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Ribbonism had its origins in the militant Catholic nationalism of the eighteenth-century Defender secret societies. It continued to survive in the post-Famine years in the form of a benevolent society and it later transitioned into Hibernianism, which in turn allied itself to the Irish Parliamentary Party under Joe Devlin. Though there was some affinity with Fenianism, more often than not Ribbonism acted as a parochial and sectarian block to the progress of liberal republicanism. At times the conflict could be factional rather than ideological, as in 1866, when John B. O’Reilly, a Ribbonman based in Virginia, Co. Cavan, felt that his territory had been encroached upon by the IRB. In response, O’Reilly wrote to the government ‘to offer my services to get up an anti-fenian society in this country’.

Above: A sketch of Ribbonmen drinking whiskey at a meeting in a barn on the marquis of Bath’s estate in County Monaghan in 1851, from William Steuart Trench’s Realities of Irish life (London, 1868).


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