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(en) Organise #60 - Midnight Legislation: Class Struggle in Ireland 1760 - 1840

From ManchesterOldham AF <anarchist_federation@yahoo.co.uk>
Date Thu, 29 May 2003 12:42:19 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

> Full pdf or html available on www.af-north.org/organise.htm
During the years 1788-1868 2,249 political prisoners
were transported from Ireland to exile in Australia.
Of that number, less than 20% belonged to the
well-commemorated nationalist rebellions and
conspiracies of 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1867. Who were the rest?
>From the 1760s to the 1840s successive revolts of the
rural poor broke out across Ireland. These were led
by a variety of underground movements with varying
names but common characteristics. They are now called
after the first such movement, the Whiteboys. These
were movements of the rural poor, that is wage
labourers, both agricultural and those working in
minor industries, and cottiers - which were largely
the one category, as labourers would rent (or have in
part as wages) small pieces of land and the smallest
tenant farmers would supplement their income with
labouring. Whiteboys were almost exclusively male and
young, often teenagers.

Their organisation was secretive and underground, and
also fairly libertarian, with independent groups in
each town networked with others to form an entire
movement across several counties. Of at least one
group, it is said that all it's members had "equal
command". There was extensive use of ritual -
initiation oaths, elaborate pseudonyms, and uniforms,
costumes or special insignia.

Direct action was the method of these movements.
Typically a proclamation or "law" would be issued, to
the effect that rents, priest dues or tithes were to
be reduced, wages were to be increased or "land
grabbing", by which the middle class forced the rural
poor from their land, was to cease. If ignored, the
laws would be enforced by violence and intimidation.
Destruction of property, mutilation of animals,
warning shots fired through windows, and assaults,
rape, and murder, as these movements became
progressively more violent after the 1790s (as did
their opponents). The enclosure of previously common
land was resisted by the levelling of fences and
grasslands were dug up to produce more conacre - the
potato plots on which the labouring population relied.
Such was Whiteboy tradition, on at least two
occasions, the Tithe war of the 1830s, and the 1798
rebellion, this tradition was subsumed into a middle
class campaign against the crown, gentry and
established church. In this essay I'm going to be
concentrating on what we might call 'pure'
whiteboyism, so will only be briefly addressing these

The Class Structure
Irish history is portrayed as a series of nationalist
uprisings and movements against Anglo-irish rule. In
fact most rural violence and agitation was
class-based, of Catholic Irish vs Catholic Irish. The
structure of Irish society was of a small number of
rich farmers (about 3% of the population), a larger
group of well-off farmers and extended families (about
21% of the population) and a very large class of
cottiers and labourers (1.3m, or 76% of the
population) enduring a precarious and downtrodden
existence. Society was made up of about 10,000
landlords who owned the land and thereby dominated it,
farmers who rented it on long leases, and the
virtually landless labourers. The employer and
landlord of the rural poor was not the Anglo gentry,
but the Irish Catholic middle class of farmers of two
distinct types. In less economically-developed areas,
like most of Connaught, 'middlemen' (tenants on a
long, stable lease, Catholic/Irish, relics of the
deposed aristocracy and who were declining) still
collected rent from subsistence peasants, profited
through subletting and stood between the rural gentry
and the poor. The second group were the farming
middle class that arose in this period via commercial
agriculture for an international market and who were
the main employers of labour.

Living Standards of the Rural Poor.
There were localised famines in 1800, 1817, 1822,
1831, 1835-37 and 1842. Prior to 1838 there was no
state welfare system. In 1841 two fifths of Irish
homes were one roomed mud walled cabins. In the words
of a contemporary observer: "The hovels which the poor
people were building as I passed, solely by their own
efforts, were of the most abject description; their
walls were formed, in several instances, by the backs
of fences; the floors sunk in ditches; the height
scarcely enough for a man to stand upright; poles not
thicker than a broomstick for couples; a few pieces of
grass sods the only covering; and these extending only
partially over the thing called a roof; the elderly
people miserably clothed; the children all but naked."
(Campbell, The Great Irish Famine)

Commercialisation of Agriculture.
Whiteboyism existed in the context of and was a
response to the growth in market relations, the
development of capitalism and the commercialisation of
agriculture. This was not universally true:
under-developed Clare was an insurrectionary hotbed
for instance. However typically the centres of
Whiteboyism were the most fertile, and thus most
commercialised areas, and movements arose as a
reaction to what the market was inflicting upon
labouring and cottiers classes. Analysed in this way,
the world of the Whiteboys was not so far removed from
the world we live in today. From the 1720's onwards
Irish agriculture was increasingly commercialised and
orientated towards export, firstly to French and
British colonies and after to an increasingly urban
Britain. People's lives were now subject to the
dictates of the market. Increased profitability in
agriculture produced higher land values, which led to
increased rents and the expansion of tillage or
pasture for export at the expense of land for
subsistence farming (and the people engaged in
subsistence farming).

Viewed from the perspective of 200 years later one of
the most remarkable things about the society of this
period is the extent to which popular culture was
beyond elite control. Religion was not ordered and
structured under the control of Rome until after the
Famine, and various folk, pagan and magical practises
remained popular. The Catholic Church, only gradually
becoming a legal institution, was far from being the
established force it was to become. Likewise for most
of these decades there was no state education system,
and children were educated in 'hedge schools' under
the control of the community (i.e. not the state or
gentry). This freedom from cultural institutions
controlled by the ruling class had a positive impact
on the persistence of Whiteboyism. Some of the
communities that nurtured Whiteboyism also had a
collective economic base, through 'rundale', a form of
communal land tenure and farming. This was more often
found in economically back ward areas but also could
be found on poor lands in generally fertile South
Leinster and East Munster.

Early Whiteboyism
In the 1750s the growing market demand for pastoral
products led to an expansion of dairy farming and
grazing (which required the enclosure of common
lands). As agriculture became more profitable, land
values rose, and so did the price of conacre. The
rural poor faced ruin. Beginning in Tipperary, a
county which was a fertile producer of agrarian
unrest, and then expanding into east Munster and south
Leinster, the Whiteboy movement fought back by tearing
down the fences and hedges over what had been common
land, and digging up pasture so that it could not be
used for grazing and could be turned back to conacre.
Grasslands were exempt from religious tithes in
Ireland and this tax too became the target for
Whiteboy resistance as it fell hardest on those
engaged in subsistence farming.

Ulster, 1763 - 1772.
Two Whiteboy type movements developed in Ulster,
although such movements were rare in that province in
comparison to elsewhere. The first, known as the
Oakboys or Hearts of Oak, from their wearing of oak
twigs, arose against the cess, a tax and forced labour
for road building. Beginning in North Armagh in 1763
and spreading to the rest of South Ulster, the Oakboys
differed in their methods from the other movements.
Rather than being a secretive and nocturnal
organisation they paraded openly in military formation
complete with fife and drum up to the homes of the
gentry and clergy (tithes were a grievance here too)
in order to 'persuade' them to reduce the cess and
tithe. Unsurprisingly, given their more open tactics,
the Oakboys fell easy victim to a military expedition.

The next movement in Ulster, the Steelboys or
Hearts of Steel (1769 - 1772), took up the more
effective tactics of threatening notices, secretive
organisation and raids under the cover of darkness. On
occasion they also employed the methods of the
Oakboys, openly marching to Belfast in 1772 to free
six of their members from prison. The grievances
motivating the Steelboys were increased rents,
evictions, and again the cess.
Ulster was different from the other areas of
Whiteboyism, in that society was not so stratified and
a tradition of emigration had already been
established, operating as a safety valve for rural
discontent. There were also more economic
"opportunities", due to the development of the textile
industry . Later, in the 1780's and 90's, secret
societies similar to the Whiteboys developed but as
sectarian political movements: the Peep O' Day Boys
(which became the Orange Order) and The Defenders (the
main organisation involved in the 1798 rebellion).

Whiteboys & Rightboys
The period up to the end of the 1780s was
characterised by anti-clerical actions in addition to
the standard Whiteboy activities. Catholic priests
were targeted for denouncing the rebels from the
pulpit. In Tipperary "the parish priest of
Kilsheelan, Fr. Nicholas Phelan, vigorously condemned
the Whiteboys and had to flee for his life from his
parish. Tradition also states that a Fr. Darcy of
Kilmurry, preached against them in Grangemockler, was
attacked by a mob and had to flee also from the
district." (Power, Carrick-on-Suir & Its People). The
aim was also to reduce the fees priests charged for
presiding at various religious services.

The Caravat Whiteboys
The most class conscious and violent of the Whiteboy
movements, the Caravats, arose in Tipperary as a
result of the agricultural boom created by the
Napoleonic Wars. Rising land values and higher
prices, coupled with an increasing population that
prevented any rise in wages or employment, squeezed
the rural poor. The Caravats demanded that wages
rise, rents to be lowered, "land grabbing" to cease,
also inflationary practises such as hoarding food, all
"by order of Sir John Doe, Governor of Munster", as
the notices of these Whiteboys read. Failure to comply
with Caravat demands after three warnings meant a
degree of violence greater than that previously used
by Whiteboy groups. There were also numerous raids
for arms and robbery of mail coaches and such like, as
well as a concerted effort to drive migrant workers
from Kerry and Cork out of the Tipperary area, and so
reduce the supply of labour. Organisers were sent
into the adjoining counties of Kilkenny, Waterford,
Cork and Limerick to stir things up there. The
Caravats began to move in a less pragmatic day-to-day
direction, and according to some reports had as their
ultimate goal a re-division of the land.
This episode was unique in the response of the
middle class. From 1806 an organised violent
retaliation, in the form of the Shanavests - a remnant
of the nationalist United Irishmen-Defender
organisation of the 1790's, and held in readiness for
a French landing that never came - was directed
against the Caravats. Apart from individual
assassination, this conflict consisted of fights at
fairs and other public gatherings (where both
organisations tried to recruit), involving hundreds
and even thousands of participants armed with
traditional wooden clubs, home made swords or spears
and sawn off shotguns. This was the most pronounced
expression of the struggle between labourers and the
farming middle class. By 1811 the area was flooded
with troops and a "special commission" sent to
investigate. The Whiteboy-Shanavest conflict appears
to have persisted until the Famine period.

Rockites 1821 - 1824.
Whiteboyism, principally in Clare and Munster, with
the addition of Catholic sectarian millenarianism,
derived from prophecies claiming the imminent downfall
of Protestants. It was also more specifically
anti-state violence than the other movements
(excepting the Defenders). Its sectarianism was not
inspired or manipulated by the Catholic middle class
and it's church. In fact it was detrimental to them
given that they, and the Church in particular, needed
the goodwill of a Protestant government to achieve
their aims.
Also it did not serve to make these Whiteboys any
less likely to advance their interests against the
Catholic middle class. Unlike the situation in the
south of Ulster, this sectarianism was the expression
of class conflict rather than the suppression of it.
In a county like Clare, 'Protestants' could easily
mean the state, the gentry, the police and the
yeomanry, as there was no population of labouring
Protestants. This seems to have been another ripple
from South Ulster in the 1790's, as Orangism had made
its way south within army regiments.
The promised Armageddon not forthcoming,
discontent was channelled into the Catholic
Association, a middle class organisation aiming to end
the remnants of the Penal Laws which discriminated
against Catholics, specifically the ban on Catholics
sitting in the House of Parliament. Led by the right
wing nationalist Daniel O'Connell, upon whom the
millenarian hopes now lay, and employing the 'moral
pressure' of 'monster meetings', i.e. mass rallies,
this body saw it's goal achieved in the 1829 'Catholic
People soon became disillusioned, as expectations
fell, aptly described by one priest: "I have often
heard their conversations, when they say, 'What good
did Emancipation do for us: Are we better clothed or
fed, or our children better clothed or fed?' " As a
Whiteboy put it: "Emancipation has done nothing for
us. Mr O'Connell and the rich Catholics go to
Parliament. We die of starvation just the same."
Hoppen, Ireland since 1800: Conflict & Conformity
A new wave of Whiteboyism broke out, with the
Terry Alts and Lady Clares in Clare, Galway and
Roscommon, and the Whitefeet in Leinster. This is
the first outbreak of Whiteboyism for which there are
police statistics, which record for Clare and
Connaught (and most of this was happening in the
single county of Clare) the following 'outrages' in
1831: Administering Oaths (952), Assaults connected
with Ribbonism (566), Attacks on houses (1,684),
Homicides (72), Cattle Maiming (125), Illegal Notices
(875), Levelling (244), Robbery of Arms (571) and
Demand of Arms (135).
Simultaneous with this was the "Tithe War", a
middle class dominated movement against the tax for
the Church of Ireland, which had recently been
extended to apply to grasslands. Ostensibly a movement
of 'passive resistance', such as refusing to pay and
collective boycott of goods seized in lieu of payment,
there was also a fair number of violent riots.

Whiteboys and History.
The social class that produced Whiteboyism was
devastated by the Great Hunger at the end of the
1840's, and by the emigration that followed.
Whiteboyism continued in some of the more backward
areas, those untouched by commercialisation and which
had not seen Whiteboyism before, e.g. West Ulster. But
the Famine can be said to have been it's end, and just
a shadow persisted. The rural working class was silent
for decades afterward until a brief adoption of
syndicalism in the early 20th century. Equally silent
has been history on the topic of the Whiteboys. There
are appears to be only one book specifically on the
Whiteboy phenomenon and to a great extent the matter
is ignored totally. The only Whiteboy band remembered
is the Molly Maguires, who made the transition to the
mining communities of Pennsylvania in the 1860's and
1870's. They are part of the typical labour history of
the United States and have even been represented in a
1970 film starring Sean Connery. The class nature of
the Whiteboys cuts across the nationalist version of
history but being a rural movement made them likely to
be overlooked by Marxist-influenced labour historians.

For reasons of space, and as they have been dealt with
elsewhere to a great extent, I've left out the
rebellions of the 1790's. Those interested in reading
on this subject can go to:

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