Agrarian agitation was a feature of life in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its origins were purely economic. In almost every part of the country there existed under various names, Whiteboys, Threshers, Ribbonmen, peasant secret societies, whose main purpose was to protect the tenant against the landlord, and in particular to combat the landlord's power of eviction.
The main weapon of these societies was terror, enforced by assassination; and so reluctant were witnesses to come forward, that even crimes committed publically and in broad daylight often went unpunished.
From: The Making of Modern Ireland, J.C. Becket, Faber & Faber 1966
Below is a seies of newspaper cuttings which give a flavour of these times around these parts.
Landlord and Tenant Anti Rent War
The Times (The London Times) 1st March 1831:
Meath Peasantry in Revolt
In the county of Meath, just at our door, there have been, from Saturday to yesterday frequent and formidable meetings of the peasantry.
On Saturday last the first assemblage, consisting of about 1,500 or 1,600 took place at Castletown, where four magistrates, attended by a party of the military and police proceeded to the spot, but before they had arrived the people had dispersed. Sunday passed by quietly, but on Monday the peasantry, to the amount at least of 20,000, assembled in the vicinity of Nobber. It had been previously ascertained that this meeting was to take place, and accordingly 11 magistrates, with a considerable force detached from the garrison in Dublin, consisting of horse and foot, together with a large array of the police, under the orders of Major Warburton, proceeded to meet the multitude. The riot act was read, and 10 of the most active were arrested and conveyed to prison.
This vast body did not appear to be armed, nor were they guilty of any actual outrage. On Tuesday a similar meeting took place at Stackallen. The populace consisted of only about 500 or 600. They were met by the magistrates, and by Major Warburton, with a strong party of police. Forty prisoners were made without the slightest opposition, and the meeting dispersed. On Wednesday the country between Skreen and Tara, and in the vicinity of Ratoath and Dunshaughlin (the first post town on the northern road from Dublin) large assemblages of men appeared, of whom several were apprehended, and lodged in gaol. On Thursday Sir John Byrng, the Commander of the forces left Dublin and is this day to meet the magistrates assembled at Navan, with a view of devising some means of restoring peace to the country.
If I had contented myself with laying statement before your readers, they might claim at the unmeaningness of the mobs, at the alarm of the gentry and the farmers. But these proceedings really can produce alarm. These mobs in different parts stopped the ploughs, in some places cut them and in all compelled the labourers to quit the work to join them. Their grievances, when enquiring were made on the subject, were excess of rents and low wages. They demanded instead of 6d (six old pence) and 8d a day, 1s (one old shilling) and the demand that their con-acre, that is, their potato garden, should be reduced from 9d or 10d to 6d. However you may criticise their conduct, you will, I think, be of opinion, that these were not extravagant demands. These assemblages must be put down; but it will be necessary, if we can at all hope for peace in our day, that the state of the Irish poor should be unflinchingly investigated, with a view to make the landlords provide for them at home, or afford them means of emigrating.
Rebellion in Meath
The Times, (The London Times), 4th March 1831:
Reported rebellion in Meath Extract of a letter, dated Headfort House Feb 27th
I have it, fortunately in my power to give a real statement of the facts which the “Courier” has exaggerated this day, and falsified. In the first place there is no rebellion; secondly, not one life has been lost: and thirdly, the people have not shown a weapon of offence, or an angry demonstration. Being myself a principal actor in all the occurrences which gave rise to the statement in the “Courier”, you shall have them as they happened. The first meeting which took place was at Drumcondra, on the borders of Meath, where the people were dispersed by the magistrates on the appearance of the troops. On Friday and Saturday last week mobs from the county of Louth came into our county, and went in large parties into the gentlemen’s houses in the neighbourhood, requesting an increase of labour wages. They took the labourers from their work and the horses from the ploughs, desiring the men not to work under such rate as they had drawn out. No violence was offered, and their demeanour was peaceable, sticks their only weapon.
However, this system of intimidation and show of physical force being likely do great mischief, as the work of the country was stopped. I wrote to Navan on Sunday night for the troop of Lancers at Navan to be with me in my farm yard early on Monday morning. Accordingly they came. Information had been received that an immense mob was to be at Nobber, 7 miles from Kells; accordingly we started from Headfort, with the police and the Lancers, a few neighbouring magistrates, myself and Captain Warburton, a magistrate sent down by the government to assist us. At Headfort back gate we came up with a party of boys, and stopped them. They said they were going to Nobber, on which the riot act was read, and off they went to their respective homes. On the way we met 3 or 4 parties, consisting of 50 to 100, proceeding the same way, all of whom, on being warned, separated peaceably. They said it was a mob from the county of Louth that forced them from their work, and that they were very willing to go back to it: in fact, round about me, every plough is going, and all the way from Navan to Cavan, 30 miles.
We proceeded on to Nobber, and there certainly was assembled in the town full 10,000 people. As soon as we arrived they made way for us on either side most respectfully, and not a word of anger or disapprobation was heard. Of course we listened to no parley, the riot act was read, and the gentleman alluded to in the “Courier”, who had been speaking to them before we came told them if they remained five minutes longer they would be committing a breach of the law. This immense multitude broke up at once (I was in the very middle of them) and dispersed, all but about a hundred, or perhaps more, upon which Captain Warburton took up 14, who are now in Kells. We all then went home.
On Tuesday, information having been received of a large assemblage to take place at Athboy, six miles from Kells, I wrote to Dublin for more troops, the same troop, the 17th Lancers, that were with us on Monday, having gone early on Tuesday morning to the vicinity of Navan with Captain Warburton, where he dispersed a meeting, and took 30 or 40 prisoners.
The 12th Lancers came down to Kells in consequence on Tuesday evening, having been 10 hours on their march, this is the troop said to have left Dublin at full trot. We started early on Tuesday morning, but only to Ballivor, a town eight miles from Athboy. Information having been sworn as to there being the same mob who were stopping all the ploughs, we came up with about 200 or 300 in a field near Ballivor, and sent the Lancers after them. The scene was capital: away they went through a wet bottom, splashing through like wild geese; the Lancers after another body over a fallow field, and caught 48.
Believe me, if, at the commencement of the riots in England, the peasantry had been in the first instance dispersed, you would never had such scenes of turbulence and disorder. In a quarter of an hour the 48 were taken on the march to Trim, the county town, in handcuffs, since when all the country has been quiet, and the poor people are delighted to have got rid of such troublesome marauders. On Wednesday last, in the upper parts of this county they were collcting to come down on Virginia, and were in great numbers, about six miles from the town. Sergent got the police together, and two corps of yeomanry, and proceeded against them. At the first view of the yeomen the who body took flight, and the police captured 22. The magistrates were busy all Friday in taking examinations.
This is a full and true account of the whole business which gave rise to the open rebellion announced in the “Courier”.
The magistrates assembled at Navan. We all of us agreed that the act to keep the people in their houses after 9 o’clock would be necessary. It is a humane and useful act, at first view, it seems arbitrary. I do believe we may do without it safely, but still I would put it in force here, to show the people they will never succeed by any attempt at intimidation. I firmly believe that six lancers would drive a mob of 5,000 before them. Not a man has been killed, and only two wounded. I hear a gentleman fired on some fellows who were attempting to take his men from their work. Report said the police wounded a man on Wednesday, but I cannot trace it. The information I got on my return from Navan on Thursday was, that the Yeomen had fired, and killed a dozen men. I really was alarmed, for the report came from so direct, I feared it was true. I ascertained on Friday, all I have told you at Virginia.
The Times, (The London Times) 19th September 1843:
Dublin - Progress of this anti rent war
The “passive resistance” to the payment of rents inculcated by the Repeal legislators has extended to operation in the County of Meath, where, owing to the great excitement prevailing in the neighbourhood of Trim, it has been found necessary to dispatch a large body of military to enforce the collection of rents.
Two troops of the 11th Hussars have been detached from this garrison, and a company of the Rifle Brigade, on its march from Drogheda to Longford, were countermanded at Navan, and ordered to proceed to Trim, to aid the civil power, in conjunction with the Hussars. The farmers are generally refusing to pay rents, and are removing the crops off the lands, in order to evade seizures.
The Times, (The London Times)
An Extraordinary Trial for Ribandism
Dublin, March 3. — A remarkable case arising out of this nefarious conspiracy was tried at the Meath Assizes last week. A man named Lynch was indicted for Ribandism, the principal witness for the Crown being an informer, who for three years acted as parishmaster and paymaster of the association. If there is any credit to be placed on the evidence of this miscreant, the horrible revelations disclosed are of a nature calculated to arouse the worst fears of any man who may, even inadvertently, render himself obnoxious to this system of Irish Thuggism.
In the course of his direct examination, Paymaster' Blake (the informer) swore “ that he had often issued money for assassinations” and on his re-examination by Chief Justice Doherty, he affirmed “that any person joining the association can complain of such as are obnoxious to him, or supposed to be tyrannical, and can have them ill-treated, beaten, or murdered !” The jury, it will be seen from the abridged report subjoined, was discharged without agreeing to a verdict ; but eleven, it is stated, were for finding the prisoner guilty.
Richard Lynch was put to the bar, charged with '' being an active and leading member of a certain illegal society, called the Riband Society, and having in his possession at Navan, on the 27th July last, a document containing passwords of the said society."
Patrick Blake sworn and examined by Mr. Corballis, for the Crown — Was three years a member of the Riband Association : was parishmaster ; was forced to join the society by the threats of the members ; knows the prisoner at the bar, who was also a member of the society ; recollects the 26th July last, the prisoner on that day had come to Navan, to have a man named Cahill elected paymaster ; saw papers with him on that occasion, and gave notice of the intended meeting and election to Captain Despard ; was never promised any money by Captain Despard ; was in prisoner's company from one till two o'clock on that day ; the prisoner was arrested about seven o'clock that evening; was arrested in consequence of the information given by witness.
Cross-examined by Mr Gorman — Was a Ribandman ; often issued money for assassinations ; did not care who the party was that he brought the police on ; was parishmaster, and often had Riband papers in his possession, though not at all times; it was dangerous to carry papers; went to the police and told them that he would bring them on a party of Ribandmen; told the police that there was to be a meeting held at Navan on the 24th July, and that if they kept a good eye, “ they would make a good haul”; was in the confidence of the police six months before ; the police made three or four attempts before, but failed, but not through his fault ; Captain Despard is a great fool ! — expected a reward if he proved his statements; Captain Despard told him that he would not see him at a loss for his time, if he did any service for the Government.
Mr Alexander Egan, county inspector, sworn and examined. — Is in the police; was at the Fair of Navan on the 24th July last; saw the prisoner there that day; the prisoner went into Reilly's public house; saw him come out of the house after seven o'clock in the evening ; it was quite light ; when he came out of the house, he stood erect and looked about him ; all the persons around were looking earnestly at him at the time; after some short time the prisoner put his hand up to his ear. and shook it there ; the people all looked at him, and then separated in different directions, and a great many went towards the Bridewell, following the prisoner ; Blake was in the rear of the prisoner at the time ; went to the military barrack, and coming back met Blake and the prisoner on the Kells road; gave directions to have Lynch arrested ; he was brought to the barrack and searched ; there were three papers found on him in witness's presence; prisoner admitted two of the papers were his, but he said he knew nothing about the third, and attempted to snatch it.
Constable Carolan sworn. — Saw the prisoner with strangers in the town of Navan; there was one man with him in Reilly's public house ; saw him in Reilly's public house, and Sheridan’s public house, and in Matthew's eating house; he was speaking to a stranger there; saw him at Gerard's, of Navan-bridge; there were two men with him ; they were strangers, and four or five went in after him one by one, and came out after him in the same manner ; was present when the pass words in the paper produced were found on the prisoner in the police barrack ; the paper produced is the one, which was as follows :—
“ How do you do Sir - quite contented -in what cause in your present laws are you persevering -my cause is just.” These pass-words, the witness Blake swore, were for the months of May to August, 1843.The case for the Crown having finished, Mr O'Gorman addressed the jury on behalf of the prisoner. Several persons testified to the good character of the prisoner.
Mr Brewster rose and pointed out to the jury the enormity of the offence of the prisoner, and the dangerous system it supported, and also alluded to the prisoner having denied that particular paper, and having attempted to snatch it out of the hands of Mr. Egan in the barracks.
Justice Doherty recalled the witness Blake, who stated that he saw three or four papers with the prisoner, who said that business had not gone on right, as Byrne had not come. Cahill would have been elected a delegate and paymaster in place of Byrne, if he had come. Any person joining the association can complain of any person who is obnoxious or supposed tyrannical, and can have him either ill treated, beaten, or murdered. The signal for dispersion is to stroke the whisker on the left side of the head.
The Judge then charged the jury, and said he had had a great deal of experience of the Riband trials through this country but never heard such appalling evidence of the system of Ribandism as was given on this trial, and that all the horrors of the Whiteboys Association, from all we have heard of it, were innocent diversions to the terrible working of the system, on a member of which they were now called on to adjudicate.
The jury returned into Court after an hour's absence, and not having agreed, they were discharged.
The Times, 29th November 1858:
Agragrian Disturbances in Meath
The “Navan Independent”, a Roman Catholic journal, the editor of which does not shut his eyes to the fact of the progress of Ribandism in this county, gives an article in that paper condemnatory of that system, in which he holds that all the warnings from the priests and from the press are ineffectual in putting it down, and that it is concocted and carried on in secret in direct opposition to the advice of the priests.
The Times, 2nd April 1863:
The Tenant Right Committee of the county of Meath have published a sort of manifesto on the state of the country. It is signed by the chairman the Rev. James Dowling P.P. and V.G. The priests of Meath have generally been remarkable as the best specimens of their order in Ireland, and Fr Dowling is one of the ablest of their number. He was one of the most energetic fellow-labourers with the late Mr. Frederick Lucan in the Irish Tenant league a few years ago, and now it appears he is endeavouring to rouse his brethren to another war against the landlords. A meeting is to be held in the Court-house at Navan on the 9th inst. in order to have a conference with the members for the county on the state of the country.
Meath is a county chiefly occupied by wealthy graziers; it consists for the most part of the richest land in Ireland, and the rents are moderate. The small farmers are emigrating very fast, going forth to found wealthy families in the colonies. This lessens the income of the priests, a circumstance well calculated to make them take gloomy views of all things around them, and make them see, as they state, certainly with no surprise, but as certainly with unfeigned dismay, “red murder stalk abroad in the open daylight with a boldness and a daring hitherto quite unprecedented”.
The Times, 13th April 1863:
An open air demonstration in favour of tenant-rights was held yesterday at Navan following the “mass meeting” held at Mullingar some time since for the same object. The day was remarkable fine, and well suitable for an open air meeting, but the assemblage was a great falling off in point of numbers from the Mullingar demonstration, there not being at the most liberal computation, more than about 1,000 persons present, and the presence of any persons of any pretence to respectability was miserably thin. The only member of Parliament present was Mr. McEvoy, M.P. for Meath. Mr. Corbally M.P. sent an apology for non-attendance. The chair was occupied by Mr. Robert Taaffe, J.P. Speeches were delivered by Rev. Mr. Dowling, P.P; Rev. Mr. O’Reilly, P.P., Rev. Mr. Kelly, P.P., Rev. Mr. Cogan, C.C., Rev. Mr.Lynch, P.P., and Rev. Mr. O’Farrell, P.P.
Resolutions were passed affirming the depressed state of the country and attributing much of the distress which was said to exist to the want of just relations between landlord and tenant.
Michael Matthews Law Bailiff
The Times, 28th Oct. 1864:
At Drogheda yesterday, informations were sworn by Michael Matthews, of Navan, a law baliff against Mr. Samuel Cooper of Beamore, for having capped a gun and presented it at him. It appears that Matthews was in the act of executing a decree on Mr. Cooper’s father at the time. The baliff swears that he was put in fear and dread of his life.
The Times, 11th Nov. 1865:
The county of Meath, one of the richest in Ireland, chiefly occupied by wealthy graziers, is much disturbed by Riband Notices, and malicious firings. A correspondent of the Express states that a notice was posted on a chapel gate near Navan, on Sunday last, bearing a figure of a deaths-head and crossbones, and threatening three magistrates and three farmers with death. It is said that the magistrates are about to apply to the Government to proclaim the county.
The Times, 26th Oct. 1869:
The campaign against landlords is opening with increased vigour and upon an extended scale. To-morrow the tenant-righters will meet simultaneously at Castlebar, Ennis, and other places, and Navan is to pronounce on the question on the 1st November.
On Monday several farmers meetings will be held in Limerick, Navan and Cavan.
The Times, 3rd Nov 1869:
The meeting at Navan was a successful demonstration. As the day was a strict holy day, large masses of farmers and labourers poured into the town from the rural districts, and the whole concourse numbered about 10,000 persons.
The shops and private houses were adorned with green leaves and formed into fanciful designs, and garden rosettes, ribands and leaves, where other emblems could not be procured, were worn by every inhabitant. Lines were drawn across the principal streets, with mottos attached, which had evidently done duty at the recent amnesty demonstration. Such inscriptions as “Release our Prisoners” and “Ireland for the Irish” were still conspicuous.
The meeting was held on the Fair-green, where a platform had been erected. There was a large attendance of Roman Catholic clergymen, with some important laymen, from Drogheda and other places. Mr. Charles Barnwell J.P., Coertstown, was elected chairman. The Rev. P. Kelly, P.P. seconded the motion for his appointment.
The Times, 23rd April 1870:
Man threatened on his way to Navan Fair
A correspondent of the Daily Express states that on Monday as Mr. Gavin, of Kells, who holds some grasslands from Mr. Nicholson, of Balrath, was proceeding to Navan Fair on a car, which there were four men in all, he was stopped on the road by three men armed with revolvers, who made him go down on his knees on the road, while they warned him that, without any further notice, they would take his life if he continued to hold the land. This outrage, he says, has produced a panic among all classes in the county of Meath.
The Times, 2nd March 1871:
Another case reported (at the Grand Jury in Trim) was that of Bryan Callaghan, the land baliff of the Earl of Fingall, who when returning from the fair of Navan was assaulted by three men, who met him on the road home. He was accompanied by four friends, but they rendered him no assistance. The reason assigned for this outrage is that “probably he was assaulted, as he had prosecuted a tenant for cutting turf.”