More Secret Societies (1785-1790)

Patrick Weston Joyce

852. The last chapter brought us down towards the end of 1785. Distress and discontent prevailed all over the country: for which there were various sufficient causes. For the Catholics there were the penal laws. The farmers were impoverished by the extortion of "middlemen," already spoken of (762), who leased tracts of land from absentee landlords, and sublet them at "rack-rents" that left hardly enough to sustain life.

853. All householders, Catholics and Dissenters as well as Protestants, had to pay "tithes" for the support of the clergy of the Established Church. These would no doubt have been generally paid quietly enough but for the action of persons called "tithe-proctors," or "tithe-farmers," who collected them for absentee clergymen. These men commonly received a fixed proportion of the tithes—a third or a fourth—to pay for collection, so that it was their interest to raise as much money as possible; and they extorted from the very poorest of the peasantry contributions far beyond what the law contemplated.

854. Moreover, grazing lands were exempt, so that the impost fell chiefly on poor cottiers, while the holders of extensive grazing farms were exempt; which again discouraged tillage and tended to make grass land of the whole country.

In addition to all this was the universal stagnation of business caused by the restrictions still remaining on commerce (848).

855. During the summer and autumn of this year—1785—the country was fearfully disturbed. The peasantry resorted to illegal secret societies. In the south there was a revival of the Whiteboys, now calling themselves "Right-boys," led by an imaginary "captain Right." These misguided men committed outrages like the Whiteboys, on agents, middlemen, tithe-proctors, and others. The proctors especially, who had rendered themselves intensely odious by their cruel extortions, were pursued mercilessly, often mutilated and sometimes killed. Another class, who were mostly blameless, the Protestant curates, always present to bear the odium, and striving to live on poor incomes of £40 or £50 a year, often suffered grievous ill-treatment. The Rightboys were denounced by the Catholic clergy, especially by Dr. Butler archbishop of Cashel and Dr. Troy bishop of Ossory.

856. In the north—in Armagh, Tyrone and Down—another secret society had grown up among Protestants and Presbyterians, called "Peep-o'-day boys," and afterwards called "Protestant boys" and "Wreckers." These directed their hostilities against Catholics, who again in self-defence formed themselves into bands called "Defenders." These two parties, who belonged generally to the humblest class of the peasantry, did immense damage—fought, maimed and killed each other, and caused great disturbance.

857. To meet the Rightboys' disturbance the Irish government introduced a bill in 1786: but there was such opposition that it was withdrawn. As Dublin was quite as much disturbed as the north and south, a bill for the appointment of a number of constables to aid the city watchmen was passed this year after some opposition. This small body of men originated the present splendid force of the Dublin metropolitan police.

858. Early in 1787 Fitzgibbon introduced, and the government carried, a crushing insurrection bill which was to apply to the whole of Ireland. Grattan wished, instead of coercion, an inquiry into the causes of discontent and their removal, which he called the "engine of redress," but his party were overruled. In October this year—1787 —the duke of Rutland died in Dublin, and was succeeded by lord Temple, marquess of Buckingham, now lord lieutenant for the second time—he who had instituted the Knights of St. Patrick (833).

859. A circumstance occurred at this time in England which had much influence on the ultimate fate of the Irish parliament. In the autumn of 1788 George III. had an attack of insanity, and the appointment of a regent became necessary.

The Irish parliament, by a large majority, but much against the wish of the government, offered the regency of Ireland to the prince of Wales without limitation—he was to be in all respects king for the time being. At the instance of Pitt however, the prince, as regent for England, was to be restricted by considerable limitations. The lord lieutenant refused to forward the Irish address; on which parliament appointed a deputation to make the offer personally to the prince. But the king's recovery ended the dispute. This divergence was subsequently used as an argument by Pitt in favour of the union, on the ground of the possibility that at some future time the two kingdoms might choose two different regents, which would lead to very serious complications.

860. In order to break up the party against him the marquess of Buckingham (858) bribed unsparingly: he gave peerages, places, pensions, and money, openly and without limit; and he dismissed all holders of government offices who had joined in the address to the prince of Wales, including the duke of Leinster There was probably more political corruption in the Irish government during his time than at any previous period. He added £18,000 to the pension list, which before his arrival had risen to the enormous yearly sum of £100,000. He was succeeded in January 1790 by the earl of Westmoreland; and so intense was his unpopularity that he had to steal away from Dublin by night.