The Ribbon Society was a Catholic secret society set up at the beginning of the 19th century as a counter part to the Protestant Orange Order which had been growing in numbers and influence across Ulster since its inception in 1796. It continued the traditions of "The Defenders" and "The White Boys", similar groups from an earlier part of Ulster's troubled history. Its main aim was to fight against the miserable conditions in which the vast majority of Catholic tenant farmers and rural workers lived in the early 19th century.
Inequality was rife at this time and Catholics had little or no rights at all. Unscrupulous Landlords could evict tenants without warning and sometime without cause. Catholic tenant farmers were forced to pay tithes to the protestant churches from which they received nothing in return and no support for their grievances. Tensions were further heightened by the first major drive in more than a century to convert Irish Catholics to Protestantism. This was largely funded by wealthy English Evangelicals. By 1816 there were 21 Methodist missionaries operating out of 14 stations across Ireland. Anglicans, Baptists and Presbyterians had their own missionary organisations.
The existence of "ribandmen" was recorded as early as 1810. The name is derived from a green ribbon worn as a badge in a button-hole by the members. They formed themselves into Lodges, much like the Orange Order and set about attacking tithe and process servers, and later evolved the policy of Tenants' Rights. The ideology of the Ribbonmen supported the Catholic Association and the political separation of Ireland from Great Britain, and the rights of the tenant as against those of the landlord. Like the Orange Order, which didn't accept Catholics into its midst, so the Ribbon Society was not open to people of the Protestant persuasion. The Ribbon oath began with these words:
'I…Do Swear in the presence of My Brethren and by the Cross of St Peter and of Our Blessed Lady that I will Aid and Support Our holy Religion by Destroying the Heretics and as far as my power & property will Go not one Shall be excepted…'
The Ribbonmen were involved in violent and sometimes deadly riots with the Orange Order in the north of Ireland, and elsewhere used violence to resist paying tithes to the Protestant Church of Ireland. As the agitation for Catholic Emancipation grew, the tension between Ribbonism and Orangeism increased, resulting in what has come to be known as the 'Battle of Garvagh'.
On Monday 26th July 1813 during the Lammas Fair some 400 Catholic 'Ribbonmen', armed with bludgeons and intent on destroying the tavern where the Orange lodge met, converged on Garvagh in Co Londonderry. They planned to avenge a defeat at the previous year's fair. As the fair came to a close and the traders began packing away their wares a whistle was blown and the Catholics surrounded the King's Arms Inn. With long white scarves tied about there waists and armed only with sticks and bludgeons, they began to stone the Inn.
However, The Orangemen had been tipped off by an informant and inside, the Inn was "aswarm with protestants", armed with their yeomanry muskets cocked and primed. The Ribbonmen were cut to pieces, a 'mountainy man' from Foreglen fell dead, several others were desperately wounded, and the rest of the Ribbonmen, lacking the firearms needed for a counter-attack, fled to the open countryside. The so called battle was celebrated in an Orange ballad, the 'Battle of Garvagh' which opened:
The day came out, they did repair
In multitudes to Garvagh fair;
Some travelled thirty miles and mair
To burn the town of Garvagh.
It was to be one of many sectarian clashes across the length of Ireland in the coming years as the Ribbonmen became the Catholic counterweight to the Orange Order. Murder and mayhem followed in their wake and there were many atrocities in the name of god on both sides.
As times grew harder for those Catholics who worked on the land it was to the prophesies of an 18th-century English Catholic bishop that they turned to for comfort. Pastorini, a pseudonym, foretold the violent destruction of Protestant churches in the year 1825. The Catholic poor were convinced that the day of reckoning for Protestants was fast approaching. Protestants would get their comeuppance in the year 1825, as a spy reported to the government: 'They spoke of a prophecy to be fulfilled in the year 1825, for the overthrow of the tyranny of Orangemen and government, and that there will be but one religion.' Cheap editions and summaries circulated freely as the year of doom approached. It was widely believed that the 'locusts from the bottomless pit' – the Protestants – were about to meet their end.
These prophesies were accompanied by sectarian attacks. Half a dozen Protestant churches were burned in the counties of Limerick, Cork and Kerry in the early 1820s and these acts were usually claimed by 'Captain Rock' – and so these Catholic vigilantes became known as 'Rockites'. Indeed, a Catholic priest in Limerick reported that he had pursued and captured, redhanded, men he described as 'Lady Rocks' – they had disguised themselves by wearing women's clothes. A large band of over 100 Rockites burned down the village of Glenasheen in Co Limerick in April 1823 – a village inhabited exclusively by Palatines, Protestants of German origin.
On 12 July 1830, Orange parades led to confrontations between Orangemen and Ribbonmen in Maghera and Castledawson in County Londonderry. Several Catholic homes were then burned by Protestants following these clashes. In November of the same year, ribbonmen attacked an Orange band, puncturing some of their drums. The Orangemen retaliated by burning the Catholic village of Maghery, County Armagh to the ground. 12 July 1849 saw the Battle of Dolly's Brae. Up to 1400 armed Orangemen marched from Rathfriland to Tollymore Park near Castlewellan, County Down. When 1000 armed Ribbonmen gathered, shots were fired, Catholic homes were burnt and about 80 Catholics killed. In Ireland this 'millenarianism' – the belief that the world would shortly come to an end – was fuelled, as elsewhere, by the unemployment and distress caused by economic dislocation following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Catholic clergy and educated Catholic gentlemen were deeply embarrassed by this sectarianism of their co-religionists. They sought now to harness this discontent towards a peaceful, constitutional campaign for Catholic Emancipation.
As Ribbonism and sectarianism expanded in Ulster, questions were asked in the British Parliament. On the 9th of February 1843, Earl Fortescue said, before he put the question, of which he had given notice, perhaps he might be allowed to state, very shortly, to such of their Lordships as were not present, the circumstances which induced him to trouble them on this subject. At the spring assizes of last year, in the county of Armagh, certain persons were prosecuted and convicted of ribbon offences, and in the course of the trial, one of the witnesses for the prosecution named Hagan, stated in the course of his evidence, that he had been apprehended himself on a charge of ribbonism, in the August of the preceding year; that he had been let out on heavy bail, and had been at large from September 1841, to February 1842. He stated that during that period he attended meetings, wrote ribbon letters, and, in short, used every effort to entrap persons into the ribbon plot. And, he added, that all this had been done with the knowledge and approval of the provost and magistrates of Sligo. When he made this statement, the noble Duke (the Duke of Wellington) declared his intention to institute an inquiry into the facts deposed to by this man. The noble Duke added, that while he entirely disbelieved the man's statement, he felt (what every body who knew the noble Duke must be certain of) the greatest abhorence and reprobation of any such practice. It was his belief, the noble Duke said, that an inquiry had been set on foot by the Irish Government, into the conduct of the magistrates: and he was persuaded that if they had been found to have sanctioned such a practice, they would be visited with the severest censure and reprobation. The question which he wished to put, was, whether this inquiry had been made, and what was the result.
The Duke of Wellington responded the facts were exactly as stated by the noble Lord opposite. A person named Hagan, who had been imprisoned, was a witness. He was not imprisoned, however, on a charge of ribbonism, but on that of illegal combination, to prevent another man from working. When in prison he gave information to the provost and magistrates with respect to ribbonism. He was allowed to go at large on bail for the offence of combination. It was certainly true, that he gave the evidence stated by the noble Lord, and in consequence thereof an inquiry had been instituted; but the officers who conducted the inquiry, and the highest legal authority in Ireland, were of opinion, that there was no foundation for the charge against the provost of Sligo and the other magistrates. One of the magistrates had been dismissed, but for conduct distinct from that charged by the noble Lord. There was, no doubt that the magistrates had had no cognizance of the conduct of this man, nor had they given any encouragement to it.
The Earl Fortescue rejoined that he was sure that the whole of their Lordships must be extremely happy to hear that the facts sworn to by Hagan had been satisfactorily cleared up. He begged to move that the return of outrages reported by the Irish constabulary for July 1842, which was ordered by the House on the 8th of last August, but not delivered, be delivered forthwith; and that the like returns for each subsequent month, to the present time, be laid before the House, and be continued to the close of the Session: he thought this would give every information on the subject. He begged to say one or two words on another subject. When he addressed their Lordships at the close of the last Session he felt it his duty to animadvert upon an ex officio prosecution which had been commenced against an editor of a newspaper of Ireland by the then Attorney-general, for a libel on the Government. Since that time, the lamented death of the late Master of the Rolls had removed the Attorney-general of last year from that office to be Master of the Rolls, and he could wish that learned judge no greater success than that he should reach the reputation for impartiality, integrity, learning, temper, and all the qualifications that adorn the best judge, such as distinguished and will ever hallow the memory of Sir M. O'Loghlin. He had learnt with great satisfaction, that the first act of the new Attorney-general had been to accept an apology, instead of bringing up for judgement the editor of the paper convicted on the occasion to which he had alluded. He begged to offer his tribute of thanks to the Government, as well as his learned 261 Friend, for this act; for, in his opinion, he thought the course adopted would be more likely to keep the liberty of the press within the due bounds of fair political discussion, than the highest penalty which an Attorney-general could call for, or the severest sentence which a judge could inflict.
The Ribbonists were most active between 1835 and 1855 and during the Tithe War, but that was not to be the end of sectarian violence in the north of Ireland. Perhaps the last words of this sorry saga should be left to a small bespectacled man who, whilst caught up in his own struggle against oppression in India, almost a hundred years after the decline of the Ribbonmen, said:
"If we continue to carry on in this vein
taking an eye for an eye, very soon
the whole world will be blind."