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Who was Terry Alt?

by Michael MacMahon

The Other Clare no. 43 (2019)
Donated by: Michael MacMahon

In its most explosive phase in the late winter and spring of 1830-31 the secret agrarian society known as the Terry Alts brought Co. Clare almost to the brink of anarchy. Most of the nineteen homicides (which included five policemen and a soldier) committed in the county between January and May 1831 were connected to the movement, as were the 201 assaults (mostly nocturnal beatings) and the 397 attacks on houses committed in the same period (1). Already by February the Ennis Chronicle was finding it difficult to keep abreast of the deteriorating situation so numerous were the reports of outrage and mayhem arriving daily (2):

The accounts of murders, plunders and whiteboyism that arrive daily from all parts of the county from Black Head to Thomond Gate exceed anything of the kind ever heard of in this or any other county.

Of course, agrarian turbulence was not confined to Co. Clare: the faction known as the Terry Alts was but one of the many secret oath-bound combinations endemic in Ireland during the economic slide that followed the ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Operating under a variety of names - Whiteboys, Moonlighters, Ribbonmen, Levellers, Captain Rock’s Men (Rockites), Lady Clares etc. - they were composed largely of cottiers, labourers and subsistence tenants. Sometimes referred to as ‘the poor man’s trade union’, they sought, often by violent means, to enforce popular notions of fair play in such matters as access to conacre (a seasonally-rented patch of ground suitable for cultivation), the fixing of rents, the price of potatoes and the payment of tithe. Their tactics included levelling of walls, maiming of cattle by hamstringing or ‘houghing’ as it was called, digging up pasture, discharging firearms into houses, arson, assault, robbery, abduction, rape and murder. The violence might be directed against a so-called middleman, strong farmer or grazier, but sometimes even against a cottier or labourer who had taken up a patch of ground from which another had been evicted, or who worked as a herd or labourer for a proscribed employer. Because of the widespread practice by the activists of wearing ribbons and streamers for disguise, the term ‘Ribbonism’ came into fashion as a blanket term for almost all manifestations of agrarian violence. In Clare and in parts of the adjoining counties, however, Terry Alts was the appellation most commonly applied to the insurgents; and though nocturnal activity involving, robbery, assault and beatings, was part of the repertoire of all shades of Ribbonism, what set the Terry Alts apart from most of the other agrarian factions, were the huge daytime gatherings, numbering in the hundreds, openly digging up acres of pasture in order to turn it into potato ground. It is estimated that 600 acres of land in Clare were turned up in this manner by men with spades in 1831 (3). The patch of seasonally-rented potato ground was the poor man’s only insurance against starvation when the labour market collapsed. Matthew Barrington, chief crown solicitor for Munster, told a government enquiry in 1832 that it was mainly the shortage of potato ground and the consequent struggle to survive in a straitened and overcrowded agrarian economy that drove the cottiers and labourers in Clare into the Terry Alts (4).


The Terry Alts first came to public notice in the neighbourhood of Corofin in the second half of 1829 at a time of severe economic distress caused by food shortage and rising prices. An exceptionally wet summer which persisted into the Autumn had virtually destroyed the potato crops (5). This was compounded by a severe drop in cattle prices, the great October fair at Ennis being ‘the most ruinous ever held’ (6). The depressing conditions were further intensified in the Corofin district by a long-running and bitter sectarian battle between Fr. John Murphy, the parish priest, and a local proselytising land agent named Edward Synge on account of the latter’s bible schools, and by 1829 these sectarian animosities had merged with the general agrarian unrest. There was a stiffening of resistance to Synge, and a teacher in one of his schools in the area had five attempts made on his life in the space of two or three months (7). In the beginning, only Protestants connected with Mr. Synge were likely to come under attack but, as the animosities festered, it was reported that no Protestant of the lower orders could appear anywhere publicly around Corofin without being ‘shouted hooted and pelted’, and some of them in terror had even turned to going to Mass hoping it would save their lives (8). Adding to the general volatility in the area was the high-octane political activity generated by the O’Connell election campaign of 1828-29 in which Fr. Murphy had played a prominent part, and the passing of the Emancipation Bill. The reports coming from the district had for some time been causing concern in Dublin castle, and in May 1829 a chief constable and twenty-five men from Mayo were sent to Corofin (9). It was against this backdrop that the rather singular name Terry Alt first emerged as that of the putative leader of militant agrarian protest in the county. On 14 October 1829 the Ennis Chronicle reported:

‘A correspondent informs us of a new insurgent chief having arisen in the county of Clare under the name of Terry Alt. This formidable personage is an agrarian ‘Legislator’ upon the Rockite principle – that is the rapid and energetic principle of nocturnal burning, murder and intimidation’.

There is a certain irony in the fact that the man identified in this report as the new insurgent chief had, in fact, no known connection with any unlawful activity, much less with agrarian violence. According to the editor of the Clare Journal, Terry Alt, an ex-soldier living at Anneville, Corofin, was ‘an exceedingly quiet, peaceable, industrious and well-conditioned poor Protestant’ (10). This is supported by the fact that when he fell victim to the anti-Protestant spirit then prevailing in Corofin, several prominent figures in the county, including Fr. Murphy, Tom Steele and the O’Gorman-Mahon, intervened on his behalf, all of them attesting to his good character (11).

Down to a generation ago, when the more reprehensible crimes of the Terry Alts, such as the brutal murder of William Blood at Applevale, were still part of the fireside tradition of Corofin, the older people were at one in describing how it came about that the innocent ex-soldier’s name transmuted into a byword for agrarian crime. It began, they said, with an event that took place in the village on a Sunday morning during the summer of 1829. This was an assault on a servant of Mr. Synge who was knocked almost unconscious on the main street from a blow to the head delivered by somebody wielding an ash-plant. People leaving Mass in the nearby St Brigid’s church shortly afterwards began to collect around the injured man offering what assistance they could. The assault had happened so quickly that the unfortunate victim was unable to give any useful description of his assailant other than that he was wearing a straw hat. Precisely at that time Terry Alt arrived in the village on his way to Sunday service at St. Catherine’s Protestant church. Attracted by the commotion on the main street, he joined the bystanders to have a look. Wearing a straw hat, he was immediately singled out by a local prankster - a fun-loving shoemaker and fellow Protestant named Richard Ensko – who accused the ex-soldier in tones of mock-solemnity of having committed the assault. In the normal course of events, the affair would probably be seen as just another of the shoemaker’s humorous wind-ups, and soon forgotten. In this instance, however, it is said that the ‘charge’ levelled at Terry Alt was so diametrically out of character with the harmless ex-soldier known to all and sundry that it became a hilarious talking-point, until eventually his name became something of a comical mantra. It was at this point that things took a more sinister turn. The local agrarian activists ‘got in on the act’ by sardonically espousing the ex-soldier’s name and using it perversely as a signature on their inflammatory notices. It was a cynical ploy that served a twofold purpose of poking fun at the constabulary at the expense of a Protestant - one, moreover, who had served for a time in the hated government forces. And the harassment of the innocent ex-soldier did not stop there; he was subjected to a relentless campaign of intimidation and mockery, his house was attacked, glass on the windows broken and thatch and ‘scraws’ on the roof were cut down (12). Afterwards, when he managed to get a decree at the petty sessions against one of his tormentors, a notice was posted on his door warning him to have the small amount of cash involved handed back (13).

Remarkably, almost nothing survives in the local tradition about the ex-soldier’s background, or of how he and his family fared subsequently. Despite the fact that the society that bore his name became quite a blood-stained exclamation mark in the annals of agrarian crime, Terry Alt himself remained an opaque, almost a cartoon figure, his place in the history of that movement seen only in caricature. The following rather tongue-in-cheek depiction of the ex-soldier taken from the London Morning Post in 1831 is typical (14)
In a small village in Clare, somewhere near to Corofin, there lived a person named Terence Alt. He had served as a soldier and received a pension from Government. Terence, or, as he was called by his familiars, Terry Alt, was a man of undoubted loyalty, and therefore it seems strange that he should have immortalised his name in the cause of rebellion, but he did so very unwittingly. He was a harmless good-natured fellow, and the wags of the village used at times to make a butt of him. This Terry took in very good part, and in a short time he became the scapegoat of the hamlet; if there was a trick played or a piece of mischief performed of which the author was unknown, ‘Sure its Terry Alt did it’ was the universal cry, and poor Terence was made to bear the whole odium of the transaction. In the course of time Terry Alt became a by-word; it was affixed as a signature to the incendiary notices which were posted on the houses of the gentry, and ere long became the recognised appellation of the insurgents.

Now, however, thanks largely to the digitisation of military records and easier access to archive material generally, it is possible to get a closer look at this maligned ex-soldier whose life was torn apart by what might best be described as a classic nineteenth century version of a modern facebook harangue.

Military Service

According to his army service record preserved among the military papers in the British National Archives, Terence Alt was born in the parish of Birr, Co. Offaly in 1801 (15). On the 18 March 1818 at Athlone, Co. Westmeath, aged 17 and ‘a labourer’ by occupation, he enlisted for ‘unlimited army service’ and was assigned to the 12th regiment of infantry then quartered in Athlone Barracks. Though private Alt’s military career lasted for less than five years, it was a remarkably varied service during which he served with his regiment (usually for periods of six months) at Limerick, Buttevant, Ennis, Dublin, Manchester, the Channel Islands – Guernsey, and Aldernay (twice) - and Chatham in Kent (16). In between there was a period of leave from December 1822 to March 1823.

Towards the end of 1823 while serving at Chatham Barracks, the young soldier became incapacitated - whether through illness or injury is not clear - and spent from September to December in the invalid depot. In the meantime his regiment had moved on to Fort Cumberland near Portsmouth. Following a medical examination on 16 December private Alt was discharged from the army because of ‘impaired vision of the left eye, both pupils irregular, which renders him totally unfit for further military service’ (17). It was further certified that the impairment was ‘contracted in the usual course of service and nothing was wanting on the part of the young soldier in his efforts to overcome his disability’.

Terry Alt Service Record
Terry Alt's Service Record

To qualify for an army pension at that time, one had to have at least twelve years service except in the case of a disability acquired in the course of duty. British army pensioners were known as Chelsea pensioners – so named from the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London, a retirement home for veterans and the administrative centre for army pensions down to 1955. There were – and still are - two types of Chelsea pensioners, namely in-pensioners and out-pensioners. In-pensioners were those who surrendered their pensions in return for maintenance within the Chelsea retirement home, while the out-pensioners were those who lived ‘out’ in some part of the United Kingdom or abroad and received their pensions from agents - usually chief constables of police or excise officers – at various places around the country. Private Alt belonged to the latter category, he was awarded a pension of nine-pence a day (£0.09), which at that time would probably be paid at six-monthly intervals in arrears. His discharge certificate describes him as ‘about 23 years of age, five feet and five inches in height, blue eyes and brown hair’. His general conduct as a soldier was ‘good’ and his military service ‘after the age of eighteen’ was calculated at 4 years and 474 days.

During his active service Private Alt had served a six month’s stretch at Ennis from December 1819 to June 1820. Presumably, it was during that time that he first met the woman who would afterwards become his wife - Isabella Baker, daughter of James Baker, Anneville, Corofin. In any case we know that he returned to Co. Clare immediately following his discharge. This is revealed in a letter written at Corofin in 1829 in which he states that he was living in the county since 1823 (18). By that time he and Isabella had married and were living in the Baker cottage at Anneville, on the way to Killinaboy, close to the well-known landmark familiarly called ‘the Blessed Tree’ (19). The site of the cottage was something of a curiosity down to comparatively recent times and was one of the places of interest pointed out by Thomas Westropp to members of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland when they paid a visit to North Clare in 1900 (20). When precisely the ex-soldier’s marriage to Isabella Baker took place is not certain, but it was probably no later than 1825 since the couple’s oldest children - twin daughters - were 15 years of age when we first get sight of them in the Census of Population in 1841.

Seeking a Lifeline

By the Autumn of 1829, his name fast becoming a byword for agrarian violence and already, as we have seen, vehemently stigmatised in the local press, Terry Alt was desperately looking around for some means to extricate himself and his young family – three of his children were born by this time - from the sectarian turmoil that was threatening to engulf them in Corofin. He applied to the inspector general of police for a position in the county constabulary, and when this was refused, he decided to bring his case all the way to the Lord Lieutenant himself (21). On 11 September he wrote to Lord Northumberland (Hugh Percy), the Lord Lieutenant, describing his situation, in the hope perhaps that a way would be found to accommodate him. Though written in the first person, we may assume that the letter was not actually penned by the ex-soldier himself, but by someone on his behalf, since his degree of literacy can be gauged from the mark which appears for a signature on his army discharge certificate. Endorsed in the chief secretary’s office as the ‘memorial of Terence Alt’, the letter reads as follows (22):

Corofin 11 Sept. 1829

To the Duke Northumberland

The memorial of Terence Alt

Most humbly herewith the memorialist begs to state for your Grace’s favourable consideration that I enlisted with His Majesty’s service at an early age and was discharged from the service on a low pension. I have resided in this county since 1823. As being a Protestant I have met with persecution, secondly by affixing my name to illegal notices against Protestants in this county for a proof I refer your Grace to the public press as it has inserted my persecution for which I beg your Grace’s protection by appointing me to the police department. I pledge myself to discharge my duty to our Sovereign Lord the King and country as I have heretofore done. I have applied to the Inspector General of Police but in consequence of a government order it was not in his power to receive me until the men assigned from the staff of the militia are taken in.
If assigned I will send my parish minister’s certificate of character and conduct and also the magistrates of the barony wherein I reside – by your Grace’s compliance your memorialist in duty bound will ever pray.
[Signed] Terence Alt, late private soldier in His Majesty’s 12th Regt. Foot.

The Lord Lieutenant’s reply to this memorial - if, indeed, he did reply - cannot now be found, but a memo on the file, which reads simply ‘not in the Lord Lieutenant’s power’, would suggest that the troubled ex-soldier had failed once again to get the response he had hoped for (23). The authority for nominating candidates to the police was vested in the magistrates of the various counties, and it becomes clear from other correspondence emanating from the chief secretary’s office around that time, that the Lord Lieutenant was not disposed to interfere (24).

At this point the situation gets somewhat confused. On 4 November 1829 the Ennis Chronicle reported that Terry Alt had been taken into the police, but the Clare Journal, which copied the report, later retracted it stating that it had no basis in fact (25). The qualifications for admission to the county constabulary were strict. In the first place the applicant was required to be single and ‘unencumbered with a family (26)’. He should be free from any disability and be able to read and write – ‘not merely to read, print and sign his name’, as the regulation stated, ‘but he must be capable of writing a proper report or letter, or of reading any written warrant or letter handed to him’. Terry Alt, a married man, illiterate to the point of being unable to sign his name and encumbered with a sight disability that necessitated his early discharge from the army, would therefore presumably be likely to fail on all three counts. When we add in the fact that at five feet and five inches he was a full two inches short of the stipulated minimum height, we can see that he would have stood little chance of being admitted to the police. In any case, the name Terence Alt cannot be found anywhere in the archives of the Irish Constabulary.


After 1829 our next sight of Terry Alt is in the population Census of 1841 for England, Wales & Scotland (27). Terry and Isabella had moved to England with their children and were living in rented accommodation at 33 Bennett Street, Manchester, in the parish of St. George. In the event, this was to be their home for the remainder of their lives. In the census record Terry and Isabella were both returned as aged 40, but Isabella’s age was ‘estimated’, and her year of birth is elsewhere given variously as 1798 and 1799. By that time, they had five children: the twin girls, named Honora and Bidelia, aged 15, John (13), Agnes (11) and Isabella (3). It is not known when the family first settled in Manchester, all we can say for certain is that they were there by 1838 when the youngest child, named Isabella after her mother, was born. She was the only one of the children to have been born in England; the others, according to the census, were all born in Ireland. The gap of eight years between Isabella and Agnes, the next oldest child, would lead one to suspect that one or two other children might have intervened, but child mortality was high, especially in the cities. Also living at 33 Bennett Street were Patrick Walsh, a tailor aged 20, and his wife Julia, James England (20), Bridget Doran (30), Alicia Minton (15) and Alexander Gill (20), all of them born in Ireland, except the two last-named who were born in Scotland.

When next we catch up with the family ten years later in the census of 1851 the household, as might be expected after such an interval had changed quite a bit (28). The twins Bidelia and Honora, and their brother John, had flown the nest, leaving Agnes (20) and Isabella (13) the only children then residing with the parents (29). Agnes and her mother Isabella (Snr.) were employed as ‘power cotton weavers’, benefitting no doubt from the boom in textiles that afterwards earned Manchester the nickname Cottonopolis and the acclaim of being dubbed the first industrialised city in the world (30). The other tenants in the house had also altered by this time. The new tenants were John Smith (50 yrs.), his wife Mary (40 yrs.), both described as tailors, and their son Thomas (20 yrs.), a warehouse man. Also staying in the house on the date of the census was a visitor named Robert Brown (20 yrs.) described as a master slater. It seems of interest to mention that at no time does Terry Alt himself appear in the census records as anything other than ‘pensioner’; one suspects that deteriorating eyesight may have prevented him from taking up employment, and he became totally blind towards the end of his life (31).

Terence’s wife, Isabella, died in November 1854, aged about 56, having succumbed to the ‘consumption’ which was then rife in the cities, and probably more so in the cotton mills (32). She was buried in Manchester general cemetery, also known as Queen’s Park cemetery, on 5 November. In the cemetery record her birth date is given as ‘about 1798’. Incidentally, in the same year Terry’s pension was increased from ninepence a day to a shilling, the first increase it appears since his original discharge from the army thirty-one years earlier (33).

On 22 May 1862 in the Cathedral and Parish Church of Manchester, Terence Allt [sic] married secondly: his new wife was a fifty-six-year-old widow, Mary Ann Tattersall (nee Clarke) of 6 Miller Street, Manchester, daughter of Irish-born Robert Clarke, a weaver (34). The ceremony, performed in accordance with the rites of the Established Church, was witnessed by John Hawkes and Elizabeth Roberts. After their marriage Terence and Mary Ann continued to reside at 33 Bennett Street where we again find them nine years later in the census of 1871 (35). At that stage Terence had lost his sight completely, for how long we cannot say. He was also probably suffering from the ‘chronic bronchitis’ which finally ended his life two years later. He died at home at 33 Bennett Street on 3 November 1873, aged 72 years, and was buried in Manchester General Cemetery (36).

Notes and References

1. James S. Donnelly, Jr., ‘The Terry Alt Movement 1829-31’, History Ireland, vol. 2 No 4, 1994.
2. Ennis Chronicle, 26 February1831.
3. E.T. Craig, The Irish land and labour question, illustrated in the history of Ralahine and co-operative farming (London1893), pp. 4-18.
4. House of Commons Reports 1831-32 (487) xvi, p.14.
5. Ennis Chronicle, 26 August 1829
6. Ennis Chronicle, 17 October 1829
7. Clare Journal, 26 November 1829
8. Ennis Chronicle, 5 September 1829
9. National Archives of Ireland (NAI), Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers (CSORP) W/98. Warburton to Gower, 9 October 1829.
10. Clare Journal, 15 October 1829
11. Clare Journal 15 October 1829
12. Clare Journal, 15 October 1829
13. Clare Journal, 29 October 1829
14. London Morning Post, 12 November1831
15. British National Archives (BNA), British Army and Militia 1760-1915 (hereafter Army and
Militia), WO 97/332/7. All extracts from the army and militia papers are reproduced courtesy of British National Archives.
16. BNA, Army and Militia, WO. 12/2939, 2940 and 2941. See also Richard Craig, A Historical Record of the Twelfth, or the East Suffolk, Regiment of Foot (London, 1848).
17. BNA, Army and Militia. WO. 97/332/7.
18. National Archives of Ireland (NAI), CSORP/1829/1005/1.
19. N.Ó Cleirigh, ‘Na Cumainn Runda agus Terry Alt’, The Other Clare, vol. 6 (1982), p. 38.
20. Thomas Westropp, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, part iv (1901), p. 413.
21. NAI, CSORP/1829/1005/1.
22. NAI, CSORP/1829/1005/1.
23. NAI, CSORP/ 1829/1005/1
24, NAI, CSORP/1829/762/4
25. Clare Journal, 29 November 1829
26. NAI, CSORP/1829/1941
27. 1841 England Census, Civil Parish of Manchester, sub-registration district of St. George (courtesy Archives, Manchester central Library).
28. 1851 England Census, Civil Parish of Manchester, sub-registration district of St. George.
29. In 1846 Bidelia married Joseph Jackson Hargreaves who afterwards registered as a dentist. In 1891 Joseph and the couple’s two eldest sons were operating a joint dental practice at 93 Grosvenor St., Manchester – (Manchester, Church of England Marriage & Banns 1754-1930 (GB 127.M273/1/3/1); Census 1891).
30. Peter Hall, ‘The first industrial city, Manchester 1760-1830’ in Cities in Civilisation (London, 1998).
31. The 1871 census records him as ‘blind’. The only exception to the ‘pensioner’ designation occurs in the City and County Directory for Manchester in 1850 where he is described as ‘labourer’.
32. Manchester cemetery records (courtesy of Manchester City Council). Her surname appears as ‘Ault’ in the record.
33.BNA, Army and Militia, WO.22/68.
34. Marriages & Banns (England)1754-1930. (courtesy of Manchester City Council and Manchester Cathedral).
35. 1871 England Census, Civil Parish of Manchester, sub-registration district of St. George. Terence was then paying a rent of £0.3.6 a week for the premises - Manchester Rate Books 1706-1900 courtesy Manchester City Council.
36. Certified copy from the General Register of Deaths for the registration sub-district of St. George, Manchester (ref. no. STG/94/172).

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