The Whiteboys.

Agrarian Disturbances

Agrarian Disturbances

The great tradition of the Whiteboys in the south of Ireland had its beginnings in Tipperary in 1761. They always assembled at night with their shirts over their clothes, which caused them to be called the Whiteboys. The exactions of tithe-farmers and the enclosure of commonage sparked the initial oath bound combination in parts of Munster in southern Ireland. The Whiteboys were also known as ‘Levellers’ and they gave forceful expression to grievances that were widely shared, and their example was quickly imitated in adjacent parts of neighbouring counties. Large groups of Levellers, connected by the blowing of horns, mobilized in great numbers and fired guns as they marched along in their white shirts demolishing in the night-time the fences of the enclosures of many persons and swearing fidelity to each other and secrecy.

In the early stages the agitation was most formidable in County Waterford where 18 men met in 1762 and decided to form an oath bound secret society to combat enclosures and tithe-farmers (Tithe payment was an obligation on those working the land to pay ten per cent of the value of certain types of agricultural produce for the upkeep of the clergy and maintenance of the assets of the Church.); they did so, as one of them later confessed, because similar groups had partly succeeded in redressing some of the grievances they complained of. Once lit, the fires of revolt were carried far and wide throughout Munster. Although membership was secret their activities were very much in full public view. The Whiteboys moved through the countryside, administering oaths and fully living up to their other name by levelling ditches, hedges, walls, and fences. Frequent nocturnal meetings with as many as 500 white shirted insurgents in attendance took place at various locations in Munster.

Smaller bodies of Whiteboys participated in many minor offenses in themselves but, as in one case, resulting in the public execution, by way of warning, of two young men found guilty of membership of the Whiteboys. It must be remembered that this time in history an oath was deemed sacred and unbreakable. If these men had identified other members their lives would have been spared by the Crown but obliterated by their fellow members.

After months of extraordinary outbursts of activity affecting most of Munster the agitation abated in intensity and then went into temporary eclipse as the government responded with military and judicial repression. Except for a few isolated incidents, areas that had previously seethed with discontent remained almost eerily quiet from Midsummer 1762 until 1763. When activity resumed the geographical range of the agitation was much more restricted. The Whiteboys of County Limerick abandoned their insurgency altogether, and those of Cork and Waterford, though capable of seizing the offensive occasionally, mounted no sustained campaigns. Whiteboy operations were first reported in Kilkenny in March 1763 but they apparently ended abruptly with the jailing of many members. It took at least another year for Whiteboyism to expand in Kells to significant figures. Judging from their actions, the Whiteboys of Kilkenny were concerned not at all with enclosures and not very much with the farming of tithes but rather with the rates charged for the tithes of corn and potatoes. Most of the reported incidents involve attacks on the persons or property of those who had refused to comply with the regulations of Whiteboy combinations against payment of the usual rates.

Tipperary was really the heartland of Whiteboyism and what was most remarkable in these years was there wide geographical extent and massive membership. The agitation did not long remain confined to the poor lands but soon struck deep in the rich districts in the county. Rather than execute two Whiteboys in their hometown of Clonmel the authorities deliberately chose to have them hanged near Nenagh because that town was notorious as a place where Whiteboys were strongest.

Among the features which differentiated the Whiteboy movement from earlier combinations was the almost universal use of oaths to bind its adherents together. Every member was compelled to take an oath and those who refused to swear, were threatened with being buried alive. Of the 14,000 insurgents estimated to be in arms in County Tipperary in 1763 practically all were sworn to be true to the cause. Though scholars have so far discovered no clear examples of secret societies that were oath bound before the Whiteboys, the notion that earlier associations of peasants or urban tradesmen had never implied such a simple device seems on its face highly improbable. But even if oath bound popular organizations did exist on at least a local scale before the early 1760s, the Whiteboys should still be considered innovators because they invested oaths with great practical and symbolic importance in fusing local activists into the wider network of a regional movement.

Some oaths expressed specific aims of the insurgents, while others dealt with matters of organization and discipline, as did one oath found in the possession of a number of Whiteboys apprehended in April 1762. This source and other contemporary documents indicate many Whiteboys enrolled under the banner of the mystical leader Sieve Oultagh, whom they designated their queen. Precisely how this usage originated is unknown, but it almost certainly derived its currency from the popular tradition in song and poetry of personifying Ireland as a woman and its people as her children.

The Whiteboys had other symbols and customs that were explicit and functional. The Levellers of Waterford and other counties erected gallows, made coffins, and dug graves in the public roads, all obviously intended as portents of the fate awaiting those who refuse to obey their mandates. To a number of prominent Whiteboy practices some contemporaries also attributed a revolutionary meaning which in all probability they did not possess. Many of the Whiteboys sported white cockades which carried an implication of Jacobitism. Some saw in this agrarian movement a popish plot to overthrow, with French help, the Protestant constitution in church and state. The Whiteboys attire was patterned after the dress of the French Camisards who had rebelled in the year 1702. No doubt, some Whiteboys, expecting a foreign invasion, boasted they would change or put down governments. But the cry commonly heard from many Whiteboys was long King George III and Queen Sive, more accurately, if still somewhat ambivalent, reflected their political sentiments.

The Whiteboy movement coincided with a period of agricultural prosperity, but the very nature of that prosperity produced extensive economic changes in the south of Ireland that helped to trigger and sustained the outbreak of agrarian unrest. From this we can conclude that hunger did not drive the Whiteboys to revolt, though the price of provisions occasionally featured among their grievances. Exports were brisk to the North American colonies and the West Indies and also to Britain and her allies and troops. Thus, while the Whiteboys grievance on the score of enclosures was linked primarily to the encroachment of dairy and beef cattle on commonage, sheep were also a threat in the mid-1760s.

The closing of what were loosely called Commons was bound to arouse resistance because it challenged well-established usages within pasture farming. In the letting of choice land for dairying and feeding of dry cattle and sheep, it had long been customary in many parts of the South for landlords to attach inferior ground without making any specific addition to the rent, though the rents reflected the enhanced value of the enlarged farm. When land values began to increase sharply around mid-century and especially during the Seven Years War, landlords withdrew much of this commonage from current holders and either stocked it themselves or relet to new tenants who did so. The hedges, fences, and ditches which kept out the cattle and sheep of the former occupiers, as well as the impounding of trespassing livestock, constituted major provocations to violence. Besides seeking to regain their lost rights by destroying the physical obstacles, the Whiteboys also attacked the stewards placed on the grounds by landlords or the new tenants whom the landlords had introduced. In extremities as standard weapon against these intruders was to burn or pull down their dwellings. By no means had all of the houses raised by Whiteboys been inhabited by caretakers or recent occupiers of commonage, but the determination to repel such people was the dominant motive in numerous instances.

Much of the levelling activity of the Whiteboys, however, was not a response to the enclosure of commonage at all, as many upper-class complaints about ‘pretended commons’ obliquely testified. Rather, it was an expression of intense popular resentment against the keeping of land from tillage and they campaigned against the tithe of potatoes. Admittedly, this particular clerical impost, almost unique to Munster and parts of Leinster, was not the only aspect of the tithe system against which the Whiteboys battled. They were also determined in many places to end the farming of tithes. It must be remembered that these tithes were a form of taxation paid to the Protestant church in the form of a generous share of produce or income yielded from same. It must have been very irritating to say the least for the suppressed Catholics to have to finance the church of the elite. In South Tipperary, where the farming of tithes was unusually prevalent, the Whiteboys were especially active against these obnoxious middlemen. Whether the Whiteboys also desired to eliminate proctors as well as tithe farmers is doubtful. Only a few instances were ever reported of attacks on the persons or property of proctors.

Any attempt to illuminate in detail the social composition leadership of the earliest Whiteboys is severely handicapped by the complete absence of official government documents relating to the hundreds of persons who were apprehended and committed for trial as Levellers.

How members were recruited still remains something of a mystery. Teachers were considered one possibility and Catholic priests another. Large farmers were generally the victims rather than the allies of the Whiteboys, since, along with the great graziers, they kept land in pasture that might otherwise have been let in conacre, paid wages that the Whiteboys deemed much too low, and sometimes enclosed ancient commonage. Small farmers and their sons provided many activists. In districts where farms of large acreage were commonly taken in partnership by groups of tenants and sometimes by the inhabitants of an entire village, the landholding arrangements themselves could furnish a basis for Whiteboy organization.

Protestants were of the belief that rich Catholics were directing the Whiteboys but the only way the Catholic brought to trial before 1766 was a manufacturer from Waterford who was later acquitted. In spite of many infamous prosecutions there is little evidence to corroborate Protestant charges that prosperous Catholics supported the Whiteboys.

The attempted repression of the Whiteboy movement, while not Savage, was severe. The on-going insurgency had grown far beyond a level the local magistrates could control and a large number of elite troops were drafted into the disturbed parts of four Munster counties. Interestingly, such troops had previously been engaged in anti-smuggling operations on the coasts of Dublin and Down and as such were an intimidating force to be reckoned with. In some places all the young men fled in terror at the approach of these troops and in a matter of weeks the prisons were full. Meanwhile, Protestants remained convinced that these movements were primarily motivated by the desire to raise a rebellion and when the Crown investigated this, by talking to prisoners, they too were convinced that an insurrection had been contemplated. However, it was also realized that all the outrages, regardless of their specific nature, where the result of some local dissatisfaction and as such could not be interpreted as disaffection for the crown, government are to laws in general. The only risk was that with such a large movement in existence any foreign invasion would radically change this situation.

Of those who had been imprisoned, nearly 500 in all, some fared out better than others depending on geographical location and willing witnesses. Some were condemned to death, some found guilty of riot, and many more of minor offenses such as cutting down trees, burying a victim up to his chin in unmarked graves, and tendering unlawful oaths which led to fines or torture. The dozen or so executions exercised a significant, if temporary; check on the Whiteboy movement. In fact, the degree of repression necessary to destroy the Whiteboy movement was actually beyond the reach of the central and local authorities as long as they continued to rely on traditional legal methods for maintaining order. Voluntary and unpaid witnesses for the crown were exceedingly difficult to find because of intimidation, bribery, or sympathy with Whiteboy aims.

It is not effective repression which brought the first Whiteboy movement to a close by early 1766, but rather economic conditions bordering on mass starvation. Extreme droughts took place in the previous year and consequently huge losses accumulated in all sectors of agriculture. For many months the food situation steadily deteriorated and prices went so high that it was impossible for poor people to purchase food. A widespread epidemic of smallpox aggravated their plight and throughout the summer of 1766 small-scale food riots took place at thousands of locations throughout the country. In the struggle for the means to preserve life, agrarian grievances temporarily ceased to be important.

Until the arrival of the Whiteboys never before in the South had agrarian rebels been so numerous, operated over such a broad area, or displayed, though for a limited time, such a high degree of organization and coordination. On the other hand, the Whiteboys of the early 1760s were less widespread, addressed a narrower range of issues, and included fewer farmers than their successors in the 1770s. The Whiteboys lacked the coherence in aims, methods, and organization that was to distinguish later clandestine groups. Indeed, the earliest Whiteboys preserved a strong regional movement only until the spring of 1762. Thereafter, Whiteboyism became much less formidable. Paradoxically, this reversion towards the older pattern of rural protest did little to cure Protestant paranoia of popish insurrection in alliance with foreign Catholic powers and efforts continued to permanently terminate all riotous behaviour no matter what its form. Though Whiteboyism activated the sectarian reflex of some upper-class Protestants, for the great majority it had become all too apparent that agrarian rebellion was so firmly rooted on Irish soil that it needed no water from France or Spain to nourish its growth. The experience of the 1790s, of course, changed many minds, and with good reason.

Primary Source:

Irish Agrarian Rebellion: The Whiteboys of 1769-76

J. S. Donnelly

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy.

Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature , Vol. 83C, (1983), pp. 293-331

Published by: Royal Irish Academy

Article Stable URL:


About Gerard Hannan

Media Student at MIC/UL in Limerick, Ireland. Worked as a Broadcaster/Journalist in Limerick for over 25 Years and has also published four local interest books.

Posted on April 15, 2012, in Ireland History and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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