Defenderism in Co Leitrim in the 1790's (2nd half)

Defenderism in Co Leitrim in the 1790's (2nd half)


Rev. Liam Kelly

She was a devout and enthusiastic Methodist, but like many of the early Methodists she continued to attend the services of the Established Church. She wrote on the 16 March, 1795 that:

"The common people are very much burdened to support Bishops and Rectors in luxury, nor do I think it just that they should be oppressed for clergy whom they receive no benefit from either in public or in private. Almost every person in this parish (Kiltubrid) have declared that they will not pay any more tythes, and that they will not oppose the proctors when they take up pledges for the same, but would let their cattle go to pound peacefully, and when the day of sale comes they will murder any who may buy or attempt to buy any of them. They have given notice of their intention by putting up papers on the Church and Chapel doors . . We have intelligence that the generality of the Romans have made the same declaration in the County Cavan and County Monaghan.

According to Rev. Henderson, who was based in Carrick, these notices posted on the Church doors also stated that they would lower the dues they paid to the priests. Some of the notices showed the influence of Tom Paine's "The Rights of Man" and of revolutionary France too. One such poster read "All men were born equal, we will have no King but the Almighty". So the Defenders of 1793 were less hostile to the King than their 1795 counterparts. But the majority of the peasants were concerned with more practical issues like money and food. A Roscommon Defender, at an after-mass meeting, said, "we have lived long enough upon potatoes and salt, it is our turn now to eat beef and mutton".

But much of the anger of the Defenders was aimed at the landlords who charged such high rents and paid such low wages. The nightly marching, accompanied by so much noise, was intended to frighten them. Their houses and property were attacked and most landlords had cattle houghed. All this appears to have been effective and while we have no information regarding the situation in Leitrim we do know that in the neighbouring county of Roscommon the "gentlemen" made many concessions to the Defenders. They agreed that no landlord would take more that four guineas per acre of corn, three for wheat and two for an acre of potatoes. They also agreed that they would pay eight pence per day in Summer and sixpence in winter for labour.

The Defender oaths and catechisms in 1795 were somewhat different than the 1793 ones. There was evidence of a greater influence from France and also that the new ideas of nationalism in Ireland seemed to be creeping into Defenderism. Consequently the 1795 oaths were less parochial than the 1793 ones. The following Defender catechism found in the pocket of a man hanged in Carrick on Shannon in 1795 is one of the better known ones".

Are you concerned? I am. To what? To the National Convention What do you design by that cause? To quell all nations, dethrone all Kings and plant the true religion that was lost since the Reformation What do you fall by? Sin. What do you rise by? Repentance. Where did the crock first crow that all the world heard? In France. What is your password? Eliphismatis.

This strange blend of ideas culled from revolutionary France and Roman Catholicism must surely have made little sense to the peasantry of Leitrim. But it did give them a sense of importance, secrecy and belonging. They had also hand signals to communicate with each other and to discover if a stranger was a Defender or not.

The number of violent incidents in Leitrim county continued to increase during the month of March 1795. The military seemed unable to cope with the situation. In the barony of Drumahaire a group of fifty one gentlemen organized themselves to assist the military and they promised that they would meet on horseback to suppress any riots or mobs assembled to disturb the peace of our county or to pursue and apprehend any robbers who may commit depradations in our barony or in any part of the county Leitrim.

The majority of the signatories were protestant settlers in the area. We have no evidence of their taking any active part against the Defenders in Leitrim.

Intimidation was again widespread. The Defenders were liable to burn the turf, root up potatoes, hough cattle, rob, set fire to houses, ravish or even murder those who refused to join them. A militia man was killed and his head cut off, presumably for refusing to take the oath. They forced servants to quit the services of masters they considered to be obnoxious. On 1 April, 1795, they killed the servant of Major John Peyton of Laheen, Keshcarrigan. Peyton was an officer in the Leitrim militia and was at this time based with them in Co. Meath. He was married to Mary Anne Reynolds, a sister of George Nugent Reynolds.

Meanwhile the Defenders were busy arming themselves. It was reported that every Protestant within forty miles of Carrick on Shannon had been robbed of his arms. We have a detailed account of the raids on Annadale House on 23 April, 1795.

On that day all the roads, fields and hills seemed to teem with life. We were out taking the air . . . before we reached Annadale we were told that two parts of a mob had come, and the last set broke open a window and entered the house and taken three or four guns and a blunderbuss . . . (we) sat down to our dinner in peace, but had not left the table when the lawn which is before the door was filled with men, well armed and in a furious rage. They did not believe that our arms had been taken before, and went up stairs like a whirlwind swearing horribly . . . after much bustle they went away Three parties more came at different times for arms but finding none, eat, drank and went on their way.

Some of the servants at Annadale must have been Defenders because one of the raiding parties asked where the pistols were which Randal Slacke had brought home three days previously. Randal was Angel Anna Slacke's eldest son and was studying in Edinburgh. Only a close associate of the Slacke's could have known that these pistols existed. Barney, a simple-minded boy who helped in the kitchen at Annadale House, used to dress up in an old uniform, a cocked hat and sword when going to mass each Sunday. When his sword was taken he attacked the raiders and would have been killed had not Mrs Riddell, the housekeeper, intervened.

But despite all the raids there were not enough guns to arm very many of the Defenders. So they began to make pikes and spears. They cut many trees to make handles and forced blacksmith to shape the iron. Mrs. Slacke wrote in her Diary,

I have heard the strokes of the hatchet from ten till two at night, felling some of my husband's timber, some which grew very near the house, of which they found handles for spears, pikes and forks.

The iron-works at Arigna was turned into an arms factory for a day too. The Defenders forced carpenters and smiths to make spears from six in the morning until ten o'clock at night there. Six hundred spears were made there in one day. They were eighteen inches long and the handles were seven feet long. The Defenders also took a great quantity of powder and lead from the iron works.

It was said, and generally believed that all this was a preparation for a general uprising. Friar Phillips, a priest who lived at Kilfree near Boyle, joined the Defenders but by the spring of 1795 he was giving information about them to the Castle. He claimed that a general uprising was planned for 12 May or before that if there was a French invasion. A priest also attended a Defender meeting in Leitrim and arms were kept at his house for safe-keeping, but generally the priests were not involved with the Defenders.

In 1793, it was reported from the Manorhamilton area that Flynn, a priest, refused to join. In fact there was a strong anti-clericalism prevalent at the time among the Defenders and the scathing condemnation of them by Dr. Troy, the Archbishop of Dublin did nothing to alter this situation. Illicit distilling of poteen was widespread in Leitrim at this time. It was estimated that throughout the country every seventh house was a whiskey shop. Francis Waldron, a magistrate and revenue officer, was the one responsible for stopping this illicit distilling in south Leitrim. He lived at Drumsna. Early on the morning of 23 April 1795 he sent out a raiding party of eleven policemen to the Funshinagh area about three miles from Kcshcarrigan, to destroy some poteen stills there.

There were two officers among the eleven revenue policemen, Alexander Simpson from Corbohill and a man called Burke. They went to the house of John Muldoon who lived in the townland of Scardaun. His dog attacked the policemen and Burke shot it. When Muldoon protested at this action he too was shot. A young man who witnessed this killing escaped and quickly alerted the neighbourhood. A large crowd gathered armed with an assortment of weapons. The policemen fled through the townlands of Breandrum, King and Labbyeslin and they took refuge in the house of a Murphy man who lived at the top of Drumcollop hill. The crowd, incensed at the killing of Muldoon, set fire to the house and killed the policemen as they tried to escape. Burke escaped but was pursued and overtaken in a bog. He begged time to say the Lord's Prayer. This was granted and then he too was killed. All were disfigured so badly that they could scarcely be recognized by their friends.

According to Friar Phillips this unplanned incident at Drumcollop destroyed the plans for a general rising and brought things forward before the Defenders were ready. It was later that same day that the Defenders raided Annadale House and that Mrs Slacke reported that "they seemed to be on fire, rage, malice, revenge and murder was marked on their faces". Presumably other big houses in the area were raided too. It was said that a crowd of two thousand had gathered and that their numbers were increasing all the time. Later on that same day, 23 April, a group of Defenders who were gathered on Sheebeg fled in disorder when the military arrived. The Defenders gathered in two large groups that night, one at Sheemore and the other at Ballintra bridge outside Drumshanbo.

The following day they moved to Drumsna, most likely to get Waldron who had escaped with his life by not being with his men at Drumcollop. The Defenders were met on the bridge in Drumsna by Waldron himself and a troop of the Derry militia. After a short but fierce encounter the Defenders fled. Several of them were killed and many others wounded. Four of the militia were wounded.

Immediately after these incidents at Drumcollop and Drumsna most of South Leitrim was saturated with military. The military had little regard for the niceties of law. Houses were raided in the night and some were set on fire, people were arrested, some were tortured, some hanged. This policy of terrorizing the area had the desired effect. Three days after the Drumsna affair a Mr. Stark, writing from Carrick, reported that due to the exertions of the military the Defenders offer in many places to give up their arms. And ten days later General Crosbie, again reporting from Carrick, said that "tranquillity prevails owing to the great force. And Mrs. Slacke wrote "Peace has been forced to take up her residence with us". All these reports carefully avoid giving any details about the misconduct of the military in the area.

Francis Waldron led a personal crusade against the Defenders to revenge the killing of his men at Drumcollop. He even raided Annadale House in an early morning visit, and took away their guns because he said he had information that William Slacke (the husband of Angel Anna Slacke) was a friend of the Defenders. Mr. Slacke had made contact with the Defenders in an effort to prevent further bloodshed.

Waldron wrote to Camden describing how he "at the hazard of his life and properly had taken a very active part in suppressing Defenderism" in the county. He boasted how he had arrested many of "them infatuated people and had members of the principal delinquents bound over to the law". By "persevering exertions" he "procured" information from them. Presumably we can substitute the word "torturing" to "persevering exertions". By 8 May Dublin Castle had information linking several people with the Drumcollop killings. It was recommended that every possible exertion should be made to apprehend and bring to trial McLoughlin of Scaurdawn, Henry Muldoon, James Muldoon, Luke Flynn, Philip Cassidy, Cha. Reynonds, Michael Bohan, Nicholas Gookeen and two others of the name McLoughlin . also Patrick Donnelan, J. Cassidy(?), Niall Mahon and Patrick Dolan.

But despite all his efforts Waldron was frustrated having effectual justice done for the killing of his men, the Defenders, although they dared not meet in large numbers were still able to ensure that no evidence would be given against the prisoners. In fact Waldron not only admitted that he failed in his task but also that he himself was a marked man and no longer felt safe in the county. He pleaded with Camden to be moved to a new situation where he could feel safe.

But it was Lord Carhampton who brought the greatest terror to the area. He arrived at Castlerea on 8 May and confessed that he "found things in a very alarming state indeed". He did not waste any time. He ordered that "all lurking strangers should be apprehended as vagrants and sent to sea". He thus rounded up a large number of men from the counties of Roscommon, Leitrim and Sligo and had them sent to sea to boost the English fleet in their war with France. Some of these men had been convicted of being Defenders, others were awaiting trial, some had been acquitted by the courts and others were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Camden had to admit that Lord Carhampton, whom I sent into the province of Connaught, found it necessary to act in some instances in a summary manner, and certainly did not confine himself to the strictest rules of law.

But Camden recognized that Carhampton had got the desired results in the area, and his only criticism of Carhampton was that he should have acted, not differently, but more discreetly. Carhampton's illegal actions were so public that Camden feared there would be repercussions.

The military and the magistrates were more interested in dealing out terror and fear than they were in administering justice. Those arrested on suspicion of being Defenders had little hope of getting a fair trial. George Nugent Reynolds was an exception. He refused to be swayed by one side or the other. But he was too impartial to survive long. Four men were brought before him accused of being Defenders and one of them was charged with having houghed a cow and placed a threatening letter on one of her horns. The evidence against them was so weak that Reynolds acquitted them and bailed them himself. As soon as Lord Clare heard this he dismissed him from his post as magistrate.

Reynolds went to Dublin to meet Lord Clare but Clare refused to see him. Reynolds returned home and wrote a letter to him. This letter is perhaps the most cutting and caustic piece of writing ever to have come from his pen. This letter was highly regarded throughout the county at and again acquitted but Reynolds was not restored to his position as

Go to the 3rd half of Defenderism

Michael McTiernan

N40 03' 09.4"
W75 24' 14.1"


Last updated 5/14/96 MPM

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