‘Educated Whiteboyism’: the Cork tithe war, 1798–9

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2004), Volume 12

‘Martial law in ’98’, from a painting by Henry Allan, The Weekly Freeman, 15 June 1898. (National Library of Ireland)

‘Martial law in ’98’, from a painting by Henry Allan, The Weekly Freeman, 15 June 1898. (National Library of Ireland)

In the wake of the 1798 rebellion a wave of agrarian agitation swept Munster. Superficially the disaffection—centred on the counties of Limerick, Cork and Tipperary, although there were incidents throughout the province—seemed to be the latest manifestation of the long-term phenomenon of ‘Whiteboyism’. This generic term denotes the activities of the agrarian secret societies that first appeared in the south of Ireland in the early 1760s. The Whiteboys are most commonly depicted as reactive, with a primary focus on the redress of local grievance, and, in reality, the post-’98 movement in County Cork continued to address the traditional concerns of tithes and rents. Yet it is evident that a fundamental transformation had occurred by the winter of 1798–9. Prior to the 1790s the agrarian secret societies exhibited an extreme reluctance to utilise capital force. As Thomas Bartlett notes, ‘These essentially conservative protests were not, by eighteenth-century standards, particularly violent . . . there was much intimidation and threatening behaviour, but significantly death was rarely inflicted by the protesters’. But in the aftermath of 1798 agrarian activists in County Cork demonstrated a remarkable willingness to employ extreme levels of physical violence. Perhaps more importantly, for a period of years following 1798 the secret societies supported the overthrow of the socio-political system via the medium of a French invasion, a decidedly proactive motivation.

‘Tithe-farmers’ targeted

Post-rebellion disaffection was evident in County Cork as early as September 1798, when the authorities arrested two blacksmiths caught manufacturing pikes near Oysterhaven. A short time later, unknown individuals cut down 30 ash trees for use as pike handles. On 14 September a relatively minor incident occurred that foreshadowed the strikingly brutal events that were to become commonplace in the months that followed. That night intruders cut off, or ‘cropt’, the ears of six horses belonging to a man who resided on the northern outskirts of Cork city. The motivation ascribed to the crime was the fact that the individual in question had ‘taken his tithes’. In other words, the animals’ owner was a ‘tithe-farmer’, one of the despised middlemen capitalists who purchased the right to collect tithes for Protestant clergymen in response to the opportunities offered by the emerging market economy during the second half of the eighteenth century. These men of business were inevitably more efficient and ruthless than the clergy in extracting maximum rates and as a result were often bitterly resented. It is hardly surprising that tithe-farmers had been one of the primary targets of the earlier Whiteboy and Rightboy redresser movements in Cork.



This is the Head of a Traitor by James Henry Brocas. (National Library of Ireland)

This is the Head of a Traitor by James Henry Brocas. (National Library of Ireland)

In fact, what can most accurately be described as an overt tithe war raged in County Cork throughout the winter of 1798–9. This simple reality was obvious by January 1799, when members of the Cork establishment described the impact the anti-tithe agitation was having locally. That month, a Mr Longford reported from Cork city that ‘In the eastern part of this county    . . . not a tithe farmer or proctor dare show his head’. Similarly from north Cork a Mr Freeman wrote that ‘Notices threatening death to all dealers in tithes, should they proceed to decree any person, have been universally posted . . . at every chapel from Churchtown to Millstreet’. Most significantly, the anti-tithe agitation was coordinated, as ‘emissaries’ were known to be criss-crossing the county holding ‘nightly’ meetings. Indeed, by February the situation had degenerated to the point where it drew the attention of Lord Lieutenant Cornwallis, who bluntly informed the duke of Portland that ‘In County Cork the usual resistance to the payment of tithes continues accompanied by the cruel persecution of those employed in collecting them’.


Specific outrages included the murder ‘in a most barbarous and savage manner’ of a tithe-farmer and his assistant at a house only six miles from Cork city on the night of Saturday 19 January. The victim, a farmer named Timothy McCarthy, paid the ultimate penalty for having rented the tithes of the parish of Carrigrohanebeg. Similarly, at Glanworth in north Cork a band of so-called ‘rebels’ met nightly in ‘great force’. This group contained a sizeable mounted element, which permitted them to operate over a large area. Members of the band attempted to murder a Mr Hanlon at Castletownroche and, although the primary target escaped, his under-bailiff was beaten ‘almost to death’. A particularly brutal attack took place in Rathcormac, where a number of men forced their way into the home of Revd Mr Blackwood, an Anglican cleric. In addition to destroying Blackwood’s tithe records, the likely objective of their visit, the intruders also butchered his processor, a member of the Elgin Fencibles, who had the misfortune to be in the house at the time. After killing the soldier, they ‘cut the body in small pieces’. In like fashion, although with less sanguinary results, marauders entered the residence of Revd Campion and destroyed tithe notes valued at £200; they also grievously injured two of the minister’s servants. Near the end of January another process-server was decapitated near Kildorrery, while several others were severely beaten. Indeed, the level of violence evident in the anti-tithe campaign of the winter of 1798–9 compares quite unfavourably to that of its most recent antecedent, the widespread Rightboy Movement of the 1780s. The Rightboys, who similarly focused much of their attention on the issue of tithes, were responsible for as few as four deaths during the six years in which they were active in County Cork between 1785 and 1791.

Brutalisation of 1790s Irish society

What, then, explains the willingness of post-’98 agrarian movements in south Munster to utilise extreme physical violence? The most plausible explanation is the brutalisation of Irish society in the 1790s. The ideologically driven war with revolutionary France and the rise of radical republicanism in Ireland engendered tremendous fear in Irish loyalists and the government, who responded with increasingly savage repression. The litany of atrocity between 1793 and 1798 is well known. The military shot down some 250 people during the militia riots of 1793; hundreds, if not thousands, of Defenders were killed or sent to the fleet between 1794 and 1798; the Orange Order drove between 5000 and 7000 Catholics from their homes in Armagh during 1795–6; the bloodbath of the rebellion of 1798 resulted in somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 deaths in a few short months. Simply put, the state tacitly sanctioned the creation of an environment in which capital force was the norm.

In addition to the three dozen executions that took place in Cork in 1798, the neighbouring counties of Limerick and Tipperary offered the people of Cork proximate examples of loyalist and government-sponsored terror. Over a three-week period in June 1798, 76 men were tried by courts martial at Limerick on charges related to the rebellion. Seven of these individuals were executed and 22 others transported. In Tipperary the rabid high sheriff, Thomas Judkin Fitzgerald, waged a vicious flogging campaign prior to the rebellion against United Irishmen, both real and imagined. Moreover, officially sanctioned terror in the form of courts martial persisted into mid-1800 (i.e. two years after the rebellion). For example, a massive wave of agrarian agitation in the west was brutally suppressed during the winter and spring of 1798–9. At Galway over 73 cases were heard, resulting in eighteen capital convictions and a like number of transportations. Similar trials were held at Ballinrobe and Castlebar in Mayo, leading to at least 22 death sentences. In 1800, as a result of Defender activity, a major court martial was convened at Ballymena, Co. Antrim, where seventeen capital convictions were ultimately carried into effect. Indeed, as late as December 1803 in counties Tipperary and Waterford (areas largely untouched by the political turmoil of the 1790s) special commissions sentenced seventeen men to hang. In reference to these latter cases, Thomas Prendergast observed: ‘His inquiries into the causes and effects of the outrages [that had led to the trials] had nothing of a political tendency’. Instead, ‘their objects were to drive from the neighbourhood strange workmen . . . or to interfere with the letting of farms’. Prendergast concluded: ‘The present disturbances, frightful as they are, are nothing more than a revival of the old Whiteboy spirit that [for] fifty years past has at different and frequent periods prevailed’. Yet a fundamental transformation had occurred: only about 50 deaths, including government-sanctioned executions, can be attributed to the combined disturbances of the Whiteboys, Rightboys, Oakboys and Steelboys between 1760 and 1790.

Abolition—not mitigation—of tithes demanded


In February 1799 Lord Lieutenant Cornwallis informed the duke of Portland that ‘In County Cork the usual resistance to the payment of tithes continues accompanied by the cruel persecution of those employed in collecting them’. (National Library of Ireland)

In February 1799 Lord Lieutenant Cornwallis informed the duke of Portland that ‘In County Cork the usual resistance to the payment of tithes continues accompanied by the cruel persecution of those employed in collecting them’. (National Library of Ireland)

Another striking divergence in post-’98 agrarianism in County Cork is revealed in a manifesto posted at Glanworth in January 1799. The motivational forces that drove the earlier secret societies are aptly summarised by Jim Smyth as follows: ‘None of these movements challenged the system of land ownership, or sought to abolish rents or tithes. Rather they agitated for a reduction of those exactions to levels sanctioned by custom as fair.’ In contrast, the Glanworth manifesto demanded the outright abolition of tithes rather than their mitigation. It further forbade ‘any man to pay or take’ tithes. Nor was this document an isolated aberration, for evidence revealed at the courts martial assembled to deal with the agrarian crisis in March 1799 established that ‘[the] people . . . by their oath are bound to pay no taxes or tithes, and to assemble when called’.

The significance of this transformation should not be underestimated. By endeavouring to eliminate tithes in their entirety, the post-’98 secret societies called into question the legitimacy of a central facet of the Protestant Ascendancy: the right of the established church to levy taxes on the Catholic majority. Thus an extremely important evolution is revealed. The Whiteboys during the 1760s never questioned the entitlement of the established church to collect tithes. However, mercenary middlemen tithe-farmers, who charged rates above the customary, if not technically legal, level, were targeted as violators of the moral economy. Similarly, the Rightboys did not directly challenge the Protestant minister’s ownership and collection rights, although in addition to tithe-farmers the Rightboys also often attacked proctors, who for a price did the collecting for the actual owners. Yet during the formative decade of the 1790s efforts to limit tithes to customary levels were supplanted by endeavours to eliminate them in their entirety. Thus the very legitimacy of the established church was called into question.
The motivating force behind this transformation was the Society of United Irishmen, which had made its most dramatic inroads in the highly commercialised tillage districts of east Cork during 1797. It is hardly coincidental that these same parishes were the ones most affected by the anti-tithe agitation of 1798–9. Along with participatory democracy, the United Irishmen promised to abolish the taxes and tithes. By injecting the Enlightenment and Thomas Paine into the picture, the United Irishmen pointed to the irrationality and simple unfairness of a system whereby the often desperately poor majority supported the church of a far-better-off minority.

The evidence of this process is substantial. In a meeting at Cloyne in October 1797 the Cork United Irish leader, John Sweeny, addressed an assembled body. He knew his audience well for he focused his speech on the issue of tithes. Most importantly, as Kevin Whelan explains, Sweeny pointed to the need to eliminate the ‘state-sponsored church’, exhorting the people ‘not to pay [tithes] . . . and to do all in our power to obstruct the said tithe being paid’. The tithe war of 1798–9 is proof positive that the lesson was taken to heart. Thus, at least for a time, the radical republicanism of the United Irishmen intersected with the redress of agrarian grievance. The end result was a highly focused hybrid, the ‘educated Whiteboy’.

Popular expectation of French invasion

Perhaps of even greater importance, the success of the anti-tithe agitation—and it was highly successful indeed, at least in the short term—strongly suggests that large numbers of people expected to avoid the penalties traditionally associated with non-payment. In turn, the only plausible explanation for this assumption is a widespread popular belief that a French invasion would soon overturn the Protestant Ascendancy and disestablish the church that sustained it.

Evidence for the broad-based anticipation of foreign assistance is substantial. A Mr Kirby, who lived at Tallow on the western extremity of County Waterford, expressed ‘great concern’ over the ‘unpleasant state of the country’ in a letter to Lord Castlereagh written in mid-January 1799. Although his home district was ‘tolerably quiet’, the neighbouring east Cork barony of Kinnatalloon was ‘in a dreadful state of disturbance’ as ‘scarcely a night [passed] without a robbery attended with savage cruelty’. Kirby identified the responsible parties as a ‘well-armed’ band operating from the village of Conna, headed by a deserter from the Clare Militia named Michael Bryan. Most ominously, Kirby warned: ‘They look forward with confidential hope to the arrival of a French force on the southern coast . . . [and] when that . . . occurs they will rise in a mass’. Similarly, a Mr Harding believed that the ‘repeated acts of outrage’ were a means of ‘preparing the minds of the lower orders’ for participation in a rising planned in conjunction with a French landing. In the Blarney area the people talked ‘openly of rising’, while the disaffected felled trees within two miles of the Liberties of Cork city for use as pike handles. Furthermore, a county committee was believed to hold meetings in the house of a farmer named Buckley at Whitechurch, where a provincial committee had met ‘often’ during the preceding winter.

Of greatest concern to local loyalists were the persistent rumours of an imminent rising, although all sources of intelligence acknowledged that this would not take place in the absence of a French invasion. In fact, for several years following 1799 the ebb and flow of agrarian agitation in Cork closely mirrored the degree of anticipation of invasion, and it was not until the French defeat at Trafalgar in 1805 that this connection was permanently severed.

‘We must outrage the constitution . . . [before] we can preserve it’

In March 1799 General Gerard Lake placed the counties of Limerick, Tipperary and Cork under martial law. (Oriental Club, London)

In March 1799 General Gerard Lake placed the counties of Limerick, Tipperary and Cork under martial law. (Oriental Club, London)

Throughout the winter of 1798–9 agrarian depredations continued to plague the propertied in County Cork. Near Blarney in early March ‘rebels’ burned three houses, two at Grenagh and one belonging to a tithe proctor at Knockilly. On the night of 18 March a man named Creedon, who lived in the Liberties of Cork city, had six cattle destroyed as punishment for having rented land out from under a family named Connell. The approach of spring was accompanied by increasingly shrill cries from local loyalists for decisive action by the government; as one gentleman asserted, ‘We must outrage the constitution . . . by acts of severity [before] we can preserve it’. In response, the military scoured the countryside, taking up the members of three separate agrarian cells, totalling some 36 men. More significantly, the commander of the southern military district, the exceedingly brutal General Gerard Lake, placed the counties of Limerick, Tipperary and Cork under martial law.

As arbitrary military justice rapidly supplanted civil law in County Cork, ‘judges determined not to try rebels and the Grand Juries of the city and county . . . left them to be tried by courts martial’. By 23 March, Lake felt that the imposition of military law was having the desired effect: ‘The country is quiet and every report from the different parts of the district gives reason to hope that tranquillity will soon be restored, as the dread which the people have of courts martial will keep them quiet till the French come’. Similarly, General Myers, commanding the garrison at Cork city, confidently informed his superiors on 26 March that he had arrested twenty men for houghing cattle, thereby putting an end to the ‘mischief’.

Yet the courts martial also revealed some rather unsettling facts to the authorities. The difficulty the government experienced in obtaining testimony against the accused was demonstrative of widespread popular support for the secret societies. Moreover, General Lake found ‘[the] people universally sworn throughout the district’, confirming the broad-based participatory nature of post-’98 agrarianism in Munster.

Despite the establishment of summary military justice in March, outrages, albeit on a diminished scale, continued to disturb Cork. The most shocking episode was the assassination at Macroom in April of Robert Hutchinson, a prominent member of the local gentry. A party of six assailants graphically demonstrated the degree to which the deferential conventions of the moral economy had collapsed in the county by the winter of 1799, when one of them thrust a pike through Hutchinson’s heart on the staircase of his home. Dozens of arrests ensued and on 14 May the authorities executed five ‘United Irishmen’ for complicity in the murder.  Their heads were then displayed as an awful example on Macroom’s bridewell.

Cornwallis was sufficiently troubled by this event to order an investigation into the state of affairs of the entire southern military district. The man assigned to this duty, General Clarke, duly travelled through much of the south-west of Ireland during April and May. In his report to the viceroy, Clarke identified the complex nature of the agitation and was also harshly critical of local landlords, comparing them quite unfavourably to their counterparts in England:

‘It appears from the evidence given at most of the Courts Martial that the lower order (particularly the murderers of the late Mr Hutchinson) have determined to murder every gentleman in the country evidently with a view to drive them from their homes and divide their estates, or at least to intimidate them, so that they may rent the land at their own price. The great sources of these diabolical principals seem to spring from the dislike to tithes . . . The Middle Man is likewise a great grievance as from his inordinate rapacity in letting his land to the cottager who is unable to pay his rent and support his family with any kind of comfort owing to the rate of labour which is regulated by the landlord. I am sorry to add that gentlemen do not in general treat their inferiors with the kindness and humanity people of that station of life experience from the higher orders in England.’

Yet having allowed for the agrarian focus of the discontent, Clarke summarised that he had ‘every reason to believe that the disposition of the people is not good . . . they are ready to rise should the French land in this country’.

In the end, some sense of the scale and ultimate success of the anti-tithe campaign of 1798–9 can be gleaned from a ‘report on the outrages committed in the diocese of Cloyne’. The author, in all likelihood an ecclesiastical official of the established church, explained the impact of the movement as follows: ‘Very few will attempt to serve processes for tithes, the proctors in general have given up their books and arrears for 1798–9 unpaid, while [the] clergy [are] reduced to distress’. In fact, as late as 1802 tithe-holders in County Cork were attempting to recoup the revenues lost in 1798–9. Although parliament passed a compensation act ‘for the benefit of clergy whose tithes were withheld in 1798–9’, the difficulties involved in their actual collection remained formidable. Indeed, Richard Orpen, high sheriff of County Cork, prudently resisted requests from tithe-owners in the east Muskerry parishes of Inishcarra and Aghabulloge to provide small cavalry detachments as escorts for collectors, arguing that ‘in order to put into effectual force the provisions of this act, which is a service highly obnoxious . . . it would require in this extensive county no small military force . . . to aid civilian power’.


James G. Patterson is Professor of History at Centenary College, Hackettstown, New Jersey.

Further reading:


D. David, ‘The South Munster region in the 1790s’, in J.A. Murphy (ed.), The French are in the Bay: the expedition to Bantry Bay, 1796 (Cork, 1997).

M. Elliott, Partners in revolution: the United Irishmen and France (Yale 1982).

R. O’Donnell, Robert Emmet and the Rebellion of 1798 and Robert Emmet and the Rising of 1803 (Dublin, 2003).

K. Whelan, ‘Bantry Bay—the wider context’, in J.A. Murphy (ed.), The French are in the Bay: the expedition to Bantry Bay, 1796 (Cork, 1997).


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