The Tithe War; reports by Church of Ireland clergymen to Dublin Castle

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2005), Volume 13

Contemporary cartoon of Daniel O’Connell and his followers waiting for Emancipation to loose the dragon of persecution on Protestant heretics. Catholics saw the power that collective agitation could generate. (Radio Times Hulton Picture Library)

Contemporary cartoon of Daniel O’Connell and his followers waiting for Emancipation to loose the dragon of persecution on Protestant heretics. Catholics saw the power that collective agitation could generate. (Radio Times Hulton Picture Library)

When increasing numbers of tithe-payers refused to pay during 1830 and 1831, many Church of Ireland clergymen found themselves in financial trouble. In order to alleviate their difficulties, the Clergy Relief Fund, 1831 Act was passed. The total fund amounted to £60,000. It had ‘1831’ in its title because only arrears for that year could be claimed. In order to obtain relief the clergyman had to swear an affidavit before a law officer, stating the methods he had used to collect his tithes and the arrears due. He also had to attach to this affidavit a schedule or list of all those who owed him tithes. Affidavits and schedules were then dispatched to Dublin Castle in June, July and August 1832.
These were the documents I came across in the National Archives in Bishop Street in 1996—1,061 sheets in four boxes in files marked ‘Official Papers Miscellaneous Assorted’ (OPMA files). For genealogists these schedules amount to a useful ‘census substitute’ for a period before the first proper census was undertaken (1841). For historians they provide a useful primary source from a point of view rarely heard on the Tithe War—that of the Church of Ireland clergy directly affected.

Tithes always resented

Paying tithes, like all other taxes, was always resented, especially by Catholics, who didn’t see why they should have to pay for the upkeep of the established Protestant church. In addition, from 1735 to 1823 tithes were not due on pastureland: graziers were exempt. This left the burden of tithes on the smaller landholders of each parish. Because some parishes were almost entirely made up of pasture, the injustice was all the more keenly felt by the tithe-payers, who between them might hold only a few hundred acres of tillage.
While tithes were the only source of income for some clergymen, others let their tithes to lay people (tithe-farmers) for a fee. But lay people also owned tithes. In the OPMA files there is a list of laymen who owned rectorial tithes in the diocese of Killaloe and Achonry. Among these were the choirmen of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. In the diocese of Cork, the duke of Devonshire  was a claimant for tithe arrears.
Tithe-owners employed tithe-proctors or valuators to enter each property on which tithes were due to value the crop and thus set the tithe to be paid. The tithe-proctor was resented mainly because he was the human embodiment of the system of tithe-collecting. And he could be got at. According to Richard Butler, rector of the union of Burnchurch, Co. Kilkenny:

‘one of the persons in your memorialist’s employment as a viewer of the tithes of said parishes was barbarously murdered in the open day and a process server employed by memorialist was taken by force from an armed body of police much illtreated and sworn never again to serve any more law process’ (OPMA 154/5/2).

Detail of the schedule for the ‘parish of Rathcool and Denomination of Kilkearon, County of Kilkenny, Diocese of Ossory’, with (l–r) name and occupation; place of abode; arrears; name of lands and arrears; townland; barony. (National Archives)

Detail of the schedule for the ‘parish of Rathcool and Denomination of Kilkearon, County of Kilkenny, Diocese of Ossory’, with (l–r) name and occupation; place of abode; arrears; name of lands and arrears; townland; barony. (National Archives)

Tithe-proctors or valuators were also subjected to ‘nightly visits . . . of men with faces blackened, and by various other means of intimidation’ (OPMA 156/2/12). After the tithe-proctor, the process-server was next in line as a hate figure. Both tithe-proctor and process-server were often driven out of parishes or, in the words of John Carney, rector of Rower parish, Co. Kilkenny, ‘hooted and pelted away’.

Agitation for Catholic Emancipation heightened political awareness

As soon as the decision was taken in 1823 to tithe pastureland, a greater number of people were caught in the net. The graziers thus affected tended to be of more ample means and to have more political clout. Secondly, the countrywide agitation for Catholic Emancipation (granted in 1829), carried on over many years, created a political awareness among Catholics. They saw the power that collective agitation could generate and the political gains that followed from a focused application of that power. Ironically, the agitation for Catholic Emancipation probably postponed agitation for the abolition of tithes by many years. Thirdly, while the various secret societies lost their hold over the common people during the drive for Catholic Emancipation, they had not gone away. According to the affidavit of Hans Caulfield, rector of Bordwell parish, Co. Laois:

‘After this y[ea]r memorialist went to the leading farmers in the parish, who then promised to pay and to use their influence with the rest of the parishioners to pay before a certain day; but when that time arrived they said they could not venture thro’ fear of the “Whitefeet”, to make any payment, or settlement whatsoever’ (OPMA 154/5/8).

Another rector had a closer encounter with the ‘Whitefeet’. We read in the affidavit of James Pearson, rector of Dunmore, Mucully and Kilmodum parishes:

‘the parish being in a very unsettled state in consequence of which, the local authorities have established a police station in Dunmore Park, not far from glebe house, memorialist has been noticed by White Feet to desist from endeavouring to recover glebe land, under threat of having the glebe house burned’ (OPMA 154/5/45).

While there was always resistance to tithes, there was a more widespread campaign or ‘combination’, as the various rectors called it, against payment from 1830 onwards. One rector, Edward Labarte, Kilvemnon parish, Co. Tipperary, pinpoints when it began in his parish: ‘and the combination against the payment of tithes commencing in this parish in August 1830’ (OPMA 156/2/48). Hans Caulfield of Kilmanagh parish, Co. Kilkenny, is more  revealing in his affidavit:

‘but about the same time that extinction of tithes was spoken of in the House of Commons, a change was made in the coadjutors, or assistant clergy of the Church of Rome, in this parish some of whom your memorialist has heard did preach on the subject, and advised the parishioners not to pay—and from that period not any of the Romanists have paid’ (OPMA 154/5/9).

‘The great and the good’ among tithe defaulters

The lists of tithe defaulters show that the vast majority were ordinary folk: 1,356 widows; six cottiers; 771 labourers; four woodrangers; 90 carpenters; ten pensioners; one soldier; two sailors; 62 shopkeepers; 113 publicans; one constable; five innkeepers; and 54 millers. But they also show that these ordinary folk were in good company, for among those also named are the earl of Clonmel; Earl Glengal; Lord Ashbrooke of London; Lord Clifsten of Ringwood, Co. Kilkenny; Lord Ferrard of Collon, Co. Louth; Lord Ormonde of Inistioge, Co. Kilkenny; the marquess of Ormonde; Lord George Quinn of Teenaheen, Co. Tipperary; Sir J.C. Coghill, Ballyduffe, Co. Kilkenny; Sir  Coghill Coghill, Milltown, Co. Kilkenny; Sir Nicholas Colthurst, Shanadoun, Co. Cork; Sir A. Hunt, Longford Pass, Co. Tipperary; Sir Nicholas Loftus, Bagnellstown, Co. Kilkenny; and Sir John Newpark of Newpark, Co. Waterford.
That is not all. There were also figures from the legal world. Three magistrates—Pierce Butler, Aherlow Castle, Co. Tipperary; Joseph Green of Kilkenny; and Edmund O’Ryan, Bansha Castle, Co. Tipperary—are named. This was particularly galling to Benjamin Banner, vicar of Bansha, Greystown and Donohill parishes in County Tipperary:

‘Considerable arrears are due for the years 1829, 1830 as well as 1831. Among the defaulters for 1830 as well as 1831 are Edmund O. Ryan Esq and James Archer Rutter Esq., magistrates’ (OPMA 156/2/49).

Five justices of the peace, five bailiffs, twelve attorneys and one solicitor are also listed as tithe defaulters. Seventy-three defaulters are listed as ‘gentleman’, while a further 119 are entitled ‘esquire’. The military are also included—one general, two colonels, nine captains, two majors and two sergeants. Four ‘yeomen’ are named. None of these, one would suppose, would be remiss in paying their lawful debts, especially to the established church. So why did they not pay?
Especially galling for the clergymen must have been the inclusion as tithe defaulters of two MPs, Walter Blackney of Neigham, Dungarvan parish, Co. Kilkenny, and Timothy Carroll, coroner, Barrack Street, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. James Ridge, rector of Dungarvan parish, Co. Kilkenny, has some harsh words to say about Walter Blackney. Not only was he a tithe defaulter, he was also an instigator of the anti-tithe movement:

‘Your memorialist saith (in order to prove that the organised opposition to tithes was not confined merely to the lower orders) that written applications had been made twice to Walter Blackney,  a member of parliament and a justice of the peace for the County of Carlow and his verbal answer was he would pay when others did so’ (OPMA 154/5/62).

Generic image of an agrarian secret society being addressed by a schoolmaster. (Illustrated London News, undated)

Generic image of an agrarian secret society being addressed by a schoolmaster. (Illustrated London News, undated)

Edward Herbert, rector of Kilpeacon and Knocknegaul parishes, Co. Limerick, also questions the behaviour of the rich and powerful in his affidavit:

‘and that united support would be given to each and every individual who should be distrained. This feeling memorialist has no doubt is much increased by the sanction which some magistrates and other gentlemen gave by their attendance at these meetings’ (OPMA 156/2/6).

What were magistrates and gentlemen doing at these anti-tithe meetings, especially given the nature of the meetings as described by several rectors? These accounts emphasise the level of opposition to and the degree of vehemence against the paying of tithes. The meetings were held daily in some parishes; they were tumultuous and they were threatening. They were certainly well attended. One such account will suffice. It is from the affidavit of Kilmurry parish, Co. Tipperary:

‘meetings have been holding almost every week in and about the parish, violent resolutions formed, threats issued at any person paying and a complete system of terror now exists in the country which makes it impossible to get a shilling of tythes, by any means which a clergyman could now possibly employ for if there was distraint there would be no bidders’ (OPMA 156/2/44).

And they worked, because the anti-tithe movement succeeded in choking off payments to Church of Ireland clergymen. The arrears of tithes for 1831, 1832 and 1833 amounted to over a million pounds.
Another force behind the anti-tithe movement were the pamphlets of a Catholic bishop, James Doyle. According to Henry Palmer, rector of Tubrid, Whitechurch and Ballybacon parishes, Co. Tipperary:

‘Doctor Doyle’s pamphlets have been circulated throughout the union against tithe—which tended much to excite opposition and point out the mode of effectual resistance’ (OPMA 156/2/45).

Mass mobilisation and threats

Opposition to tithes began with mass meetings that were advertised in newspapers or on notices posted up about the parishes. They were also announced in Catholic churches. Opposition also took the form of threats, some of which were carried out. One threat, made in County Kilkenny, was that ‘if John Lane, who was employed in collecting said tithes, did not quit said parish to prepare his coffin’. As well as verbal threats, there were ‘several threatening notices being posted up in conspicuous places in the parish of grange Silvia aforesaid against the payment of tithes’ (OPMA 154/5/50).
These threats were in general very successful, as we can read from the affidavit of Luke Fowler, rector of Rathcoole parish, Co. Kilkenny:

‘That memorialist has been unable for above a year to procure a process server to serve the requisite legal orders for the recovery of his tithes. On the representation of memorialist the bishop of the diocese applied to the chief secretary on the same subject. But nothing has been done. That memorialist’s agent and viewer was prevented from viewing the crops of 1831, by the chapel bell being rung, on his entrance into the parish, for the purpose of collecting the peasantry to drive him out of the parish; from whence on being timely warned, he was obliged to escape with all haste . . . Memorialist made a report to the chief secretary in January 1831 of the assemblage and seditious conduct of persons from this parish—calling themselves hurlers, when visiting memorialist at his residence at the above period’ (OPMA 154/5/61).

‘Protestant Descendancy’—O’Connell, Wellington and members of his government prepare to destroy the Church of England. (Radio Times Hulton Picture Library)

‘Protestant Descendancy’—O’Connell, Wellington and members of his government prepare to destroy the Church of England. (Radio Times Hulton Picture Library)

This affidavit sums up the conduct of the anti-tithe agitation very well. The meetings took place under the pretence of holding hurling matches. When the threats did not work, the following, as stated in the affidavit of Ralph Boyd, rector of Taghmon, Ballycormick and Ballynitty parishes, Co. Wexford, took place:

‘The burning of the haggard of a farmer in the neighbouring parish of Whitechurch because he dared to pay tithes to the agent of the Revd Joseph Miller’ (OPMA 156/2/14).

John Cousins, rector of Ballycahane Parish, Co. Limerick, had ‘little doubt that there is in every barony if not in every parish an organised band for the purpose of intimidating the peaceably disposed and enforcing regulations of the anti-tithe conspiracy’ (OPMA 156/2/64). Another rector mentions ‘the harangues of itinerant orators who came within the union’ which made the attempts to collect tithes ‘ineffectual’.
Some of the clergymen then took the step of distraining, which meant driving or seizing the cattle or other stock of the tithe defaulters. This led to even more agitation, as shown in the affidavit of Basil Orpen, rector of Ballyvourney parish, Co. Cork:

‘The unlawful and seditious congregated multitudes headed by infuriated priests etc., etc., prevented me from selling cattle distrained under the Compostion Act’ (OPMA 156/2/55).

In other instances one is left wondering what happened next, as in the affidavit of Alexander Staples, rector of Gowran parish, Co. Kilkenny:

‘Memorialist drove at various times for the amount of tithe due. When the cattle were locked up two horns sounded as signals from hill to hill’ (OPMA 154/5/49).

If seized stock were put up for sale, the sale was usually postponed or turned into an entertainment by people bidding ridiculous prices. For example, in Ballymoney parish, Co. Cork:

‘a large mob assembled and the sale was prevented by strangers in the crowd bidding extravagant sums, the horse not being worth above three or four pounds and people unknown calling up forty, fifty and a hundred pounds and by this means making the sale a farce and the horse was obliged to be discharged upon which, one of the priests who attended gave the signal for a cheer and the tumult continued for some time to the great terror of His Majesty’s subjects’ (OPMA 156/2/58).

Sometimes death was the consequence. Revd William Hughes says that he was deterred from taking any further steps to recover the arrears of tithes in his parish ‘by the murder of the Revd Mr Whiting in his immediate neighbourhood’. The clergymen then sought the advice of the magistrates. Some magistrates simply ‘advised the avoidance of collision with the peasantry’. Others advised the clergymen ‘not to proceed further with the distress but wait until the passing of the bill then under the consideration of the House of Commons’, while Sir William Gosset advised that it was ‘the desire of government that he should wait for the effects of the [Clergy Relief Fund, 1831] bill then passing through parliament’.


The violence at Carrickshock would have looked something like this contemporary print. (Trench’s Irish Life)

The violence at Carrickshock would have looked something like this contemporary print. (Trench’s Irish Life)

The violence culminated in slaughter in the townland of Carrickshock, in the parish of Knocktopher, Co. Kilkenny. On Wednesday 14 December 1831, a crowd of 500 people followed a party of 38 police under the command of the chief constable, Captain Gibbons, and a process-server, Edmund Butler, whom the police were obviously protecting. The crowd wanted Butler to be handed over to them. The confrontation eventually turned nasty. A hail of stones rained down on the police, and Gibbons and fourteen of his men were killed. So also were Butler and 25–30 local people.
This incident terrified Church of Ireland clergymen and put an end to their attempts to recover the arrears. The affidavit of George Burke, rector of Kilmacow parish, Co. Kilkenny, states:

‘On the 16th of the same month the affray at Carrickshock eight miles from this parish took place in which several policemen were killed—since that day not only has the payment of tithes here ceased but the very application for it’ (OPMA 154/5/23).

By reading the list of tithe defaulters for the parish of Knocktopher and surrounding parishes we can possibly get an idea of who was in that crowd of 500 people.
As a footnote to this tragedy I came across the petition (OPMA 59/4) of Mary Butler, widow of Edmund Butler, the process-server killed at Carrickshock, to the ‘Marquis of Anglesey, Lord Lieutenant General and General Governor of Ireland’. The petition is dated 1 April 1833. Mary was now a widow with five orphans, living in Jacob’s St., Kilkenny. She asked for compensation. I do not know whether she got any.


When the Clergy Fund, 1831 Act was passed in June 1832, the tithe defaulters became debtors not of the clergymen but of the government. But this had little effect. As one parishioner told Edward Armstrong, rector of Listerin parish, Co. Kilkenny:

‘And one person who appeared to act as spokesman and is certainly a more intelligent person than the generality of the parishioners, told memorialist that they were well assured that government though issuing money to the clergy would not attempt to disturb the country by collecting the arrear due’ (OPMA 154/5/52).

This parishioner was wrong. Initially the state spent some £27,000 in recovering a mere £12,000. This still left arrears of one million pounds for the years 1831, 1832 and 1833. But when the Tithes (Ireland) Act came into effect in August 1833 the state ceased all attempts at collecting tithe arrears, and in 1838 they were cancelled. Tithes became a tax on the landlord, who could pass it on to his tenants, who in turn could pass the tax on to their sub-tenants. It was the landlord, though, who had to pay the rector. Tithes as such, with associated valuators, tithe-farmers, tithe-proctors and process-servers, together with large contingents of police and militia, disappeared from Irish agitation.

Stephen McCormac teaches geography at St Conleth’s College, Ballsbridge.

Further reading:

J.C. Beckett, The making of modern Ireland 1603–1923 (Dublin, 1966).

D.G. Boyce, Nineteenth-century Ireland (Dublin, 1990).

M. Hanrahan, ‘The Tithe War in County Kilkenny 1830–34’, in W. Nowlan and K. Whelan (eds), Kilkenny: history and society (Dublin, 1990).

S. McCormac, The 1831 tithe defaulters [CD] (Dublin, 2004).


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568