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Agrarian Conflict in Clare: 1815 - 1831
By Michael MacMahon

Warburton Police and Growing Poverty


Warburton Police

During the summer of 1816 outrages continued with even greater frequency, particularly in the western parts of the county, and in May a Peace Preservation Force consisting of some thirty policemen was posted to Kilrush. [7] This was the first detachment of the Warburton police, fore-runners of the Royal Irish Constabulary. They took their name from Major Warburton, a superintendent magistrate for Clare, who was afterwards appointed General Inspector of Police in Ireland.

Towards the end of the year there was a noticeable drop in the level of agitation. To some extent this was due to a good harvest although it was noted, too, that the Catholic clergy had become active in encouraging a cessation of violence in their parishes. At Kilkee and Doonbeg Fr. McInerney invited a local landlord and magistrate to address his congregations and propose to them an oath of loyalty to His Majesty. He advised them to give information to the authorities about unlawful meetings. [8] Fr. Kelly did the same at Cooraclare. Other priests who got special mention for their peace-keeping efforts were Dean McMahon, Quin, Fr. Coffey, P.P., Kildysert and Fr. McGuane, Kilmurry-Ibrickane.

Illicit Distilling

It was believed in some quarters that the ready availability of illicit spirits and the high level of rural disturbance were not entirely coincidental. Certainly if the number of seizures reported weekly in the newspapers is anything to go by it is clear that illicit distillation was commonplace. In February 1815 The Clare Journal reported that scarcely a week passed without a seizure. In the following month a soldier was killed in the course of a raid for spirits at Kilmurry-McMahon. The parishes of Dysert and Kilkeedy were frequently raided and malthouses and stills destroyed. [9] In the following year The Clare Journal was again reporting seizures and encouraging the authorities to make every effort to ‘discourage a practice so ruinous to the peace of the county’. [10] In July 1816 the Irish Townland Fines Bill was introduced making transportation for seven years the penalty for persons convicted a second time for being concerned in illicit distillation.

While it is clear that many instances which passed for agrarian agitation were motivated by concerns other than the land question, nevertheless one can easily agree with the view expressed by one commentator [11] that the undoubted popularity of cheap illicit brew was but a further manifestation of the depression and hopelessness that pervaded the poorer classes in pre-famine society.

Perfect Tranquillity

Following the eruptions of 1815-16 the county enjoyed a period of relative calm. A meeting of the gentry of Inchiquin barony at Corofin in November 1819 noted that the barony was ‘in a state of perfect tranquility’. [12]

Ironically it was in the Corofin district that the next eruption occurred early in the following year when a fresh outbreak of Ribbonism, then rampant in Galway, began to spill into north Clare. [13] In February 1820 the home of Terence O’Brien of Glann Lodge and some other houses in the same locality were raided for arms. The following month an armed party of local gentry and their servants led by Tomkins Brew, a local magistrate, rode through the Burren on a scouting mission and surprised a large group of Ribbonmen at Ballard, near Corofin. They arrested ten of them including their ‘captain’. [14] Arising out of this incident extra police were drafted into the county, and a notice in the Saturday Record required all people to ‘remain indoors between 9 p.m. and daylight lest any accident might happen from the vigorous measures necessary from the state of the county’.

Despair

A sustained drop in agricultural prices throughout 1820 was aggravated by bad weather in the following year resulting in a miserable potato crop. It was reported that at the June fair at Ruan in 1820 (‘one of the principal fairs of the county and the prices at which set the pattern for all other fairs in Clare’) there was not one twentieth of the usual business done, ‘this telling the stress of the times’. [15] In the same year the October fair at Clonroad was stated to be ‘destructive of the hopes of farmers’.[16] Following the poor harvest of 1821 potatoes in the Ennis market rose to seven-and-a-half pence a stone, and in the following April many families were said to be subsisting entirely on meal brought in from Galway. In Kildysert during the same month seven people died from starvation in one week. [17] In the barony of Inchiquin it was stated that over three thousand persons had neither food nor the means of procuring it. [18]

A correspondent to the Evening Post gives a good picture of the general distress in the county in 1822:

‘The streets of Ennis are lined with labourers and tradespeople who stand leaning against their houses, their arms folded and despair in their countenances. In conversing with some of them they tell me that they have from one to six acres of land with a cabin, but the potatoes having failed, they have neither food for the present nor seed for the next season. They have left their land waste and have, with their families, become wanderers through the country.’ [19]

In a speech in the House of Commons as the end of April, Sir Edward O’Brien raised the plight of the people of Clare. Thousands of the peasantry were endeavouring to live on one scanty meal of oatmeal mixed with vegetables and water cresses in the day. Now that the activity of the war trade had subsided there were no means of employment left, and thousands of strong and able men were idle at large, who in vain sought a single day’s work for the smallest pittance. One third of the people of the county had been reduced to absolute distress. [20]

Although The Clare Journal noted that ‘numerous acts of outrage and murder were disgracing the peasantry of the south of Ireland’, Clare was relatively peaceful at this period despite the widespread distress. There were some sporadic eruptions: a notice posted on the door of the chapel at Tulla warned that anyone bidding for land in the area would be ‘greeted with fire and sword’, and at Cratloe five ‘notorious characters’ were charged with Whiteboyism. [21] In February a party of two hundred men passed through the village of Crusheen one night on a raid into Galway. They administered oaths to some persons in the neighbourhood. There were other instances of raids, mostly for firearms, but in general the level of agitation was lower than in many of the neighbouring counties e.g. Limerick, where the city and county were proclaimed. [22]

The low level of disturbance in Clare may have been due in some measure to the fact that considerable efforts were made by the gentry of the county at this time to relieve the condition of the poor. Baronial relief committees were established and by the summer of 1822 soup kitchens were operating at Ennis and at some other centres. On 25 April The Clare Journal noted that ‘in every succeeding publication we have the pleasing duty to perform of inserting an account of the meetings of the gentry in their respective baronies for the relief of the poor’. Around this time too the London Tavern Committee was formed to collect subscriptions for famine relief in Ireland, and in October 1822 a meeting chaired by the Catholic bishop of Killaloe was held in the courthouse at Ennis to form an association for the encouragement of industry and the ‘promotion of comfort’ among the poor. [23]

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