The Tithe Wars

An Armagh village in the 1830's

The Tithe War, or in Irish: Cogadh na nDeachúna, was a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience, punctuated by sporadic violent episodes, in Ireland between 1830-36 in reaction to the enforcement of Tithes on subsistence farmers and others for the upkeep of the established state church - the Church of Ireland. Tithes were payable in cash or kind and payment was compulsory, irrespective of an individual's religious adherence.

The tithe system whereby a tenth (or tithe) of the annual produce of land went to the maintenance of church or clergy, had a long history dating from Pre-Christian times. In Genesis 14-17 we read that Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils of war to the priest Melchisedec. After the building of the temple, the Israelites contributed for its upkeep and the upkeep of the priesthood. A similar tax was paid by Roman citizens. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it inherited the system. In Ireland, tithes were not introduced until the Synod of Cashel in 1171, and then were confined mainly to areas under Anglo-Norman control.

Tenant Farmers farming the landTithe payment was an obligation on those working the land for the upkeep of the clergy and maintenance of the assets of the Church. After the Reformation in Ireland, the assets of the Church were appropriated by the British Crown and allocated to the new state Church. The majority who remained loyal to the old religion were then obliged to make tithe payments which were directed away from their local Roman Catholic parish to the established state church. This increased the financial burden upon subsistence farmers as they were, at the same time, voluntarily supporting the construction or purchase of new premises to replace in some measure the appropriated Church assets. The new state church was not supported by the majority of the population, seventy five percent of whom continued to adhere to Roman Catholicism.

In theory, the revenue from tithe divided into four parts — one for the upkeep of the clergyman, another for Poor Relief, a third for Church Maintenance and Education and the fourth for the Bishop. Practice did not follow theory, and by the 18th century, the tithe had become the exclusive property of the clergy. From Tudor times on, the Church of Ireland became the established church and consequently, the Tithe revenue went to the upkeep of the clergy of that church.

Emancipation for Catholics was a core promise during the campaign for implementation of the Act of Union in 1801. The King however, refused to keep Pitt (the younger)'s promises which had secured the passage of the legislation through the Irish Parliament. Not until 1829 did the Wellington government finally succeed in passing the Catholic Emancipation Act in the teeth of defiant royal opposition. However, the obligation to pay tithes remained, causing much resentment. Roman Catholic clerical establishments in Ireland had refused government offers of tithe sharing with the established church, fearing U.K. government regulation and control.

Opposition to the payment of tithes had been a feature of every outbreak of agrarian disorder from the 18th century onwards, but this was directed more to excessive tithes than to the parishes. The opposition was a compound of religious and economic objections. Catholics, Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists and other non-Anglicans considered having to contribute to the maintenance of a Church of which they were not members. This factor aggravated the basic economic objections on which opposition to tithes was chiefly based. The tithe burden lay directly on the shoulders of tenant farmers. More often than not, tithes were paid in the form of produce or livestock. In 1830, given the system of benefices in the Anglican system, almost half the clergy were not resident in their assigned rectories and parishes. These issues, more often than not, were inflamed by the senior Irish Roman Catholic clergy who were now dependent on voluntary contributions due to the discontinuation of the Maynooth grant. Incensed farmers vehemently resisted paying for the support of two clerical establishments. Aided and abetted by many of the Roman Catholic bishops and clergy, they began a campaign of non-payment.

Catholic farmers depicted as pigs, staving off the Protestant ClergyAs stated above, Tithe was a tax on the produce of land and in the case of non-Anglicans, a tax for which there was no return. Moreover, prior to 1825, tithes were levied exclusively on tillage land, as pasture had been exempt by the Agistment Act of 1735. This meant that the burden fell heavily on the cultivators of small tillage plots, while large graziers enjoyed something like complete immunity. Patrick Kennedy of Rathmeaden, Co. Waterford, father of the Graigue abductees, was a typical example of the wealthy grazier. He was able to bequeath £2,000 to each of his daughters in 1870. An organized campaign of resistance to collection began. It was sufficiently successful to have a serious financial effect on the welfare of established church clergy. In 1831 the government compiled lists of defaulters and issued collection orders for the seizure of goods and chattels (mostly stock). Spasmodic violence broke out in various parts of Ireland, particularly in counties Kilkenny, Tipperary and Wexford. The Irish Constabulary, established in 1822, attempted to enforce the orders of seizures. At markets and fairs, the constabulary often seized stock and produce which oftentimes resulted in violent resistance.

The methods by which tithes were assessed and collected caused considerable friction. Payments might be made:

      1. In kind — one tenth of the actual crop — this was discontinued in 1760.
      2. By a fixed annual money payment, or
      3. By an estimate or "view" of the value of the growing crop, made by the tithe to his proctors. The crops liable for tithe varied from region to region.
In some Leinster and Ulster counties, potatoes were non-titheable. In Galway, the same was true of hay, but corn and sheep were liable. In Munster, potatoes, milk, eggs and domestic fowl were titheable. The report by Rev. Edward Bayly, Rector of Grange Sylvia (Goresbridge) in Shaw Mason's "Parochial Survey of Ireland" 1814, states, "The titheable article is principally corn which is the staple commodity of this county. Tithes are taken for hay but not proportionately smaller quantity and also used for potatoes."

Many tenant farmers were evicted for non payment of TithesThe report by Rev. Edward Bayly, Rector of Grange Sylvia (Goresbridge) in Shaw Mason's "Parochial Survey of Ireland" 1814, states, "The titheable article is principally corn which is the staple commodity of this county. Tithes are taken for hay but not proportionately smaller quantity and also used for potatoes." Legally tithes were a first charge on income which meant they took precedence of rent or any other financial obligation. Some rectors leased the tithes to tithe-farmers (investors) who naturally squeezed the last ounce of profit from their investment. Others appointed Proctors to collect the levies. As these and the valuators were paid on commission, inflating the liability was in most cases an irresistible temptation. As might be expected, valuators and proctors were highly unpopular. "Any but respectable" was the general description of those who undertook the office. A Co. Meath Rector of a Kilkenny family, Rev. H. R. Langrishe, observed: "I myself tried to get a man of character and I have found it impossible to get any man of proper description to act as a tithe proctor or as a valuer. I have had Protestants and Roman Catholics and found them all, one as bad as the other and not to be trusted."

The campaign for Catholic Emancipation caused intense excitement in the years leading up to 1829. Like all such political campaigns, the movement raised expectations far beyond the aims or even desires of those who headed the movement. The mass of people saw Emancipation as a token of complete reorganisation of society, bringing direct practical benefits — better wages, regular employment, lower rents — talamh gan chios — abundant potato ground and an end to evictions. When these benefits did not materialise, a feeling of anti-climax and dissatisfaction was widespread, particularly among the smaller farmers. A priest writing in 1832 recalled "I heard their conversations when they say “What good did Emancipation do for us — are we or our children better clothed or fed?" A leader of the Whitefeet in Co. Kilkenny remarked to a French traveller: "Emancipation has done nothing for us. Mr. O'Connell and the rich Catholics go to parliament. We die of starvation just the same." The Emancipation campaign had given the wealthy Catholics experience of organisation and had created a very efficient political machine. This experience they were now ready to use. The decade from 1820 to 1830 was one of considerable fall in agricultural prices. Due to the Post-Napoleonic war slump, the average price for grain fell by almost 25% and cattle prices showed an even greater drop. Milking cows, which sold from 14 to 16 guineas in 1820 realised only between £6 and £8 in 1830.

Life was hard for those working the land in the early 19th centuryWhile the resentment against the tithes is known, it is well to remember that a strong resistance to the level of priests' dues also existed and the regulation of these was a plank in the programmes of agrarian secret societies such as Whiteboys, Thrashers etc. An argument against the abolition of tithes was that if this were done the priests would raise their own dues leaving the people no better off. Even defenders of the tithe principle felt a need to make changes in the system. Accordingly in 1823 — A Tithe Composition Act was passed. This provided that special vestries should negotiate a composition for Tithes for the entire parish with the Tithe owners. For each side would appoint a commissioner and these would fix a sum for the entire parish and for each payer in it.

The first clash of the Tithe War took place on 3 March 1831 in Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny when a force of 120 yeomanry tried to enforce seizure orders on cattle belonging to a Roman Catholic priest. Encouraged by his bishop, he had organised people to resist tithe collection by placing their stock under his ownership prior to sale. Matters came to a head in Graignamanagh where two turbulent priests clashed. One was a Protestant curate, Rev. Luke Gardiner McDonnell, and the other the Very Rev. Martin Doyle PP. The rector of Graignamanagh was Rev. Geo. Alcock, a benevolent man much admired in the parish. He was 69 years old and in poor health, so the management of the parochial affairs was entrusted to the curate. Rev. McDonnell acted as tithe agent and also a magistrate. As such it was illegal for him to act as tithe agent. An official report described McDonnell as a hot-headed and violent man. His lack of judgement and tact was exceptional and his conduct on the bench as a magistrate was such that his fellow magistrates refused to sit with him. Initially unpopular in Graignamanagh "because of raising his dues and his overbearing manner," he gradually acquired great power over his flock. In 1830 he began a career of land speculation with the leasing of 40 acres in Raheendonore — a large holding in a parish where the average size of holdings was 14 acres. By 1850 he occupied 475 acres scattered over a number of townslands. He paid both the rent and the tithe for the first half year, but he then took advantage of a clause in the Tithe Composition Acts which in the case of new leases authorised the tenant to pay the tithe and deduct the amount from the landlord's rent. Fr. Doyle withheld the amount but did not pay the tithe. The farmer complained to the bishop, who admonished his cousin but without effect.

Father Doyle was highly respected as a pastoral reformer and was universally regarded as an ecclesiastical statesman rather than a political priest. His political outlook was Unionist and his views on social affairs conservative. His writings are universally admired for their erudition and "the irresistible might of his argument." He effected many ecclesiastical reforms. A stern disciplinarian, he was respected rather than loved. By long-established custom, tithes were not levied on the small holdings attached to Catholic parochial houses. Fr. Doyle maintained the indulgence should extend to his forty acre farm. Rev McDonnell responded by seizing the priest's horse, an action which had explosive results. Meetings were held demanding "an abatement of tithe as will enable them to pay it cheerfully." The demand was refused and a committee was formed under the chairmanship of John Doyle of Coolroe. John Doyle held a lease of 900 acres of which he farmed 80 acres and sublet the remainder into 43 divisions. A levy of 1p per acre to defray expenses was agreed.

The Tithe was a tax on the produce of land and in the case of non-Anglicans, a tax for which there was no returnThe revolt soon spread. The movement spread rapidly through Kilkenny, Carlow, Laois and Wexford and monster meetings were held. Two thousand people attended one of these in Ullard. 100,000 people, of whom 20,000 were on horseback attended a meeting in Ballyhale. As well as from Kilkenny, contingents from Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford and Carlow attended. Chairman of the meeting was a Protestant landlord, Col. Sir Pierce Butler, deputy lieutenant for Kilkenny. The Callan schoolmaster and diarist Humphrey O'Sullivan, who addressed the people in Irish, records the event in his diary. Shortly afterward, in Bunclody (Newtownbarry), County Wexford, people resisting the seizure of cattle were fired upon by the Irish Constabulary who killed twelve and wounded twenty. This massacre caused objectors to organise and use warnings such as church bells to signal the community to round up the cattle and stock. On 14 December 1831, resisters used such warnings to ambush a detachment of 40 Constabulary at Carrickshock (County Kilkenny). Twelve constables, including the Chief Constable, were killed and more wounded. The authorities reinforced selected army barracks fearing an escalation. Taking stock of the continuing resistance, in 1831 the authorities recorded 242 homicides, 1,179 robberies, 401 burglaries, 568 burnings, 280 cases of cattle-maiming, 161 assaults, 203 riots and 723 attacks on property directly attributed to seizure order enforcement. In 1832 the president of Carlow College was imprisoned for not paying tithes.

In June 1833, at Rossmore in Co. Cork, during an attempt at seizure for tithes, a crowd blocked the passage of troops and police. The Riot Act was read by a magistrate and the crowd ordered to disperse. The troops were ordered to fire but the volley went over the heads of the crowd and nobody was injured. The crowd lunged forward and fierce hand-to-hand fighting took place. A policeman, named Dwyer, raised his weapon and fired. The ball hit and killed a soldier. The officer in charge, Capt. Nagle, feeling matters had gone far enough, withdrew the troops. Shortly afterwards, £1,000,000 was allocated to compensate clergy for the loss of their income and the Under-Secretary for Ireland, advised that the serving of processes should be discontinued for the time being.

In 1835 the conflict came to a head at Rathcormac, County Cork, when armed Constabulary, reinforced by the regular British Army reportedly killed 17 and wounded 30, in the course of enforcing a tithe order reputedly to the value of 40 shillings. Gortroe is a townsland in the parish of Rathcormac, Co. Cork. Rathcormac is on the main road from Fermoy to Cork. The rector was Archdeacon Ryder, locally known as Black Billy, from his dark complexion. Part of the tithes accrued to a Capt. Cooke Collis. Both he and the archdeacon were magistrates. The conflict had the support of the Roman Catholic clergy and the following quotation, from a letter written by the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, Dr. James Doyle to Thomas Spring Rice became the rallying cry for the movement:

"There are many noble traits in the Irish character, mixed with failings which have always raised obstacles to their own well-being; but an innate love of justice, and an indomitable hatred of oppression, is like a gem upon the front of our nation which no darkness can obscure. To this fine quality I trace their hatred of tithes; may it be as lasting as their love of justice!"
Public opinion was outraged by the affair at Gortroe, which was felt to be one tragedy too many. In England, Parliament was thoroughly alarmed and bent to the task of finding a final solution. The U.K. government was alarmed by several aspects of this massacre. The order to fire was reportedly given by a clergyman. Many people were killed to collect a pittance. Ordinary people withstood several volleys and at least one charge by the troops. Finding and collecting livestock chattels and the associated mayhem created public outrage and proved an increasing strain on police relations. The government suspended collections. One official lamented that “it cost a shilling to collect tuppence”.

The Tithe Commutation Act of 1838, affected by Lord Melbourne's government, was the result. The Act confirmed the £1,000,000 grant for arrears and reduced tithes by 25% and converted to a fixed rent charge. This placed responsibility on the landlord who, where possible, added the charge to the rent, but the irritations of the old system disappeared and a more friendly atmosphere between parsons and people gradually arose. During the famine many parsons worked heroically to relieve the starving poor, among them Archdeacon Ryder who not only spent all his money but sold his furniture to relieve the starving. The settlement of the Tithe question cleared the ground for the next phase of the land conflict — the transference of ownership to the occupiers. Many of the effective tactics used in that struggle derived from the experiences of the Anti-Tithe Movement.

Placque to those Massacred at Gortroe

Our thanks to Sean O'Brien for his contribution to this article.

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