ON THIS DAY: 17 JUNE 1871: The Westmeath Act and the unbroken resistance offered by secret Catholic societies against colonialism in Ireland.
The Protection of Life and Property Act in Certain Parts of Ireland was passed by the House of Commons in June 1871. It was also known as the ‘Westmeath Act’ as it came in response to an increase in “agrarian unrest” in that county and adjoining areas. It followed an extensive inquiry that had been published in March that year.
The legislation allowed for the “arrest and detention without trial of persons reasonably suspected of membership in a secret society.” Its specific target was an organisation known as the Ribbonmen which was particularly active in that part of Leinster and south Ulster.
The RIC Crime Branch files that were once held in Dublin Castle and are now available in the National Archives, contain photographs of some of those detained from Westmeath. I looked at the files as part of research into the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which connection throws up some interesting findings.
The Westminster inquiry blamed the Ribbonmen for “outrages” that were executed in response to evictions. The Ribbon Societies had previously been associated with major incidents including at Dolly’s Brae in County Down in July 1849 when Ribbonmen were prevented from defending local Catholics, dozens of whom were killed as reprisals. Ribbon societies were also central to the resistance to the paying of tithes to the Church of Ireland in the 1850s.
The connection with the Fenians is interesting as there was a similar link between the IRB and the local agrarian societies as there had been between the United Irishmen and what had been generically known as the Whiteboys and other local variants. James Stephens, like Thomas Russell and others in the 1790s, had travelled the country to recruit the agrarian resistance. Its members paid a terrible cost for that in the Terror of 1797 and 1798 but endured. Most seemed to have been sufficiently wary of the Fenian organisers in the 1860s to avoid a repeat.
The fact is that the secret Catholic peasant societies were part of an unbroken resistance to colonialism and in particular to the land confiscations that long pre-dated and indeed survived the attempts by centralised republican organisations to incorporate them into unsuccessful poorly planned uprisings that were deeply compromised by informers at the highest levels of the United Irishmen and the IRB.
Land and the suppression of the mostly rural “native” population remained the key issue, regardless of whatever current ideological complexion was sought to be applied by the republicans. Indeed, a British Tory MP Thomas Charly speaking during the debate in the Westmeath Act summarised it all up succinctly when he declared:
“The policy of the Government might be summed up in two words—”confiscation and coercion;” confiscation for the Irish Protestants, and coercion for the Irish Roman Catholics.”
The fact that the Act was directed against the Ribbonmen rather than the Fenians is indicative of the weakness of the IRB following the ham-fisted attempt to organise a Rising in 1867. Owen McGee’s book refers to the organisation still having a large amount of nominal members, but its lack of military efficacy, such as in supplying arms, meant that it had not much credibility with more militant rural or urban communities.
They did turn out, as did working class Catholics in Dublin and Cork, in large numbers in support of Amnesty for the Fenian prisoners, but more direct action was channelled through the more reliable and secure traditional societies. It was the Land War and the Land League that followed later in the 1870s and 1880s that again mobilised a national movement which brought the diverse elements including the Parnellite MPs together again.