Agrarian Rebels, Secret Societies and Defenders, 1761–91

Part of the Studies in Modern History book series (SMH)


Shortly after Earl Fitzwilliam took up office as lord lieutenant in 1795, he was shocked to discover that the Defenders, a militant catholic secret society, were appearing every night in arms in county Meath. He had never, he remarked, heard of such a thing in Northamptonshire.1 His exasperation now seems almost comic, his ignorance of Irish realities lamentable. Yet the contrast between Meath and Northamptonshire is an instructive one. Although eighteenth-century England (and Scotland) witnessed their share of agrarian unrest, food riots and political agitation, they furnish no example of lower-class secret societies engaged in sustained, systematic campaigns of violence and intimidation. It is a significant contrast too, because, as Charles Tilly has pointed out, ‘the nature of a society’s collective violence speaks volumes about that society’2 Whatever it might say to us, the persistence of collective violence in eighteenth-century Ireland certainly raises questions about the image and structures of that society. An examination of the forms of popular protest should therefore provide insights into the general political and social history of the period. More directly, some understanding of these forms is essential background to any discussion of popular politics in the 1790s, particularly to any discussion of Defenderism — the prime expression of lower-class disaffection during that decade.


Secret Society Protest Movement Volunteer Corps Collective Violence Civil Authority 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Jim Smyth 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Notre DameUSA

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