Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: On Moonlighters

This is a work-in-progress blog serial about aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited

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“The ‘Moonlighters’ of 1888 lineally represent, if they do not simply reproduce, the ‘Whiteboys’ of 1760.”
–William Henry Hurlbert

Hurlbert was correct. The Whiteboys and Ribbonmen of the 18th century were forerunners of the late 19th century Moonlighters; shadowy, violent groups that struck against landlords and other establishment interests on behalf of Ireland’s rural poor and powerless. Hurlbert also quoted a land agent who referenced the Terry Alts, active in County Clare during the late 1820s, as “the Moonlighters of that day.”

These secret organizations also terrorized their own people, as was true among late 20th century republican and loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. Even today, 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement ended hostilities between the two sides, these groups “show no intention of loosening their grip of fear on the communities where they operate.”

From the 1879 start of the Land War, the Moonlighter moniker was applied to typically nocturnal raiders on farmers who threatened the agrarian agitation, either by paying their rent or leasing the land of an evicted tenant. Moonlighters intimidated people who were being boycotted for related reasons, and they settled family feuds and other local grudges. Their tactics included threatening letters and public notices; maiming animals, setting fires and other property damage; as well as assaults and murder.

“Moonlighters were reported as being organized as ‘bands’ or ‘companies,’ each under a captain,” historian Marc Mulholland wrote in a 2016 essay. “Their depredations were concentrated in the impoverished and rural west of Ireland.”

Hurlbert quoted an unnamed priest from the region, “a Nationalist,” who described the western counties of Clare and Kerry as “a solitary plague-spot where dwell the disgraceful and degraded Moonlighters … these insensate pests of society.” The priest’s letter to Hurlbert was written days after the Lixnaw murder of boycotted farmer James Fitzmaurice. Like many government officials, Hurlbert framed the crime as evidence of an “open alliance” between nationalist politicians and agrarian activists, and “the criminal classes in certain parts of Ireland.”

In another passage, Hurlbert wondered “why so many [agrarian] crimes are committed with virtual impunity?” He cited “two sufficient reasons” in answer to his own question: witnesses refused to testify, or tell the truth if they did; and juries “in nine cases out of 10” would not do their duty to convict the guilty.

To help overcome local intimidation and secure prosecutions, Hurlbert noted the trials of some accused Moonlighters were transferred from Kerry and Clare to Wicklow, 200 miles away on Ireland’s east coast. This is what happened in the case of two men charged, convicted and executed for the Fitzmaurice murder. Hurlbert did not report this outcome, which occurred within three months of the crime, and well before he published the book.

His west of Ireland letter writer excepted, Hurlbert complained that too many priests in the country were “not only disposed to wink and condone” the Moonlighters’ activities, “but openly to cooperate with them under the pretext of a ‘national’ movement.” This was “intolerable” for the church, he wrote, “and dangerous to the cause of Irish autonomy.”

An 1886 issue in the Illustrated London News.

NOTES: From pages 127, 183, 208-212, 268, 445-447, and 459 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American.  Marc Mulholland, “Political Violence” in The Princeton History of Modern Ireland, edited by Richard Bourke and Ian McBride, Princeton (N.J.) University Press, 2016, page 388.

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Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan