Whiteboys

From An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

« start... Chapter XXXIV. ...continued

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The agrarian outrages, the perpetrators of which were known at first by the name of Levellers, and eventually by the appellation of Whiteboys, commenced immediately after the accession of George III. An English traveller, who carefully studied the subject, and who certainly could have been in no way interested in misrepresentation, has thus described the cause and the motive of the atrocities they practised.

The first cause was the rapacity of the landlords, who, having let their lands far above their value, on condition of allowing the tenants the use of certain commons, now enclosed the commons, but did not lessen the rent. The bricks were to be made, but the straw was not provided; and the people were told that they were idle. The second cause was the exactions of the tithemongers, who were described by this English writer as "harpies who squeezed out the very vitals of the people, and by process, citation, and sequestration, dragged from them the little which the landlord had left them."

It was hard for those who had been once owners of the soil, to be obliged to support the intruders into their property in affluence; while they, with even the most strenuous efforts, could barely obtain what would keep them from starvation. It was still harder that men, who had sacrificed their position in society, and their worldly prospects, for the sake of their religion, should be obliged to support clergymen and their families, some of whom never resided in the parishes from which they obtained tithes, and many of whom could not count above half-a-dozen persons as regular members of their congregation.

Mr. Young thus suggests a remedy for these crimes, which, he says, were punished with a "severity which seemed calculated for the meridian of Barbary, while others remain yet the law of the land, which would, if executed, tend more to raise than to quell an insurrection. From all which it is manifest, that the gentlemen of Ireland never thought of a radical cure, from overlooking the real cause of disease, which, in fact, lay in themselves, and not in the wretches they doomed to the gallows. Let them change their own conduct entirely, and the poor will not long riot. Treat them like men, who ought to be as free as yourselves; put an end to that system of religious persecution, which, for seventy years, has divided the kingdom against itself—in these two circumstances lies the cure of insurrection; perform them completely, and you will have an affectionate poor, instead of oppressed and discontented vassals."[5]

How purely these outrages were the deeds of desperate men, who had been made desperate by cruel oppression, and insensible to cruelty by cruel wrongs, is evident from the dying declaration of five Whiteboys, who were executed, in 1762, at Waterford, and who publicly declared, and took God to witness, "that in all these tumults it never did enter into their thoughts to do anything against the King or Government."[6]

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[5] Vassals.—Young's Tour, vol. ii. pp. 41, 42. It should be remembered that Mr. Young was an Englishman and a Protestant, and that he had no property in Ireland to blind him to the truth.

[6] Government.—Curry's Historical Review, vol. ii. p. 274, edition of 1786. This work affords a very valuable and accurate account of the times, written from personal knowledge.