On this day – 18 June 1831 – The Newtownbarry massacre, the Tithe War




In the grand scheme of things in 19th century Ireland, dominated by Daniel O’Connell, Parnell, the Fenians, the Land War and Home Rule, a bitter land conflict of the 1830s, the Tithe War, seldom gets a look in. This is partly because it produced no charismatic leaders and ended in something of a fudge rather than a glorious victory or a tragic defeat.

Tithes were levies paid by certain farmers, not to their landlords, but to the Church of Ireland, the Established Church, so-called, until Gladstone finally separated it from the state in 1869.

Needless to say this form of taxation was bitterly resented, not just by Roman Catholics, but by Presbyterians mostly based in Ulster. While no one liked paying rent to landlords at least you got something in return. Catholics and Presbyterians got nothing back from the money paid out in tithes. What made things worse was that in certain parts of the country the local CofI rector might well have sold on his interest in the proceeds of the tax to a wealthy local called a ‘tithe farmer’. Many of these were Catholics. Even more inequitable was the fact that, by and large, tithes were a tax on crops rather than livestock. Only the most prosperous of landholders could afford to devote their farms to pasture, but if they did so they were exempt from tithes until a new Act of Parliament in 1823.

Between 1830 and 1838 an agrarian conflict erupted which had a nasty sectarian quality to it. Catholic peasants, disillusioned that the hard fought campaign for Catholic emancipation had brought about no improvement in their lot, fastened on tithes as an iniquitous imposition, which indeed they were, unless you happened to be a member of the Church of Ireland anxious to support your local clergyman in some considerable luxury.

In something of a dress rehearsal for the Land War of the 1880s the Tithe War began in Kilkenny, Wexford and Tipperary with public meetings of men carrying hurley sticks which could be represented as sporting occasions. Soon farmers were refusing to pay tithes.

One of the worst incidents of the Tithe war took place on 18 June 1831 in Newtownbarry in Co.Wexford. There the local Anglican rector, supported by his bishop, insisted on the seizure of the livestock of farmers who had refused to pay the tax. At the auction of the distrained cattle some of the beasts got loose and when their owners attempted to reclaim them they were fired on by the yeomanry, a local Protestant militia. They refused to cease firing even when ordered to do so. When the shooting finally stopped eighteen people had been killed.

The violence was, however, not entirely one-sided. In December of 1831 a force of 38 armed constables and a process server delivering summonses to tithe defaulters was set upon by local people in Carrigshock, Co.Kilkenny. An attempt was made to force the process server, Edmund Butler, to eat the summonses. He was hit by a rock from the crowd and the police were then attacked by a hail of missiles. Thirteen of them, as well as Butler, were stoned to death, or killed with pitchforks.

The Tithe War finally ended with a compromise in 1838. The much-loathed tax would no longer be paid by Roman Catholic tenants, but by their landlords, most of whom, outside of Ulster, were members of the Church of Ireland. It was, however, mostly a fudge, as the landlords simply passed the payment on to their tenants in higher rents.

The killing of eighteen members of the community of Newtownbarry, Co.Wexford, took place 182 years ago, on this day.