In the late eighteenth century, Ireland was a pre-industrial society where the primary means of production – the land – was controlled by the major landowners. The war between England and France (1756-’63) had inflated the price of pastoral goods and consequently, of land. The landlords of Munster and Leinster saw in this an opportunity to consolidate larger farms by enclosing common lands where smaller tenants had held grazing or turf cutting rights.
The opposition thus aroused led to the formation of secret groups who would rendezvous at night and, dressed in coarse white linen would march to the sound of hunting horns or trumpets to the homes of offending landlords. These “Whiteboys”, as they were called, used intimidation as their main weapon but they also resorted to burning houses, houghing cattle, burying men naked in holes lined with thorns and other forms of violence.
In organising opposition to the Whilteboys the gentry played on Government fears of a Catholic conspiracy or a plot for a French invasion. They obtained finance to arm and train independent companies. The Catholic landlord of Ballyragget, Mr. Robert Butler, incurred the wrath of the Whiteboys by attempting to enclose local common land. His efforts to suppress them were so unsuccessful that he was forced to flee the country and seek safety in England.
In his absence his brother, Most Rev. Dr. Butler, Archbishop of Cashel, through the parish priest of Ballyragget, succeeded in forming an anti-Whiteboy League. Government aid was sought and obtained through the influence of a Capt. Christopher Heweston of Swiftsheath. Heweston then put the League members – drawn from among the wealthier inhabitants of Ballyragget and the surrounding districts – through a course of military training.
Having been armed and trained, they were eager for action and began seeking out and spying on Whiteboys. They succeeded in raising tension to such a level that an open confrontation between the League and the Whiteboys became inevitable. The first such confrontation took place on or about February 8th, 1775 and resulted in an ignominious rout of Whiteboys. Their pride dented by this defeat, they swore that they would re-group and return to wreak vengeance on the town of Ballyragget.
About midnight on February 21st contingents from Freshford, Durrow, Callan, Gowran and Mooncoin mustered at Fair Green in Rathbeagh. (The site of this Fair Green is just south of the “Finger Post”, on the land of Michael Gorman). It is said that there were about 300 horsemen and a further 200 on foot.
We can imagine the scene as they proceeded through Grange towards the bridge of Ballyragget. They marched behind their leader, Moore from Higginstown, and their banner, a white bag attached to a pole. All but the leader were dressed in white, and many carried lighted sods of turf on sticks.
The Whiteboys proceeded to the Square in Ballyragget and on to Butler House via Moat Street, the Green and Patrick Street. About fourteen men had retreated to Butler House to face the Whiteboy attack. Moore repeatedly called on them to come out and fight and dared them to fire through the windows, calling them cowardly scoundrels.
Eventually he fired through the window himself narrowly missing a Mr. Lalor and a Mr. Stapleton. Six of the defenders returned fire and to such effect that the Whiteboys broke and fled. Their leader tried vainly to rally them and left, brandishing a book and swearing to return a fortnight later and burn down the whole town. It is estimated that ten of the Whiteboys were killed and were carried away by their companions, leaving large amounts of blood along several roads.
Among the dead, were Patrick Butler, Michael Travers and John Buggy, all from Freshford. There is no further record of Whiteboy activity in the area except that Fr. Cahill, the parish priest of Ballyragget, remained very unpopular because of his part in the anti-Whiteboy league. Whether he was under pressure from the local landlord, Robert Butler, who had just built a new chapel and parochial house for the parish, and from his brother, the Archbishop of Cashel or whether he was involved with the League out of conviction will probably never be known.
Footnote: The Archbishop Butler of Cashel, mentioned above, was author, among other things, of the famous “Butler’s Catechism”.