Irish Secret Societies (1760-1762)

Patrick Weston Joyce

756. The misery and discontent prevailing all over the country at this time gave origin to various oath-bound societies, by which the country was for many years disturbed.

757. The Whiteboys who first rose up in 1761, were so called because they wore white shirts over their coats when out on their nightly excursions: and their operations were chiefly in the counties of Waterford, Cork, Limerick, and Tipperary. This combination was not political: it was not directed against the government, but against the oppressive encroachments of the local landlords: and members of different religions joined in it.

758. The landlords had everywhere begun to enclose as their private property the "commons" (53), which belonged to the people, and without which they found it impossible to live; for the peasantry were at this time in a state of great distress. The Whiteboys levelled the fences at night, whence they first got the name of "levellers." The people suffered also from the exactions of the collectors of tithes for the ministers of the Established Church, payments which the landlords evaded: and they also complained of the excessive rents charged for bogs.

759. The Whiteboys soon passed beyond their original designs, setting themselves up as the redressers of all sorts of grievances; and they committed terrible outrages on those who became obnoxious to them. Sometimes they brought people out of their beds in winter, and immersed them naked up to the chin in a pit of water full of briars.

760. In 1762 a large force was sent against them under the marquis of Drogheda, who fixed his head-quarters at Clogheen in Tipperary. The parish priest, father Nicholas Sheehy, was accused of enrolling Whiteboys, and a reward was offered for his arrest; but he surrendered, was tried in Dublin, and was acquitted. Soon afterwards he was arrested on a charge of murdering one of the witnesses against him: he was tried this time in Clonmel, and on the evidence of the same witnesses who had been disbelieved in Dublin, he was convicted and hanged. Father Sheehy asserted his innocence to the last; the people considered him a martyr, and his execution caused fearful excitement.

761. in Ulster there were similar secret associations among the Protestant peasantry, originating in causes of much the same class as those of the south. The first ground of complaint was that every man was forced to give six days' work in the year and six days' work of a horse, for making or repairing roads, which the gentry often turned to their own use, while they themselves contributed nothing.

762. Those who banded together against this were called "Hearts of oak." Another association, the "Hearts of steel," rose in 1769, against unjust and exorbitant rents, chiefly exacted by middlemen—speculators or "forestallers"—who took lands from absentee landlords at greatly increased rents, and made their own profit by doubling the rents on the poor tenants.

The "oak boys" and the "steel boys" were quite as merciless as their brethren of the south, and like them, set themselves to redress all sorts of agrarian abuses.

763. The oppression of the northern peasantry by the gentry caused a great emigration of the very flower of the people to New England; and when a little later the war broke out between England and the United States, the most determined and dangerous of the troops who fought against the English were the sturdy expatriated Presbyterians of Ulster, and the descendants of those who had emigrated on account of religious persecution and the destruction of the wool trade (617, 710).

764. There were many other secret societies at this time and for long after, culminating in the later developments of the United Irishmen.