From the 1760s to the 1840s successive revolts of the rural poor broke out across Ireland. These comprised of 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; wage labourers, those who worked in small-scale industries and cottiers (small tenant farmers). Labourers would often rent (or be allowed to rent land as part of their wage), while the smallest tenant farmers would supplement their income with labouring. Whiteboys were almost exclusively male and young, usually teenage.
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 its 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. Firstly, destruction of property, mutilation of animals, warning shots fired through windows, and then assaults and murder as the 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.
Irish history is portrayed as a series of nationalist uprisings and movements against Anglo-Irish rule. In fact, much rural violence and agitation was class based, of Catholic Irish versus Catholic Irish. The employer and landlord of the rural poor was not the Anglo gentry, but the Irish Catholic middle class of farmers. Even where areas were less developed, a ‘middleman’ stood between the mass of the population and the landlords. A ‘Middleman’ being a tenant on a long, stable lease, often Catholic/Irish, and profiting through subletting, but less commercially orientated than the middle class which developed in fertile areas. Statistics from 1841 show this, and clearly give lie to the popular nationalist view of Anglo gentry above homogenous downtrodden Irish masses. As can be seen in these figures:
Adult males and rural class
structure circa 1841 (2)
Category Number Per cent
Rich Farmers 50,000 2.9
(average holding 80 acres)
‘Snug’ Farmers 100,000 5.9
(average holding 50 acres)
Family Farmers 250,000 14.7
(average holding 20 acres and usually not
Cottiers 300,000 17.7
(average holding five acres)
Labourers 1,000,000 58.8
(average holding one acre, though often
without any land)
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.”3
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 labourers and cottiers. Analysed in this way, the world of the Whiteboys was not so far removed from the world we live in today. From the 1720s onwards, Irish agriculture was increasingly commercialised and orientated towards export, firstly to French and British colonies and after to an increasingly urban Britain.
This affected Irish society in two ways: firstly the rise of a farming, market-orientated, middle class. Secondly, 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 practices 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 which 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.
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 small plots on which the bulk of the population depended). 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.
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.”4
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 which hindered the possibility of a rise in wages or employment, squeezed the rural poor. The Caravats demanded that wages rise, rents be lowered, ‘land grabbing’ cease, also inflationary practices such as hoarding food end, all “by order of Sir John Doe, Governor of Munster”5, 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 1790s, 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 – more than had been there during the 1798 rebellion and a ‘special commission’ sent to investigate. The Whiteboy-Shanavest conflict appears to have persisted until the Famine period.
In the 1820s 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, and employing the ‘moral pressure’ of ‘monster meetings’, i.e. mass rallies, this body saw its goal achieved in the 1829 ‘Catholic Emancipation’.
People soon became disillusioned, as 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”.6
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 (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).7
The social class which produced Whiteboyism was devastated by the Great Hunger at the end of the 1840s, 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 its end, and just a shadow persisted. The rural working class was largely silent for decades afterward until a brief adoption of syndicalism in the early 20th century. Whiteboyism was to some extent exported with emigration, most famously with Pennsylvania’s Molly Maguires.
The Whiteboy phenomenon was contemporary with the beginning of the long march of the Irish bourgeoisie to state power, aka ‘national independence’. During 1760 to 1840, the two historic faces of national liberation had their first outings. The 1790s saw the radical, non-sectarian, secular, revolutionary, republicanism of the United Irishmen-Defenders and the 1820s the narrow, Catholic reformism of Emancipation. At the same time a proletarian struggle existed in opposition to both, rather than as a subsidiary of either.
Class struggle continued irrespective of national flag, and the nationalist movement, as a movement representing bourgeois interests, fought the class struggle against the proletariat. On those occasions where the bourgeois successfully managed to marshal the rural poor behind their flag, e.g. Catholic Emancipation, the people got nothing out of it.
The non-existence of Whiteboys in history, as it is written, remembered, televised and commemorated, is instructive of the role played by nationalism in 20th century Ireland. That is, as part of the hegemony of ideas, aiming to paper over class divisions with a heroic myth of national oppression and national redemption. It is for this reason that we remember 1803, 1848, and 1867 while the Whiteboys go down the ‘memory hole’ into oblivion.
1 Police and Protest in England and Ireland, 1780-1850, Palmer, p58.
2 Ireland since 1800, Conflict and Conformity, Hoppen, p38.
3 Quoted in The Great Irish Famine, Campbell, p18.
4 Carrick-On-Suir and its People, Power, p83.
5 Quoted in Irish Peasants, Violence and Political Unrest, Clark and Donnelly, p86.
6 Quoted in Ireland since 1800, Conflict and Conformity, Hoppen, p19.
7 Police and Protest in England and Ireland, 1780-1850, Palmer, p326.