The Defenders (Irish: Cosantóirí) were a militant, vigilante agrarian secret society in 18th century Ireland, mainly Roman Catholic and from Ulster, who allied with the United Irishmen but did little during the rebellion of 1798.
The Defenders originated in County Armagh in Ulster in 1784, to protect Catholics from attack by the Protestant "Peep O'Day Boys". Sectarian conflict had arisen out of the entry of Catholics into the linen producing business and their being blamed for the downturn in the market, although the actual cause was the increasing industrialisation of the business which was steadily eroding the previous largely cottage-based nature of the industry. Violence continued until the Battle of the Diamond in 1795 saw the "Peep O'Day Boys" emerge victorious. This victory was marked by the foundation of the Orange Order and the waging of a campaign of ethnic cleansing in mid Ulster which forced thousands of Catholics to seek refuge in Connaught and Leinster, and in many cases, bringing the Defender organisation with them.
The Forkhill Disturbances 
For some time Defender violence in south Armagh increased and it was at the small village of Forkhill that perhaps its most notorious incident took place. In January 1791, the home of the local schoolmaster, a Mr Barclay, was called upon by a body of men. Recognising one of the group, Barclay let them into his home. The crowd rushed in whereupon they strangled Barclay until his tongue came out which they then cut off, along with three of his fingers. The same treatment was then given to Barclay's wife - her tongue removed along with a thumb and four fingers - and her brother who had his calf removed.
While this was reported in the newspapers, the Annual Register of 1791 says that the Barclays and their 14-year-old son's tongues and fingers had been 'chopt off', but not that they had died. 'So black and atrocious an act stands unparalleled in the annals of this country'. The Register was edited by Edmund Burke.
Tension had also been rising in the area following a controversial will which had been interpreted as not allowing Catholics to buy land or renew their leases. Barclay was a Protestant and had refused to allow the local Gaelic speaking children to speak anything but English, and to only say Protestant prayers. He had been given the job by the local landlord Edward Hudson who sought to improve the area, largely by replacing the local tenantry, and as such was very unpopular. The action was an excessive punishment for Mr. Barclay's social crimes, and so the real underlying reason was the non-renewal of farming leases.
The strife that had begun in Armagh had now spread into the neighbouring counties but it was around the town of Rathfriland in County Down that the next flashpoint occurred. The sectarian conflict that plagued south Ulster intensified around the town of Rathfriland in the early part of 1792. In May in the neighbourhood of Banbridge and Rathfriland these animosities were reported to be carried to a new height. In June a meeting of magistrates declared that the conflict between the Defenders and Peep O'Day boys now affected a considerable part of the Baronies of Upper and Lower Iveagh. The violence was to reach new levels in the Battle of Ballynappoge on 6 May. The problems in the area seem to have been running for some time and there is an account of one Presbyterian from Ballynappoge firing shots into the Defender quarter of Islandmoyle every night. The latest spark appeared to have been the funeral procession of a Catholic schoolmaster to a graveyard at Drumballyroney. The procession was hooted, insulted and pelted with dirt, by the presbyterians, and when they arrived at the grave-yard, and the priests began to chant the requiem of the deceased, they were attacked by the Presbyterians with stones and clubs, and were compelled to flee, leaving the corpse unburied. It would appear that both the Defenders and the Peep O'Day Boys had been preparing for conflict merely awaiting an excuse, and the funeral was to provide just that. Two days of violence followed and by Tuesday an army was assembled, consisting of many thousands and everything was ready for blood and carnage. Through the efforts of the Reverend Samuel Barber and some others, articles of agreement were drawn up and these were agreed upon by both sides.
Despite this, tension again rose through the summer and a series of meetings that helped to shape the politics of the 1790s took place. Amongst those who met with the Defenders that summer in an effort to restore peace were the United Irishmen Wolfe Tone, Samuel Neilson, John Keogh, Thomas Braughall, Alexander Lowry as well as Thomas Russell who was also visiting this region. These meetings were the first substantial links between the Defenders and the United Irishmen – a link that was to culminate in the rebellion in 1798. While the Defenders were reacting to bigotry and the tithe laws, and their lack of power in society, it is ironic that their new allies in France had a policy of Dechristianization which targeted the Catholic Church.
Militia Act 1793 
Catholic Emancipation from 1778 onward had removed some of the penal restrictions imposed upon Catholics, who were now allowed to vote and join grand juries. However, the declaration of war by revolutionary France against Great Britain in February 1793 was also followed by the passing of the Militia Act which was a form of partial conscription. Wealthier Catholics such as the young Daniel O'Connell joined the Militia as it was proof of their gradual acceptance into the establishment, but it was harder for poorer rural Catholics whose help was needed on a family farm. Although the terms of the Act stipulated that conscripts would serve in Ireland, it was widely believed that men would be sent abroad and the resultant opposition saw thousands taking the Defender oath. Members were usually sworn in catechisms, one such oath went:
|“||The French Defenders will uphold the cause. The Irish Defenders will pull down British laws.||”|
The Defenders did not have a centralised leadership but were organised in loosely connected local cells and were limited by their lack of firearms. They sought to obtain them by launching raids on the big and small houses of the Ascendancy. In January 1793 the 'Annual Register' reported that forty farms had been raided for weapons near Dundalk, County Louth. However County Leitrim saw the most Defender activity with raids on Carrick-on-Shannon and Manorhamilton before eventual defeat at Drumkeerin in May 1793. Despite the ensuing wave of repression, the Leitrim Defenders again rose in open rebellion in 1795 and hundreds of soldiers had to be poured into the county to defeat them. The Defenders retained enough strength to rise in support of the French during the 1798 rebellion, with strong Defender contingents present at the defeats at Granard, Wilson's Hospital and Ballinamuck.
Society of United Irishmen 
The Society of United Irishmen had early identified the Defenders as potential allies and leading members such as James Hope had regularly travelled throughout the country organising cells and distributing propaganda such as the Northern Star newspaper. Defender cells were easily transformed into United Irish cells and those who held dual membership were often referred to as being "up and up". The precise role of the Defenders as an organisation during the rebellion is therefore hard to assess but Colonel Foote, commander of the British force and one of its few survivors of the battle of Oulart Hill referred to the victorious rebels as "Defenders" as opposed to United Irishmen in his official account of the defeat.
The Defenders of County Down withdrew support before the United Irish defeat at the Battle of Ballynahinch on 12 June 1798, as their leader John Magennis had received good local information on the size and placing of the British forces. Magennis had also suggested a night attack which Munro would not allow. The Defenders were also absent as a group from the earlier Battle of Antrim.
The Defenders were usually depicted as subject to residual sectarianism, ultra-Catholic, guilty of anti-Protestantism and having only paid at best lip service to the non-sectarian ideals of the United Irishmen. While this was undoubtedly true of a proportion of Defenders, Catholic priests were not immune to their wrath as in Athlone in 1793 where a priest who preached in favour of the Militia Act was almost hanged to death.
The fortunes of the Defenders were closely tied to the United Irishmen by the outbreak of the rebellion in 1798 and they did not survive its failure; however their influence endured in the later formation of similar groups like the Ribbonmen in the 1830s.
See also 
- Annual Register 1791, chronicle p.3
- p.26, A Flame now Quenched: Rebels and Frenchmen in Leitrim 1793-98, Liam Kelly (Dublin 1998) ISBN 1-901866-13-0
- p.31-46, A Flame now Quenched: Rebels and Frenchmen in Leitrim 1793-98, Liam Kelly (Dublin 1998) ISBN 1-901866-13-0
- Proudfoot L. (ed.) Down History and Society (Dublin 1997) chapter by Nancy Curtin at p.289. ISBN 0-906602-80-7
- J. Brady: Catholics and Catholicism in 18th century Press, (1965) p. 240
- Thomas Bartlett, Kevin Dawson, Daire Keogh, "Rebellion", Dublin 1998
- Liam Kelly "A Flame now Quenched: Rebels and Frenchmen in Leitrim 1793-98", Dublin 1998
- David Miller "Peep O' Day Boys and Defenders", Belfast 1990