As we’ve charted the history of Limerick through the late 18th and early 19th century, one common theme has emerged: agrarian unrest. It was one of the many reasons for the 1798 Rebellion, gave rise to the Whiteboy and Ribbonmen movements, and indeed helped support Daniel O’Connell on his rapid political trajectory. It was also, in part, responsible for the foundations of modern policing in this country; their earliest incarnation, the Peace Preservation Force, were dispatched to put down the many ‘outrages’ that were occurring in rural Ireland.
Like the rest of the country, the largely Catholic population of Limerick chafed against the many injustices they experienced in their day-to-day lives. The system of land ownership, in which wealthy aristocrats tended to own the bulk of the countryside, was deeply onerous on their tenants, who had to pay high rents on land that was inevitably sub-divided so often as to render it almost useless.
This cauldron continued to boil for decades, spiking at times, and dulling to a simmer at others.
The injustice which caused the most resentment was the payment of tithes. These were levies, or taxes, of sorts, which were payable to the Church of England, ostensibly to maintain their assets and clergy. It could amount to as much as ten per cent of agricultural output, no matter how small the holding was, or how difficult the year or season had been.
Tithes of some description had always been payable, to both the Church of Ireland and Church of Rome – it has long been accepted, and still is, in many cases, that those who use church services have a certain responsibility to contribute to its continued survival. This basic idea became corrupted over the centuries, however, resulting in situations in which members of the clergy were living in sumptuous splendour far beyond the reach of the vast majority of their flock. They were also, quite often, situated far away from the parishes which supported them financially, meaning there wasn’t even a pretence of quid pro quo.
This was particularly acute in the Irish context, as the majority of the population in the late 18th century – some 80% – were Catholic, but those who worked the land had to pay tithes to the Protestant Church, with which they had little, if any, interaction. The value was around 10%, often paid in physical crops or livestock. These farmers usually also paid dues to the Church of Rome, to support parish priests or help pay for new churches. The latter payment was ostensibly voluntary, although it wasn’t unknown for pressure to be applied in this regard.
They would also have been paying rent, of course, in addition to any other charges the landlord or his agents decided upon. By the turn of the century, many people had very little left for their own families after all these payments had been made. Furthermore, for a long time, tithes were only payable on land used for cultivated crops: those with sufficient land to allow grazing were exempt. This favoured wealthier landowners and increased the burden on smaller tenant farmers and sharecroppers.
The system of tithing Catholics in Ireland to pay for the Protestant Church came about because of the 16th century Reformation, during which King Henry VIII ordered that the money normally paid to the Church of Rome be redirected to the newly-established Protestant Church. This was one of the many ways in which the Catholic majority was subjugated, a policy the Penal Laws made official.
Following the 1798 Rebellion, the demand for change had become urgent, and, at times, violent. The aforementioned gangs of agricultural agitators (the Whiteboys and Ribbonmen being just two) waged a campaign of guerrilla warfare throughout the first three decades of the 19th century, protesting the many social injustices in rural Ireland at the time. With regard to the payment of tithes, they were known to have threatened, beaten and even murdered agents charged with collecting money on behalf of the Church of England.
Catholic Emancipation in 1829 was a significant step in the long road towards a more balanced society, in which the Catholic majority would have a say in how they were governed. However, the system of tithing remained in place.
Emboldened by the success of Daniel O’Connell, farmers, both tenant and land-owning, began to resist the payment of tithes. This was aided by the fact that more people than ever were affected, as, since 1823, graziers had also been included in the long list of tithe-payers. The Catholic Church, dependent on donations from largely impoverished parishioners who were essentially funding two churches, threw their weight behind the movement, furthering the campaign from the pulpit.
This had a rapid effect on the financial stability of the Protestant clergy, whose income was drastically reduced. By 1831, the government became involved and issued seizure orders against defaulters. Enforcement of these orders was difficult, and dangerous, and often fell to the recently-formed Irish Constabulary.
The public took great umbrage to their chattel being seized in their fields, at fairs or even while being brought to market. This gave rise to violent outbreaks between locals and the police. Still, the resistance continued: in some places, communities rallied around defaulters, refusing to purchase their seized property, thereby rendering the confiscations impotent. Writing in History Ireland, Stephen McCormac highlights a report from Ballymoney, Co. Cork: “a large mob assembled and the sale was prevented by strangers in the crowd bidding extravagant sums, the horse not being worth above three or four pounds and people unknown calling up forty, fifty and a hundred pounds and by this means making the sale a farce.”
In Kilkenny, Bishop James Warren Doyle had taken into his possession the livestock of his parishioners, hoping to protect it from seizure while encouraging non-payment of the tithes. The authorities were unfazed, and sent a large force of 120 yeomanry soldiers to take the cattle in lieu of the unpaid tithes. The Bishop later became a leader of the passive resistance movement, writing that the Protestant clergy were “taking the blanket from the bed of sickness, the ragged apparel from the limbs of the pauper, and selling it by auction for the payment of tithe.”
It was only a matter of time before the situation turned lethal, and the first deaths came in June of that year, in County Wexford, when twenty-two protesters were shot by the Irish Constabulary, leading to the deaths of ten. A constable was also killed.
Communities took to warning – and arming – each other if seizure parties were approaching. This led to an ambush of 39 constables in Carrickshock, County Kilkenny in December, in which at least eleven constables were killed, as well as three locals, including a young boy who had been bayonetted to death. Afterwards, a rector from a nearby parish wrote “On the 16th of the same month the affray at Carrickshock eight miles from this parish took place in which several policemen were killed—since that day not only has the payment of tithes here ceased but the very application for it.”
A year later, some of the suspected instigators were put on trial for murder at the Kilkenny assizes. One, John Kennedy, was successfully defended by Daniel O’Connell.
An enormous crowd travelled to nearby Ballyhale out of support for their fellow defaulters. Some sources say that as many as 200,000 were present, which would have been a discomfiting sight for the authorities. It may also have been designed to intimidate the juries: the trials of the remaining suspects resulted in a hung jury or acquittal. Charges were dropped against others.
Daniel O’Connell, the great orator, spoke at the peaceful rally, which was to be the first of his many ‘monster meetings’ (years later, in 1843, he would speak to a crowd of 750,000 in Clontarf). He carried the people’s frustrations to the British Parliament, where he continually argued against tithing.
Limerick’s representative, Sir Thomas Spring Rice, also spoke against the illogic of the system, reading to the his fellow MPs the religious breakdown of some of the city and county’s parishes, noting that one area had “4,393 Catholics and 27 Protestants [while another had] 5635 Catholics and 12 Protestants”, so that “the disproportion between the Catholics and Protestants is so great, as to be overwhelming.” He said that “as a matter of principle, I cannot be guilty of maintaining that most manifest absurdity, that, where, as in the parish of Killeedy, there are but twelve Protestants, the Protestant religion shall be supported on a scale as if it where the religion of the majority – in preference to the religion – of a population of 1500.” That said, he also specified that he wasn’t prepared to “abandon” the church or the Protestant minority.
While Daniel O’Connell actively opposed violence, and called for peaceful resistance, the fatalities continued to mount. It is for this reason that the period is known as the ‘Tithe War’.
Mass default was now common, and included people from every social strata, who all agreed, fundamentally, that the system was unjust.
Stephen McCormac points to the wide variety of names on the defaulter list: “1,356 widows; six cottiers; 771 labourers; four woodrangers; 90 carpenters; ten pensioners; one soldier; two sailors; 62 shopkeepers; 113 publicans; one constable; five innkeepers; and 54 millers….Earl Glengal; Lord Ashbrooke of London; Lord Clifsten of Ringwood, Co. Kilkenny; Lord Ferrard of Collon, Co. Louth; Lord Ormonde of Inistioge, Co. Kilkenny; the marquess of Ormonde; Lord George Quinn of Teenaheen, Co. Tipperary…[as well as magistrates] Pierce Butler, Aherlow Castle, Co. Tipperary; Joseph Green of Kilkenny; and Edmund O’Ryan, Bansha Castle, Co. Tipperary.” Arrears rose to over a million pounds, a staggering sum in the 1830s.
The violence continued unabated, and by 1831, official records had listed some 242 deaths, as well as over a thousand robberies, and hundreds of burglaries, arson attacks, criminal damage, riotous affray and the maiming of livestock. Fearing a potential uprising – Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Movement was strong, well-organised and highly driven – the authorities flooded the country with yeomanry, who were tasked with enforcing tithing laws, most often by carrying out seizures.
When one group of Constables – with members of the British Army in tow – tried to seize property in Rathcormac, County Cork, they engaged in several hours of fighting against a poorly armed, but highly motivated local community. Inevitably, the professional army bested the crowd, killing twelve and wounding forty-two civilians. The value of the tithe order was reported to have been just 40 shillings.
It was quickly becoming clear that tithing could not be enforced in Ireland. It was dangerous, highly expensive, and inflamed local tensions to the point that country-wide revolt was possible. Many parishes simply gave up, content to allow the State to eventually fix the problem. The authorities, too, were unwilling to continue risking national security to collect money on behalf of the church.
Meanwhile, the political machine was turning, albeit slowly. Attempts to introduce a bill that replaced tithes with corn rents failed in 1828 and 1833, alongside other suggestions for reform. The Irish Church Act of 1833 went some way to reorganising the church; for example, it abolished the role of clergymen with no parishes. In 1833, parliament brought in one of the many Coercion Acts that would be directed towards solving the ‘Irish problem’ in the 19th century. This gave the authorities wide powers to deal with the non-payment of tithes by force.
Finally, in 1838, bowing to public pressure, the parliament introduced the Tithe Commutation Act. This had two crucial elements: it reduced the tithes by around 25 per cent, and made landlords responsible for the tithes, not their tenants. Of course, in reality, this was merely passed on, and the ordinary tenant farmer was now obliged to pay even higher rent, to include the tithes. But, on the surface, at least, it had the effect of appearing to solve the problem – Catholic farmers were no longer directly paying Protestant priests and the highly volatile collections system ceased.
Tithing was not fully abolished until the Irish Church Act of 1869, much too late for the millions who would be forced to pay this tax while grappling with starvation.