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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2018

8 - Crime and Punishment: Whiteboyism and the Law in Late Nineteenth-Century Ireland

from Section 2 - The Law and its Responses


What, killin’ a man here and killin’ a man there, and frightenin’ a lot of poor foolish colleens, wid rushin’ in to the houses in the dead of the night. Cuttin’ off their hair, an’ makin’ them sware—the divil a bit they know what! Dishtroying dumb bastes, too, that never did no one any harm.

Emily Lawless, Hurrish. A Study (originally published, 1886; Belfast, 1992), p. 29

A man is as safe in the moonlighters as out of them. And if the choice fell on a man to do a bad deed itself, ‘tisn't him might be hung at all but some one as free of the crime as Jesus Christ himself, if he hadn't his alibi correct or was about the vicinity. The peelers don't care a devil but to make a case; the judge don't give a whack but to choke you for an example, and a jury of Cork Scotchmen would swing the nation on circumstantial evidence.

George Fitzmaurice, The Moonlighter, in George Fitzmaurice, Five Plays (London and Dublin, 1914), p. 79

This chapter examines agrarian activism and violence in the south-west of Ireland, one of the country's most disturbed regions, between 1879 and 1882. These were the years of the land war, the first of three phases of agrarian agitation that stretched from the late 1870s through to the early years of the twentieth century. Our treatment focuses on a number of Whiteboy cases—the designation employed in the official record. Most of the individuals concerned were arrested for agrarian infractions, which were invariably classified as outrages; they were subsequently tried, convicted, and given disproportionately harsh sentences compared with those handed down to persons convicted of ordinary crimes.

The chapter is in two sections: the first concentrates on a succession of Whiteboy cases that were tried before the Munster winter assizes in 1881; the second traces the prison experiences of those convicted, the impact incarceration had on their physical and mental health, the appeals for clemency made by their families on their behalf, and the controversy surrounding their eventual release.