Ribbon Societies in Nineteenth-Century Ireland and its Diaspora: the Persistence of Tradition, by Kyle Hughes and Donald M MacRaild, Liverpool University Press, 360 pp, €100, ISBN: 978-1786941350
“They say you’re after a ranger who’s taken up with the Ribbonmen?” These words, spoken by a fictional British army lieutenant in last year’s film Black ’47, introduced the Irish cinema-going public, albeit briefly, to the shadowy nineteenth century movement known as Ribbonism. The earliest record of the secretive Ribbon societies dates from Ulster in 1810. Ribbonism’s origins in the Northern province, however, are located at an earlier point, in the Defender networks of the late eighteenth century. Defenderism emerged in Co Armagh from the 1780s in a climate of sectarian attacks on lower class Catholics by Protestant groups styling themselves Peep O’Day Boys – forerunners of the Orange Order.
In the wake of the 1798 rebellion, Defenderism evolved into the Ribbon societies, whose members often clashed with Orangemen on the Twelfth. Ribbonmen also held their own processions on St Patrick’s Day (March 15th) and Lady Day (August 15th), where they donned green attire and played marching tunes. By 1814, The Orthodox Journal and Catholic Monthly Intelligencer could report how nothing displayed “more strongly the ill effects of Orangemen than the wonderful and rapid diffusion of the Ribbon Association of the North”.
Nevertheless, the Ribbonmen were not mere “green-Orangemen” as they are sometimes mischaracterised. Nor were they transitory rural vigilantes who largely confined their activities to striking at landlords and others who transgressed the unwritten agrarian code and who faded away soon after. As an anonymous correspondent from Belfast, who wrote to Dublin Castle in 1811, noted, “Ribbonmen” was a “new name for U[nited] Irishmen”. Owing to this political pedigree and to its Catholic fraternal nature, Ribbonism was more resourceful and endured – as a tradition – for a longer span than any other Irish secret society during the nineteenth century. Due to their strictly Catholic and conspiratorial composition, the very existence of Ribbon societies played constantly on the minds of British officials and much of Protestant Ireland. As Kyle Hughes and Don MacRaild argue in this absorbing new study of the movement, “Irish Ribbonism was the terror threat of its day, and the hysteria surrounding it was redolent of modern moral panics”.
Tom Garvin, professor emeritus at UCD, first delineated the operations of the shadowy Ribbon networks in Ireland in the 1980s. Jennifer Kelly added a great deal to the literature in the 2000s, with a specific focus on the northwestern counties of Leitrim and Sligo – counties which also saw their fair share of Orange/Green clashes during the nineteenth century. However, Ribbon Societies is the first book-length interrogation of the movement in Ireland as a whole, while it also sheds plenty of new light on Ribbonism among the diaspora. Though the study details the activities of this secret society tradition over a roughly seventy-year period (c1810-1880), it as much about “the power of imagination in shaping popular fears” as about the intricacies and worldview(s) of the Ribbonmen.
Like its Fenian relation, Ribbonism was to be associated with an array of seditious and daring activities. A quarter-century before IRB chief James Stephens escaped from Richmond Gaol in 1865, Ribbon leader Richard Jones conducted an audacious breakout from Newgate Gaol, Dublin, in March 1840. Jones filed through the bars of his cell, and then, in broad daylight and with the aid of a rope, descended a forty-foot wall into the street below. Several years previously, in 1836, Jones had been suspected by police in Dublin of blowing up the statue of King William III on College Green. Hughes and MacRaild make a compelling case for Ribbonism having posed, “through Catholic devotion, practice, and social agency”, a greater existential threat to the British state in Ireland than that posed by either the Young Ireland-led Irish Confederates, or their successors the IRB, during the nineteenth century.
Despite posing such a threat, Ribbonism’s day-to-day activities were, in reality, based on economic protectionism for the Catholic lower class. The movement’s adaptability set it apart from rural redresser groups such as the Whiteboys and its membership encompassed a wide occupational range drawn from lower class Catholics. Labourers, dockers, agricultural workers and small farmers were all well-represented among the rank and file. Lower middle class publicans, clerks, road contractors, small-time provisions dealers and farmers tended to occupy the loftier positions in the Ribbon hierarchy.
As with Fenianism, the traction of which among post-Famine Irish émigrés in the US is well-documented, Ribbonism was transnational in scope. The industrial and commercial hubs of northern England and southern Scotland, in particular, were hotbeds of Ribbon activity. Henry John Brownrigg, deputy-inspector of police in Ireland, noted in 1852 that the Ribbon societies had “branches in Liverpool, Glasgow and Manchester, while delegates from these towns, and from several districts in Ireland, meet periodically at their head-quarters to transact the business of the body [and] to agree upon and disseminate the passwords, signs &c.”
Ribbonism also offered fugitives on the run from police in Ireland safe havens, while sophisticated “tramping” systems, which provided employment and accommodation, operated through its networks for the benefit of the societies’ members. A “tramping card”, effectively the passport of the Ribbon networks, found on Patrick McGreevy in Roscommon in 1853, and entitled “divine precepts”, contained Catholic religious motifs and implored its bearer to practice mutual aid:
Let the love of brotherhood abide in you, and forget not hospitality. Above all things have mutual charity among yourselves.
The Ribbon passwords mentioned by Brownrigg were written by literate members and distributed down through the ranks. These conferred preferential treatment in trade and protection upon Ribbonmen at local fairs and markets. The passwords also alluded to economic and political affairs, especially the subordinate position of Catholics, as the following words found in Slane, Co Meath, in 1853 during the Crimean War years, demonstrate:
The markets appear to rise,
What is the cause?
There is an appearance of war
I hope it will be much better
My cause, as Moses of old did, [Israelites] free,
May Napoleon of France give us liberty
A monetary subscription was often required to attain these tracts, and accusations of corruption arose from time to time. In Sligo, in 1853, Michael “Captain” Conlon, a Ribbon lodge master, attempted to coerce Thomas McGarry into joining a Ribbon society by having him pay a shilling and telling him he could not leave the house in which they were drinking “until you treat me”. An indication of how far Ribbon-style passwords had entered the wider culture is given by their use in the early twentieth century in James Joyce’s Ulysses, where “the Citizen” – thought to be a caricature of Michael Cusack – deploys them during a scene when the main protagonist, Bloom, and others are gathered in a public house:
Then he rubs his hand in his eye and says he:
—What’s your opinion of the times?
Doing the rapparee and Rory of the hill.
But, begob, Joe was equal to the occasion.
—I think the markets are on a rise, says he, sliding his hand down his fork.
So begob the Citizen claps his paw on his knee and he says:
—Foreign wars is the cause of it.
And says Joe, sticking his thumb in his pocket:
—It’s the Russians wish to tyrannise.
Though Ribbonmen shared a common Catholic nationalist and anti-Orange ideology, as often visible in their passwords, the Ribbon movement was multifarious and could be turned to different ends. In Ulster it might act as a physical deterrent to Orangeism, in Dublin as a violent and primitive trades union for dock workers. In the capital these Ribbonmen dubbed themselves, among other names, Billy Welters. During the 1830s, members of the Billy Welters boasted some colourful nicknames reminiscent of Dublin’s street and slang culture down to more recent times – “Peter the Gatch”, “Paddy-Go-Mad”, and “Ragged Paddy”. As Hughes and MacRaild contend, “it is the penetration of urban, industrial, and commercial workplaces – rather than villages and farms – that makes Ribbonism an interesting and important test bed for the mutative qualities of Irish secret societies”.
Yet, the Ribbonmen were still a force to be reckoned with in rural areas, especially along the canal ways of Leinster in Kildare and Westmeath, and in Donegal and South Armagh – in the latter gaining the local monikers “Bogmen” and “Rednecks”. James Connolly wrote in later years that Ribbonism was “in effect a secret agricultural trades union of labourers and cottier farmers”, and Ribbonmen often used violence in the regulation of land and wages in rural districts, almost always for the benefit of their own members rather than the peasantry as a whole. Indeed, in 1878, Ribbonmen were thought to have been involved in the assassination of one of the nineteenth century’s more infamous landlords, Lord Leitrim, of Co Donegal. The authors, however, stress that Ribbonism differed from the agrarian-focused combinations which cropped up intermittently, and the “Ribbon societies sit both within and without the long history of agrarian protest in Ireland”.
If, as Hughes and MacRaild argue, Ribbonism was viewed by officialdom as more dangerous than Fenianism, and if Ribbonmen became involved in all manner of rural and urban illegality, then why are the movement and its adherents still largely relegated to the shadows of our understanding today?
Simply put, the Ribbonmen did not rise up like the Young Irelanders in 1848 or the Fenians in 1867. Though the movement survived as a spectre that haunted officialdom for decades, Ribbonism enjoyed its “revolutionary moment” in the 1820s and the authors consider its potential to stage a revolt in Ireland alongside the Derbyshire Rising of 1816 and the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. As they affirm, “the Dublin Ribbonmen were well aware of the political turmoil in England; indeed, they hoped to capitalize on it and make common cause with radicals at some future unspecified date”.
But the predominantly lower class Ribbonmen too often looked to their social “betters” for leadership, especially to Daniel O’Connell. In the pre-Famine era, Ribbonmen congregated in pubs, many of them owned by Ribbon masters, and talked of how “King Dan” would shortly give the order for a collective Catholic rising. The conservativism of many Ribbonmen, the paranoia among their ranks over spies and informants, as well as their factional nature, meant that they never made resolute moves towards rebellion and instead prevaricated. Michael Keenan, a key Dublin Ribbonman during the 1820s, told his compatriots “not to speak anything treasonable or about arms until it was seen whether the Roman Catholic Bill passes”. The Ribbonmen did not rise in the wake of Catholic “Emancipation” in 1829.
In fact, during the post-Famine years, they adopted an almost counter-revolutionary position. This, coupled with local territorial rivalries, brought them into heated conflict with the IRB, particularly along the Ulster borderlands. In November 1866, as the Fenians encroached onto Ribbon territory in Ulster, a Ribbonman named John B O’Reilly, a schoolteacher in Virginia, Co Cavan, wrote to the lord lieutenant “to offer my services to get up an anti-Fenian society in this country”. Later, in places such as South Armagh and North Louth in the late 1860s and early 1870s, Fenians clashed with Ribbonmen, leading to bloodshed and death.
Ribbonism later evolved into the better known Ancient Order of Hibernians during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Under the stewardship of “Wee” Joe Devlin MP, and national secretary JD Nugent, Hibernianism formed an alliance with the Catholic church (which had constantly opposed Ribbonism) and discarded most of its shadowy baggage. Yet the rivalry with republicans continued into the years of the Irish Revolution. In March 1911, Connolly wrote in the radical Glasgow-based publication Forward of how the AOH
Supposed to be the Ancient Order of Hibernians, but by some believed to be the Ancient Order of Hooligans, has spread like an ulcer throughout Ireland, carrying social and religious terrorism with it into quarters hitherto noted for their broad-mindedness and discernment.
Two years later, Hibernianism, which was split into Board of Erin (BOE) and Irish American Alliance (IAA) factions, featured strongly during the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913. The BOE took the side of the employers. At the height of the dispute in August that year, “Big” Jim Larkin’s newspaper, the Irish Worker, alleged that JD Nugent, along with a number of employers including the infamous William Martin Murphy, organised scab labour for the trams. It also claimed that batons had been transported to the BOE headquarters on Rutland Square, as “all the Brudders are to be sworn in as special constables”.
Later, in October, the BOE published a leaflet, distributed among their members, entitled “Warning to the Workers”. It provided a rare and significant insight into the mentality of the BOE in relation to strikes and left-wing activity. The leaflet cautioned Hibernians about the impending dangers of socialism, stating that though Irish Catholics would not tolerate the ideology as it existed on the continent the BOE believed the “insidious infidel spirit” had burrowed beneath the surface during the course of the Lockout and gained a foothold among Irish workers. The leaflet distinguished between what it called “social reform”, or regulating “trade relations” between employers and employee, and socialism, which it believed was “calculated to upset all conditions of labour and make the position of employers impossible”.
Also in October 1913, Dora Montefiore, a socialist-feminist activist, organised a children’s holiday scheme to alleviate some of the burden on Dublin families during the Lockout and to show that the employers’ strategy consisted of starving the children of workers. But the backlash against the scheme from Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin and the BOE Hibernians, who alleged that the children would be proselytised in England, was decisive. Mobs of Hibernians and supporters of the clergy, led by the priests, prevented the children from leaving the city by seizing control of railway stations and questioning adults and children at the entrances as to their movements.
Hibernianism by this stage of its development however was a global movement which manifested in Britain, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, and accommodated a variety of Irish nationalist opinion. During the course of the Lockout, London-based Hibernians assisted, along with a number of Irish sporting and literary societies, the GAA, and the Gaelic League, in organising a fund “for the relief of distress in Dublin”. Meanwhile, following Bloody Sunday in August, when the Dublin Metropolitan Police baton-charged the striking workers, the AOH IAA Cork Division passed a resolution condemning the “savage and cruel use made by the British Government in Ireland of the Dublin and Royal Irish Constabulary to prevent the freedom of the speech of the people of Ireland”. The militant wing of the IAA, known as the Hibernian Rifles, had many ITGWU members within their ranks and they maintained close ties with Connolly’s Citizen’s Army in the years leading up to the 1916 Rising.
However, the majority of Hibernians, as most Ribbonmen before them, never took up arms against the British state – that job was left to republicans. Instead, as Hughes and MacRaild point out, Ribbonmen utilised what James C Scott, in his analysis of the Malaysian peasantry, termed the “weapons of the weak”. Here, according to the authors, “cultural resistance” manifested through “defiance of authority, and could encompass secrecy, anonymity, disguise, non-cooperation, and coded language”. Ultimately, though not an insurrectionary movement, “the continued existence of Ribbon societies, as conduits of Catholic discontent and popular nationalist symbolism” through a large span of the nineteenth century attested to how “Ireland was never fully reconciled to the Union”.
This study has added substantially to our knowledge of Ribbonism and to our comprehension of popular Catholic mentalities during the nineteenth century. It joins other titles in recent years, such as Vincent Morley’s The Popular Mind in Eighteenth-century Ireland and Breandán Mac Suibhne’s The End of Outrage: Post-Famine Adjustment in Rural Ireland in offering a corrective balance to an orthodoxy which has existed in historiography for some time – one which sought to downplay the nationalist sentiment of the Catholic labourer, small farmer and lower middle class and portray them as submissively accepting of conquest, the land system, and the Acts of Union 1800.
By examining periods of limited political mobilisation we can begin to answer questions about the psychological and cultural origins of the “great” movements of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Land War of 1879-82 and the Irish Revolution of 1913-23 did not emerge in a vacuum. Although the former owed its immediate origins to the societal and political shifts of the 1870s and the latter to the Gaelic and literary cultural revolution of the 1890s, both were constructed on top of a pre-existing continuity of disaffection that stretched back decades – a nationalism that persisted even in those “in between” phases of Irish history such as the 1810s or the 1850s. Above all, Hughes and MacRaild’s study on Ribbonism is to be commended for recalibrating our gaze towards these too often neglected decades, and years, and the lower class voices which filled them.
Kerron Ó Luain is an historian, Irish-language Fulbright Scholar at Villanova University, Pennsylvania and activist with the organisation Misneach. His next peer-reviewed publication, which addresses the interrelationship between the Tenant League and agrarian violence on the Ulster borderlands from 1849 to 1852, was due to appear in Irish Historical Studies in May.