“THERE IS IN Ireland a small tract of country – I may almost term it a fortress of Ribandism – which sets the government at defiance, and its garrison carries murder and rapine uncontrolled through a whole district.”
So said Tory politician John Wilson-Patten in March 1871 during a House of Commons debate on spiralling violence in remote pockets of Westmeath.
The county might not be immediately synonymous with the Irish land war of the late 19th century, but it was there, in June 1871, following years of unsolved murders and threats, that the British government imposed emergency legislation aimed at weeding out suspected troublemakers.
Crucially, the so-called Westmeath Act empowered police to arrest and detain without trial any suspected member of the secret society thought to have been behind a string of assassinations in the region.
The suspicion was not entirely unfounded: a copy of an oath found in a Mullingar public house bore resemblance to others associated with Ribbonism, the secret society that sought to wrest control of land from the Anglo-Irish.
The document, which was seen and reported back to London by the crown solicitor for the county, carried the pledge: “I will think it no sin to kill and massacre a Protestant whenever opportunity serves.”
In the Westmeath town of Kilbeggan, one particular gang effectively oversaw the business of land, ensuring that three local farms left vacant since the eviction of tenants continued to remain unlet.
Two men who had tried to take one of them were shot dead as a result: Edward Kelly in 1858 and Thomas Jessop in 1859.
After Jessop’s murder, such was the feeling of fear among local authorities that the Kilbeggan resident magistrate, William Morris Reade, had to meet an informer on an isolated road late at night.
When another one of the unoccupied fields was taken, the land agent, its new tenant and his servant were all in turn threatened.
The tenant, who was eventually fired at in February 1867, soon relinquished the land and refused to provide any evidence on the culprits to the police.
Another tenant on the third field gave up the land following three years of threats to his life.
‘I will make a finish of you’
The Kilbeggan district gang was linked to at least three murders and headed up by one of the county’s most notorious agitators, James Duffy, who was a small farmer.
Duffy had a long-standing feud with George Hornidge, a land agent who had refused to allow him rent a nearby farm whose previous tenants had been evicted.
Notices subsequently posted in the area warned labourers not to work on the land.
In one of a number of threatening letters, Hornidge was told: “No matter what guard or protection you have it will not save you.”
Threatening notices over land disputes also circulated in neighbouring districts.
In 1868, James White of nearby Tyrrellspass was warned: “Do not think that a few pig boys is sufficient, nor if you had all the castle force, I will make a finish of you.”
If you value land more than your life, you must get your wish.
In an 1869 letter citing three recent murders, William Gray, a landlord in Dorrington, was similarly ordered to leave his land.
“I will eject you without the aid of a sheriff. I don’t do any harm without giving notice,” the notice warned.
I have the same gun, eye and hand that took down [Captain Rowland] Tarleton. You have [Thomas] Anketell and [Howard] Fetherstonehaugh waiting for you.
I am getting [money] for shooting every last landlord – I can’t earn money easier.
The threats resulted in a number of small farmers and landlords requiring police protection “day and night”, according to Reade, the Kilbeggan resident magistrate.
“One gentleman has two policemen attending him, a second party has two policemen in his house and also with him, and a third party has two policemen with him, and a widow has also two policemen in her house and with her,” he told a select committee established by the British government to investigate crime in Westmeath.
Local authorities certainly had cause for concern: of the 40 homicides committed in Westmeath between 1848 and 1871, only four people had ever been convicted, despite police claiming to know the motives, organisers and sometimes even the murderer himself.
Just days before Fetherstonehaugh, a landlord, was killed in April 1868, for example, constabularies spotted a number of men who had led tenants in their opposition to increased rents on his estates touring the district.
Though the police strongly suspected that they had been raising money to fund the murderer’s passage to America, all three men arrested in connection with the killing were released due to a lack of evidence.
The violence did not stop there: Anketell, a Mullingar stationmaster who had dismissed a member of staff on supposedly religious grounds, and Tarleton, a large farmer who had sacked a herdsman, were both murdered the following year in unsolved cases.
In February 1870, the man suspected of killing a small farmer, Michael Kerrigan, over a land dispute was released for want of evidence.
Two further killings produced circumstantial evidence against Duffy, but, again, without incriminating evidence, authorities were helpless to stem what they saw as a tide of anarchy sweeping the county.
‘It served him right’
The escalating violence was central to the enactment of the Peace Preservation Act of 1870, which gave police greater powers to search for unlicensed arms and arrest people found at night under suspicious circumstances.
The legislation had been strongly recommended by the viceroy of Ireland, Lord Spencer, who felt that the basic problem with law enforcement in areas like Westmeath lay in the near-impossibility of obtaining evidence on which prosecutions could be brought.
Its provisions, however, were largely ineffective.
Particularly in Kilbeggan, the most disturbed district in the county, they had little impact on a long-existing system of intimidation.
Local agitators, Reade told the select committee, more or less complied with the requirements of the act by remaining at home after hours, issuing threatening letters instead of taking part in armed visits.
Similar hindrances were found with the clause that enabled magistrates to punish witnesses refusing to testify during the investigation of a crime.
Reade stated that criminals in Kilbeggan had again found a way around this particular provision, citing his reluctant release of a boy suspected to have posted a threatening letter from Duffy’s gang to the employers of a Mr Dowling, murdered in November 1870, after the suspect “swore that he knew nothing at all about it”.
As he had not technically refused to give evidence, the boy had to be freed from prison.
In some cases, there even seemed to be support for the action of local agitators opposing evictions.
When Fetherstonhaugh, a notorious landlord, was shot in 1868, the nearest household is said to have refused to help his panicked coachman when he called at their door.
Captain Talbot, a long-serving resident magistrate in Westmeath, told the select committee that a further two houses declined to assist the dying man and, as far as he could tell, “the usual answer to questions about it in the county say ‘served him right’”.
‘Every road was patrolled’
Fear and intimidation no doubt also contributed to locals’ reluctance to cooperate with authorities.
In his evidence to the select committee, Duffy’s own landlord, the Reverend James Crofton, whose legal assistant had been murdered after posting a notice of eviction, recounted being “politely turned out” of a public house in Mullingar, whose proprietor was “actually afraid to keep me there”.
Other than providing protection for those at risk, the efforts of local police were largely ineffective in dealing with agrarian violence.
The introduction of extra police in the most disturbed districts from 1869 had little impact either, with some residents appearing to have been forewarned about police patrols.
“The people saw that the police passed their houses on every road on the same night; and I think they must have communicated to each other that every road was patrolled,” according to Captain Talbot.
Generally drawn from middle-class and military backgrounds, members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were often perceived as unsuited to the work of detective policing.
A great deal of the force’s working day was also taken up by a considerable amount of paperwork.
Members of the constabulary were expected to play a variety of administrative and military roles in the 19th century, and the task of detective policing, as historian Elizabeth Malcolm has argued, was “probably the least significant one in the policeman’s repertoire”.
Though a detective force within the constabulary had been established in 1848, its “disposable men”, as they were known, were rarely employed in Westmeath and the investigation of crime seems to have largely been left to already overworked and generally untrained local policemen and resident magistrates.
As violence showed no sign of abating in Westmeath, authorities generally blamed the failure to convict criminals on the presence of a secret Ribbon society in the area.
Though evidence for its existence was circumstantial, this belief was condoned in the report of the select committee, which stated that there was in Westmeath “an unlawful combination and confederacy of a secret nature, generally known by the name of the Ribbon society” and that, due its prevalence, “it has been found to be almost impossible to obtain evidence on which to bring offenders to justice”.
The theory was supported by most government officials who had given evidence, particularly by Captain Talbot, who claimed that as many as a quarter of the male population in the county belonged to the Ribbon society and that it was “traditional and hereditary” in the area.
More recently, some historians have argued that so-called Ribbonism in the late-1860s was more informal and that no evidence exists of any connection between the key agitators in different locations.
The same conclusion was put to the select committee by the Catholic bishop of Meath, Thomas Nulty, who argued that the crime under investigation was the responsibility of “small knots of miscreants” rather than members of a complex, hierarchical network.
In the case of James Duffy, the only supposed ‘Ribbonman’ mentioned by name during the select committee’s inquiry, most of the outrages linked to him had clearly defined personal motives, especially in the case of Mr Dowling, who had served an eviction notice on his own father.
Local authorities could well have blamed the difficulty around investigating secret society activities to distract attention from their own failure to maintain law and order.
Placing such strong emphasis on the existence of a shadowy network of agitators may also have been a tactic for central authorities seeking to legitimise the introduction of further coercive measures to help them deal with agrarian crime.
Lord Spencer cited events in Westmeath to pressure the government not only into establishing the select committee but also subsequently enacting the Westmeath Act of 1871, which empowered him, as viceroy, to imprison any man suspected of being a member of the Ribbon society.
Whatever the structure of groups behind disturbances, their dealings with unpopular employers and landlords appear to have been accepted, if not supported, by some residents.
For locals, many of them poor and likely fearing eviction, agitators like Duffy were not quite the clear-cut criminals British authorities made them out to be.