The Whiteboys (Irish: Buachaillí Bána) were a secret Irish agrarian organisation in 18th-century Ireland which used violent tactics to defend tenant farmer land rights for subsistence farming. Their name derives from the white smocks the members wore in their nightly raids. As they levelled the fences at night, they were usually referred to at the time as "Levellers" by the authorities, and by themselves as "Queen Sive Oultagh's children", "fairies", or as followers of "Johanna Meskill" or "Sheila Meskill", all symbolic figures supposed to lead the movement. They sought to address rack-rents, tithe collection, excessive priests' dues, evictions and other oppressive acts. As a result they targeted landlords and tithe collectors. Over time, Whiteboyism became a general term for rural violence connected to secret societies. Because of this generalisation, the historical record for the Whiteboys as a specific organisation is unclear. There were three major outbreaks of Whiteboyism: 1761–64; 1770–76; and 1784–86.
Between 1735 and 1760 there was an increase in land used for grazing and beef cattle, due in part because pasture land was exempt from tithes. The landlords, who, having let their lands far above their value, on condition of allowing the tenants the use of certain commons, now enclosed the commons, but did not lessen the rent. As more landlords and farmers switched to raising cattle, labourers and small tenant farmers were forced off the land. The Whiteboys developed as a secret oath-bound society among the peasantry. Whiteboy disturbances had occurred prior to 1761 but were largely restricted to isolated areas and local grievances, so that the response of local authorities had been limited, either through passive sympathy or, more likely, because of the exposed nature of their position in the largely Roman Catholic countryside.
Their operations were chiefly in the counties of Waterford, Cork, Limerick, and Tipperary. This combination was not political: it was not directed against the government, but against the local landlords. Members of different religious affiliation joined in it.
First outbreak, 1761–63
The first major outbreak occurred in County Limerick in November 1761 and quickly spread to counties Tipperary, Cork, and Waterford. A great deal of organisation and planning seems to have been put into the outbreak, including the holding of regular assemblies. Initial activities were limited to specific grievances and the tactics used non-violent, such as the levelling of ditches that closed off common grazing land, although cattle houghing was often practised as the demand for beef had prompted large landowners to initiate the process of enclosure. As their numbers increased, the scope of Whiteboy activities began to widen, and proclamations were clandestinely posted under such names as "Captain Moonlight", stipulating demands such as that rent not be paid, that land with expired leases not be rented until it had lain fallow for three years, and that no one pay or collect tithes demanded by the Anglican Church. Threatening letters were also sent to debt collectors, landlords, and occupants of land gained from eviction, demanding that they give up their farms.
As well as the digging up of ley lands and orchards, they also searched houses for guns, and demanded money in order to purchase guns and defray the expenses of Whiteboys standing trial.
March 1762 saw a further escalation of Whiteboy activities, with marches in military array preceded by the music of bagpipes or the sounding of horns. At Cappoquin they fired guns and marched by the military barracks playing the Jacobite tune "The lad with the white cockade". These processions were often preceded by notices saying that Queen Sive and her children would make a procession through part of her domain and demanded that the townspeople illuminate their houses and provide their horses, ready saddled, for their use. More militant activities often followed such processions with unlit houses in Lismore attacked, prisoners released in an attack on Tallow jail and similar shows of strength in Youghal.
On 2 April 1761 a force of 50 militia men and 40 soldiers set out for Tallow, "where they took (mostly in their beds) eleven Levellers, against whom Information on Oath was given." Other raids took 17 Whiteboys west of Fruff, in County Limerick and by mid April at least 150 suspected Whiteboys had been arrested. Clogheen in County Tipperary bore the initial brunt of this assault as the local parish priest, Fr. Nicholas Sheehy, had earlier spoken out against tithes and collected funds for the defence of parishioners charged with rioting. An unknown numbers of "insurgents" were reported killed in the "pacification exercise" and Fr. Sheehy was unsuccessfully indicted for sedition several times before eventually being found guilty of a charge of accessory to murder, and hanged, drawn and quartered in Clonmel in March 1766.
In the cities, suspected Whiteboy sympathisers were arrested and in Cork loyal citizens formed an association of about 2,000 strong which offered rewards of £300 for capture of the chief Whiteboy and £50 for the first five sub-chiefs arrested and often accompanied the military on their rampages. The leading Catholics in Cork also offered similar rewards of £200 and £40 respectively.
However, Lord Halifax was soon expressing concern that the repression was going too far: "so many People are directly or indirectly concerned in these illegal Practices and so many have been seized on Information or Suspicion, that in several Places, the Majority of the Inhabitants have been struck with the utmost Consternation, and have fled to the Mountains, insomuch that at this Season, from the almost general Flight of the labouring Hands, a Famine is, not without Reason, apprehended.". Similarly, the Dublin Journal reported at the same time that the south east part of Tipperary "is almost waste, and the Houses of many locked up, or inhabited by Women and old Men only; such has been the Terror the Approach of the Light Dragoons has thrown them into."
In the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion agrarian agitation swept Munster.
In 1822 a group of about fifty attacked the house of a Mr. Bolster near Athlacca, where they damaged the house, broke the windows, and took his musket.
In Thomas Flanagan's novel The Year of the French, the "Whiteboys of Killala" are referenced many times. Many of the Whiteboys are central characters within the story. Led by Malachi Duggan, the Whiteboys attempt to reverse their oppressed state through guerrilla acts in County Mayo. Following the landing of a French force under Humbert in 1798, some local Whiteboys join the rebellion against the British and fought alongside United Irishmen and French soldiers.
- Hearts of Oak (Ireland)
- Peep O'Day Boys
- Molly Maguires (Irish-American rural unrest)
- Black Donnellys (Irish-Canadian family entangled in a feud with American Whiteboys)
- Cusack, Margaret Anne. "Whiteboys", An Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868
- Joyce, P.W., "Irish Secret Societies (1760-1762)", A Concise History of Ireland
- Feeley, Pat. "Whiteboys and Ribbonmen", City of Limerick Public Library
- Musgrave, Richard. Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland,vol. 1, R. Marchbank, 1802
- Flanagan, Thomas. The Year of the French
- Beames, Michael. Peasants and power: the Whiteboy movements and their control in pre-Famine Ireland (Harvester Press, 1983)
- Christianson, Gale E. "Secret Societies and Agrarian Violence in Ireland, 1790-1840." Agricultural History (1972): 369-384. in JSTOR
- Donnelly, James S. "The Whiteboy movement, 1761-5." Irish Historical Studies (1978): 20-54. in JSTOR
- Kenney, Kevin (1998). Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. Oxford University Press. p. 13. ISBN 0-19-511631-3.
- Lecky, William Edward Hartpole. History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (6 vol. 1892)
- Richardson, W. Augustus (1979). "Levellers in their White Uniforms;" Whiteboyism in southern Ireland, 1760–1790. University of Essex, MA Thesis Social History. p. 151.
- Thuente, Mary Helen. "Violence in Pre-Famine Ireland: The Testimony of Irish Folklore and Fiction." Irish University Review (1985): 129-147. in JSTOR