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Social Life in County Clare, 1800-1850

Newspaper accounts of court proceedings can give us some picture of the field of crime and punishment. One feature of court proceedings was the contemptuous and abusive way in which bench and counsel treated the ordinary people before them, earning the parenthesis 'loud and continued laughter' in the reports.

The law officers, of course, were gentry, and it was said that 'the natives appear to have but little idea of the gradations of society: the simplicity of their manners, though not always convenient, is often amusing. The natives of Kilkee are, as it were, emerging from an uncultivated state, and but young in the arts of civilised life.'

Many of the court cases reflect agrarian and sectarian strife. "A man by the name of Charles Callaghan, residing at Mountshannon," we read (Dublin Evening Post, 26th June 1829), was returning from the fair of Tomgreaney, on Saturday last. When passing through the village of Scariff, a number of people were assembled in the streets, and the man, being somewhat inebriated, said that he was an Orangeman. Immediately, a ruffian from the crowd rushed forward, and struck him with a two-handed club over the ear, which fractured his skull, and the poor man instantly expired."

Outrages on men and stock, and burning of houses, were inflicted for the breaking of what the papers freely called the Rockite laws - that is, the laws of the secret societies which forbade the taking of advantage over dispossessed tenants by the grabbing of their lands or the paying of a higher rent demanded by a landlord who had ejected them for failure to pay an increase. A sign of Rockite displeasure was the cutting of a coffin shape in the sod outside the offender's door.

In January 1824 we read: "On Sunday last, the town of Miltown Malbay presented an appearance of more than ordinary bustle and disorder. The detachment of the 25th regiment from Ennistymon, a strong party of horse and foot police, and the Miltown waterguards were arrayed in the streets, and were gazed upon with surprise and sullen displeasure by thousands of the Country People, who were after returning from attending Divine Service at the Chapel in that town. It was understood that an appointment had been made between two powerful factions to decide a quarrel which originated between some 'gorsoons' of each party, respecting a wren, on St Stephen's day, and were it not for the precautionary measures adopted, the consequences would have been dreadful . . . scythe blades and hatchets were affixed to poles and every other deadly weapon that could be had was procured to ensure a victory. Happily, however, the presence of the police and military had the effect of restraining hostilities."

In 1831 the Annual Register reported that "all decent persons, of all opinions, declared that the county was no longer tolerable as a place of residence". The Rockites, Lady Clare Boys, White Boys, Terry Alts, the agrarian secret societies at large were armed and embattled against the landlords and the forces of law and order. The Terry Alts had gone so far as to challenge the king's troops to battle at Lissavaun, near Ballyvaughan. Tithes, rising rents and clearances of agricultural land for grazing were the main causes for discontent.

(Irish University Review, - Alf MacLochlainn, Vol. 2. No. 1, 1972)

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