Above: A top visualisation of the costume play that accompanied rural revolt and festivities way back when by the one and only Mice Hell.
Terry Dunne takes us back to look at the riotous popular culture behind the façade of Georgian Ireland and at how resistance was shaped by borrowing from festive life, folklore and recreation.
The biggest military mobilisation in Ireland for most of the 1700s took place in 1762 in a little south Tipperary town called Clogheen. Clogheen lies in the fertile stretch of land between the Knockmealdown and Galtee mountain-ranges. Now a sleepy country village, in times past it was almost an industrial centre, first for textiles and later for milling.
The army was there to stop a movement known under many names. They were called the Whiteboys, because of their white costumes. They were also known as the levellers, from their levelling of walls enclosing land that had been commons, and after English and Scottish movements of the same name. But what they called themselves was the fairies.
The goal of the Whiteboys was to resist the enclosure (or privatisation) of commons. Commons were typically either areas of mountainy rough grazing used in common by all the tenants of a particular estate or pieces of land adjacent to an old town or village and used by all the local residents.
These original Whiteboys began a hundred years of an almost continual presence of broadly similar movements. Mostly these movements were not specifically about the defence of commons, in the narrow sense of the term, but they did pit customary rights to land against the complete turning of land into a commodity.
But the first noted episode of agrarian conflict with a similar style actually predates the Whiteboys by fifty years — the Houghers of Galway circa 1711; and there were similarly styled actions in Wales, England and France; and also in urban Ireland, for instance among textile workers in Dublin’s Liberties. These common ways of resisting existed in part because the actions were created out of cultures shared by many different people in many different places.
A repertoire of resistance was based on the normally extraordinary events of the calendar. The cultural representation of the state, particularly in terms of the legal system, was also drawn upon, for instance Whiteboys would hold mock-trials or represent their demands as the law and themselves as law-bringers.
In his dying declaration, Darby Browne, hung in Waterford in 1762 for his part in the Whiteboy movement, claimed: ‘I acted one night among them as Captain, such as the Mayboys have.’ Festive May rituals were luck-bringing and were linked to marriage. They involved parades, dances and decorated bushes or freshly-cut poles. In Dublin May day bonfires would take place in Smithfield, the Coombe, Weavers’ square, James’s street and at St. John’s well in Kilmainham. This was an eighteenth-century thing, more popular in later years were the Strawboys, groups of youths who gate-crashed weddings, their arrival heralded by a discordant racket.
Typically these customs had some unspoken element of potential punishment within them, some potential element of communal disapproval. This was inflicted in cases of poor hospitality, or at marriages which were not approved of. In other words, when people did not behave as they were expected to behave. Most likely any group of youths who one day were Mayboys became on another day Whiteboys. The figure of the captain united the rituals of festive groups and Whiteboy groups and so did similar costumes, such as white shirts (from turning one’s shirt inside out). The captain was a mythical figurehead: Captain Right, or Captain Rock, or Captain Carder. A fictive leader whose signature was the imprimatur on the written orders Whiteboys would issue to their victims.
The original Whiteboys of the 1760s acted not so much in the name of a captain as in the name of a Queen: Queen Sive Oultagh. Fairy-queens, bizarre as this may seem, represented sovereign power. Legends surrounding old aristocratic families centred on otherworldly female ancestors (or ancestral-spirits) who still inhabited some sacred place on the landscape. Áine, for instance, associated with the Desmond Fitzgeralds, one-time rulers of a big slice of Munster, and with Lough Gur and nearby Knockainey (the hill of Áine) in county Limerick. Likewise Aibhill, associated with the O’Briens and with Craglea, in the hills above Killaloe in county Clare. These are the fairy-queens in Brian Merriman’s Cúirt An Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court) and they relate too to the better remembered tradition of the Banshee (whose wailing was originally quite class-exclusive — associated with old aristocratic families). Later rebels dressed themselves in the form of the state, drew on, and took for their own purposes, more conventionally modern symbols of sovereignty.
Cross-dressing French peasants fighting against the privatisation of forests in the 1820s were also actually representing themselves as the equivalent of fairies, supernatural beings who lived in the forest, rather than as mortal women. The meaning perhaps lies in thinking of these mythic creatures as the defenders and rulers of the forest. Crossing-dressing also featured in Ireland, just as white-coloured clothes had supernatural and ritual significance in France. See the fairy-like white costume and diminutive size of the Lourdes Marian apparition — from the same general area as the above forest fairies — and named in the same way — as a demoiselle (maiden).
But this was not the only legendary inspiration: probably the most popular book of the period was Cosgrave’s The Lives and Actions of the most Notorious Irish Highwaymen, Tories and Rapparees … and oral tradition also featured many legends of bandit-heroes. The golden age of highwaymen was a century before the most intense period of peasant resistance movements. Highwaymen by the time of the Whiteboys were already then the stuff of myths and legends. Crucially these legends represented outlaws as not just defying the authorities, but as leading alternative power structures. Cosgrave wrote of South Armagh bandit Redmond O’Hanlon that:
‘In imitation of Oliver Cromwell, lord protector of the commonwealth, he took upon him either the title protector of the rights and properties of his benefactors and contributors, and chief ranger of the mountains, surveyor-general of all the high-roads of Ireland or lord examiner of all passengers..’
Highwaymen were invariably captains as in Captain Freeney and Captain O’Hanlon and Captain Power. Similarly Whiteboys portrayed themselves as part of a counter-state with its own laws, rules, regulations and mechanisms of punishment.
Another stream flowing into whiteboyism was faction fighting: at least one whiteboy movement began life as a fighting-faction — the Whitefeet in the Midlands in the 1830s. A faction was a group united by kinship, residence, sect, occupation, or class, or some combination of these, who would meet another faction for combat —typically the rival groups would be armed with sticks and stones. These sticks were usually blackthorn or ash reinforced with metal at the striking point. One celebrity faction-fighter from county Limerick christened his sticks Leagadh Gan Éiri (Down And Not Getting-up) and Bás Gan Sagart (Death Without A Priest).
The classic faction conflict in Dublin was between the Ormonde boys, who lived north of the Liffey, were Catholic and worked in the meat-trade, and the Liberty boys, who lived south of the river, in the Liberties, and were Protestant textile workers. Part of the Ormonde boy versus Liberty boys contest involved attempts to capture the rival group’s Maypole, something which could only be achieved by an incursion deep into the opponent’s territory.
The most violent factional struggle was that between the Caravats and Shanavests in county Tipperary and adjacent areas circa 1806 to 1811.
One account has Caravats swearing fidelity to each other on St. Stephen’s Day while dressed in the regalia of Wrenboys (similar to Mayboys and Strawboys). The violence of this conflict can be partly explained by politicisation. The Caravats were labourers, drawn from the ranks of farmers with smaller holdings (often on the poorer land in the foothills of the mountains); the Shanavests were ‘strong farmers’ that is holders of larger farms on better land. The Caravats were a typical Whiteboy movement; the Shanavests a nationalist vigilante group. These faction names speak a language of class: Caravat is a Hibernianisation of cravat and stands for bling; Shanavest means old vest or old waistcoat, a reference to the miserly accumulation strategies of this embryonic capitalist farming class.
All this seems very strange, a journey into a different world, with very different symbols — but it was the cauldron where modern institutions were brewed-up. The most intense phase of conflict, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, saw the beginnings of state institutions such as a professional police force and a primary school education system. Both of these were developed in Ireland before anywhere else in the United Kingdom.
Patterns of emigration began at this time too, at first organised by the state and by landlords. The infamous workhouses also date from this time, part of the same trend of state intervention as brought schools and police. All this was intended to discipline, to mould good workers-bees, to curb a rambunctiousness that could turn to defiance. However, much of the population was surplus to the requirements of what was to be the new economy. In a modern parallel this was a disciplining targeted at a surplus population destined to be left-behind by projected economic change.
But the culturally shaped resistance of the Whiteboys blunted the impact of plans of economic development and turned the future into something else, into something not quite in accordance with elite planning.