Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE WHITEBOYS. - Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 1
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THE WHITEBOYS. - Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 1 
Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, ed. W.C. Taylor (London: Richard Bentley, 1839). Vol. 1.
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Religious persecution was so tempered as to render it endurable; in this respect the authors of the penal laws attained their objects; but social oppression, of which these laws contained the source, became too heavy to be endured in silence; and one day the Irish population, weary of the burthen, made an effort to throw it off.
The revolt was not general—it was not founded on a plan common to all the sufferers; it consisted of partial, successive movements, without relation or connexion—it was absolutely devoid of intelligence, such as might be expected from a population kept in profound ignorance.
The revolt displayed itself in acts of the most atrocious and revolting barbarity—it was such as should be expected from a people systematically demoralised by misery, and degraded by slavery.
The first insurrection of the Whiteboys, or Levellers, began in 1760; they received their first name from wearing their shirts over their dress as a kind of uniform, and their second from levelling the hedges erected round new enclosures.* The Whiteboys were driven to revolt by an infinity of causes, of which the most prominent were, the exorbitant rents demanded by the landlords, and the exactions of the agents (tithe proctors) employed by the Protestant clergy to raise tithes from the Catholics.†
Arthur Young gives the following description of the outrages usually committed by the Whiteboys:—
“It was a common practice with them to go in parties about the country, swearing many to be true to them, and forcing them to join by menaces, which they very often carried into execution. At last they set up to be general redressers of grievances, punished all obnoxious persons, and having taken the administration of justice into their own hands, were not very exact in the distribution of it; forced masters to release their apprentices, carried off the daughters of rich farmers, ravished them into marriages, of which four instances happened in a fortnight. They levied sums of money on the middling and lower farmers, in order to support their cause, by paying attornies, &c., in defending prosecutions against them; and many of them subsisted for some years without work, supported by these contributions. Sometimes they committed several considerable robberies, breaking into houses, and taking the money under pretence of redressing grievances. In the course of these outrages, they burnt several houses, and destroyed the whole substance of men obnoxious to them. The barbarities they committed were shocking. One of their usual punishments (and by no means the most severe) was taking people out of their beds, carrying them naked in winter on horseback for some distance, and burying them up to their chin in a hole filled with briers, not forgetting to cut off one of their ears.”*
Certainly no complete association could exist among rude and uncultivated men, for nothing separates men more than ignorance; nevertheless the Whiteboys attempted to establish a permanent association throughout Ireland, founded on a certain number of common sentiments and necessities.
This confederation, which has served as a model for all the associations of the same kind subsequently formed under other names,* was marked from the beginning by two essential characteristics.
First, all the members were compelled to keep the secrets of the association, under pain of death.
Secondly, (and this is the principal trait,) every member of the society engaged to do all that the society should command;† a formidable engagement, placing him who contracts it at the mercy of another’s caprice, deprives him of his free will, subjects him to laws of which he is ignorant, and whose execution he has blindly sworn to accomplish at all hazards, even at the expense of crime.
When the Whiteboys were excited by the secret bonds of a fearful oath and of mutual obedience, they proceeded to act by terror.
They proclaim their code, and announce its sanctions. Woe to him who is guilty of any forbidden act! Woe to him who resists their pleasure! The command is usually given in a printed or written notice, which is either sent to the individual, or posted on his door, or some conspicuous place in the neighbourhood.*
If a proprietor demands an extravagant rent from his tenants, he finds some morning a notice to the following effect, posted on his door:—
of paying double rent to farmers for land, and the gentlemen so favourable to the poor. Therefore all farmers will be obliged to return their under-tenants to the head landlord, at the same rates an acre for which they hold the land themselves. And we trust the gentlemen will not allow them any longer to tyrannise over the poor of this impoverished nation. Any farmer demanding rent from his under-tenants, or any under-tenants paying rent to the farmer, either party so violating this notice shall be used with the utmost severity imaginable, and We their cause forsake in every measure.
If his labourers are employed at too low a rate of wages, the Whiteboy society issues a decree establishing a minimum.
“From this day forward, that no man will be allowed to work in any boat without having regular wages, 10s. per week. Any person or persons daring to violate this notice, will be visited by night by those people under the denomination of Whitefeet, or Terry Alts. Any man putting us to the necessity of paying him a visit will be sorry: therefore any man who has not the above wages, let him not attempt to leave Athy.
“I remain your humble servant,
It is worthy of note, that here the menace is addressed to the labourer who works for low wages, and not to the master who employs him.
In the same way, when they wish to prevent the payment of Tithes, notices of the following description are posted.
“Remarke the concequence Thomas Wardren dant pay the tithe far if you do you may prepare your coffin you may be assured that you will loose your life either at hame or abraad.
If a landlord threatens to eject his tenant for non-payment of rent; if he announces an intention of raising his rents; if he invites strange labourers into the country;* in all these cases he encounters the penalties of the Whiteboy code, and receives notice of the menaced chastisement.
The intimidation produced by such proceedings is extreme; and when menaces fail, vengeance follows close behind. The following are the punishments usually inflicted by the Whiteboys for the violation of their ordinances.
First, death. Second, corporeal inflictions, such as severe beating, mutilation, tearing the body with briers, thorny bushes, or wool-cards; abduction of young girls with small fortunes,* who are forced to marry their ravishers. Destruction of property.
The usual modes of destroying property are, the burning of houses and haggards, the houghing of cattle. In some cases, the ears and tails of horses, and the teats of cows, are cut off; sheep are likewise shorn and mangled in a barbarous manner, not for the sake of the wool, but in order to spoil the sheep. Windows are likewise often broken, and other property in and about houses damaged or burnt. A short and easy mode of arriving at a desired end is the turning up of grass land, sometimes practised by the Whiteboys. By these means, the farmers are compelled to let their ground for setting potatoes, without the long and troublesome process of notices, burnings, beatings, and murders. This method was practised to a great extent by the Terry Alts in the last disturbances in Limerick and Clare; bodies of several hundred or even several thousand men with spades used to assemble, sometimes in the daytime, and turn up a meadow in a few hours.
Barbarous as is this penal code, its execution is conducted with considerable regularity. The Whiteboy association points out the members who are to inflict the required punishment, and the members obey. The Whiteboy is often ordered to go forty or fifty miles to kill an obnoxious individual, and he yields implicit obedience to his instructions. Men who would shudder at the idea of being assassins, do not hesitate to become executioners.*
The vengeance of the Whiteboys being accomplished, universal terror prevails, which generally prevents what they wish to hinder, and obtains what they desire.
Still this is the time when regular society, whose institutions they openly attack, appears armed against them with all its powers and attempts to enforce obedience of the laws.
But here the Whiteboys find in their association singular resources to combat justice and society; nowhere does their power appear more formidable than in resistance to the magistrates; for if they have a severe penal code to enforce their own laws, they have one still more severe to combat the laws by which they are menaced themselves.
The first article of this second code may be stated in these words: “Whoever will give evidence against a Whiteboy will be punished with death.”*
Scarcely has a judicial pursuit commenced against a Whiteboy, when the whole association is set in motion to prevent the due course of law. The most dreadful menaces against witnesses are posted up; the victims of Whiteboy violence are forbidden to complain, under pain of new tortures; and nothing is so difficult as to collect the elements of conviction for a Whiteboy crime.
It often happens that a witness who has had the impudence to give information to a magistrate, is murdered before he can be produced to give his evidence in court.
“So great indeed,” says Mr. Lewis, “is the danger to which witnesses for the crown are exposed in Ireland, and so great the probability of their being murdered, if not put in a place of safety, that it has been found necessary to provide, by a special enactment, that the depositions of murdered persons may be read in evidence.”*
In such a state of things, the magistrates have recourse to extraordinary means to procure the elements of conviction against the guilty. Payment is offered for information;* after the deposition of a witness is taken, he is lodged in a place of security, generally the gaol, where he remains until the day of trial. When the trial is concluded, the witness is protected by a guard of police until he can be removed from the county. Every individual who has figured as a witness in such a case has no choice between death and exile.†
Some writers have attributed Whiteboy insurrections and associations to political causes; they were first excited, according to these authorities, by the intrigues of France and the pretender. It is now generally recognised that the cause of these insurrections was social, not political; the insurrection was directed against the landlord and the rich, not against the Protestant: it was misery, not the spirit of party, that armed the Whiteboy.
Ireland had no share in the rebellion of 1745; the first Whiteboy movements began in 1761. It would be strange if the Irish, who made no effort when the pretender had some chance of success, should have risen in his favour twenty years afterwards, when his cause was utterly hopeless and forgotten. This error has been propagated by those best acquainted with the truth: the men who had produced and profited by the misery of Ireland, seeing the outrages which their oppression had generated, endeavoured to assign another source to those crimes, and, by ascribing them to the spirit of party, to enlist on their side all the opposite political prejudices. They attained their end without much trouble, as most of the insurgents were Catholics, and those against whom they revolted Protestants; they said, and it was believed, that the insurrection was excited by religious fanaticism; people would not see that in a country where all the rich were of the reformed religion, and all the poor Catholics, that a revolt of the poor against the rich must necessarily have been an insurrection of Catholics against Protestants.
Doubtless, political passions hostile to the government might be found amongst the Whiteboys, as well as enmity against the rich; but the former were not predominant; they were mingled with the sentiments of hate which drove the peasants to revolt; but they were not the moving power of their conspiracies. There are, moreover, two undeniable facts which show very clearly how far political passions were strangers to these agrarian insurrections.
The first is, that when the Catholic clergy levied severe dues on the peasants, the Whiteboys resisted them, and adopted measures against their own priests—measures of repression not less severe than those directed against the ministers of the Anglican church;* and on their side, the priests excommunicated those who joined Whiteboy associations. The second is, that the outrages were directed against landlords and persons who took land without distinction, and that the greater part of the latter were Catholics.* Finally, there is a third fact not less grave than the preceding; the same insurrections raised by the Catholic peasants of the south appeared soon after, from similar causes, among the Protestant peasants of the north, who, in 1764, under the name of Oakboys, took up arms against the Pressure of rent and tithes; and others, in 1772, rose as Steelboys, because the Marquis of Donegal, a large proprietor, had ejected numbers of his tenants. Assuredly the northern Presbyterians would not take arms in favour of the pretender. They were still far from the time when they would make common cause with the Papists.
“All the insurgents of the south,” says Lord Charlemont, “were Catholics; it was generally believed by Protestants that the gold and intrigues of France were at the bottom of all these rebellions; but they were not the real causes, which are very easy of detection. The causes manifest to all eyes, were misery, oppression, famine!”†
The Whiteboy insurrections are not directed against the government, but against the landlords. “They are,” says Mr. Justice Jebb, “a war of the peasantry against the proprietors and occupiers of land.” If any further proof were wanting to show that such has ever been their character, it would be sufficient to consider their character at the present day. They have been constantly reproduced, under various denominations, from 1716 to the present day, and have always originated in the excessive misery of the people, and the starting point of this misery is the persecution which arose from the penal laws.*
From 1776 to 1829. REVIVAL AND ENFRANCHISEMENT OF IRELAND.
For nearly a hundred years Catholic Ireland was as if it had not existed. The Protestants established in Ireland, a feeble and almost imperceptible minority, presented themselves to England as the Irish nation, and under this title regulated everything foreign and domestic. They said that they were Ireland, and ended by believing it. They proclaimed their tyrannical power legitimate, and probably thought it was so. Sufficiently strong to divide amongst themselves in the presence of a humbled enemy, they ended by forgetting this enemy was in possession of a terrible power, that of numbers; when they saw their foe asleep, they forgot that he might wake again; full of confidence in themselves, they lost sight of their enemy, and acted as if he had not been amongst them; they thought no more about him; but constituting their own society independent of his wants, habits, and all his interests, they regarded this as the only existing, the only real, and the only possible society; all that did not belong to this society was nothing in their eyes—all outside its circle seemed contemptible and unworthy of attention.
There is a capital fault, and there is serious danger, in such a position; for whilst this minority, in its selfish confidence, shuts its eyes to everything around, and turns entirely to itself, storms which it does not perceive are forming in the distance; the oppressed majority devises plans of freedom, has its dreams of freedom, raises itself slowly from its degradation; it labours, it grows rich, it acquires strength, resumes its courage, takes up the abandoned arms, and prepares for the combat. The dominant faction perceives none of the preparations made by a people it is accustomed to despise. Its form of Protestant administration is complete; it has docile agents and a devoted legisture; not a hostile voice is raised against it; it has all the illusions of a good government, and thus, by a mild and easy navigation, it arrives in the midst of a sea full of quicksands, and rife with shipwreck.
When a subjugated people secretly nourishes projects of independence, and contains the germs of regeneration, it may long remain inert and mute; but often, also, nothing is wanting to rouse it from silence and slumber but an extraordinary event, a fortuitous accident. This favourable event—this lucky accident, was not wanting to Ireland.
EFFECTS OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE ON IRELAND.
I do not know whether there is any single political event in the history of the world, which has produced so great an influence on the history of all nations as the struggle sustained by the United States of America at the close of the eighteenth century.
The American revolution was the first great revolution effected in the light of the press, and reflected in the discussions of a free representative government. Observe what an impulse this revolution gave to the debates of the English parliament! It appeared that until then parliamentary liberty of speech was mute, or at least that liberty spoke without being heard at a distance; the press alone has given it loudness of voice. Without it the thirteen colonies of England might have separated from the mother country, but without it the world would have known nothing further of the matter than that they were rebels chastised by their master.
The minor events mingled with the war of independence have a trifling appearance. “It was,” said Lafayette, “a war of patrols,” in which the destinies of the world were decided. If you inquire why small events are really so great,—why this war of skirmishes should decide the fate of nations, you can find no other reason than the principle on which the war was grounded. That principle was just and legal resistance against tyranny and oppression. It was the idea, not the fact, that troubled the world. Attila passed over nations like a hurricane over the ocean. The tempest passed by—it was cursed and forgotten. But a petty people revolted; scarcely had blood flowed, though at the distance of two thousand leagues from us, when, though we had nothing to fear from the agitation, we were profoundly affected by it; the fact was the smallest possible, but the principle was immense.
The great impression of the American crisis on nations arose from the circumstance of a just cause having never before been so clearly stated; it is not that the cause should be just, it is further requisite that its equity should be apparent. The Americans did not revolt against England, simply because it is better that a nation should be free than dependent; their cause thus presented would have been open to dispute, for there was a contract existing between the parent state and the colonies. But according to the very contract which linked them to England, the colonies could only be taxed through their representatives. Still England wished to tax and constrain them by violence; resistance was their right; they fought, triumphed, shook off the yoke; and the whole world applauded the triumph of right over might. A movement of independence was made amongst all nations. As tyranny was everywhere, efforts for freedom were made everywhere. These great epochs of simultaneous effervescence, and a common struggle for rights, are rare; nations should employ them to conquer security; for when once they are passed, general apathy succeeds to universal agitation.
Nowhere was the effect of the American revolution more potent than in Ireland. There was an analogy in the situation of the two countries. The colonies of North America were indeed far more prosperous than Ireland; though they were merely colonies, and treated as such, they had the good fortune to be distant from England. Ireland, which was not a colony, for it had never been occupied under that title,—nor a part of England, for it had never been governed by English laws,—nor a free people, for England made laws to govern it,—Ireland, I say, had one point in common with the United States, that it contended against England for its rights: it demanded liberty to escape from poverty and wretchedness, whilst the American colonies, rich and prosperous, wished only that their dependence should not be increased.
These analogies seized on all minds in England and Ireland. In the English parliament, there was not a discussion on America which did not direct attention towards Ireland. See, said the Whig orators in the English parliament, see the effects of the unjust pretensions of governments towards their subjects; fear to engage in an iniquitous contest with Ireland when the state of your colonies forewarns you of the result. “England,” cried an enemy* of Irish liberty, in 1774, “has as good a right to tax Ireland as the colonies.” “Yes,” replied an opposition member, “and the colonies are in revolt precisely because you have taxed them.” It may well be conceived what an effect was produced in Ireland by those great parliamentary discussions, where in marvellous encounter met the greatest and most extraordinary oratorical powers that England has ever produced—Burke, Pitt, Fox, Sheridan,—splendid talents, noble souls, bright geniuses, in whom the love of glory was intimately blended with the love of country!
Ireland was inflamed by these discussions; in 1776 America was free; Ireland resolved to be so likewise. The declaration of American independence was likewise the great instrument of Irish independence.† America taught Ireland that a dependent people might become free, and taught England that it is perilous to refuse liberty to those who can take it.
The impulse given to England and Ireland by American emancipation had consequences which it is necessary to demonstrate. The first and most important, without doubt, was the abolition of some of the penal laws enacted against the Catholics of Ireland; the first stone taken from the edifice of persecution, and the first step of reform. Let us see in what it consisted.
[*]Many of these enclosures were illegal; commons were seized without the consent of the commoners, and wastes seized by neighbouring proprietors without a shadow of right. Such things were occasionally done in the early part of the present century.—Tr.
[†]I am far from being convinced by Mr. Lewis’s arguments, that whiteboyism was wholly unconnected with the cause of the pretender; it was, perhaps, not so in its origin, but assuredly efforts were made to render the popular discontent subservient to the restoration of the Stuarts. I find in my collection of popular Irish ballade, several mystical songs written about 1770, in praise of the young pretender. One of these, “The Royal Blackbird,” is still a great favourite with the peasantry of Munster, though it is rare to find any who sing it aware of its signification. The French also had agents to enlist soldiers for the Irish brigade, and many of these alimented the disturbances in order to obtain recruits. The simple truth appears to be, that the revolt was caused by the rapacity of landlords and tithe-proctors, but that the enemies of England naturally took advantage of it to forward their own purposes.—Tr.
[*]Young’s Travels, vol. i. p. 82. In the debate on the Whiteboy Act in 1786, Lord Luttrell related the following anecdote, which there is reason to believe was but too true:—
[*]The Rightboys in 1785; Peep-of-day Boys in 1772; Steelboys and Oakboys in 1764; Thrashers in 1806; Carders, Caravats, Shanavests, Rockites, &c., down to the present day.
[†]In the county of Leitrim, in 1806, the Thrasher’s oath is stated to have been,—“To keep secret; to attend when called upon; to observe the Thrasher’s laws; not to pay tithes but to the rector, and to pay only certain fees to their own clergy.” For the county of Longford it is given in similar terms, viz.—“To be true to Captain Thrasher’s laws; to attend when called upon; not to prosecute Captain Thrasher or any of his men, and to meet them the following night.”—Trials of the Thrashers, pp. 257 and 303.—Tr.
[*]When a boy, I unwittingly tore down a Rockite notice posted on a gate; several peasants seized me, but finding that I had no design in taking the placard beyond the gratification of curiosity, they let me go, warning me not to commit so perilous an act for the future.—Tr.
[*]H. C., 1832, Appendix, p. 9. This notice was in print, and was posted in different parts of the county Kildare.
[†]This and the following notices are taken from various reports of Committees of the House of Commons. I have seen some in very tolerable rhyme. They were generally written by the hedge schoolmaster, who was usually Rockite secretary to a district. The establishment of national schools has been of great service to Ireland, by removing this very dangerous class of men.—Tr.
[*]The following threatening letter, addressed to a person in the barony of Gallen, county of Mayo, (which contains a different expression of the same feeling,) is cited from a Mayo newspaper in the Times of 11th December, 1835:—
Captain Rock EsqTr.
[*]This is not a common Whiteboy outrage; it was more frequently perpetrated by the underlings of the aristocracy, called in Ireland Squireens or Buckeens—Tr.
[*]The utter disregard for human life shown on these occasions is most fearfully illustrated at Irish assizes. At the trial of Lacy for the murder of the Maras, who were sacrificed to Whiteboy vengeance, because their brother had given evidence against a Whiteboy on a former occasion, the principal witnesses for the prosecution were two approvers, Fitzgerald and Ryan. It appeared that the assassins had watched the Maras for ten days before a convenient opportunity for the murder was found. I took down at the time the following portion of Ryan’s cross-examination respecting his employment on one of those days.
[*]The menace is extended to all the relatives and friends of the informer. It appeared on the trial of the murderers of the Maras, that vengeance was extended not only to the brother of a witness, but even to that brother’s apprentice.—Tr.
[*]The 50 George III. ch. cii. sect. 55, having recited that “whereas it has happened that persons who have given information against persons accused of crimes in Ireland have been murdered before the trial of persons accused, in order to prevent their giving evidence, and to effect the acquittal of the accused,” proceeds to enact, that “if any person who shall give information on oath against any person for any offence against the laws shall, before the trial of such person, be murdered, or violently put to death, or so maimed or forcibly carried away and secreted, as not to be able to give evidence on the trial of such person, the information so taken on oath shall be admitted in all courts of justice in Ireland as evidence on the trial of such person.” This provision was extended to grand juries by 56 George III. ch. lxxxvii. sect. 3. The former act likewise contains a clause enabling grand juries in Ireland to present such a sum as they shall think just and reasonable to be paid to the personal representative of any witness who shall be murdered before trial, or to himself if maimed. Sect. 6. Lewis’s Irish Disturbances, p. 269.—Tr.
[*]It could not be obtained otherwise, but the hope of blood-money has sometimes led to the accusation of innocent persons.—Tr.
[†]Exile is not always sufficient protection. An attempt to kill an informer among the Irish at Wigan, although his offence had no Whiteboy complexion, is mentioned by Mr. Lord, a magistrate of the borough, in his evidence taken for the Irish Poor Commission.
[*]Captain Rock’s tariff always contained a clause regulating “the priest’s dues,” that is, the fees to be paid for christening, marriage, &c.—Tr.
[*]The truth is, that in all these agrarian insurrections, more Catholics were murdered than Protestants. Religious rancour, no doubt, mingles with these disturbances; but I doubt on which side the greater share of it would be found.—Tr.
[†]Hardy’s Life of Lord Charlemont, vol. i. p. 173.
[*]It is of importance to show that M. de Beaumont’s views of the causes of Whiteboy insurrection are the same as those of the most enlightened partisans of Protestant ascendency in Ireland.
[*]Rigby, Master of the Rolls, whom the pen of Junius has consigned to immortal shame.
[†]“A voice from America shouted liberty,” was Flood’s fine description of the time. See Hardy’s Life of Charlemont, vol. i. p. 387.