"There are many noble traits in the Irish character, mixed with failings which have always raised obstacles to their own well-being; but an innate love of justice, and an indomitable hatred of oppression, is like a gem upon the front of our nation which no darkness can obscure. To this fine quality I trace their hatred of tithes; may it be as lasting as their love of justice."
-- Dr. James Doyle, Bishop of Kildare
(Left: The tithe proctor arrives to demand his 10%.)
There have been many famous wars and revolutions in Irish history that have resulted in many deaths and injuries. There was one 19th century “war,” however, about which many people who take an interest in Irish history know very little. It happened during the 1830s and was known as the Tithe War. Though it was a civil dispute, war is not really a misnomer for this civil dispute; many people on both sides of the dispute did die while it was going on.
In 1829, after many years of political struggle, the Catholics of Ireland were emancipated. As is often the case when a downtrodden group obtain a little freedom, it only whets their appetite for more. There were few things in Ireland as universally hated by the majority Catholic population, and the non-Church of Ireland Protestants, as the Tithe Law. Under this law everyone working the land in Ireland, including tenant farmers, owed 10% of whatever they produced to maintain the local Church of Ireland and their clergy.
In some instances, the parish being supported by the tithe had nearly no congregation, and in some it actually had none. It was often being paid to clergy who not only had no congregation; they lived elsewhere. So it was not about sustaining a building or serving a congregation in most cases, it was about providing an income to the Church of Ireland clergy, whether they were doing anything to earn it or not. The tithe-proctors who traveled the countryside collecting the tithes were some of the most despised men in every county. Catholics with small land holdings, already contributing to maintain a church and parish priest for their own religion, had little left to pay a tithe to a church that did nothing for them. But as ever in Ireland, the British opted for coercion of the Irish population over the application of anything approaching justice.
(Right: A pig not willing to give up 10% of her brood to an Anglican clergyman.)
All over Ireland in the early 1830s, but especially in the southeast and in County Cork, land owners began to ask local Church of Ireland clergy to reduce their tithes. They were often encouraged by the local Catholic clergy, who knew that their congregations could support their own churches far better were they not also supporting the Church of Ireland. When the reductions were refused, people began to simply defy the law and refuse to pay the tithe through 1830 into 1831. Large anti-tithe meetings were being held all over the island. With their revenue drying up, the clergy of the Church of Ireland appealed to the authorities to use the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) to force payment, which was usually done “in kind,” that is, by a portion of a crop or livestock. Thus when the Constabulary arrived at some land holders property to demand payment, it would usually involve confiscating crops or livestock.
The law, however, said livestock inside a building could not be taken. When the Constabulary would move out into the countryside in hopes of seizing livestock, tithe resistors would send warning to land holders they were on their way. Thus most attempts to seize livestock failed. And when they succeeded, the locals all refused to buy any of them at auction to allow the clergy to convert their seizures to cash, a precursor to the later use of the boycott during the land wars. Some resolution of this must come, and with tensions building, and the government not proposing any judicial relief, it became likely that none would ever come without violence.
When a force of 120 RIC officers arrived in Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny, in March 1831 to confiscate the cattle of a Roman Catholic priest (yes, they had to pay the tithe as well), the cleric had organized mass resistance, and the constables left without the cattle. Though no one was killed in that confrontation, examples of successful resistance to the tithe emboldened the resisters. It was only a matter of time until these confrontations between tithe resistors and the police exploded in violence.
On June 18th, that became a reality during a confrontation over confiscated cattle in Bunclody, County Wexford. This time it was a Yeoman unit, only recently reformed and not as well-trained as RIC officers, attempting to confiscate the cattle. They panicked and fired upon an unarmed crowd, killing 14, including a woman and two boys. One yeoman was shot and killed, but he may have been accidently shot by one of his comrades. It was no longer just a civil dispute. Now blood had been spilled on one side, and soon more would be on both sides.
(Above: The battle at Carrickshock, from Cassell's Illustrated History of England', volume VII - 1895.)
The resistors got better organized, including using church bells to alert people in the area of RIC units moving to enforce tithes. On December 14th the countryside near Carrickshock, County Kilkenny, came alive with more than 1,000 very angry local residents as this warning system resulted in a confrontation with the tithe collector, Edmund Butler, and his escort of 38 RIC constables.
The group’s advance was blocked on a stonewall-lined boreen as the crowd surrounded them. They demanded, “We’ll have Butler or Blood,” and when they didn’t get him, they were as good as their word. Young James Treacy moved forward and grabbed Butler and was promptly bayoneted twice and shot. As the mob attacked, the constables opened fired but would have no opportunity to reload before they were overrun. Stones from the wall rained down on them and then mallets, hurleys, and pikes followed. When it was over at least 12 constables were dead or mortally wounded, including their commanding officer, Captain James Gibbons, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, and at least 14 more seriously wounded and the rest were running for their lives. Butler was also killed. Three of the attackers were dead and an unknown number wounded.
This serious and deadly confrontation shocked both the Church of Ireland and the government and probably put visions of the not-too-distant past 1798 Rising in their heads. Smaller confrontations with less loss of life and injury would continue around Ireland through 1836. In June 1832, the government ceased trying to enforce tithe payments for a time after another confrontation in Rossmore, County Cork, killed one constable. Those arrested after Carrickshock were defended by none other than Daniel O’Connell (right) and were exonerated in July 1832 mainly because the government could get no one other than constables to give any evidence.
In 1833, government passed the "Church Temporalities Bill." It reduced the number of Protestant bishops from 18 to 10, and the government loaned the church a million pounds to help relieve the monetary problems caused by the tithe shortfalls and to reduce tensions. However, at the same time, they passed yet another Coercion Act granting wider powers to the authorities in Ireland.
The government later began enforcing payments with RIC escorts again and the last large confrontation in the tithe conflict occurred on December 18, 1834, in Gortroe, County Cork. Attempting to enforce a mere 40 shilling payment for Archdeacon Ryder, a detachment of constables reinforced by the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards and the 29th (Worcestershire) Regiment of Foot opened fire a on group of locals who were blocking them (left). Twelve civilians were killed and dozens were wounded. None of the constables or soldiers were killed, but some were injured. It was claimed by some that it was Ryder who gave the order to fire, though ironically he would later sacrifice most of his wealth trying to alleviate suffering during The Great Hunger. After this tragedy, the government enforcement of tithes was again suspended. Putting aside the morality of what was being done, it made no financial sense. It was said then: “It cost a shilling to collect tuppence."
The government began working on some sort of resolution of this problem, which eventually resulted in the Tithe Commutation Act of 1838. This cut the tithe rate by 25% and transferred the responsibility for collecting it to landlords as part of their rent. It was at least a partial victory for the resistors. Tithe payments to the Church of Ireland would not be fully eliminated until the Irish Church Act of 1869. Perhaps the more long lasting effect of this conflict was simply keeping the idea of resistance to the occupying power in the minds of the Irish people. It was in some ways a dress rehearsal of later land agitation.
Few know much about the Tithe War now, as it has been over shadowed in Irish history by the 1798 Rising and the Catholic emancipation movement that went before it and the overwhelming catastrophe of The Great Hunger that followed shortly after it.
The tithe war was not totally forgotten later, however, at least not in areas where the worst incidents occurred. In March 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, a group of Irish Volunteers assembled at the site of the Carrickshock fight before assaulting the RIC barracks at Hugginstown, not because it was the logical place to do it, but to inspire the Volunteers. And in 1925 a monument was put up on the site. (right)