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The Defender movement, which originated in County Armagh in the mid-1780s and whose participants were once described by a historian as "rural rioters," used to be closely associated with older traditions of agrarian unrest such as Whiteboyism, and indeed the two phenomena had much in common. Both the Whiteboys, who first emerged in Tipperary in the early 1760s, and the Defenders were overwhelmingly rural, lower-class, Catholic, oath-bound secret societies; both used quasi-military and masonic terminology ("Captains" and "brothers"); and both used violence and intimidation to police what the historian E. P. Thompson later conceptualized as the "moral economy"—fair rents, tithes, taxes, access to common lands, and so on. The Defenders in County Meath in the early 1790s were sometimes referred to as "regulators."

However, the differences between Defenderism and Whiteboyism are at least as important as the similarities. First, the local mid-Ulster context from which the Defenders arose contrasted markedly with the Whiteboy heartlands of Munster and South Leinster. Since almost all Irish landlords were Protestant, Whiteboys were sectarian by default. In Armagh, on the other hand, the Defenders confronted lower-class Protestants and in fact were born out of sectarian conflict. The precise causes of this conflict are obscure but are intimately related to the relaxation of the anti-Catholic penal laws. By the 1780s Catholics who had hitherto been barred from owning land were in a position to bid—and to outbid their Protestant neighbors—for leases. Another and more important bone of contention concerned the ownership of firearms. The right to bear arms denoted citizenship, and Catholics had been duly stripped of that right by one of the earliest penal laws. By the 1780s, however, in the new atmosphere of religious toleration promoted by some of the Volunteers, Catholics had enrolled in Volunteer companies and armed themselves. In response, the lower-class Protestant vigilante bands—known as the "Peep o' Day Boys" because they raided Catholic homes at "the peep of day" in search of illegal guns—began re-enforcing the penal laws. Defenderism constituted a response to these arms raids.

Another difference between the Defenders and the Whiteboys was the social profile of the membership. Many of the first Defenders were weavers by trade; significantly, the Peep o' Day Boys destroyed Catholic-owned looms in addition to confiscating firearms. Later on, as the movement spread, the typical Defender was as likely to be a canal worker, blacksmith, or schoolmaster as a tenant farmer, cottier, or landless laborer.

High levels of politicization represent the third major difference between Defenders and Whiteboys. In 1789 the Defender movement had scarcely spread beyond the borders of Armagh, but by 1795 Defender lodges were established across much of Leinster (especially in Meath) and Ulster, in Dublin city, and in Connacht. A faction in a local sectarian feud had been transformed into a mass revolutionary organization. There are three main reasons for this startling development: the radicalizing effect in Ireland of the French Revolution, the steep escalation in agitation surrounding the "Catholic question," and the antimilitia riots. Both reformers (such as the United Irishmen) and the newly militant Catholic Committee had mobilized mass movements behind their campaigns, and the Defenders were politicized along with the rest of a crisis-ridden society. (There is even evidence that the Catholic Committee directly enlisted the covert support of the Defenders.) The sense of alienation from the state and the Protestant Ascendancy generated by the campaign for Catholic relief was intensified by the introduction of a new militia and conscription by ballot in 1793. Widespread rioting spurred recruitment for the Defenders, and Defenders conscripted into militia regiments served as emissaries for the movement in the counties where they were stationed. The organization meanwhile evolved its own "middle-class" Ulster-based central leadership, and it was the alliance, albeit shaky, between this group and the underground United Irishmen in 1795 and 1796 that created one of the most formidable revolutionary movements in Irish history.

SEE ALSO Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1778 to 1795—Parliamentary and Popular Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union; Irish Tithe Act of 1838; Tithe War (1830–1838); Oakboys and Steelboys; Orange Order: Origins, 1784 to 1800; Whiteboys and Whiteboyism


Bartlett, Thomas. "Select Documents 38: Defenders and Defenderism in 1795." Irish Historical Studies 24, no. 95 (1985): 373–394.

Cullen, L. M. "The Political Structures of the Defenders." In Ireland and the French Revolution, edited by Hugh Gough and David Dickson. 1990.

Miller, David W., ed. Peep o' Day Boys and Defenders: Selected Documents on the County Armagh Disturbances, 1784–96. 1990.

James Smyth