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White Boys and Other Vigilante Groups

(see also "Travelers" - Young, Tocnaye)

Brief description

Land leagues - oath-bound secret societies - sprang up in various parts of the country in the 1760s under various names. The "White Boys" were the best-known, the name arising out of the K.K.K. type of hooded garment they wore when terrorizing a new tenant, or taking vengeance on a landlord by maiming his cattle or burning his hay. They waged war on enclosures, rack-rents, and in particular, local evictions.
- Brian Inglis, Story of Ire., p. 125

Origins & Overview

There can be little doubt that secret, lawless associations in Ireland originated in the disbanded troops, composed chiefly of armed peasants which in the war between William & James were termed "Rapparees," & who were, as the name implies, bands of robbers whose depredations the cessation of hostilities by no means ended.
Although such associations did unquestionably originate in political motives, they soon lost this characteristic & were applied to the attainment of objects more directly in their reach.
The White Boys - whose origins derived from scattered bands of Rapparees, "began," according to Arthur Young, "in Tipperary," & their aggressions were "owing to some enclosures of commons, which they threw down, leveling the ditches," in consequence of which they were first called "levelers." This opinion is borne out by Dr. Campbell, who says, "The original cause of the rising of the Whiteboys was this-some landlords in Munster set their lands to cotters far above their value, and to lighten their burden allowed commonage to their tenants by way of recompense; afterwards, contrary to all compacts, the landlords enclosed these commons, & precluded their unhappy tenants from the only means of making their bargains tolerable." Both writers admit that "at least they set up to be general redressers of grievances - punishing obnoxious persons who advanced the value of their lands or hired farms over their heads," in short, "taking the administration of justice into their own hands." They were called "levelers" because their ostensible object was to level enclosures," & "Whiteboys" from "their wearing their shirts over their coats for the sake of distinction at night."
The operations of the Whiteboys were principally limited to Munster & they were to continue from the year 1760 to about 1775. In 1785 they appeared under the name "Rightboys" and, in imitation of their predecessors, administered unlawful oaths, regulated the price of land & labor, opposed the collection of taxes. Those who resisted were subject to torture, their favorite punishment being to bury their victim up to the neck in a grave filled with thorns & then cut off his ears. These classes were chiefly confined to the south; within the same period the north had been placed in a state of subordination by the
"Steelboys" & the "Oakboys." The Steelboys had this source - an absentee nobleman of Co. Antrim, ____der of vast possessions, resolved upon raising a large sum of money by letting leases at small rents but receiving large fines; a considerable portion of the tenants were unable to procure funds sufficient to obtain renewals, & rose against the forestallers. They said they would pay for their arms with steel, & were called Steelboys.
Oakboys - the public roads in Ireland were repaired by the labor of the householder, who was compelled by law to give 6 days labor a year. They complained that the rich were free of the regulation. In 1764 they rose against the regulation, & from the oak branches which they wore in their hats were called Oakboys. The next year the law was altered, & the evil complained of by the Steelboys was of brief duration, so both illegal associations were easily suppressed.
The "Peep-of-Day Boys" originated in the north about 1785, & owed their title to the custom of visiting the houses of Catholics at daybreak in search of arms.
They were met by a counter association called the Defenders, whose name is self-explanatory. At length the latter became partly absorbed into the United Irishmen of the rebellion of 1798. After that time they were revived as Ribbonmen.
Since the Union a variety of other "societies" have existed independent of any avowed political object. The Thrashers in Connaught, which became so formidable that according to Chief Justice Bush__ in 1806 the king's judges could not move about the country except under military escort, nor a criminal be executed till a general officer had marched from a distant quarter at the head of a strong force to support the civil power.
Not one of these societies was influenced by or was designed to influence Religion; the sole object of their jurisdiction is land.
- Halls




iteboyism revived in opposition to the tithe. " the last 12 mo. (Feb. 1832-Feb. 1833) not less than 9,000 agrarian outrages, of which 200 were homicides, had occurred. In several counties, Kilkenny & Queens, especially, the authority of the law had practically ceased to exist. Jurors would not convict, murders were rife, and intimidation almost universal."
- Robert Dunlop, Daniel O'Connell (1908), p. 2691


Relationship to Legal System

The Irish Catholic had no trust in the law or administration of justice. The Rev. William O'Brien, a pastor in Co. Cork, put the case simply and bluntly: "If you tell an Irishman that he will receive justice in a court, no matter what your religion is, he will not believe you."
Impotent of political rights to correct inequity, convinced that the courts were engines of discrimination, certain the law operated against his interest, and conscious that superior force upheld the system, the Catholic Irishmen joined in secret conspiracy to regulate by force or intimidation the conditions of occupancy of land for his own protection. The people established a rude rump government for their protection against the "landlord's law." Sir Thomas Larcom said, "There are in fact two codes of law in the statute law enforced by judged & jurors, in which the people do not trust - and the other a secret law, enforced by themselves - its agents the Ribbonmen, the bullet."


rcom called agents of this "secret law" by the name of Ribbonmen... The use of "Ribbonism" to characterize the rural disturbances was common, but it was not a precise description. The accurate name for local organized violent resistance was Whiteboyism, derived from the prototype of the Munster peasant uprising in 1761.
Whiteboyism assumed various local titles in the several parts of Ireland... Probably the most familiar in the U.S. is the "Mollie Maquires," copied directly from a local Whiteboy organization in Ireland by Catholic Irish coal miners in Pennsylvania.
George Cornewall Lewis gave the most perceptive interpretation of this indigenous Irish institution in his book, On Local Disturbances in Ireland:2
"The Whiteboy association may be considered as a vast trades union for the protection of the Irish peasantry: the object being not to regulate the rate of wages, or the hours of work, but to keep the actual occupant in possession of his land."
- Patton, To the Golden Door, p. 55
The Ribbon Society was the parent in Ireland of the most influential of the Irish-American organizations, the Ancient Order of Hibernians; it was the model upon which the secret societies of Irish laborers on American canals & RRs were formed; it was the fountainhead, as well as the recruiting ground, of Irish revolutionary societies in the U.S.; it was the nexus, among the early Irish Catholic emigrants, between the U.S. & Ireland.
- Ibid., p. 61


Wilde [Family]

"(1845) Imprisoned that year (for activity in the United Irishmen) was Charles Gavan Duffy. The grandson of one cabinet minister His son is now (1949) President of the High Court. His crime was publishing in "The Nation" a leading article by Jane Francesca Elgee. Three years later this lady married William Wilde, antiquary & ophthalmologist, traveler, topographer, & medical pioneer... He founded 2 medical journals which still survive; his 2 best travel books are still in print... His wife's poems are unreadable, but her "Legends & Charms of Ireland" was a pioneer study in folklore. Their son, born at 21 Westland Row in 1856, was the celebrated Oscar."

-Maurice Craig, Dublin, p. 314 (State Lib.)3


1 Robert Dunlop, Daniel O'Connell and the Revival of National Life in Ireland. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1900 (multiple editions extant).

2 George Cornewall Lewis, On Local Disturbances in Ireland; and on the Irish Church Question. London: B. Fellowes, 1836.

3 Maurice Craig, Dublin, 1660-1860. New York: Coward-McCann, 1952.