Whiteboys and Whiteboyism

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Whiteboys and Whiteboyism

The Whiteboys were agrarian rebels based in Munster and south Leinster who engaged in two major struggles in the mid-eighteenth century with local gentry, Church of Ireland clergy, and other enemies. The term Whiteboyism was later used as shorthand for describing what seemed like endemic violence in the Irish countryside. Some modern historians have even extended this usage to refer to prefamine agrarian rebellion in Ireland. The Whiteboy rebellions occurred between 1761 and 1765 and between 1769 and 1776, centering on Tipperary and Kilkenny, with other troubled counties including Cork, Limerick and Waterford and, later, Wexford, Queen's County, Carlow, and Kildare. There were peaks of violence in the spring of 1762, the winter of 1763 to 1764, and especially in 1772 and 1775.

The Two Outbreaks

The first signs of Whiteboy trouble appeared in November 1761 when protests against the tithe collected on potatoes occurred in southeast Tipperary. In the following months the protests rapidly spread into the parishes nearby in counties Cork and Waterford and eventually into Kilkenny and Limerick by early 1762. The protests entered the wider public consciousness in 1762, especially after hedges on the property of the duke of Devonshire were leveled and threatening letters were sent to Protestant gentry in Tallow demanding that their horses be handed over and that the jail be opened. The response of Dublin Castle to such actions was swift, with regiments of dragoons and light infantry being sent to the affected areas. The Whiteboys seemed to retreat into silence, yet they reemerged a year later in Tipperary and Kilkenny, now the worst affected counties. This second upsurge of protests against tithes on potatoes, conacre rents, and the enclosure of common lands met with much more severe repression, and by 1765 it was confined to occasional violence in Kilkenny.

Four years later, counties Kilkenny and Tipperary were again the center of the revived Whiteboy movement. This time Dublin Castle responded much more slowly, owing to the quiet building of Whiteboy momentum up to 1772 and to the much more threatening Steelboy violence in northeast Ulster. By 1772 the Whiteboy troubles had spread beyond their original focus, and all the counties of south Leinster were gripped over the next three years by a spiral of violence.

The two Whiteboys outbreaks had differences in their causes and the composition of their members. The first Whiteboys outbreak saw large-scale mobilization of hundreds of Whiteboys over regions, which had much to do with the initial rapid spread of the rebellion. In the later outbreak the Whiteboys in smaller numbers still traveled considerable distances, but this time to punish wrongdoers or seize arms and horses rather than to mount large-scale attacks on property or spread the rebellion. There was continuity in what was becoming the format of the classic Irish agrarian rebellion. The Whiteboys employed symbolism, most famously in the wearing of white shirts or overgarments from which the rebels got their name, but also in taking as aliases the names of Queen Sive or Captain Firebrand, figures from folklore. Theatricality accompanied real violence, with graves being dug, mock gallows erected, and anonymous threatening letters sent, alongside property destruction, murders, and maimings.

Violence of the personal sort increased over time. This may have stemmed from the severity of the repression of the first Whiteboys, especially in Tipperary where a popular priest, Father Nicholas Sheehy of Clogheen, was persecuted and eventually executed by the Protestant gentry of that county in 1766. The later Whiteboys gave less quarter, particularly to informers and zealous magistrates. The violence of the later out-break was also owing to increasing clashes with anti-Whiteboy associations and regular troops.

The Whiteboys swore in entire communities and parishes as conspirators. The organization had a military tinge, suggesting the role of those who had served in the French or Spanish armies, whose influence was reflected in marching and the confident use of arms. In the later outbreak, involvement of farmers and their sons—members of a higher social stratum—was shown in the greater numbers of horses used and in the causes of that rebellion. Beyond the local particularities of the symbolic names used or the tunes played to mobilize supporters, little distinguishes these southern disturbances from the Ulster agrarian outbreaks of the time.


With regard to causes, contemporaries, especially the Protestant elite in Ireland, were quick to see irredentist Catholic rebelliousness. The 1761 to 1765 outbreak, at least in its first three years, coincided with the Seven Years' War, which summoned up fears of French or Spanish invasion and boosted the activities of recruiters for those armies and the survival of at least some form of Jacobitism in Munster and the Butler heartland of Kilkenny. Such claims were less a feature of the second outbreak, perhaps owing to the absence of war, but there was some Protestant rallying of exclusive local militias. Political causes were probably incidental, but observers considered as important the near electoral success of the convert Mathew family in Tipperary in 1761 and the continuing strength of Catholic organization in the Blackwater valley in Munster.

Mid-century economic changes and their consequences were just as crucial. The first Whiteboy out-break focused on the tithe on potatoes collected by the local Anglican clergy, enclosures by landlords and farmers keen to cash in on the rising demand for Irish cattle and wool, and other burdens suffered in the main by those on the worst tenures—agricultural laborers, woolen workers, and others in the towns of the region. Part of this was resistance to landlords, clergy, and farmers who were profiting from war and economic growth and sought higher tithes or rents to meet their rising expectations. There was a hearkening back to better times or anger at not doing well economically in a period of growth.

The second outbreak also had an economic context, though this was more the effect of a crisis caused by bad grain harvests between 1769 and 1771 and in 1773 and the slump in both the linen and woolen trades between 1772 and 1774. More so than in the earlier troubles, these harsh facts are secondary to the major cause of the 1769 through 1776 protests: the tithe on corn. This grievance explains the geographical shift to south Leinster from the pastures of Munster, but it also reveals that the later Whiteboys, from the higher social stratum of farmers, were much more concerned with defending gains they had made in the 1760s from the bounties paid on corn sent to Dublin. Their targets reflected their priorities: tithe proctors and tenants who offered higher rents, especially Waterford dairymen, were chosen for attack by these Whiteboys. This was less an outbreak of nostalgia and more of a sophisticated resistance to any erosion of newfound wealth.

Authorities' Response

The response of the authorities, particularly at the local level, hardened over time. In the first outbreak, officials at Dublin Castle were very critical of magistrates who were too timid to act on their own initiative but quick to summon troops. By 1763 more local gentry in Tipperary and Kilkenny formed associations, some of which sprang back into life in the early 1770s to deal with the revived Whiteboy threat. In fact militias and Volunteers appeared in these counties even before the impetus provided later by the American war and the Patriot politicians. At this local level, rewards were subscribed to for the worst crimes, notably the killing of the Tipperary magistrate Ambrose Power in 1775. As in Ulster, there were active magistrates ready to pursue and capture Whiteboys, and some, like Power or Lord Carrick, gained a reputation for their actions and their readiness to both summon and use troops.

A similarly mixed response and change over time occurred at the central level. The earl of Halifax, viceroy in the years 1761 to 1763, was criticized in London for leniency and readiness to dismiss accusations of French plots in Munster. There is no doubt that Halifax did lean to the view that local Protestant landlords had brought this crisis on themselves, and his legal officials did stop the judicial bloodletting desired by some of the gentry. Later viceroys, notably the earl of Hertford, proved to be more vacillating in the face of local pressure, as seen for example in the trial and execution of Father Nicholas Sheehy.

In a sign of hardening attitudes, tougher laws were enacted in 1765 and 1776. The first Whiteboy act made crimes against property by a group of more than five persons, the tendering of oaths, and the rescuing of prisoners all punishable by death; these felonies were added to by the 1775 act. In addition the 1765 law made it possible to exact compensation from a disturbed barony for property crimes committed there. In frustration at the Whiteboys, the Catholic hierarchy issued condemnations of the agrarian rebels and in 1779 threatened to excommunicate offenders.

SEE ALSO Defenderism; Irish Tithe Act of 1838; Land Questions; Oakboys and Steelboys; Tithe War (1830–1838); Trade Unions; Primary Documents: On the Whiteboys (1769)


Donnelly, James S., Jr. "The Whiteboy Movement, 1761–1765." Irish Historical Studies 21 (1978): 20–54.

Donnelly, James S., Jr. "Irish Agrarian Rebellion: The Whiteboys of 1769–1776." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 83c (1983): 293–331.

Eoin Magennis