Limerick Through the Ages: Agrarian Agitation in Munster – Published Limerick Life Newspaper, October 2017

The aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion saw a flame of agrarian agitation reignite in Cork, Tipperary and Limerick.  This time, however, the rules of the game had changed: lethal force was now an option.

As mentioned in the previous edition, late 18th century Ireland was a difficult place for the tenant farmer or labourer, who generally worked for members of the Protestant Ascendancy.  They would usually tend the land or animals belonging to the local landowner, who in turn would rent them back a small plot of their own, enough for a shack and small vegetable bed.  This relationship was often fractious, with the tenant farmer or sharecropper (‘croppie’) forced to use his meagre earnings to pay land rent, state taxes and church tithes.  Fixed contracts or leases were rarely used, so there was no permanency for the worker: he and his family were regularly at risk of eviction.

Over time, agrarian unrest had developed and groups of angry workers (mostly men) began to band together, forming secret societies and semi-militant bodies, pledging to protect and advance the rights of tenant farmers and labourers.  This included protesting against rack-rents, tithing and evictions.  It also extended to other injustices, including the rising costs of religious dues, payable to their local priest and church.  The movement was united by a common dissatisfaction with the status quo, but the organisation and location of the individual groups and their targets varied significantly.

Secret societies, always popular in Ireland – the rapparees could be deemed as such – reached their zenith in the 18thcentury, with a variety of groups springing from various beliefs and manifestos, including the Oakboys, Steelboys, Rightboys, Peep O’ Day Boys, Defenders and Whiteboys.  Each of these bodies had different beliefs, aims and methods, but they all existed to effect change.

The Whiteboys are the most commonly recognised of the bands of men, so-called because of the white smocks, shirts, sheets or waistcoats they took to wearing on their night-time raids. They first emerged in the second half of the 18thcentury, in Tipperary, as a reaction to the sudden enclosure of common land by local landlords, anxious to profit on a new demand for cattle.  This drastically reduced the grazing land upon which poorer tenant farmers and labourers relied.  Angry locals, operating under the cover of night, tore down the new fences, gates, hedges and walls.  Where that didn’t work, they took to houghing – cutting the hamstrings – cattle or cutting the ears off horses.

John Ferrar says that in January of 1762 “the White Boys first appeared (in Limerick)…these ignorant, unfortunate men proceeded for a long time to disturb the tranquillity of the kingdom until many of them were brought to an ignominious end.”  He also refers to them as ‘Levellers’, a common reference to their destruction of boundaries.  Given their loose connections and necessary secrecy, these agrarian groups were known by many names.  The Gaelic translation of Whiteboys was na Buachaillí Bána, and they referred to themselves as “Queen Sive Oultagh’s children”.  Sive, or Sadhbh, was a key figure in Irish mythology, related to both the Kings of Tara and the Kings of Munster.  She has been associated with fairies, magic, and therianthropy.

This points to the mysticism often employed by secret societies, and the romantic, almost poetic references that are commonly employed in grass-root uprisings. Female personification of revolutionary ideals is not unusual: Marianne, the goddess of Liberty, represented democracy, reason and freedom to the French revolutionaries of 1789, and the Hindu goddess Durga became a symbol of anti-British sentiment in India in the 1930s.

As the movement spread, the members tackled other injustices and inequalities.  A common complaint was the enforced payment of tithes to the Church of Ireland.  As some 96% of County Limerick was Catholic, this caused resentment, which grew to anger and violence as increased charges were levied by a variety of middlemen, who charged their own fee for the service.  They also tried to regulate conacre rents, in which a small portion of land – already prepared for a crop – was let to a tenant.


Over time, they grew in numbers so much that William Henry, a Church of Ireland clergyman at that time, wrote of “at least fifty thousand papists in Munster, under the name of White Boys, actually engaged by a sollemn (sic) oath to unite and stand by one another in favour of the French or Spaniards”.   According to Jim Smyth, author of ‘The men of no property’, they occasionally turned out in “contingents of 500 or more, some mounted on horseback, others marching in military array.”

A government force of almost 100 men was sent to Munster to crush the ‘insurgents’ and they did so using brutal methods. They arrested large groups of Whiteboys, including 17 from Bruff, Co. Limerick.  In Cork, some 2,000 local citizens (including Catholics) formed vigilante groups to offer rewards and hunt down the Whiteboys in their midst.  In Tipperary, the nucleus of much of the disturbance, a parish priest was hanged, drawn and quartered for his association with the group.

A contemporary observer, James Kelly, detailed the self-organisation of the Whiteboys: they established councils, with a president, secretary and members, all sworn to defend and protect Queen Sive’s interests, referring to her as “Her Highness”.  They “received petitions, gave answers to them, issued out menacing letters to creditors…to some landlords to remit their rents, to restore cattle…to some people to give up their farms.”  One wonders if the writer got somewhat carried away on the subject of enforcement, in recounting how they decided “what orchards should be torn (and) timber trees cut down, what houses should be burned…what corn mills and public pounds should be demolished, what persons should be taken out of their beds at midnight, and carried to a distance from home naked, upon thorns and briars, upon a kind of hand-barrow and there buried alive in graves dug on purpose and erected gallows in many places to hang people on.”  In fact, modern historian Jim Smyth notes that the scale of violence was limited, especially during that period of agitation.

By 1765 their activities had garnered enough public attention to warrant the introduction of the Whiteboy Act, which outlawed the agitators, making their secret oaths punishable by hanging.

This prompted a hiatus in the activities of the Whiteboys, who didn’t reemerge onto public consciousness until 1769, when a thread of anti-clericalism began to weave its way into their activities.  They objected to the Catholic Church’s array of fees for baptisms, weddings, funerals and the like.

Similar sentiment inspired The Rightboy movement, which began in County Cork in 1785.   They took their name from the non-existent ‘Captain Right’, who appeared on public notices setting the tithe rates.  Historians generally assert that the Whiteboys and Rightboys differed in their members: the latter tended to be more inclusive, drawing into its circle farmers, landowners and even ‘gentleman Rightboys’ who belonged to the Protestant Ascendancy.  Jim Smyth explains this, by writing: “The gentry resented tithes, reasoning that money in the pockets of the Anglican clergy was money out of theirs.”  He notes, however, that “as the Rightboy campaign widened and they began to direct their attacks against cess, hearth tax, high rents and so on, gentry involvement faded.”

Typical demands can be garnered from an extract of a sign affixed to a church in Cork in 1785, which read: “You are hereby cautioned not to pay Minister’s Tithes, only in the following manner, viz. potatoes, 4s per acre, wheat and barleys, 1s 6d per acre, oats and meadows, 1s per acre – Roman Catholic Clergy to receive for marriages, 5s, baptism, 1s 6d…You are hereby warned not to pay parish priest clerks money.”

In his book, Ireland: a History, Thomas Bartlett writes that “the Rightboys, unlike the Whiteboys, were reasonably effective in pursuit of their aims”.  They succeeded in having the Catholic Church lower their fees and the movement had largely run its course by 1788, although elements of Rightboys did occasionally reform to protest other injustices.

For the most part during the 18th century, Whiteboys engaged in what was commonly referred to as ‘rough justice’.  The turning point, however, was the 1798 Rebellion.  A general ambivalence to authority had transformed into enmity, and the sharp, bloody violence of the Rebellion had given way to a more sustained period of ruthless subjugation by the authorities: in June of 1798, Limerick saw the court-martialling of 76 men for rebel activities, resulting in seven executions and 22 transportations.  The general brutalisation of society in the late 1790s meant that ordinary disagreements and protests were now elevated to serious and often fatal interactions.

The initial wave of post-Rebellion violence started in Cork, in September of 1798.  Professor James G. Patterson points to two early events which took place there: the cutting of 30 ash trees to use in making pikes, and the mutilation of six horses, which belonged to a ‘tithe-farmer’, or one of those despised middle-men who collected tithes on behalf of the Church of Ireland, earning tidy profits as he did so.  In the early months of the following year, a number of tithe-collectors and processors were beaten and murdered, while their records, ledgers and tithe-notes were destroyed.   One process-server was cut into small pieces while another was decapitated. This level of violence was unprecedented in the agrarian movement: Professor Patterson notes that the Rightboys had been responsible for four deaths during their six years of activity.

One such ‘outrage’ as they were commonly titled by the press, occurred on 20 October 1799 in Mountshannon, near Castleconnell, Co. Limerick.  The Limerick Chronicle reported, with “horror and indignation” that James Allen, the Land Steward to the Earl of Clare, had been “most barbarously murdered in his bed”.   Four men were quickly convicted and hanged for the offence, but it took some time for a supposed motivation to be uncovered: in January the Earl wrote his steward had been killed because he had happened across “a villain who had been a domestic servant in my father’s house and mine for thirty years…headed a gang of rioters who attacked a farmer in my neighbourhood at midnight and scoured him with nettles and white-thorn bushes till he submitted to swear that he would sell them milk at a price which they chose to put upon it”.   While the perpetrators were not named as Whiteboys, their interaction with the farmer had been of the kind of intimidation that had become the modus operandi of the group.

Both the Whiteboy and Rightboy movements had modest aims: they generally sought fair and equable charges, pressing for reduction rather than abolition of tithes, for example.  In this they had some success, but it wouldn’t be until the Tithe War of the 1830s that genuine relief would come.  Land reform was even further away; the stark inequity in Irish society would grow more acute over the following decades, eventually culminating in the devastation of the Famine.

The academic James S. Donnelly writes that “agrarian rebellion was related to the worst ills of Irish society”, pointing to uneven social distribution as a primary factor in creating conditions in which “agrarian secret societies, the agents of rebellion, could flourish as champions of economic justice, as avengers of the religiously oppressed (Catholics) or religiously threatened (Protestants)”.

Limerick historian Pat Feeley notes, however, that “a bad result of the Whiteboy and Rightboy movements was the emergence of sectarian societies”, in Northern Ireland in particular, which formed the basis of cultural and religious divisions that persist to this day.


Rachael Kealy

October 28, 2017

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