Short History of Ireland in the 18th Century




The Penal Laws accomplished their expected results. Within a few generations, the Catholic Irish were reduced to abject poverty, were illiterate (or nearly so) and unskilled. In 1750, 93% of the land was owned by non-Irish landowners and by 1770, this number was practically 100%. By then, the Irish had become a nation of tenant farmers. One visitor from France noted that nowhere in Europe had he seen such poverty as he saw in Ireland. "The Irish peasant is poorer than the lowest serfs in Poland and German," he said.

Eye witness accounts of the life of the average Irish tenant farmer confirm that his life was one of desperation and deprivation. Nearly half of the rural population lived in small windowless mud cabins. Furniture consisted of a bed and some chairs--and only a very few had such luxuries. It was normal for farm animals, pigs and chickens, to sleep in the cabin with the people. However, the good news was that the huts were always warm in the winter thanks to the readily available peat.

Greedy landowners increased their rental income by dividing and sub-dividing their land again and again until most families were attempting to live on less than an acre of land and paying rents double that being charged in England for a much larger plot. Since potatoes were such an efficient crop, by the late eighteenth century it was practically the only crop grown by the tenant farmers. Many never in their lifetimes had ever tasted meat or bread. Their every meal consisted of potatoes, and sometimes buttermilk.

As you might expect, the Irish did not take all this cruel and inhuman treatment placidly. The outcome of the Penal Laws was that evasion of the law became the duty of every Irish Catholic..."dangerous lessons for any government to compel their subjects to learn." Their answer was a form of guerrilla warfare carried out by secret societies.

In the 1760's, "Whiteboys" appeared. These were gangs of men wearing white shirts over their clothes who rode the countryside at night tearing down fences, ham-stringing cattle, and burning barns. They also sought out informers, landlord's men, and tithe collectors. When these people were caught, the group dispensed a people justice in a terrible form of revenge. They also rode up to manor houses destroying property and shooting through the windows. As a result, many landlords lived in permanently barricaded houses guarded by teams of sentries.

By the end of nineteenth century the Irish had organized enough to develop a war strategy which would become the Insurrection of 1798. The plan was to have revolts break out simultaneously all over Ireland at the same time that a large force of French soldiers landed in Ireland. Unfortunately, the ships carrying the French army ran into a severe storm as they were in sight of land and most of the ships sank. Nevertheless, the Irish revolted on cue and in spite of the fact that they were armed with only pikes and clubs they did remarkably well against the Loyalist soldiers armed with muskets and canon. The crucial battle was fought at a place called Vinegar Hill in County Wexford. Here the Irish rebels made a determined stand that ended in disaster when the Loyalist troops opened fire with a battery of canon. One observer commented that the rebels "fell like new mown grass."

Although the battle was lost, it gave inspiration to the most famous of all Irish war songs, "The Boys of Wexford", a favorite song sung for generations in Irish pubs around the world. The opening stanza goes like this.

        We are the Boys of Wexford,
        Who fought with heart and hand.
        To burst in twain the galling chain,
        And free our native land.

In the mopping up operations there and in other parts of Ireland, thousands were butchered while on their knees begging for mercy. In those final days of war, more than 50,000 were killed..."more were killed in cold blood than in battle."

Short History of Ireland in the 19th Century


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