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Rory of the Hill

Kerron Ó Luain
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…

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