‘Whiteboys’ and ‘Defenders’

During the eighteenth century, agrarian rebels formed themselves into secret societies. They went by the names of ‘Whiteboys’, ‘Oak Boys’, ‘Rockites’, ‘Ribbonmen’, ‘Defenders’ and such like.

Grievances such as evictions or ill-treatment of tenants by landlords and agents, and land-grabbing (taking the holding of an evicted tenant) were punished by violent methods. There were killings and house burnings, but more often revenge was in the form of damage to animals, sending cows over cliffs, cutting off the hooves of cattle, hamstringing horses, clubbing dogs to death, burning stables with the animals inside. In the 1760s, complete villages were cleared in Tipperary: Land that had been held as common land and now enclosed.

The ‘Whiteboys’ – so-called because they wore white smocks over their clothes as a disguise – began a campaign of violence and intimidation against landlords’ agents and those who collected tithes. As many of the landlords were absentees, they did not feel the full effect of this campaign, but it soon spread to other parts of the country. Repressive measures were introduced by the government that made involvement in Whiteboy activities a capital offence. Local magistrates and landlords were very active in the suppression of the movement. Although the illegal activities abated, sporadic actions continued well into the nineteenth century, because the root cause of the ‘Whiteboys’ grievances had never been addressed.

In the northern counties, the ‘Hearts of Oak’ and the ‘Hearts of Steel’ also emerged briefly in response to particular local grievances. Growing Catholic confidence and economic strength was seen as a threat and sectarian tensions grew, especially in rural areas of Ulster. The Catholics had a secret organisation called the ‘Defenders’, the Protestant equivalent was the ‘Peep o’ Day Boys’.

Photo: Glen of Aherlow, Tipperary



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