Ireland - Subject Cards Q-Z

Schools and Education


1806 - Commission on education in its final report declared a need for "systematic, uniform"

instruction" & recommended a Board be set up.

1825 - Commission also recommended "schools of general instruction."

1831 - Stanley, 1 st chief secretary, asked the Duke of Leinster to be chairman of a board

composed of individuals of different denominations. He accepted.

The Board laid down that if it approved of an application it would give a grant

covering 2/3 of the cost of a building & would supply books at a reduced price &

a gratuity to a teacher. Locally they were to keep the school in repair, pay part of

the teacher's salary, & purchase the books approved by the Board.

The Board achieved a fair measure of success.

1838 - A training college for teachers set up in Dublin. In addition to instruction in the usual

subjects, they were taught agriculture.

1845 - By this time [the] National Board had schools containing 432,000 pupils. "The

National Board accomplished an enduring piece of work. The National teacher became

a stock character in rural society & the schools helped to mould the Irish mind for a


- The Great Famine, p. 56-60

Hedge Schools

"The genuine Hedge Schools of Kerry are rapidly disappearing; & necessarily with them the old picturesque schoolmasters - in some respects a meritorious, in others a pernicious class; for wherever there was disaffection, the village schoolmaster was either the originator or the sustainer of it; was generally the secretary of illegal associations, the writer of threatening notices, & too frequently the planner & leader in terrible outrages. The national system of education has destroyed their power, by substituting in their places men who are responsible to their employers, interested in their good characters & good conduct. The ancient Domines, however, had their merit; they kept the shriveled seed of knowledge from utterly perishing when learning was looked upon as an acquirement for the humbler classes, in the light of a razor in the hands of a baboon - a thing that was dangerous & might be fatal, but which could do no possible good either to the possessor or to society... The English of the lower classes covet knowledge, but only as a source of wealth; an Irishman longs for it as a means of acquiring moral power & dignity. 'Rise up yer head, here's the master, he's a fine man with grate larning,' 'Sure, he had the world at his foot from the strength of the larning.' 'What could you expect from him? Since he was the size of a midge he never looked in a book' - such are the phrases continually in the mouths of the Irish peasantry.

...The Hedge Schools (see [also] "Travelers," Le Chevalier de la Locnay) are almost gone from the country. During out recent visit (around 1840) we saw but 2 or 3 of them; some 20 years ago we would have encountered one, at least, in every parish. They received their name from the fact that in fine weather the school room was moved out of doors; the Domine usually sitting beside his threshold, his pupils scattered in all directions about the landscape...

- Halls, Vol. I, p. 259-60

In addition to the scholars who paid the teacher as they could, there were generally in such establishments (Hedge Schools) some who paid nothing, & were expected to pay nothing, "poor scholars" as they were termed, who received education "gratis," & who were not infrequently intended, or rather intended themselves, for the priesthood. They were in most instances unprotected orphans; but they had no occasion to beg, for the farmhouse as well as the cottage was open for their reception. In this way, with scant clothing, a strap of books over his shoulder, his ink-horn suspended from his button-hole, & 2 or 3 ill-cut, inky pens stuck in his hat, the aspirant for knowledge set forth, sometimes aided by a subscription started by his parish priest, who found many of his congregation willing to bestow their pense or halfpense on "the boy that has his mind t___ed[1] for good."

- Halls, p. 260-61

Schools - History of

1. Elizabeth founded schools, principally to Anglicize the children, called the "Diocesan Free Schools. - In a report of Apr. 21, 1809; the whole number of these schools: 13 pupils: 380

2. Under Charles I - schools founded; more by Charles II. These had royal grants, but the children also paid. 1809 - these schools had 114 day-scholars & 187 boarders.

3. "Charter schools were incorporated by the Irish Parliament in 1733. The object, 'to teach the

poor Irish the English Language & the Protestant religion.'" In other words, organized to proselytize.

In 1775 & again confirmed in 1778 (& not rescinded until 1803), "not to admit any but children of Papists into the schools." These school[s] received generous grants from the

government but were intensely disliked by the people. In 1802 - 2,085 pupils; 1808 - 2,187.

These charter schools were execrated in every possible way by the priest, for good reason - part of the catechism taught: Q[uestion]: Is the Church of Rome a sound & uncorrupt church? [Answer]: No, it is extremely corrupt in doctrine, worship, & practice.

4. 1812 - "Kildare Street Society" began establishing schools in which it was expressly forbidden to proselytize. They made all concessions required by the Catholics except one - they insisted that the Scripture be read daily. This was unacceptable to the Catholics.

5. 1831 - National Board of Education set up. 3 members Established Church & 2 Catholics, 1 Presbyterian, 1 Unitarian. Many schools were placed in the Catholic grounds of their church; Scripture was not read. The Protestants objected violently & were hostile to these schools.

- from Halls, Vol. II, p. 359-69

1. In Elizabethan times schools were provided but were Protestant.

2. Under Penal Laws:

Hedge Schools

3. When Penal Laws were relaxed:

a.) Private Catholic schools sprang up for those who could afford them.

b.) 1811 - Kildare Society founded to furnish schools for those without means.

Supposed not to proselytize but accused of doing it on the sly & this movement collapsed.

c.) 1831 - Irish Education Bill ("banned even the suspicion of Proselytism")

(board set up - 5 Protestants, 2 Catholics)

d.) By 1860s - nearly a million children were being provided with an education under

the Act, but it was neither popular nor efficient.

e.) 1868 - Gladstone set up Powis Commission. The effort to have undenominational

education was abandoned. Denominational schools for both Protestant & Catholic

were permitted to take advantage of state aid.

- Inglis, St. of Ire., p. 193-95 

For National School in Cloghan, see card on Donegal.

For Established Church school in Newport, see card on Mayo.

The Halls include a table (Vol. 3, p. 387) from the Tenth Report of the "Church Education Society" (supported by voluntary contributions & maintained by the Church of England):

Year # of Schools Children Dissenters Catholic

1842 1372 86,102 8,365 29,612

1844 1812 104,968 13,668 32,834

1846 1899 96,815 12,832 29,691

1848 1861 120,202 15,713 46,367

1849 1870 111,952 15,562 37,857

Schools - Mrs. Nicholson on

Wicklow -

"We visited the schools in Arklow. In these schools, which are supported by private individuals, Protestants & Papists are taught the scriptures daily... They merit more praise than censure" (though not too clean).

In Wexford -

"In the afternoon looked into a poor cabin. The woman received me kindly, but seemed depressed with poverty, said her husband had had no work for weeks. She had two children in an infant school, one seven & the other five; & though the eldest had been there years and the youngest months, yet neither of the 2 could read." In a note at the foot of the page Mrs. Nicholson here goes on to say, "Through all Ireland I had noticed that few good readers could be found, either among children or adults; but the writing in general was good." (p. 234)

In Galway (Clifden; pop. 930 today) -

"Visited the Protestant School, taught by a male & female teacher. The children are mostly Roman Catholics, and are partly clothed by the society, and are advanced to grammar & geography. Next I went to the National School, a great building gone to decay, the school kept by a widow for the paltry compensation of ten pounds a year. The boys had all withdrawn and so no interest whatever was taken in the school. Bishop McHale had prohibited the reading of those portions of Scripture appertaining to the lessons, and the teacher, though a Catholic, talked seriously of leaving the school on account of it." (p. 395)

Near Clifden -

"We next called at a cabin where a number of children had collected to whom we gave books. Finding they attended a school near, we entered the schoolroom & may I never see the like again. In one corner was a pile of potatoes, kept from rolling down by stones, on which the ragged, bare-footed children were seated. In another corner was a pile of cartwheels, which were used for the same purpose; & in the middle of the room was a circular hole made in the ground for the turf fire. Not a window, chair, or bench could be seen. The pupils, with scarcely a book, looked more like children who had sheltered themselves there in fright, to escape the fury of a mad animal, or the tomahawk of some mad savage, than those who had assembled for the benefit of the light of science. This was a Connemara school, and it was all they could do. I had seen sprinkled all over Ireland, schools in miserable cabins, where were huddled from 40 to 70 in a dark room without a chimney; but they had benches to sit upon, & their schoolroom was upon the way-side, while this one was in a wet back yard. Those parents who were able, pay a penny a week; those who are not, pay nothing; while the wealthiest among them pay half a crown a quarter. I saw many schools of this kind, where the child takes a piece of turf under his arm, and goes two miles, and sometimes three, without breakfast." (p. 406-07)

Clifden -

"Went out & visited schools, found one in a miserable plight, crowded, dirty, & noisy, and the teacher in keeping with the whole. A second was a well-ordered one, the teacher a man of sense as well as learning." (p. 415)

1 Probably either tuned, turned, or twined.


Irish Workers in Scotland

No permanent supply of native (Scots) workers was necessary as Irish immigrants could be readily secured. These newcomers with their lower standard of living replaced the Highlanders in the harvest fields of the Lowlands, building hovels in the lanes at the outskirts of the towns & living on potatoes, milk, & herring.

- Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Mig., p. 131 (wab.)

Temperance Reform

Father Theobald Matthew

(See also Thackeray, Mayo, Westport cards)

There was another great Irishman in this period between the Union & the Famine: this was Father Matthew, the Apostle of Temperance. He was born in 1789 at Cashel, in Tipperary, where his father was agent to his kinsman, the Earl of Glandaff. Educated as a priest, he finally settled in Cork, and as a simple Franciscan monk worked ardently among the poor. In 1838 he took up the temperance movement which had been started by the Quakers, and was soon giving the Pledge to thousands of people a day. He toured the towns & cities of Ireland, and also visited England, Scotland, & America. He worked hard for the people during the Famine, which incidentally destroyed his work, and died worn out by his labors in Queenstown in 1853. The results of his crusade were truly remarkable. The production of whiskey in Ireland fell by half, and crime diminished. Owing to his fine character & personal magnetism he was adored by the people, who considered him a saint who could actually work miracles. The account of Mrs. Carlyle of the effect made upon her by one of his meetings is well-known: "I could not speak for excitement all the way home," she wrote to her husband. "When I went to bed I could not sleep, the pale faces I had seen haunted me, & Father Matthew's smile." He is described in the Dictionary of National Biography as being of middle height, with pale complexion, dark eyes of softest blue, his expression in repose being somewhat stern & somber, but when animated being remarkable for its gentleness & sweetness. All visitors to Ireland who saw & heard him were both charmed & impressed, and record with approval that he kept himself free of politics.

- Constantia Maxwell, The Stranger in Ireland, p. 217 (Mil. Lib.)

For a spell, from 1839 on, Ireland took the pledge from Father Theobald Matthew, a gentle Capuchin of Cork city, saintly and naïve, working a modern miracle with the race, who, reports showed, improved noticeably in a material way but, other reports indicated, became sullen, morose, & irritable from the strain of abstinence.

- Patton, The G. Door, p. 89

Father Matt brought down the consumption of spirits from 12,000,000 to 5,000,000 gallons. The movement collapsed with his death in 1856.

En. Brit.

In Donegal (Glenfin, east central part) the Halls speak of entering a neat dwelling with "a likeness of the good Father Matthew which hung over the chimney."

  • Halls, Vol. III, p. 268 (note)

Charles Dickens, who came to America in 1842, wrote in his American Notes of the Grand Temperance Parade he watched in Cincinnati:

"I was particularly pleased to see the Irishmen, who formed a distinct society among themselves, and mustered very strong in their green scarves, carrying their national harp & their portrait of Father Matthew high above peoples' heads. They looked as jolly & good-humored as ever; and working the hardest for their living & doing any kind of sturdy labor that came their way, were the most independent fellows there, I thought."

Chas. Patton, To the G. Door, p. 200

The Irish Catholic temperance movement, faltering & feeble, burst into a flaming crusade in the U.S. with the sudden emergence of Father Theobald Matthew in Ireland as the inspiration of one of the most remarkable movements of the 19 th century - the temperance evangelizing of a man who had none of the characteristics of the evangelizer, a humble, diffident, self-effacing, & unworldly Capuchin friar.

Interestingly, Father Matthew's extraordinary ___sion was an indirect outgrowth of the American temperance movement. He was a priest in the city of Cork, a devoted worker among the poor, founder of an industrial school for boys & another for girls, and a member of the Board of Guardians for the Cork workhouse. The Quakers, taking example from the American movement, had founded the Cork Total Abstinence Society, & under the persuasion of William Martin, a fellow member of the workhouse board, Father Matthew signed his name on April 10, 1838, with the remark, "Here goes, in the name of God." Clerical eyebrows were raised at the news of a Capuchin friar associating himself with a Quaker society. ...Father M. started giving the pledge of total abstinence to the poor of Cork... His miracle in evangelizing Ireland to temperance without hysteria originated in a native innocence & saintly self-abnegation that made Father M. the best-known Irishman in the world next to O'Connell. He gave the pledge personally to more than half the population of Ireland in massive open-air meetings... Every Irish town had its Father M. band & marching banners... Catholics & Protestants pressed invitations upon Father M. to visit the U.S.. When he finally arrived at Staten Island, July 9, 1849, his visit turned into a national reception by all creeds & classes... By the time of the Civil War, the Father M. movement appeared dead, hastened to its grave by the hard times of 1856-58, which increased intemperance. The temperance societies founded under the spell of his name withered away.

- Ibid., p. 521 & 525

"At 8 o'clock the next morning Father Matthew gave a stirring scriptural discourse on the importance of temperance, proving from the scriptures, as well as from facts, the sin of using ardent spirits. The concourse was immense, so that they 'strode one upon another.' At twelve o'clock he gave another address. His simple, unaffected manner carried that evidence of sincerity & integrity with it, that no one can doubt but he who loves to doubt...

I had heard much of this man in my own country, but here I saw him, and must acknowledge he is the only person of whom I had heard much praise, who ever met the expectation given. He more than met it, he passed it by."

- Mrs. Nicholson, Ireland's Welcome to a Stranger, p. 156 (Mil. L.)

"Called at Father Matthew's ([in] Cork). His house is quite plain; the hall door is fastened open from six in the morning until the same time in the evening, saying to the citizen & stranger, 'Ye all are welcome'...

The room is entirely devoid of ornaments, except the papers pasted upon the wall as cautions to the intemperate. Benches were arranged about the room for those in waiting, on one of which, in an obscure corner, I took my seat and saw the lame[?] and deformed, the clean and the filthy, the well-clad and the tattered, kneel & take the pledge and enter their names in a book, which the clerk who registered them said counted 5 million and 4 thousand. To the meanest beggar he speaks as kindly as [to] the titled gentleman, and to the suffering I often saw him slip a little change, bidding them depart & not disgrace him by breaking the pledge.

The next evening a temperance meeting was held in a neatly decorated room, prepared by the poor fishwomen, who were teetotalers. 'You must go,' said Father Matthew, 'These women 5 years ago were the greatest nuisances in Cork, but they took the pledge, and not one has broken it.' I went. The rich were there too; they had been invited because it was the poor who made the feast. [This sentence doesn't make sense to me but this is as it is in the book.] The room was crowded; tea was prepared, and the meeting was opened by three cheers for the Queen." [Mrs. N. then goes out at great length to tell "how kindly she herself was received."][1]

- Ibid., p. 248-50

Father Matthew succeeded in keeping many millions of men sober during the '40s, until the Great Famine engulfed his work as it did O'Connell's. To him is due the feature of Irish life, the brass band with banners, which he originally organized as a counter-intoxicant.

- Shane Leslie, in The Glories of Ireland, p. 158

Begun in the late 1830s, it soon embraced half the population of Ireland. O'Connell was one of the first to welcome the movement (he was abstemious but not a teetotaler); he said that Father Matthew was "entitled to the nation's gratitude beyond all other living men." For Repeal the advantages of the Tem. Movement were inestimable - it made possible the monster meetings.

[- no citation is given here]

Rev. Geo. Carr ( Est. Church) read in American newspapers about the Temperance Movement in America. He spoke at a Quaker meeting house, asked their help, & the 1 st Irish Temperance Society was formed at New Ross, County Cork, on 20 th August, 1829.

Soon after one organized in Cork. They asked the help of the popular & liberal Father Matt. On 10 th April, 1838 the "Cork Total Abstinence Society" was formed. He traveled through nearly every district of Ireland; in Oct. 1840 his list of members included 2,530,000 names (information in the Halls, Vol. I, p. 36-37).

"During our stay in Cork we were anxious to meet Mr. Matthew... He resides in a bye street running off from one of the old quays. We saw him administer 'the pledge.' The neophyte receives it kneeling, & repeats after the priest the following words: 'I promise to abstain from all intoxicating drinks, except used medicinally, and by order of a medical man, & to discontinue the cause & practice of intemperance.'

Mr. Matthew then marks on his forehead the sign of the cross and says, 'God give you strength to keep your resolution.'"

- Halls, Vol. I, p. 42

"No one who sees Rev. Mr. Matthew will hesitate to believe that he has been stimulated by pure benevolence to the work he has undertaken. The expression of his countenance is particularly mild & gracious; his manner is persuasive, gentle, simple, & easy, and humble without a shadow of affectation, & his voice is low & musical - 'such as moves man.' A man more naturally fitted to obtain influence over a people easily led & proverbially swayed by affection we have never encountered. No man has borne his honors more meekly, encountered opposition with greater gentleness and forbearance, or disarmed hostility by weapons better suited to a Christian. His age is somewhat above fifty, but he looks younger & his frame is strong, evidently calculated to endure great fatigue, & his aspect is that of established health. He is somewhat above middle size; his features are handsome as well as expressive. Our brief interview with him confirmed the favorable impression of his character we had obtained from a knowledge of the benefits derived from his labors."

- Halls, Vol. I. p. 46

Mrs. Nicholson & Temperance

(In Wexford) "I reached the stopping place of the coach in good time to give a temperance lecture to a company of travelers who were taking their punch. At first they made light of it, but soon became sobered when I cited to them the judgement, where we must all appear... I had a great and attentive audience, with a multitude of 'God bless & speed ye on your way; for surely you're a wonderful body, & the like of ye never was seen.'"

Ireland's Welcome to a Stranger, p. 233 (Mil. Lib.)

1 Brackets in this paragraph appear in the original manuscript.

Travelers' Accounts

Sir John Carr (an English tourist), 1805

He did not approve of the charter schools, the Protestant schools for children of poor Catholics, and the native hedge-schools he thought were despicable. "In the summer a wretched uncharactered itinerant derives a scanty & precarious existence by wandering from parish to parish, and opening a school in some ditch covered with heath & furze, to which the inhabitants send their children to be instructed by the miserable beardless being who is nearly as ignorant as themselves."

A note on this says, "The Charter Schools, established in 1735, maintained partly by subscription & partly by grants from the Irish Parliament, provided free lodging & clothes. The children were taught a trade & brought up as Protestants. Howard, Wesley, & others reported on them unfavorably, for the education was poor & they were unhealthy & uncomfortable. They were naturally very unpopular with the Roman Catholics, who only patronized them largely in times of famine or distress. The hedge schools provided by the people themselves were actually more efficient. If some of the schoolmasters were odd, the three R's were on the whole well-taught."

Carr gives the "lower Irish" a good character. He thought them remarkable for their ingenuity... He did not find them dishonest or lazy. "It is curious to see with what scanty materials they will work; they make their own cabins & make bridles, stirrups, cruppers, and ropes." He admired their personal beauty & vigor of frame, and praises their hospitality. "The neighbor or the stranger finds every man's door open, and to walk in without ceremony at meal time, and to partake of his bowl of potatoes is always sure to give pleasure to every one of the house, and the pig is turned out to make room for the gentleman." And apropos of their love of music which had persisted through the ages, and was remarked upon by every traveler, he says, "the harp is yet in use; but the Irish bagpipe is the favorite instrument."

- Constantia Maxwell, The Stranger in Ireland, 1954, p. 235-36 (Mil. Lib.)

Mr. & Mrs. S. C. Hall

1838 & 1840 made tours; 5 tours since 1825

England & Ireland "one country"; Repeal - "insane"

"In all our tours we not only never encountered the slightest slay[?] or insult, but never heard of a traveler who had been subjected to either; & thought heedless in business of locking up 'boxes' at inns, in no instance did we sustain a loss by our carelessness." (Vol. I, p. 4)

He was present at the surrender of O'Neill.

He does not approve of the "corrupt customs" of the Irish. Tanistry, for instance, which ignored hereditary principles in the chieftainship, from which he says, "flows a plentiful spring of murders & conspiracies." The chiefs he thought too tyrannical, "eating upon" their people & making them feed their ____ or footmen & their horsemen. He deplores the influence of the bards who stir up the clansmen to rebellion, & of the Jesuits & priests who "swarmed in all places," especially in the houses of the Lords, encouraging them in disobedience to the English magistrates.

- Constantia Maxwell, The Stranger in Ireland, p. 24 (Mil. Lib.)

Sir William Petty (an English physician), 1652

Appointed (1652) Physician to the Army of the Commonwealth in Ireland. He made a survey of the forfeited lands & superintended its redistribution.

He says that 3/4 of the natives lived in a "brutish, nasty condition, in cabins with neither chimney, door, or window, fed chiefly upon milk & potatoes, "& the current wage was 4d a day, while the lowest class of workmen in England got 1s." However, he goes on to point out that if they were lazy (as was said) they had little inducement to work, for much of their property had been taken from them & they had few means of employment. "For what need they to work, who can content themselves with potatoes, whereof the labor of one man feed 40, and with milk, whereof one cow will, in summer give meat & drink for 3 men...and why should they breed more cattle, since 'til penal to import them into England?...How should merchants have stock since trade is prohibited?"

- Constantia Maxwell, The Stranger in Ireland, p. 85 (Mil. Lib.)

Le Chevalier de la Tocnaye (a French émigré who wrote travel books to make money), 1796-97

He remarked on the prevalence of wretched beggars. He saw wretched hedge-schools in the open air, full of ragged scholars, and in the extreme west he heard many stories of smuggling & wrecking. "The safe & deep harbors by which this country is intersected, together with the facility of landing without being annoyed by revenue-officers, have induced many to settle on the coasts for the smuggling business as it is publicly called."

He heard many tales relating to the outrages of the Whiteboys & although he disapproved he was not surprised, for in matters of tithes & rents he thought the people badly treated.

He was struck by the huge crowds in the churches & by the number that went on pilgrimages to Croagh, Patrick, & Lough Derg, & by the influence & power of the priests.

- Constantia Maxwell, Stranger in Ireland, p. 196-97 (Mil. Lib.)

Arthur Young (an agricultural expert), 1776-79

"A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order which a servant, laborer, or cotter dares to refuse to execute. Nothing satisfies him but unlimited submission. Disrespect, or anything tending toward sauciness, he may punish with his cane or horsewhip with the most perfect security; a poor man would have his bones broken if he offered to lift a hand in his own defense."

- Constantia Maxwell, The Stranger in Ireland, p. 168 (Mil. Lib.)

"The greatest part of the kingdom exhibits a naked, bleak, dreary view for want of trees." Many trees were destroyed in the Elizabethan wars because they afforded shelter to the rebels. The 17 th cent. settlers cut down a great deal of timber for iron works & building material & exported large quantities for gain. Absentee landlords, looking for quick profits had also cut down many trees, & so had the peasantry, who were afraid that the growth of timber might raise the value of their holdings. (Ibid., p. 323)

Of the peasantry, he notes their vivacity & love of society & their taste for music & dancing. "they are infinitely more cheerful & lively than anything we commonly see in England, having nothing of that incivility, of sullen silence, with which so many Englishmen seem to wrap themselves up." Yet he noticed that they were hard drinkers, and quarrelsome, lazy on the whole, & secret & vengeful enemies. The Whiteboy movement was in full swing, a revolt against the tithes that were to be paid to the Protestant clergy & the extortions of middlemen who collected rents for the landlords. Young had no sympathy with the outrages of the Whiteboy, but of the tithe proctors he says, "They are a bad set of people," for they screwed up the cotter to the utmost shilling; while the middleman he describes as "the most oppressive species of tyrant that ever lent assistance to the destruction of a country." He was also critical of the Penal Laws, & of the commercial restrictions. Of the Catholics he says, "They are under such discouragements they cannot engage in any trade. If they succeed & make a fortune what are they to do with it? They cannot buy land, take a mortgage, or even sign down the rent of a lease."

- Ibid., p. 171

[William Makepeace] Thackeray

The country in the [18] 40s was not a pleasant spectacle, and much of what he saw was a dress-rehearsal for the Famine. He was horribly depressed, especially at first, by the general poverty. Everywhere there were beggars who swarmed in the towns, or who followed his car, the men lying in front of their cabins with no work or little food, the women pulling weeds or nettles in the hedges, the people in some places crowding around the meal shops where meal was being distributed by the neighboring gentry, for there was no work, bread, or potatoes. ...Like so many other visitors, he was particularly struck by the pious devotion of the peasantry, in the pleasure they took in their religious services. ...Thackeray saw & heard as an outsider, for he had no real sympathy for Catholicism.

- Constantia Maxwell, The Stranger in Ireland, 1954, p. 308-09 (Mil. Lib.)

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 1830s

Whiteboyism 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. 269[1]

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."

Larcom 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.