Tithe War (1830–1838)

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Tithe War (1830–1838)

The tithe war was a popular uprising in the southern provinces of Leinster and Munster, with widespread disturbances in Connacht and some in Ulster, against the payment of tithes to the Protestant Established Church. The burden of tithe—theoretically, the tenth part of one's income given in kind or money in support of the church—had long been a complaint in Ireland. Ever since the sixteenth century when Henry VIII transferred the ownership of tithes from Catholic priests and monasteries to the reformed Protestant clergymen and laymen, the Catholics of Ireland—the overwhelming majority of the population—were left in the unusual position of having to finance a church to which they did not belong and which was in fact hostile to them. Irish Presbyterians, who had their own church to support, objected to the payment as well. This basic injustice was heightened by the uneven distribution of tithes upon the land. Grasslands, often kept by wealthy Protestant graziers, were exempt from tithes after the early eighteenth century. Conversely, the fields of the lowly potato, an increasingly important food for the Catholic peasantry, were assessed at a high rate throughout the southern half of the country, ensuring that the grasping hand of tithes would reach all the way down to the humblest laborer's potato patch. Annual disputes over what was titheable, how tithes would be valued and collected, and the notorious misbehavior of aggressive and dishonest tithe agents ensured that tithes would remain a constant and contentious issue in the Irish countryside.

By 1830 Ireland was primed for its biggest battle over tithes. Parliamentary investigations into the rampant abuses and severe structural problems of the Established Church left it with few defenders, while the ranks of tithe opponents swelled with the addition of large farmers and graziers after legislation in 1823 increasingly extended tithes to their previously exempt grasslands. Sectarian relations were seriously strained in the 1820s, poisoned by the aggressively anti-Catholic Second Reformation, and inflamed by the popular and successful struggle for Catholic Emancipation, which left in its wake a more politically aware Catholic people and a cadre of experienced local middle-class Catholic activists willing and able to handle the reins during the tithe war.

The spark igniting the tithe war was struck in the autumn of 1830 in Graiguenamanagh, Co. Kilkenny, when the parish priest, Father Martin Doyle, counseled his parishioners to withhold their tithe payment from the unpopular Protestant curate. The strategy of passive resistance first recommended by Doyle was remarkably simple and extremely effective. If anyone's animals were seized for nonpayment of tithes, the entire parish should attend the resulting auction but no one should bid for the animals, thereby thwarting the legal process by which tithe owners were allowed to recover their money. It was an ingenious strategy that took advantage of the large number of small sums that tithe owners had to collect, and effectively rallied the entire parish. Everyone was called upon to shun anyone who dared either to bid for the animals or to assist the tithe owners in their legal proceedings. Using these easily implemented tactics, the agitation spread quickly from its base in Kilkenny so that by the end of 1831 the concerted refusal to pay tithes was well established throughout most of Leinster and eastern Munster.

Increasing the effectiveness of the campaign was the constant threat of violence against Protestant clergymen and their agents should they attempt to proceed with the collection of tithes. Beginning in early 1831 tithe agents were routinely chased off property, frequently assaulted by large crowds, and in a number of cases even murdered. At Newtownbarry (Bunclody) in County Wexford, fourteen people were killed when the police and yeomen, who were protecting three heifers seized for tithes, fired into a stone-throwing crowd. More worrisome for the Irish government was the brutal slaughter of a process server and twelve constables who had been sent out to protect him while he served tithe subpoenas at Carrickshock, Co. Kilkenny, in December 1831.

In some respects this combination of passive and violent resistance reflects the various social classes involved in the anti-tithe agitation. Tithes cast a wide net, maddening the small farmers and laborers with potato plots, who were prone to Whiteboy tactics of violence and intimidation, as well as large farmers, who were anxious to make the most of legal resistance. But it would be wrong to assume that the tithe war was two separate but parallel movements—a violent Whiteboy agitation and a peaceful middle-class campaign of petitions. In truth, violence was an integral component of the entire agitation, creating the atmosphere of intimidation needed to enforce the community sanctions against those who profited from tithes. The dual pattern of passive and violent resistance continued in 1832 as the agitation infected the rest of Munster, much of Connacht in the west, and finally Ulster, where the greatest resistance appeared in the heavily Catholic counties of Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan. The tithe war never seized hold of Ulster because the large number of Protestant payers, the exemption of potato lands, and the historically lighter rates made the injustice less pressing there.

Angry tithe owners blamed Daniel O'Connell and the Catholic bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, the Reverend James Doyle, for the loss of their incomes. In fact, O'Connell took surprisingly little interest in the agitation, preferring to highlight the tithe issue only when it could be safely harnessed to promote his causes of emancipation and repeal. Tithe owners were closer to the mark in pointing the finger of blame at Bishop Doyle. In the summer of 1831, in a blistering public letter, Doyle denounced tithes as a grinding and insulting injustice and resolutely endorsed the strategy of passive resistance. His concise exposition of the case against tithes was widely disseminated as a penny pamphlet and dutifully read to Catholic parishioners from the altar during Sunday mass. Doyle's dramatic closing line, "May their hatred of tithe be as lasting as their love of justice," became the rallying cry of the campaign. But while he provided the moral underpinning of the movement, Doyle played no role in directing it.

Dublin Castle and police officials were probably accurate in their frequent descriptions of the agitation as leaderless, for there was no one leader or national organization similar to those formed during the campaigns for emancipation and repeal. Instead, as the resistance fanned out from Kilkenny, it was warmly received by prominent local Catholic leaders who had first cut their political teeth on emancipation. Included in this group were middle to large farmers, shopkeepers, newspapermen, and many parish priests who, while condemning episodes of violence, nevertheless publicly condemned the tithe system and promoted the campaign against it.

Initially responsive to tithe owners' demand for protection during tithe collection, Dublin Castle's willingness to provide police escorts waned considerably after the murder of the constables at Carrickshock. Tithe owners were instead encouraged to accept the money offered to them by acts of Parliament in 1832 and 1833 to help defray their arrears while more substantial legislation aimed at permanently resolving the issue was under consideration. Unfortunately, parliamentary action was delayed for the next five years, leaving hardy tithe owners free to continue collecting payments under the old system with its rampant opportunities for violence, such as the murderous affray at Rathcormac in December 1834, when twelve men were killed protecting the Widow Ryan's forty shillings against seizure. The tithe war finally quieted down after the spring of 1835 when the weapons available to tithe owners were sharply curtailed by the new Whig government and especially the new Undersecretary at Dublin Castle, Thomas Drummond, who refused to allow police escorts for tithe business. Tithe opponents resorted to holding meetings to petition Parliament to abolish tithes until the 1838 Tithe Act effectively ended the hostilities.

The tithe war marked an important intersection in the fortunes of a resurgent Catholic Church and a crumbling Protestant one that was well on its way toward disestablishment thirty years later. The tactics used during the tithe war would reappear during the land war of the late 1870s and 1880s, when passive resistance would be directed toward rent and the ostracizing of collaborators received its nom de guerre courtesy of Captain Charles Boycott.

SEE ALSO Defenderism; Irish Tithe Act of 1838; Land Questions; Oakboys and Steelboys; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Whiteboys and Whiteboyism


Brynn, Edward. The Church of Ireland in the Age of Catholic Emancipation. 1982.

Macintyre, Angus. The Liberator: Daniel O'Connell and the Irish Party, 1830–1847. 1965.

O'Donoghue, Patrick. "Causes of the Opposition to Tithes, 1830–38." Studia Hibernica 5 (1965): 7–28.

O'Donoghue, Patrick. "Opposition to Tithe Payments in 1830–31." Studia Hibernica 6 (1966): 69–98.

O'Donoghue, Patrick. "Opposition to Tithe Payments in 1832–3." Studia Hibernica 12 (1972): 77–108.

Suzanne C. Hartwick