The Whiteboys ( ga, na Buachaillí Bána) were a secret Irish agrarian organisation in 18th-century Ireland which defended tenant-farmer land-rights for
subsistence farming Subsistence agriculture occurs when farmers grow food crops to meet the needs of themselves and their families on smallholdings. Subsistence agriculturalists target farm output for survival and for mostly local requirements, with little or no su ...
. Their name derives from the white smocks that members wore in their night-time raids. Because they leveled fences at night, they were usually called "Levellers" by the authorities, and by themselves "Queen Sive Oultagh's children" ("Sive" or "Sieve Oultagh" being anglicised from the Irish '' Sadhbh Amhaltach'', or Ghostly Sally), "fairies", or followers of "Johanna Meskill" or "Sheila Meskill" (symbolic figures supposed to lead the movement). They sought to address rack-rents,
tithe A tithe (; from Old English: ''teogoþa'' "tenth") is a one-tenth part of something, paid as a contribution to a religious organization or compulsory tax to government. Today, tithes are normally voluntary and paid in cash or cheques or more ...
-collection, excessive priests' dues, evictions and other oppressive acts. As a result, they targeted landlords and tithe collectors. Over time, ''Whiteboyism'' became a general term for rural violence connected to secret societies. Because of this generalization, the historical record for the Whiteboys as a specific organisation is unclear. Three major outbreaks of Whiteboyism occurred: in 1761–1764, 1770–1776, and 1784–1786.


Between 1735 and 1760 there was an increase of land used for grazing and beef cattle, in part because pasture land was exempt from tithes. The landlords, having let their lands far above their value, on condition of allowing the tenants the use of certain commons, now enclosed the commons, but did not lessen the rent.Cusack, Margaret Anne. "Whiteboys", ''An Illustrated History of Ireland'', 1868
/ref> As more landlords and farmers switched to raising cattle, laborers and small tenant farmers were forced off the land. The Whiteboys developed as a secret oath-bound society among the peasantry. Whiteboy disturbances had occurred prior to 1761 but were largely restricted to isolated areas and local grievances, so that the response of local authorities had been limited, either through passive sympathy or, more likely, because of the exposed nature of their position in the largely Roman Catholic countryside. Their operations were chiefly in the counties of Waterford, Cork, Limerick, and Tipperary. This combination was not political: it was not directed against the government, but against local landlords. Members of different religious affiliations took part.Joyce, P.W., "Irish Secret Societies (1760-1762)", ''A Concise History of Ireland''

First outbreak, 1761–1763

The first major outbreak occurred in
County Limerick "Remember Limerick" , image_map = Island_of_Ireland_location_map_Limerick.svg , subdivision_type = Country , subdivision_name = Ireland , subdivision_type1 = Province , subdivision_name1 = Munster , subdivision_ ...
in November 1761 and quickly spread to counties Tipperary, Cork, and
Waterford "Waterford remains the untaken city" , mapsize = 220px , pushpin_map = Ireland#Europe , pushpin_map_caption = Location within Ireland##Location within Europe , pushpin_relief = 1 , coordinates ...
. A great deal of organisation and planning seems to have been put into the outbreak, including the holding of regular assemblages. Initial activities were limited to specific grievances and the tactics used non-violent, such as the leveling of ditches that closed off common grazing land,Feeley, Pat. "Whiteboys and Ribbonmen", City of Limerick Public Library
/ref> although cattle hamstringing was often practised as the demand for beef had prompted large landowners to initiate the process of
enclosure Enclosure or Inclosure is a term, used in English landownership, that refers to the appropriation of "waste" or "common land" enclosing it and by doing so depriving commoners of their rights of access and privilege. Agreements to enclose land ...
. As their numbers increased, the scope of Whiteboy activities began to widen, and proclamations were clandestinely posted under such names as "Captain Moonlight", stipulating demands such as that rent not be paid, that land with expired leases not be rented until it had lain fallow for three years, and that no one pay or collect
tithe A tithe (; from Old English: ''teogoþa'' "tenth") is a one-tenth part of something, paid as a contribution to a religious organization or compulsory tax to government. Today, tithes are normally voluntary and paid in cash or cheques or more ...
s demanded by the Anglican Church. Threatening letters were also sent to debt collectors, landlords, and occupants of land gained from
eviction Eviction is the removal of a tenant from rental property by the landlord. In some jurisdictions it may also involve the removal of persons from premises that were foreclosed by a mortgagee (often, the prior owners who defaulted on a mortg ...
, demanding that they give up their farms. As well as the digging up of ley lands and orchards, they also searched houses for guns, and demanded money in order to purchase guns and defray the expenses of Whiteboys standing trial. March 1762 saw a further escalation of Whiteboy activities, with marches in military array preceded by the music of bagpipes or the sounding of horns. Musgrave, Richard. ''Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland'',vol. 1, R. Marchbank, 1802
/ref> At
Cappoquin Cappoquin, also spelt Cappaquin or Capaquin (), is a town in west County Waterford, Ireland. It is on the Blackwater river at the junction of the N72 national secondary road and the R669 regional road. It is positioned on a sharp 90-degree b ...
they fired guns and marched by the military barracks playing the Jacobite tune "The lad with the white cockade". These processions were often preceded by notices saying that Queen Sive and her children would make a procession through part of her domain and demanding that the townspeople illuminate their houses and provide their horses, ready-saddled, for their use. More militant activities often followed such processions with unlit houses in Lismore attacked, prisoners released in an attack on
Tallow Tallow is a rendered form of beef or mutton fat, primarily made up of triglycerides. In industry, tallow is not strictly defined as beef or mutton fat. In this context, tallow is animal fat that conforms to certain technical criteria, includi ...
jail and similar shows of strength in
Youghal Youghal ( ; ) is a seaside resort town in County Cork, Ireland. Located on the estuary of the River Blackwater, the town is a former military and economic centre. Located on the edge of a steep riverbank, the town has a long and narrow layout. ...

Reaction of the authorities

The events of March 1761, however, prompted a more determined response, and a considerable military force under the Marquess of Drogheda was sent to
Munster Munster ( gle, an Mhumhain or ) is one of the provinces of Ireland, in the south of Ireland. In early Ireland, the Kingdom of Munster was one of the kingdoms of Gaelic Ireland ruled by a "king of over-kings" ( ga, rí ruirech). Following the ...
to crush the Whiteboys. On 2 April 1761, a force of 50 militia men and 40 soldiers set out for Tallow, County Waterford, "where they took (mostly in their beds) eleven
Levellers The Levellers were a political movement active during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms who were committed to popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law and religious tolerance. The hallmark of Leveller thought was its populis ...
, against whom Information on Oath was given". Other raids took 17 Whiteboys west of
Bruff Bruff () is a town in east County Limerick, in the midwest of Ireland, located on the old Limerick– Cork road ( R512). The town lies on the Morning Star river, with two bridges in the town itself. The horseshoe lake of Lough Gur is nea ...
, in
County Limerick "Remember Limerick" , image_map = Island_of_Ireland_location_map_Limerick.svg , subdivision_type = Country , subdivision_name = Ireland , subdivision_type1 = Province , subdivision_name1 = Munster , subdivision_ ...
and by mid April at least 150 suspected Whiteboys had been arrested. Clogheen in
County Tipperary County Tipperary ( ga, Contae Thiobraid Árann) is a county in Ireland. It is in the province of Munster and the Southern Region. The county is named after the town of Tipperary, and was established in the early 13th century, shortly after th ...
bore the initial brunt of this assault as the local parish priest, Fr. Nicholas Sheehy, had earlier spoken out against
tithes A tithe (; from Old English: ''teogoþa'' "tenth") is a one-tenth part of something, paid as a contribution to a religious organization or compulsory tax to government. Today, tithes are normally voluntary and paid in cash or cheques or more ...
and collected funds for the defense of parishioners charged with rioting. An unknown numbers of "insurgents" were reported killed in the "pacification exercise" and Fr. Sheehy was unsuccessfully indicted for
sedition Sedition is overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that tends toward rebellion against the established order. Sedition often includes subversion of a constitution and incitement of discontent toward, or rebellion, insurrection agains ...
several times before eventually being found guilty of a charge of accessory to murder, and hanged in
Clonmel Clonmel () is the county town and largest settlement of County Tipperary, Ireland. The town is noted in Irish history for its resistance to the Cromwellian army which sacked the towns of Drogheda and Wexford. With the exception of the townlan ...
in March 1766. In the cities, suspected Whiteboy sympathizers were arrested and in Cork, citizens formed an association of about 2,000 strong which offered rewards of £300 for capture of the chief Whiteboy and £50 for the first five sub-chiefs arrested and often accompanied the military on their rampages. The leading Catholics in Cork also offered similar rewards of £200 and £40 respectively. However,
Lord Halifax Edward Frederick Lindley Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax, (16 April 1881 – 23 December 1959), known as The Lord Irwin from 1925 until 1934 and The Viscount Halifax from 1934 until 1944, was a senior British Conservative politician of the 19 ...
was soon expressing concern that the repression was going too far: "so many People are directly or indirectly concerned in these illegal Practices and so many have been seized on Information or Suspicion, that in several Places, the Majority of the Inhabitants have been struck with the utmost Consternation, and have fled to the Mountains, insomuch that at this Season, from the almost general Flight of the labouring Hands, a Famine is, not without Reason, apprehended." Similarly, the '' Dublin Journal'' reported at the same time that the south east part of Tipperary "is almost waste, and the Houses of many locked up, or inhabited by Women and old Men only; such has been the Terror the Approach of the Light Dragoons has thrown them into." File:MADDEN(1888) p103 LIBERLIP, THE PRIEST KILLER.jpg, left, An illustration of Jedediah Limberlip firing on a fleeing Father Duane File:MADDEN(1888) p130 LORDCHAMPTON'S BLOODHOUNDS.jpg, Lord Carhampton's ''Bloodhound Soldiers'' File:MADDEN(1888) p111 PEEP-OF-DAY BOYS.jpg, ''Peep-of-Day Boys'' In the aftermath of the
Irish Rebellion of 1798 The Irish Rebellion of 1798 ( ga, Éirí Amach 1798; Ulster-Scots: ''The Hurries'') was a major uprising against British rule in Ireland. The main organising force was the Society of United Irishmen, a republican revolutionary group influenc ...
, agrarian agitation swept Munster. In 1822 a group of about fifty attacked the house of a Mr. Bolster near Athlacca, where they damaged the house, broke the windows, and took his musket.

Whiteboy Acts

Acts passed by the
Parliament of Ireland The Parliament of Ireland ( ga, Parlaimint na hÉireann) was the legislature of the Lordship of Ireland, and later the Kingdom of Ireland, from 1297 until 1800. It was modelled on the Parliament of England and from 1537 comprised two cham ...
(to 1800) and Parliament of the
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was a sovereign state in the British Isles that existed between 1801 and 1922, when it included all of Ireland. It was established by the Acts of Union 1800, which merged the Kingdom of Great ...
(from 1801) to empower the authorities to combat Whiteboyism were commonly called "Whiteboy Acts".

In popular culture

In Thomas Flanagan's 1979 work ''The Year of the French'', a group of Whiteboys in
Killala Killala () is a village in County Mayo in Ireland, north of Ballina. The railway line from Dublin to Ballina once extended to Killala. To the west of Killala is a Townsplots West (known locally as Enagh Beg), which contains a number of ancient ...
are featured prominently throughout the novel, with many of them being major characters within the narrative. One of the novel's main protagonists is Malachi Duggan, a Whiteboy who attempts to reverse the domination of the Protestant Ascendancy through guerilla warfare in
County Mayo County Mayo (; ga, Contae Mhaigh Eo, meaning "Plain of the yew trees") is a county in Ireland. In the West of Ireland, in the province of Connacht, it is named after the village of Mayo, now generally known as Mayo Abbey. Mayo County Counci ...
. When a French expeditionary force commanded by Jean Joseph Amable Humbert lands in Ireland in 1798, Duggan joins him in the ultimately successful rebellion. In the 2016 young adult novel, ''Assassin's Creed: Last Descendants – Tomb of the Khan'' by Matthew J. Kirby, the Whiteboys attack on Mr. Bolster's estate is featured. Brandon Bolster is named as an ancestor to the fictional 21st century teenager Sean Molloy who is reliving his memories.Kirby, Matthew J. ''Assassin's Creed: Last Descendants – Tomb of the Khan''

See also

Black Donnellys The "Black" Donnellys were an Irish Catholic immigrant family who settled in Biddulph township, Upper Canada (later the province of Ontario), about 15 km northwest of London, in the 1840s. The family settled on a concession road which became ...
(Irish-Canadian family entangled in a feud with North American Whiteboys) * Captain Rock * Hearts of Oak (Ireland) * Molly Maguires (Irish-American rural unrest) * Peep O'Day Boys *
Ribbonism Ribbonism, whose supporters were usually called Ribbonmen, was a 19th-century popular movement of poor Catholics in Ireland. The movement was also known as Ribandism. The Ribbonmen were active against landlords and their agents, and opposed "Ora ...


Further reading

* Beames, Michael. ''Peasants and power: the Whiteboy movements and their control in pre-Famine Ireland'' (Harvester Press, 1983) * Christianson, Gale E. "Secret Societies and Agrarian Violence in Ireland, 1790-1840" ''Agricultural History'' (1972): 369–384
* Donnelly, James S. "The Whiteboy movement, 1761-5" ''Irish Historical Studies'' (1978): 20–54
* * Lecky, William Edward Hartpole. ''History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century'' (6 vol. 1892)
vol 1 1700-1760, online
pp 219–26
vol 2, 1760-1789 online pp 1-51
* * Thuente, Mary Helen. "Violence in Pre-Famine Ireland: The Testimony of Irish Folklore and Fiction" ''Irish University Review'' (1985): 129–147

External links

Broadside: "Forty Whiteboys Sentenced to Death"
18th-century conflicts Rebellions in Ireland Irish agrarian protest societies Irish secret societies 18th century in Ireland