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Secret Societies in Clare

The loss of land ownership by the Catholic Irish, as a result of the plantations and wars of the 17th century, spawned rural secret societies such as the 'Tories' and 'Rapparies' across the country. Mostly dispossessed landowners, these outlaws of the hills waged a largely ineffective war against the new landed gentry and were gradually hunted into oblivion. The 1760's saw a resurgence of peasant resistance in Munster. Gangs of small farmers and labourers who wore white shirts as identification in the dark, became known as 'Whiteboys'.

As common lands were enclosed and evictions increased, nightly attacks on cattle, land and property became common. Secret Society weapons consisted of farm implements and the occasional stolen firearm. The tactics used by the Whiteboys included the sending of threatening letters, digging up pasture land, mutilating livestock, burning estate property, intimidating landlords and assaulting stewards. Occasionally they resorted to murder. The 'Whiteboy Acts' legislated severely against nocturnal crimes. Convictions for the above offences often resulted in death by hanging, or transportation to Australia for terms of between seven years and life.

By the 1830's, secret agrarian societies in the style of the Whiteboys again came into prominence. Increased bitterness towards tithes and rackrent, alongside poor harvests and a fall in the price of cereals, brought about their re-establishment. In County Clare two groups figured prominently; 'Lady Clare's Boys', who wore women's clothes for disguise, and the 'Terry Alts', reputedly named after a shoemaker from Corofin.

Their main aims were the reduction of rents, undisturbed occupation of holdings by tenants and increased wages for labourers. Their tactics were similar to those of their Whiteboy predecessors, and they enjoyed the popular support of peasants and working people.

A Special Commission was established on May 13th, 1831 to investigate and try 'Whiteboy' style offences in some western counties, including Clare. The Commission and its judges, the Honourable Justices Moore and Jebb, sat for a total of thirteen days in Ennis investigating agrarian crimes committed in the county. A total of 111 male prisoners were brought before the court and of this number only 10 were acquitted. Of those convicted, 6 were sent to the gallows, some were imprisoned in Ireland and the majority were transported for life, "perpetual banishment from their native land".

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