The Histories of 8 Families

Defenderism in Leitrim during the 1790's (1st Half)


Rev. Liam Kelly

Co Leitrim Password: Elishimorta

The following is taken as exerpts from a marvalous book called "Leitrim and the Croppies" by Gerard MacAtasney, 1998, published by Carrick-on-the-Shannon & District Historical Society, Carrick-on-the-Shannon, Co Leitrim.

Cropies were what the local Catholics in Co Leitrim were called if they took an active part in the rebellion of 1798 or joined the "Defenders" to help the French in the invasion and fight the British.

The French invasion took place right in the middle of Co Leitrim and their army marched pass the area where many of our ancestors lived.

For a week during this turblent time there was a new country called the "Republic of Connaght". It's demise along with the hopes of a free Ireland came to an end when the British army of 40,000 captured the French force of 5,000.

More on the era of "Defenderism".

Here are notations as where our four families were mentioned. The Beirne / Bryne / O'Beirne is the one most often mentioned.

This is the time of great Irish heros, Wolf Tone being the most prominent and well known. The book is a great read and I recommend that you buy it as soon as you can.

Below are the ancestors that took the oath of allegiance to the British corwn as part of the Releif Act which was the first step in blunting the infamous Penal Laws. While part of the oath was decidedly against the Pope, it was not condemed by the Catholic Church so many Catholics took the oath. The first man to do so from Co Leitrim was Miles Keon, a merchant in Dublin.

Name		   Occupation	   Area		   Date of Oath

Hugh Beirne        Merchant	   Carrick	   April 5, 1779
John Beirne        Distiller	   Jamestown	   April 5, 1779
Hugh O'Beirne      Merchant        Carrick	   April 5, 1779

A Hugh O'Beirne from Jamestown was a very prominent local Catholic. Perhaps related to John Beirne above. Before the Releif Act was passed by the British the only possible social or economic advancement open to Catholics was as a merchant.

The Society of United Irishmen in Belfast and Dublin was the beginnings of the movement leading up to the Revolution of 1798. Hugh O'Beirne of Carrick was one of the most vocal Co Leitrim men to support this early movement.

Hugh O'Beirne with three others oversaw a process in Co Leitrim to gather thousands of signatures on a Declaration to repudiate principals such as the lawfulness of deposing or murdering an excommunicated prince and the possession of any civil jurisdiction by the Pope in British territories.

In the summer of 1792, Belfast hosted a Harper's Festival. A Charles Byrne, age 80 was one of the contestants from Co Leitrim.

Wolf Tone is elected to the Catholic Committee as Secratary about this same time. In November 1792, at a deligate convention in Dublin, Wolf Tone commented: "Met Mr. O'Beirne of Co Leitrim, a sensible man. . . says the common people are up in high spirits and anxious for the event. Bravo! Better to have the peasantry of one county than twenty members of Parliement."

The password used by the "Defenders" in the revolution of 1798 was "Elishimorta". My Latin is rusty...might be "Value Death"?

The Following took the Oath of Allegience in the period, 1780 - 1790.

Name		Area		Occupation	Date of Oath

Hugh McTernan	Sweetwood	Farmer		March 11, 1785
James McTernan	Leonogh		Farmer		March 11, 1785

The followig people from Co Leitrim took the Oath in January 1795

Name			Area			Occupation

Thomas Byrne		Carrigallen		Merchant
John Berne		Carrick			Innkeeper
Michael McTiernan	Strangarvanagh		Farmer
John McTiernan		Sweetwoods		Farmer
Hugh MCTernan		Cherrybrook		Farmer
Foinn McTernan		Gortgarrican		Farmer
James O'Beirne		Carrick			Merchant
John O'Beirne		Jamestown		Gentleman
Hugh O'Beirne		Jamestown		Esq.

The following is a list of those who claimed compensation for the losses suffered during the rebellion. In contemporary literature they are referred to as "suffering loyalist".

Name			Residence	Nature of Loss		Date of Claim

Martin Carney		Drumahaire	Wine and Spirits	Nov 11, 1798
Charles McTernan	Corradee	Apparel			Dec 18, 1798

Mr. O'Brien of Jamestown was listed as landed gentry c. 1798

The now begins Rev. Liam Kelly's paper.

Ulster in the 1780's was, as it is now, a divided and sometimes violent province. Raids on Catholic homes by the Protestant Peep O'Day Boys were frequent. By 1784 the Catholics had responded to these attacks by forming a secret society to protect themselves. They, aptly enough, called themselves "Defenders". Many Catholics fled from Ulster to counties Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo and Roscommon and Defenderism moved south with them. By early 1793 Defenderism was spreading rapidly in Leitrim. Defender Makers moved around, usually in pairs, swearing in most of the peasantry. For each member sworn in they received a shilling. George Nugent Reynolds, the poet and magistrate who lived at Letterfine in Co. Leitrim, had no doubt but that it was outsiders who had caused so many Leitrim men to join the Defenders.

The Defender oath varied from time to time and from place to place. The oath in north Connaught at this time, strangely enough, included a promise to be true to King George and to the rights of his kingdom in Ireland. So the Defenders were not part of the new nationalism advocated by Hamilton Rowan, Wolfe Tone and others at this time. Rather they were concerned with local grievances relating to land, tithes and the formation of a militia. They swore that they must have lands at ten shillings per acre (rent?).

But the work of the Defender makers was easy. The majority joined voluntarily. Their plight was desperate. They had little to lose. The labourers and small tenant farmers of Leitrim had many grievances. The majority of them lived in extreme poverty. The labourer was poorly paid and work was scarce. The labourer could expect at best sixpence and at worst fourpence a day for his work. Yet he had to pay eight pence if he wished to buy a pound of soap. The ground they rented was too dear and they had to pay a tithe to the Established Church of England. The tithe, they felt, was exorbitant and unjust since they did not belong to that Church. Their anger was aimed not so much at the ministers of the Established Church, since many of them were absentees, rather it was aimed at the tithe proctors who most times needed an armed guard as they went about their work.

The priests of the Catholic church were not very popular either. They too charged exorbitant dues from a people who were already desperate. There were mass dues, marriage dues, baptism dues, and occasionally dues for attendance at funerals to be paid. But worst of all it was widely believed that the priests, like some of the Catholic gentry, supported the new proposals for the setting up of a militia, and that they would help draw up lists for enrolement.

Many priests were threatened and near Athlone a priest was strung up by his parishioners and nearly hung to death for preaching to them the necessity of submission to the Militia Act. The doors of many chapels were boarded up and the priests were expelled and threatened with instant death if they returned. Leitrim was no exception. A local named, Mrs. Slacke wrote in her Diary on 19 May 1793 "we hear of great disturbances. The priests are threatened by their own parishioners".

There were some who felt that the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 contributed to the discontent too. Some of the Protestant gentry felt that the peasantry interpreted the Act as a sign of weakness and that having got a little they expected more. Others felt that the Act seemed to promise much but in reality made little difference to the poorer Catholics. It only served to aggravate the situation and highlight a host of other inequalities.

The weather too was a factor. 1793 was a very bad year with a particularly wet summer. Having paid too much for land many saw their crops destroyed and this made an already desperate people even more desperate. But their greatest grievance of all was the proposed setting up of a militia. And while this was not their only grievance we must attribute the timing of the disturbances which took place in Leitrim in the first half of 1793 to the fierce and determined opposition of the poor to the setting up of a militia. Thomas Bartlett, in an excellent article on these disturbances, is so convinced of the primacy of the militia in causing these disturbances that he calls them "The Irish Militia Disturbances".

The militia was to be raised by a peculiar form of conscription called balloting. It was to be officered by Protestant gentry but the majority were to be taken from the 'lower orders'. According to Lord Hillsborough's calculations Leitrim would have to raise almost three hundred men for the militia. It was widely believed and greatly feared that men would be torn away from their wives and children, made into soldiers and transported to the continent to fight England's wars for her. It matters little whether these fears were well to fight English Wars. And it was these fears, more than anything else, which prompted people to take the Defender oath, assemble in such large numbers and even engage in violent acts against the military.

But not everyone interpreted the new Militia Act in this way. George Nugent Reynolds, who was head of one of the most influential families in Leitrim county, saw the setting up of a militia as a necessary and good thing. And he felt that the Defenders were playing on the people's fears which he believed were based on misconceptions. Reynolds stated: "Listen to me, listen to the other gentlemen of the county who have too great an interest in your welfare to ruin you. The brave M'Artins of Ballinamore have often assured me of their attachment, so have the Morans of Drumshanbo, so have the Mulveys. In short I am the friend of you all, and when I forget you may God forget me."

Reynolds, being a magistrate, wanted to uphold the law and preserve order. Yet he was always sympathetic to the poor. He was nominally a Protestant but was not regarded by the neighbouring Protestant gentry as being one. The 1790's was a difficult time for the young Reynolds because he was trying to maintain a middle-ground in a time of great upheaval when the majority of people held extreme positions on one side or the other. Reynolds was later dismissed from his position as magistrate by Lord Clare.

But the common people of the county Leitrim were in no mood for listening to George Nugent Reynolds or indeed anyone else either. Huge crowds gathered outside the chapels on the first Sundays of May (1793). By Whit Sunday, 18 May, the crowds were vast and it was obvious there was going to be trouble. And yet they carried a white flag which they said was an emblem of peace and a red one to show their loyalty to the English King.

And exactly a week later Lieut. Col. Craddock, writing from Carrick on Shannon, reported that "the whole (populace) of Leitrim were in avowed insurrection".

The insurgents at first confined their activities to raiding the big houses for arms. The Times reported that the Defenders attacked the house of "the Right Hon. Joshua Cooper of Mereury. which they plundered of arms and ammunition and drank the wines and other liquors. They behaved in like manner in the house of Captain Ormsby of Castledangan, Mr. Tennison of Coalville. Mr. Johnson of Adderfold in the county of Leitrim, and also his son and Capt. Carter of Drumlease". Mr. Tennison's house was burned to the ground and the Church of Kilronan was destroyed too. At Annadale Mrs Slacke and her family lived in fear of an attack, "we know not if they will visit us this night or not" she wrote on the 21 May, but twelve days later she could write with relief, "He (God) has kept my habitation in peace and my family in safety".

Now that the insurgents had some arms they became more daring. One of their first acts in Leitrim was an attempt to liberate the prisoners who were held in Carrick jail. Mrs Slacke captures the mood of the time very well".

Captain Douglass ordered the drum to beat to arms, the distress of all was incredible, especially women and children whose anguish was beyond description.

Their distress was understandable. A large group of Defenders marched towards Carrick on Shannon. They were overtaken by a troop of the 9th Dragoons under Captain Hall. The Defenders were surrounded, nine or ten of them were killed and one hundred and fifteen were taken prisoner, and virtually all of them were disarmed. None of the Dragoons were injured but the trumpeter's horse was killed. Yet the insurgents were still intent on freeing the prisoners and some of the gentlemen in the surrounding area requested that they be freed "as the mob have sworn they will not desist until that be done".

The Manorhamilton area was particularly disturbed. A party of Dragoons going from Enniskillen to Manorhamilton caught up with a group of insurgents who fled into the bogs. Ten of them were captured and lodged in jail in Manorhamilton. It was reported that a mob of nearly 5,000 entered that town, plundered the inhabitants of their arms and committed several other excesses.

On 26 May 1793, Captain John Gray, at the head of his 41st regiment consisting of two sergeants and thirty five rank and file, left Carrick on Shannon to march to Manorhamilton so that he might restore order there. They left Drumkeerin at a quarter past five in the evening and about a mile outside the town met a large number of Defenders, some in the fields on either side and others on the road. They were led by two respectable looking gentlemen on horseback. Captain Gray, writing from Manorhamilton the following day had this to say".

As I had no magistrate with me I did not wish to fire upon them, and as they inclined on each side of the road as if they meant to let me pass, and the men on horseback repeatedly assuring me that they would not interfere, I ordered the men to march I had hardly given the word when they rushed in upon me and a desperate conflict ensued, which lasted for about ten minutes, and had we not all been actuated by the determined resolution to die or conquer, we must have been all cut to pieces. I had the misfortune to have Sergent England (a gallant old soldier) very desperately wounded and one corporal and six privates, most of them severely so, nine or ten of the villains lay dead at our feet at the time we disengaged ourselves.

One of the dead was a Mr. Ormsby who was forced to march with the Defenders and used as a shield. This was a common tactic used by the insurgents. Ormsby was most likely one of the Ormsby family who lived at Castledangan, Co. Sligo. Their house had been raided a few days previously.

Mrs. Slacke wrote that the "misguided mob" who attacked Gray and his men were armed with uncommon weapons, such as scythes fastened on poles, large hammers tied on walking sticks, reaping hooks nailed on long handles and forks made purposely long and close in the prongs, guns, blunderbusses, some swords and many stones enclosed in pieces of strong linen suspended to large piece of branches.

This motley collection of weapons is one clue as to why the insurgents, who were vastly superior in numbers, were defeated. The Defenders in Leitrim at this time, and indeed later too, had huge numbers to boast of but little else. They lacked the ingredients necessary for success in battle-good leadership, discipline, order, tactical know-how and the experience of being under fire. They were numerically superior and usually fought with passion but to be successful they needed much more. Their weaponry was outdated and very often the guns they had were of little use to them, either because they had become damp and rusted by being hidden out of doors or because they did not know how to use them.

One man taken prisoner after the battle near Drumkeerin admitted that he leveled a blunderbuss and snapped it eight or ten times at Gray's head but it failed to go off. So it is not surprising that in the majority of skirmishes between the military and the Defenders in Leitrim the latter were, despite their numerical superiority, defeated.

Gray and his men reached Manorhamilton but had to leave all their baggage behind. Captain Vandeleur and a troop of the 8th Dragoons scoured the countryside that night in a follow-up operation and reported that in almost every house they went into they found bloody clothes and men dead or dying. Many were arrested and the indications are that the soldiers were over zealous in their mop-up operation because the final death toll was between twenty and thirty.

Captain Gray expressed the hope that this business would have a good effect on the people and that order would be restored. He had his wish. The killings, arrests, and subsequent transportation of some prisoners to the fleet had a sobering effect on the minds of the Defenders the military and magistrates seldom let considerations of justice deter them from teaching the insurgents a lesson. Hangings, floggings and transportations were commonplace. The prisoners held in Carrick on Shannon were so alarmed and afraid that they offered to join the fleet rather than stand trial. People were terrified and this terror brought with it an uneasy peace.

The peasantry, having suffered much, were now more amenable and ready to listen to the assurances of George Nugent Reynolds and others regarding the militia. The proposed ballot system of raising the militia was quietly dropped and the Leitrim militia was raised from volunteers and substitutes. Mrs Slacke wrote in her Diary on 2 June, 1793 "all things seem quiet in this neighbourhood". There had been several weeks of turmoil throughout much of the county but it was now over. This quiet continued without any major disruptions for the remainder of that year and throughout 1794 too. But it was a false quiet. There were still many grievances and much anger. Defenderism was not gone. It was smouldering away just beneath the surface.

There had been isolated acts of violence during the latter half of 1793 and all of 1794, but it was not until the spring of 1795 that the Defenders began to gather in large numbers again in Leitrim county. Sir E. Newhham, writing from Carrick on Shannon. reported that by the middle of March (1795) Defenders were meeting at night, exercising with fife and drum and administering unlawful oaths and committing outrages throughout much of the county. "They generally used the local chapel as their meeting place. Each parish had a drill sergeant and it was said that they had plenty of money Mrs. Slacke described the Defender meetings in Kiltubrid".

They gather in multitudes around us every night, with pipers and fifes they parade on the road from our avenue to Lanty Slacke's bridge, their place of consultation is the Mass-house . . . what they mean is yet a secret.

Obviously the drill sergeants were trying to impose some kind of military order and discipline on the Defenders, but they failed miserably. Defenderism in action was usually marked by disorder and chaos.

The militia was no longer an issue for the Defenders in 1795 but poverty, certainly was. The peasantry still lived in extreme poverty and they saw tithes, dues, low wages and high rents as the chief causes of their poverty. Mrs. Slacke admitted that "the papists were in her mind too much oppressed".

Go to the 2nd half of Defenderism

Michael McTiernan

N40 03' 09.4"
W75 24' 14.1"


Last updated 5/14/96 MPM

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