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Agrarian Conflict in Clare: 1815 - 1831
By Michael MacMahon

The Terry Alts and Escalating Violence

The Terry Alts

It was during the conflict discussed here that the term ‘Terry Alts’ first entered the lexicon of agrarian agitation. Terry Alts, a Protestant ex-soldier, (‘an inoffensive and peaceable man’), [33] had settled at Annville near Corofin some years previously having married a local woman named Bella Baker. Far from having any truck with secret agrarian factions, Terry was a loyal supporter of the establishment and, in fact, had himself incurred the displeasure of the ‘Rock Legislators’ on at least two occasions. [34] Although the details are obscure these incidents fit easily into the pattern of Protestant-bashing which was rampant in Corofin at that time.

Terry Alts’s spurious connection with Ribbonism was based on the jocose remark of a local wag which purported to link him with an assault on one of Synge’s workmen. When the joke gained currency the local Moonlighters mockingly adopted his name, probably for the perverse purpose of poking fun at the police at the expense of a Protestant, and one who had already incurred their displeasure. There is also the possibility that they suspected him of being a police informant. [35] Whatever the reason, Terry gave to Ribbonism a new word and thereafter the Terry Alts, or Terrys, as they were popularly known, became synonymous with agrarian outrage in Clare and in parts of the adjoining counties.


When the Catholic Association became a mass movement in the 1820s sectarian tensions became more apparent. Catholics now had a framework for political protest and when O’Connell swept to victory in the by-election of 1828 they knew that, properly organised, they could challenge the establishment. In their new-found confidence the payment of tithe to the Established Church became a serious bone of contention which sometimes fermented to violence. In Mountshannon, for instance, where there was a sizeable Protestant population, attacks on Protestants were frequent. In Kiltoraght parish, near Kilfenora, when the rector, Rev. Mr. Davouren peremptorily distrained the property of some parishioners who had fallen into arrears, a bitter outbreak of sectarian protest ensued. In July, 1829, timber and other materials which the Rev. Davouren had purchased for a new Protestant school were set on fire, and in the following month his parish clerk, Thomas Pilkington, was savagely beaten while bringing home his master’s turf from the bog. He died within a few weeks from his injuries. [36] The Rev. Davouren himself was subjected to harassment and boycott which eventually forced him to leave the district.

The Drumellihy Outrage

Although many factors came into play in the saga of agrarian violence there is no doubt that for the most part it was committed in the name of traditional rights which the poorer classes regarded as crucial to their very survival in a straitened economic climate. Having said that, however, there is no escaping the fact that the mayhem existing in some districts was sometimes exploited for other reasons such as sheer wanton robbery or personal vengeance. An example of private score-settling can be seen in the brutal assault on the Doyle brothers at Drumellihy in west Clare in December 1829. [37] The two brothers were dragged from their beds at the dead of night by a party of men who beat them severely, dragged them naked outside and then cut off their tongues. It was stated that their only crime was to have taken jobs as drovers on the Westropp estate in the place of two men who had recently been dismissed for misconduct. Afterwards four men, including one of the dismissed drovers and his cousin, went to the scaffold for this dreadful crime. [38]

Lock Up Your Daughters

A practice frequently engaged in by the agrarian factions in pursuit of their aims was abduction, or the forcible taking away of young girls, usually the daughters of the better-off farmers. At the height of the Terry Alts campaign in the Corofin district in 1830 the indomitable Fr. Murphy fitted up a disused granary at his residence, Richmond House, as a refuge for girls who were considered to be at risk. This attempt to sidetrack the agrarian Lochinvars drew from them a rather amusing response in the form of a poem addressed to the editor of the Clare Journal. [39] It bore the address ‘Headquarters, Corofin’, and was signed ‘Terry Alt’:

‘Fr. Murphy, for shame, to keep his two parishes
And to have next Shrove some valuable marriages,
Has locked up his girls all snug in his barn
While his curates mount guard to keep them from harm

But, as this duty is hard on the two young divines,
And himself being sick, can’t mount guard betimes,
If myself they’d ordain I would soon take their parts,
To mount guard on the girls would delight Terry Alts.’

The Rising Tide

‘The accounts of murders, plunders, robberies and Whiteboyism that arrive daily from all parts of the county from Black Head to Thomondgate exceed anything of the kind ever heard of in this or any other county.’
(Ennis Chronicle, 26 February, 1831).

There was a marked escalation in the level of agitation in the winter of 1830 following a disastrous harvest when people became alarmed at the prospect of having no seed for the spring sowing. On the 24 March the Clare Journal reported that vast numbers were without a sufficient quantity of food to support their families for one month and earnestly implored that the situation be not overlooked. But it was already too late. A massive wave of peasant revolt was threatening to engulf the whole country. As early as January, the Dublin Evening Mail had already proclaimed that at no period since the rebellion of ’98 had Ireland been in such a frightful state of excitement. ‘Several large districts are in open rebellion’, it cautioned, ‘and blood is called for in a voice not to be mistaken.’ [40]

In Clare the rising tide of violence was cleary signalled by the murder of William Blood at Applevale, near Corofin, on the night of 21 January, 1831. Blood, a forty-six year bachelor and magistrate, was murdered in his own house by a party of Terry Alts in circumstances of frightful brutality, his body almost hacked to pieces. [41] More than anything that had gone before, this outrage rocked the county. Within days the gentry were deserting their estates and flocking into Ennis for safety in fear for their lives. The magistrates met in special session at Ennis to draft a petition to the House of Commons entreating that some measures be put in place to restore order to the county. The violence continued, however, and on 31 January the Clare Journal admitted that it could no longer keep pace with the nightly outrages:

‘The question now is not what outrages have taken place last night, but have they been of a more sanguinary character than those of the night previous.’

A fortnight later the county was again convulsed by the attempted assassination of Edward Synge, referred to earlier, and the murder of his workman, Donnellan.

The authorities were now becoming alarmed that the county was drifting towards anarchy and military reinforcements were hastily poured in. Detachments were billeted at Tulla, Ennistymon, Cahircon, Crusheen and Corofin – the more disturbed districts – and it was announced that the Lord Lieutenant himself would visit the county in person to confer with the magistrates.

It would be tedious, if not impossible, to list all the incidents reported in the newspapers at this period. All that can be attempted is to give some impression of the general state of disorder prevailing in the county. The Clare Journal in its issue of 28 March 1831 put it thus:

‘If we detailed one-twentieth of the outrages reported such as levelling walls, or turning up ground, we should be charged with exaggeration, and indeed present to the people but a dull detail. The fact is that at this moment neither life nor property is secure; they are at the disposal of an infuriated rabble. In every part of the county people are out at night seeking for arms and powder. The insurrection Act is the only remedy.’

Fire and Bayonets

On the day that the report just quoted was published the police barracks at Feakle was wrecked by an angry mob armed with spades and stones. [42] A few days later a party of five policemen stationed at Doolin, while attempting to arrest some Terry Alts at Toovahera, near Lisdoonvarna, were set upon by an incensed gang and the entire police party was beaten to death. [43] Following this occurrence the magistrates again met at Ennis in an attempt to devise some scheme to ‘bring the county to repose’, but

‘while they were still sitting news of one outrage after another reached them, and before they had dispersed they had come to the conclusion to give the people up to their own devices and abandon them to the fire and bayonets of the military.’ [44]

Following the Lord Lieutenant’s visit to the county at the beginning of April a heavy military and police regime was put in place. That same month however, brought news of the murder of Daniel Hastings, one of Mr. Vandeleur’s agents at Ralahine, the brutal slaying of Michael Moloney, a herdsman at Cratloe, and a fatal assault on another of the Rev. Davouren’s workmen near Corofin. [45] Notwithstanding the increased police and military presence in the county, a meeting of the landed proprietors held at Ennis on 20 April had ‘no expectations of being able to prevent in any manner the outrages that hour after hour are taking place in the county’. [46] If anything matters appeared to be getting worse: on 8 May a scouting party of police and military hunting for Terry Alts near Clondegad was attacked by a crowd of people returning from Mass and forced to take refuge in the local rector’s house. One of the party, a colour sergeant of the military named James Robinson, failed to make it to the rectory. Pleading for mercy, he was stoned to death by the angry crowd on the bank of the Owenslieve river, which he was too badly injured and too exhausted to cross.[47]

Within days the county was proclaimed by order of the Lord Lieutenant. Proclamation meant that County Clare was now deemed to be ‘in a state of disturbance requiring an extraordinary establishment of police’. In effect the Insurrection Act (‘Whiteboy Act’) was invoked strengthening the hands of the police and military to deal with what was now regarded as a situation of near-anarchy. Additional stipendiary magistrates were immediately appointed and Major Warburton, the newly-appointed General Inspector of the Police in Ireland, was assigned in person to the county. A large contingent of police which had been formed in Dublin under Sir John Harvey for policing in Clare arrived at Ennis at the end of May, and the military strength in the county was given as 2,500 men. [48] In addition to the foregoing measures a special judicial commission was set up to hear the Terry Alt cases that were already committed for trial.

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The Special Commission and its Effect