the locals, stirring up immense resentment. On the 14th December, while travelling through a small county boreen in the Carrickshock townland, 40 of these men suddenly found themselves surrounded by a mass of prepared locals, who had been shadowing them for some time. Packed into a tight, confined space and assailed from all sides by rocks, pikes and hurleys, the police and land agents were unable to adequately defend themselves, despite having an advantages in arms. 11 were killed and a further 14 wounded before they were able to extricate themselves from the situation. Three locals were killed on the other side.
The “Carrickshock Incident” became a vital part of the overall struggle, used by the authorities as an example of what the Irish peasantry were capable of in the pursuit of undermining the government, and by the non-payers as an example of what they could achieve if their could stay united in the face of adversity. No one ever saw any prison time or judicial punishment for what had occurred: 11 were arrested, but a pro-active defence by Daniel O’Connell, combined with local intimidation of juries, combined to produce a series of mistrials and aquittal. The immediate effect of Carrickshock was for the collecting of tithes to be temporarily suspended.
It was only a temporary truce however, and for the next seven years the violence would continue, ebbing back and forth and putting the Irish Constabulary, still such a new entity, under the greatest pressure. It is important to note that, while dominated by Protestants, the Constabulary contained many Catholics: sectarian tension resulted from a disproportionate amount of casualties suffered by Protestant servicemen, indications perhaps that the Irish Catholic peasants were somewhat selective in who they targeted.
Protestant clergy, backed by yeomanry and other government units would continually attempt to extract the tithe payment and sell seized livestock at auction, and the peasantry would continually try and stop them. The results were often bloody, and the homicide rate in Ireland, along with reported burglaries, house burnings and other public order offences, sky-rocketed. The sight of armed police firing on massed peasantry became common, such as at Rathcormac, County Cork, in 1834, when Constabulary, backed by British regular troops, killed 14 and wounded 42 more in pursuit of a tithe payment reportedly to the value of 40 shillings.
The tithe war went hand in hand with the continuing political movements of Daniel O’Connell, who held the first of his famous “monster meetings” in Ballyhale in 1832, not far from where the Carrickshock Incident had taken place. 200’000 people – truly astonishing numbers for the day – attended to hear O’Connell condemn tithes and encourage continuing resistance.
While the amount of truly notable incidents petered out as the conflict continued, evidence of a lack of will to collect tithes in many areas, the violence would not stop until after 1838, when the British government essentially admitted defeat. A series of laws gradually reduced and then largely did away with the tithe system altogether, simply adding a reduced payment to a tenants rent, before they were phased out entirely in 1869 with the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. It was a long game, but one that the Irish peasantry won in the end.
The tithe war demonstrates the continuing evolution of the Irish Catholic underclass from an abused sub-section of society to one that was getting a firmer grasp on what it was capable of. If united, determined and holding to a clear goal, they could use their numerical superiority over local police and army units to the full, and force real social and legislative change, the kind that only a few decades before had appeared inconceivable.
In the middle of this maelstrom stood O’Connell, still the most important Irish Catholic politician of his day, and with the kind of mass popularity that made the Dublin authorities very nervous. What O’Connell would make of that popularity remained to be seen.
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