Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The Whiteboys were probably the most notorious of the agrarian secret societies to emerge in the Irish countryside in the 18th century. They were named for the long white shirts, or smocks, which they wore so that they could recognise one another when they met in the darkess of night. Initally they were determined to protect the interest of the peasant farmer and their protest took the form of levelling. It was a common ptrractice amongst Ireland’s land-owning elite at that time to erect ditches to define the boundaries of their land. The Whiteboys would gather and simply level those ditches; hence the name ‘levelers’.

As the 18th century wore on, they began to home in on other institutions who they felt were making life unpleasant for the peastry, specifcally the Cartholic clegy who had hiked up the cost of marriages, baptisms and everyday Mass.

In the first decades of the 19th century, rural Ireland was a place of extraordinary violence. A series of potato blights and an ongoing economic receession were exasperated by the general depression which set in acorss Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. The Whiteboys, who had been largely silent since the days before th1 1798 Rebellion, remerged into the darkness. This time their target was the Protestant clergy whom they held accountable for the tithes, arguably the most reviled tax of the early 19th century.

Every farmer in Ireland, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike, was obliged to submit approximately one tenth of his or her annual produce to the Church of Ireland to pay for the upkeep of their local clergyman. The tithe traditionally took the form of corn, eggs and poultry.

One of the earliest instances of the protest against the Tithes took place in Macroom, County Cork, in January 1822 when a group variously described as between 300 and 800 Whiteboys were engaged in a skirmish with a force of 200 gentry, servants, and soldiers led by the Earl of Bantry. One of Lord Bantry’s soldiers was captured by the Whiteboys and beheaded. His decapitated head was placed on a spike and waved at the enemy.

Some forty Whiteboys were rounded up in the wake of the skirmish and many of them were senteced to be executed. Amongst these were Daniel and Denis Murphy, two brothers, whose sister was the great-great-grandmother of Michael Cotter, a guest on the Genealogy Roadshow. We found a reference to the Murphy brothers in the Freeman’s Journal (5th March 1822, p.3) which stated that they were amongst nine ‘unfortunate men’ held in Cork gaol who were to be carted to the Bridewell in Macroom and executed. According to the Freeman’s, ‘the wars of the Cherokees and Osages, of North America, or the Malays or Dahomians of Africa, furnish no parallel for this loathsome abomination [ie: the Whiteboys attack], before which murders and housebreakings rise into comparative innocence.’

Daniel was executed the following day at Carriganimmi alongside Patrick Lehane, Thomas Goggin and Cornelius Lucy.

On the Friday, Denis was hung by the Cross of Deshure along with Daniel Croonen, Timothy Hallahan, Richard Drummy and Edward Been [sic]. According to the Freeman’s Journal (7th March 1822, p.3), Denis and his four fellow convicts arrived at Deshure from Macroom in the same black cart ‘in which they had been conveyed from Cork’. Their journey took them through ‘a large extent of the country’ as the magistrates were eager ‘to exhibit to the inhabitants of that neighbourhood, the consequences of the infatuation and crime to which the prisoners had fallen victim.’

At Deshure a large new gallows ‘had been designedly constructed for the exectution’ and was set upon the side of a hill ‘from which it was visible through a large extent of the county.’ ‘The Gentlemen of the Muskerry Cavalry, and a party of Riflemen from Macroom were on the ground’ while the surrounding hills were filled with ‘spectators’ and the ‘immediate vicintiy of the gallows was occupied by a very large concourse of persons.’ The Rev. Mr. McSweeny, long-standing parish priest of Bandon, addressed the crowd in Irish, voicing his strong opposition to the violence which had led to this event, castigating the Whiteboys as ‘irreligious unprincipled wretches’ and ‘a disgrace to humanity’. Such acts, he maninatined, would only hinder whatever benevolent acts the landlord might have bestowed upon the people.

The Rev. FitzgGerald, speaking on behalf of the prisoner Drummy, a ‘most intelligent man’, maintained that Drummy also beseeched those gathered to ‘return to the path pf peaceful industryand banish from amongst them the evil-minded who sought to lead them away’.

The prisoners then ‘ascended the platform’ and were ‘launched into eternity’. ‘The pious resignation and fervent piety which marked the conduct of these unhappy persons – their humble acknowldgement of sorrow and regret for the folly to which they had fallen victims – and their graitude to the Clergyman, Gaoler & C., was such that when the scaffold fell, tears burst from the eyes of every person present.’

After hanging the ususal time, the bodies were taken down and connveyed to Macroom from which place they were brought into Cork on Saturday to be interreed in the ground of the county gaol.’

It was Michael Cotter’s belief that the Murphy brothers had been defended in courrt by Daniel O’Connell, the great Catholic Emancipator. However, extensive searches through the newspapers of this time failed to produce any evidence of this. It is also unlikely given that O’Connell was staunchly opposed to the Whiteboys; he described them as 'miscreants' and urged for them to be wiped out.

The following year, the Tithe Composition Act of 1823 enabled the clergy to demand the monetary equivalent for the produce. Such valuations were notoriously unjust, not least as the price of corn fell by almost 25% between 1820 and 1830. The 1823 Act also greatly increased the amount of land now liable to payment.

The opening salvos of the Tithe War were fired in the Kilkenny parish of Graiguenamanagh in November 1830 when a herd of cattle were seizes in lieu of payment. The following month, the Graiguenamanagh cattle were put on sale. Nobody stepped forward to buy them. The ‘no buyer’ concept fitted well with Daniel O’Connell’s campaign to achieve freedom through non-violence. It spread like wildfire throughout Leinster, with James Doyle, the Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, openly exhorting his flock to ‘that their hatred of tithes [may] be as lasting as their love of justice’. ‘Can Ireland, the poorest nation in Europe, support the most affluent and luxurious priesthood which does not profess the religion of the people, nor minister the wants of the poor?’, he asked.

Anti-tithe meetings were held across Co. Carlow, always under the attentive eye of the authorities. Over a thousand attended a meeting in Bagelalstown. Similar numbers turned out at Newtown, Slyguff, Lourm, Ballyellen and Borris. On 22nd May 1831, police opened fire at a fair in Castlepollard, killing seventeen people. A month later, on 18 June, the Yeomnary shot dead a further fourteen people at a tithe sale in Bunclody (Newtownbarry), Co. Wexford. Shortly before Christmas 1831, the tithe hurlers struck back, ambushing a police force near Knocktopher, Co. Kilkenny, resulting in a further fifteen deaths. The meetings grew larger. Over 200,000 were reported to have attended one in Co. Cork, while 120,000 were clocked at one in Co. Longford. The government began to clamp down, imposing heavy fines and police sentences on those they deemed to be leading the campaign.

Daniel O’Connell played cautiously throughout, condemning the tithes as unjust but urging that violence and intimidation would only serve to harm his greater campaign to repeal the Act of Union.