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Ribbonism, whose adherents were usually called Ribbonmen, was a 19th century popular movement of poor Catholics in Ireland. It was active against landlords and their agents, and was ideologically and sometimes violently opposed to the Orange Order.


The Ribbon Society was principally an agrarian secret society, whose members consisted of rural Irish Catholics.[1] The society was formed in response to the miserable conditions in which the vast majority of tenant farmers and rural workers lived in the early 19th century in Ireland. Its objective was to prevent landlords from changing or evicting their tenants. Ribbonmen also attacked tithe and process servers, and later evolved the policy of Tenants' Rights.[2] The existence of "ribandmen" was recorded as early as 1817.[3] The name is derived from a green ribbon worn as a badge in a button-hole by the members.[4]

Depending on the district, the society was variously known as the Fraternal Society, the Patriotic Association or the Sons of the Shamrock. The Ribbonmen's organisation was similar to that of the Whiteboys or the Defenders of earlier periods. They were organised in lodges, and during the 1820s were in contact with certain organisations of Radicals in England.[2]

The ideology of the Ribbonmen supported the Catholic Association and the political separation of Ireland from Great Britain, and the rights of the tenant as against those of the landlord.[5] The Ribbonmen were involved in violent (and sometimes deadly) riots with the Orange Order in the north of Ireland, and elsewhere used violence to resist paying tithes to the Protestant Church of Ireland.[5] As the agitation for Catholic Emancipation grew, the tension between Ribbonism and Orangeism increased.

Dr. Jennifer Kelly describes Robbonmen in Leitrim as "A self contained organisation which gave young men in pre-famine Leitrim opportunities to exercise a machismo which may otherwise have been constricted by family and economic structures." [6]

On 26 July 1813 the Battle of Garvagh in County Londonderry took place. Four hundred Catholic Ribbonmen attempted to destroy a tavern in Garvagh where the Orange Lodge met. They were armed with sticks and bludgeons, but Protestants were waiting inside armed with muskets and repelled them. Several of the Ribbonmen were killed and the rest fled.[7] The clash was commemorated in the song "The Battle of Garvagh".

On 12 July 1830, Orange parades led to confrontations between Orangemen and Ribbonmen in Maghera and Castledawson in County Londonderry. Several Catholic homes were then burned by Protestants following these clashes. In November of the same year, ribbonmen attacked an Orange band, puncturing some of their drums. The Orangemen retaliated by burning the Catholic village of Maghery, County Armagh to the ground. 12 July 1849 saw the Battle of Dolly's Brae. Up to 1400 armed Orangemen marched from Rathfriland to Tollymore Park near Castlewellan, County Down. When 1000 armed Ribbonmen gathered, shots were fired, Catholic homes were burnt and about 80 Catholics killed.[7]

Ribbonists were most active between 1835 and 1855 and in the Tithe War.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Robert Kee, The Green Flag, 1972, p. 299
  2. ^ a b H. B. C. Pollard, Secret Societies of Ireland, Their Rise and Progress, 2003, pp. 34-37
  3. ^ The Times, 16 April 1817, Ireland. (From the Dublim Evening Post.), Lifford Assizes
  4. ^ a b Wood, Rev. James, ed. (1907), The Nuttall Encyclopædia 
  5. ^ a b Frazier, Adrian (2000), George Moore, 1852–1933, New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 604, ISBN 0-300-08245-2 
  6. ^ Jennifer Mary Kelly, An outward looking community? Ribbonism & popular mobilisation in pre-famine Leitrim 1836-46, PhD thesis, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick
  7. ^ a b "Parades and Marches - Chronology 2: Historical Dates and Events". Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN). Retrieved 28 January 2010. 

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWood, James, ed. (1907). "Ribbonism". The Nuttall Encyclopædia. London and New York: Frederick Warne. 

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