There once was a particularly dark time in Ireland when the length of a man's hair determined his fate. If his hair was shorn close to the scalp as opposed to the longer hairstyles of most of Europe at that time, he ran the risk of arrest, interrogation and was often subjected to torture by flogging, picketing, half-hanging and more often than not, death. So fearful of the new hairstyle and it's deeper meaning, led the authorities to invent new forms of violent torture methods as a means of intimidation. One of the more terrifying forms of the new method was 'pitchcapping' known in Gaelic as 'an caip bháis' and was used extensively.

In Ireland in the 1790s the Society of United Irishmen was founded by Dublin born Theobald Wolfe Tone. It's aim as a liberal political organisation, initially sought Parliamentary reform. It later evolved into a revolutionary republican organisation, inspired by the American Revolution and allied itself with Revolutionary France. It launched the Irish Rebellion of 1798 with the objective of ending British monarchical rule over Ireland and founding a sovereign, independent Irish republic government.The name 'Croppie' used in Ireland in the 1790s was a reference to the closely cropped hair associated with the anti-powdered wig (anti-aristocrat) French revolutionaries of the period. Men with their hair cropped were automatically suspected of sympathies with the pro-French underground organisation the Society of United Irishmen, and were rounded up by the British administration and its allies for interrogation. The form of torture known as 'pitchcapping' was specifically invented to intimidate 'Croppies.' United Irish activists retaliated by cropping the hair of loyalists to reduce the reliability of this method of identifying their sympathisers,

The process of 'an caip bháis' (pitchcapping) involved the shaving of the victim's head and then pouring hot pitch, or tar (which was mainly used at the time for lighting purposes,) into a conical shaped 'cap' which was forced onto a bound suspect's head and allowed to cool. Less elaborate versions included smearing a cloth or piece of paper with pitch and pressing it onto the head of the intended victim. Flogging, half hanging and picketing, were mild forms of torture in comparison to the pitch caps that were applied to the heads of those who happened to wear their hair short. The cap, sometimes made from linen and soaked with boiling pitch adhered so closely to the scalp that it could not be removed without taking part of the skin and flesh from the head.

The effect on the skull of this controlled form of torture resembles 'scalping,' earlier known as a practice used in the New World by both the English colonists and the American Indians. Another form of torture, though less widely used, was 'tarring and feathering' which was used in feudal Europe and its colonies, the early American frontier, and also in Ireland to a lesser extent. The victim would be stripped to the waist and hot wood tar was then poured or painted onto the person while they were immobilized. Then the victims either had feathers thrown on them or were rolled around on a pile of feathers so that they stuck to the tar.

A memorial park in front of Collins Barracks, Dublin, known as 'Croppies Acre' was erected in memory of those executed during and after the 1798 Rising. The bodies were dumped there en-masse, so that the outgoing tide of the river Liffey would wash them out to sea. In the church at Crooke, County Waterford, there is a marker to indicate the grave of the 'Unknown Croppie', as the nearby Passage East and Geneva Barracks were sites of execution and transportation of many Irishmen who took part in the rebellion.

© John A. Brennan 2019. All Rights Reserved.

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Tags: History of Ireland


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