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Agrarian Conflict in Clare: 1815 - 1831
By Michael MacMahon

Unrest and Secret Societies


‘I have gone among the peasantry in the county [of Clare] from house to house, and I have seen the stock of potatoes upon which alone they have to depend for sustenance, and I declare to this house that above 150,000 of the peasantry are in one quarter of the county without anything like an adequate quantity of food and utterly without means or resources of obtaining it.’
Sir Edward O’Brien, M.P., in the House of Commons, April, 1822
(Clare Journal, 6 May 1822).

‘We are led to think from a source of good authority that there is an organised system amongst the peasantry of the country, and that the present time is one of the greatest peril. If not closely and cautiously watched we really dread the worst, and that the end will be massacre and bloodshed.’
(Clare Journal, 20 July 1826).

‘Murder seems to be the order of the day about Corofin.’
(Clare Journal, 2 December 1830).

‘We humbly state to your excellency, we are ready to work at any species of labour or employment that can save our families from starvation and we humbly and respectfully state that ameliorating measures will have more effect in restoring peace, tranquillity and confidence than bayonets and Insurrection Acts. Death cannot have much terror for persons in the last extremity of destitution.’
Excerpt from address made on behalf of the peasantry of Clare at Ennis to the Lord Lieutenant on 4 April, 1831.
(Clare Journal, 11 April 1831).


Agrarian unrest was endemic in Ireland in the decades preceding the Great Famine. Although the causes of this unrest varied from place to place they were mostly economic, deriving mainly from over-population and serious imbalances in the rural economy. Some of these structural imbalances are reflected in the census returns for 1841. In Clare, for instance, some 11,593 holdings, or 43% of all landholdings in the county, consisted of between 1 and 5 acres. The census also shows that out of a total of 48,981 families in the county, 24,650 families (50% approximately) lived in what were termed “fourth class” houses i.e. cabins constructed with mud and having only one room. From these figures it is easy to see that large masses of the population rarely lived above mere subsistence level. Moreover, since the potato was the staple diet, a bad harvest could result in starvation or near-starvation becoming a reality.

The 1-5 acre holdings (the majority were nearer the lower figure) were usually termed ‘cottier’ holdings. They were generally held from a farmer or ‘middleman’ in return for a rent which was paid, not in cash, but in an agreed number of days’ labour. When the demand for labourers had increased during the boom years of the Napoleonic War these holdings became very numerous.

This rural social structure stimulated a rapid rise in population. In normal economic conditions the fruitfulness of the potato enabled the cottier/labourer to raise a family on a small piece of ground albeit at subsistence level. Furthermore the cottier/labourer traditionally married young in contrast to those further up the social scale who ‘were bound by conventions of the dowry and the matchmaker’. [1]

A further cause of fragmentation of holdings in pre-Famine times was the practice of dividing land among the sons of a family when they reached a certain age, or when they wished to marry. This led eventually to an accumulation of near-landless labourers, who frequently had to depend on ‘spalpeening’ for most of the year, or on ‘conacre’ i.e. a plot of potato-ground rented from a farmer for the duration of the growing season only. However, as the population increased, competition for land inevitably pushed up conacre rents thus depriving many of the most needy of their only insurance against starvation.

The problem of conacre came into sharper focus after 1815 when falling grain prices began to push farmers against tillage in favour of livestock. This led to a decline in the amount of land available for conacre and further inflation of conacre rent. Worse still, in order to create ranches for cattle-grazing, some land-jobbers engaged in wholesale ‘clearances’ and sometimes whole families were cast on the roadside.

Annals of the Poor

The following excerpt from an Address made on Behalf of the Peasantry of Clare to the Lord Lieutenant when he visited Ennis in April, 1831, affords us an opportunity to see the condition of the poorer classes as they themselves perceived it: [2]

‘From the year 1800 a large portion of the aristocracy and gentry of this country left their ancient residences and went to reside in foreign countries, leaving their tenantry to the management of land agents. The consequences have been that as holdings went out of lease, they were let in large farms to graziers and land jobbers to fatten cattle and sheep; and we the descendants of the old and faithful tenantry have been cast upon the world, harmless wanderers, to seek shelter for ourselves and our helpless families in huts or cabins built in bogs or commons, the residences of our forefathers being levelled to the earth…
The principal means of support of our families for nearly thirty years is the potato crop, and on half the year without milk. Having but little land, and that of the most inferior kind, and numbers of us with no land at all, we are obliged to pay at the rate of six to eight pounds an acre for conacre for one crop. Frequent inclemency of the seasons has rendered the crops so bad that we are obliged to leave the crop on the land in lieu of rent, forfeiting our seed and labour and frequently processed for the difference between what the crop thus left sells for and our original contract, in consequence of which our families are often obliged in the Summer season to pluck the rape leaf and wild nettle for their sustenance… In addition to the foregoing the average price of labour in this county is six pence per day from six in the morning to six in the afternoon, without breakfast or dinner, and even that is not to be had for more than three days a week.’

Tithes paid to Protestant clergy were another cause of complaint particularly after Emancipation:

‘We leave it to your Excellency’s judgement to consider whether the members of one church should pay out of the hard earnings of their labour for the support of the richest Church Establishment in the world, to the doctrines of which, in conscience, we cannot subscribe.’

On top of all this many Catholic tenants felt that they were being victimised for subscribing to Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association and particularly for having voted for him in the Clare bye-election of 1828:

‘The resident gentry and landowners have taken no measures to relieve our distress. On the contrary some of them have told us they considered all ties between them and the people forever severed in consequence of having exercised our undoubted and constitutional right in 1828, contrary to the will of the landlord.’

Secret Societies

Viewed against the economic backdrop it is easy to see that poverty and the struggle to survive were at the root of the agrarian unrest in the period under review here. That this was so is emphasised by the fact that the eruptions were most frequent during bad seasons when the conditions of the poorer classes were most precarious. At such times agrarian secret societies under a variety of names – Ribbonmen, Captain Rock’s Men (Rockites), Levellers, Lady Clares, Terry Alts, etc. – sprang up around the country for the purpose of enforcing popular notions of what was equitable in such matters as the fixing of conacre rents, tenant rights and the payment of tithe. In the words of one commentator they functioned as ‘a vast trades union for the protection of the peasantry’ and exacted serious penalties for breaches of the union code. Threatening notices, assault, houghing of cattle, levelling walls, ploughing up grassland, abduction, rape – these were some of the methods used by these disaffected rural factions to enforce their notion of fair play in the operation of the tenurial system. Their victims included landlords and their agents, middlemen, strong farmers and their employees, bailiffs and police. And although the wealthy farmers who were the peasants’ immediate overlords were the most obvious targets, their smaller undertenants and even the landless labourers occasionally attracted the ire of the ‘Ribbonmen’ by taking up a plot of land from which another had been ejected, or by offering a rent for conacre higher than the going rate.

Insurrection

Some of the first reported outbreaks occurred in the barony of Bunratty in April 1815 following a bad harvest and a fall in grain prices. A detachment of military was ordered to be quartered at Newmarket-on-Fergus to assist in keeping the peace.[3]In the following month it was reported that the house of a poor man in the parish of Clooney was visited by a number of men who flogged him in a cruel manner for having taken a piece of ground above a certain price.[4] At a meeting of the magistrates held at Ennis on 1 June 1815 it was stated that ‘scarcely a night passes that some depredations and meetings do not take place’.[5] Unless the peace of the county was immediately restored they would be compelled to apply to the government to have all the disturbed districts proclaimed. Agitation became widespread throughout the winter and in April 1816 the baronies of Clonderlaw, Ibrickan and Moyarta were proclaimed by the Lord Lieutenant. Proclamation under the insurrection Act gave wide powers to the military, including power to imprison persons found outside after an unreasonable hour at night. The secret societies however responded with their own proclamation in the shape of a notice posted up on the door of a blacksmith’s house at Kilkishen:[6]

‘From the Lord Protector of the Poor
Moonlight- whereas divers forestalling stinking toads have alarmed the magistrates and gentlemen of this county by persuading them that we are hostile to the peace of the county, and have views tending to subvert the Constitution – take this opportunity of disavowing all such intention and recommend to the said magistrates and gentlemen to rest easy and be assured that our sole object is to ameliorate the condition of the poor now labouring under very heavy grievances occasioned by the very high prices of land, tithes, taxes etc. Any person who will process at next quarter sessions, we will be revenged on his house, cattle etc. if he is not to be found himself. So let not the creditor be blamed.

Given at our chamber, Conscience Hall, this 6th day of April, 1816.
God save the King.
Signed: Stiffney Nightboy, Firethatch etc.

P.S. I swear that I will execute the above in the most dreadful manner, without fear or favour.

Lieutenant Tearback.’

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