The Whiteboys were a secret Irish agrarian organization in 18th-century Ireland which used violent tactics to defend tenant farmer land rights for subsistence farming. Their name derives from the white smocks the members wore in their nightly raids, but the Whiteboys were as usually referred to at the time as Levellers by the authorities, and by themselves as "Queen Sive Oultagh's children", "fairies", or as followers of "Johanna Meskill" or "Sheila Meskill", all symbolic figures supposed to lead the movement. They sought to address rack-rents, tithe 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. There were three major outbreaks of Whiteboyism: 1761–64; 1770–76; and 1784–86.
First outbreak, 1761–64The first major outbreak occurred in County Limerick in November 1761 and quickly spread to counties Tipperary, Cork, and Waterford. A great deal of organization and planning seems to have been put into the outbreak, including the holding of regular assemblies. Initial activities were limited to specific grievances and the tactics used non-violent, such as the levelling of ditches that closed off common grazing land, the digging up of ley lands and orchards, although cattle houghing was often practiced as the demand for beef had prompted large landowners to initiate the process of enclosure. 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 waste for three years, and that no one pay or collect tithes demanded by the Anglican Church. Threatening letters were also sent to debt collectors, landlords, and occupants of land gained from eviction, demanding that they give up their farms.
March 1762 saw a further escalation of Whiteboy activities, with marches to "disaffected and treasonable tunes" about the countryside, entering towns at night to fire guns and taunt garrisoned troops. At Cappoquin 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 demanded 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 jail and similar shows of strength in Youghal.
Reaction of the authoritiesWhiteboy 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 Catholic countryside. The events of March, however, prompted a more determined response, and a considerable military force under the Marquis of Drogheda was sent to Munster to crush the Whiteboys.
On April 2, 1761 a force of 50 militia men and 40 soldiers set out for Tallow, "where they took (mostly in their beds) eleven Levellers, against whom Information on Oath was given." Other raids took 17 Whiteboys west of Fruff, in County Limerick and by mid April at least 150 suspected Whiteboys had been arrested. Clogheen in County Cork bore the initial brunt of this assault as the local parish priest, Fr. Nicholas Sheehy, had earlier spoken out against tithes and collected funds for the defence 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 several times before eventually being found guilty of a fabricated charge of murder, and hanged, drawn and quartered in Clonmel in March 1766.
In the cities, suspected Whiteboy sympathisers were arrested and in Cork loyal 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 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."
Later historyA pattern of rural unrest continued, feeding into both rebellion and loyalism:
- A fixed resolution to avoid the very appearance of digression in these annals prevents my referring to various sporadic Irish combinations of the 18th century--Whiteboys, Steelboys, Oakboys, Peep-o'-day Boys, Defenders--some Catholic, some Protestant, some mixed; but each representing an inarticulate protest against agrarian or ecclesiastical aggression.
- The latter half of the 18th century in Ireland saw the formation of a whole myriad of rural secret societies, of "Whiteboys", "Steelboys", "Peep O'Day Boys" and the like. Most were purely economic, formed to exert pressure on isolated landlords as well as perceived outsider groups, but some combined economic and political ends. Religious differences between Protestant and Catholic, combining a social division which was wide at the top but, significantly, becoming less and less at the bottom, were, of course, a ready-made source of division. Within Ireland, Co. Armagh held a unique position as centre of religious and social tension. All the economic pressures outlined above - rural industrialisation, a rising rural population, increased competition for farmland (a period of long term land-lease renewals pushed competition for land to new heights) concentrated themselves in this one small area during the early 1790s, sparking off the first cycle of large-scale sectarian violence.
- Protestant "Peep O'Day" gangs (or fleets) attacked isolated Catholic farms and Catholic "Defender" gangs (fleets) retaliated in kind. This cycle culminated in the "Battle of the Diamond" (in reality a particularly vicious rural riot) near Loughgall in the summer of 1795 and the formation of the Orange Order immediately afterwards.
In Thomas Flanagan's The Year of the French, the "Whiteboys of Killala" are referenced many times. Many of the Whiteboys are central characters within the story. Led by Malachi Duggan, the Whiteboys attempt to reverse their opressed state through guerrilla acts in County Mayo. Following the landing of the French in 1798, many of the Whiteboys join the rebellion against the British and fight alongside United Irishmen and French soldiers.
- Making Sense of the Molly Maguires
- "Levellers in their White Uniforms;" Whiteboyism in southern Ireland, 1760-1790