The Ribbonmen were a secret society that wreaked havoc along the Royal Canal during the 1820s. Trading boats were plundered and sunk. Boat owners and traders were threatened and intimidated to force them to increase their employees’ wages. Boat drivers and workmen were attacked if they agreed to work for less than what was demanded by the Ribbonmen of their employers. Sections of the canal were made unnavigable as breaches were made deliberately in the Canal’s banks. The Ribbonmen’s campaign of threats, intimidation and acts of violence and destruction were carried out against the backdrop of chronic hunger, unemployment and evictions in rural Ireland. The Royal Canal was targeted by the Ribbonmen for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it was a means of transporting food out of rural Ireland to Dublin. Secondly, malicious damage caused to the canal also generated local employment by way of repair work. Finally, in a time when tenant farmers were facing eviction, the Canal was targeted as many of the shareholders and directors of the Royal Canal Company were also wealthy landlords.
The Royal Canal links the River Liffey in Dublin with the River Shannon in Cloondara in Co. Longford. It is 145.6km/90.5miles in length and it has an 8.6km/5.3miles branch line to Longford town. Construction began on the canal in the Spring on 1790. The project was beset with problems from the beginning. The original budget of just under £200,000 was exhausted by 1794 only after a mere 22.5km/14miles of the canal was completed. Poor workmanship and a lack of supervision resulted in the collapse of several bridges causing the deaths of a number of laborers. To make matters worse, the Duke of Leinster who resided at Carton House in Maynooth and was one of the principal shareholders, successfully lobbied for a deviation in the original route. The Canal would now pass by his residence in Maynooth. This proved to be a very costly alteration. Due to the new route, a large aqueduct had to be constructed over the River Ryewater and the canal had to be cut through quarries.
The Royal Canal company became heavily indebted as work progressed. By 1809 the canal reached Coolnahay Harbour, 9km west of Mullingar. The Royal Canal Company was unable to raise any more funds to complete the canal to the River Shannon. The Royal Canal Company was dissolved. The government took control and funded the project. The canal was finally finished to Cloondara in Co. Longford in 1817. It had taken twenty-eight years to build at a final cost of £1.5 million. The administration of the Canal was handed back to a newly elected board of directors drawn from the original shareholders to form a New Royal Canal Company that was now debt free.
The early 19th Century was a tragic time in rural Ireland. The ongoing Napoleonic Wars had caused inflation of prices of grain and rents. However, between 1814 and 1815 grain prices dropped almost 45%. As a result, small farmers were unable to pay their rent and many farm labourers lost their jobs1Feeley, Pat. Whiteboys and Ribbonmen. Electronic document, http://www.limerickcity.ie/media/whiteboys%20and%20ribbonmen.pdf, accessed 14/04/2020. P.26.. To make matters worse, the end of the war in 1815 brought with it an accompanying depression which had a devasting impact on the landless poor and tenants of rural Ireland2Delaney, Ruth & Bath, Ian. Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789 – 2009 (Dublin 2010) p. 97.. Furthermore, the potato harvest failed in 1817 and 1819. By 1822 many parts of Ireland were enduring famine conditions3Clarke, Peter. The Royal Canal The Complete Story. (Dublin 1992) p. 97.. It was from this backdrop of distress and suffering that allowed the growth and spread of a form of agrarian resistance and revolt known as the Ribbonmen.
The Ribbonmen were a secret society whose members were exclusively Catholic and male.
These Ribbonmen expressed a sense of Irish national identity that combined a fervent Catholic sectarianism with an aspiration to achieve, by force if necessary, some conception of an autonomous, democratic, and egalitarian Ireland shaped by the popular perception of the principles of the French revolution4Hughes, Kyle & MacRaild, Donald, Ribbon Societies in Nineteenth-Century Ireland and its Diaspora: The Persistence of Tradition. (Liverpool 2018) p. 3..
The Ribbonmen formed groups at a local parish level known as lodges and met in public houses. Ribbonmen lodges were most prevalent in Ulster, north Leinster, Dublin City, Connaught and towns and villages along the Grand and Royal Canals5Ibid. p.5. Upon joining a lodge, members swore an oath of fealty and were given secret passwords in order to identify other members. They generally consisted of lower paid workers such as small farmers, labourers, carriers and porters. Their enemies were the wealthy landlords, the protestant ascendency and the Orange Order6Ibid..
The origin of the name Ribbonmen comes from the organisation’s use of a ribbon worn by its members as another means of identifying each other. First reference to this practice appears in a fight between Catholics and Orangemen in Swatragh, Co. Derry in 1810 or 1811. The Catholics wore red ribbons on the wristband of their shirts7Ibid. p.19.. Sir William Wilde, a folklorist and father of renowned author and playwright Oscar Wilde, observed the Ribbonmen in Roscommon in the early 1820s ‘dressed in white shirts outside their clothes and otherwise adorned with ribbons of as many colours as could be procured, tied upon their hats and arms, like the Spanish Contrabandista’8Ibid.. In the documentary series ‘Waterways, The Royal Canal’ Dick Warner describes the Ribbonmen being able to identify each other by ‘tying a green ribbon in a certain way to a certain buttonhole’9Waterways The Royal Canal. Episode 3 The Long Level. Director Stephen Rooke. Writer/Presenter Dick Warner. Tile Films 2012..
In times of great scarcity in the early 1800s the Ribbonmen saw the Royal Canal as a threat to their survival. Food left their towns and villages along the Royal Canal and was brought to Dublin to be sold to benefit wealthy farmers and landlords. Low rates to transport potatoes along the Royal Canal exacerbated this issue. It was over sixty percent cheaper to transport potatoes along the Royal Canal compared to the Grand Canal10Clarke, Peter. The Royal Canal The Complete Story. (Dublin 1992) p. 69. Rates were so good that is was even cheaper to transport potatoes from Mullingar to Dublin than it ‘cost farmers living within a five-mile radius of the city to transport the same quantity’11Ibid..
There were incidents of Ribbonmen activity reported along the Royal Canal in Longford, Mullingar and Dublin. However, the Ribbonmen’s attacks on the Canal were mainly centred around Moyvalley and Longwood along the border of Meath and Kildare. In one such attack, a breech was made along the embankment near Moyvalley in February 1820. Spade marks were visible at the point of the breech12Delaney, Ruth & Bath, Ian. Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789 – 2009 (Dublin 2010) p. 99.. The initial gap along the embankment was enlarged as the outflowing water carried away more of the embankment. This disruption to trade along the canal not only stopped food from leaving the towns along the Royal Canal but it also generated employment. According to the engineer’s report on inspecting the damage, over 100 locals had turned up to start work on repairing the breech. They demanded 10 shillings a week to carry out the repairs. When workers who would work for less were brought in from Dublin and Mullingar they were then stoned by the locals13Ibid..
Another breech was made close to the Blackwater Aqueduct in Moyvalley in January of 1821. Spade marks were again found at the site of the initial breech and 274m of the canal’s banks had been washed away. On this occasion over 500 men were already on scene carrying out repair works when the engineer arrived. The engineer tried to reduce the numbers at work but then had to request military assistance as these men forced legitimate canal workers to put down their tools and flee. Sixty soldiers from the 44th Regiment from Naas arrived to supervise the repair works. No workers from Meath, Kildare or Westmeath were employed to repair the breech14Ibid p.101. It became company policy not to employ local people to carry out repairs to try and dissuade malicious damage. However, at a later breech at the same location number of locals had travelled to the capital to return to Moyvalley posing as Labourers from Dublin15Ibid p.107.
Trade boats and their crew were targeted by the Ribbonmen. Traders were threatened to increase the wages of the crews. Combinations similar to small trade unions were organised. Better wages were demanded, or workers would refuse to work. In Broadstone Harbour a notice was displayed ‘threatening destruction to any boatmen who failed to support a combination for higher wages’16Ibid p.101. Crewmen that agreed to work for less were beaten up. In the Spring of 1821 five boats were either sunk or burned17Ibid. In 1825 O’Rorke, a trader from Lanesborough stated that ‘boat owners can have no control over their men, they cannot discharge them or employ others on pain of having their cargos sunk’18Ibid p.107. The violent attacks along the canal caused the canal to be closed at times. This disruption to trade had a major impact on the revenue of the Royal Canal Company. It was a means of intimidating the canal’s directors and shareholders. Many of whom were also wealthy landlords19Clarke, Peter. The Royal Canal The Complete Story. (Dublin 1992) p.98.
Attacks on traders and their boats got to such a point that a system of protection had to be provided. Two armed guards were assigned to each boat. There were guards placed at harbours along the length of the canal. The traders agreed to travel in fleets and along with the Royal Canal Company they paid for armed guards at seven locations along the canal. They agreed to spend the night at these specified locations. Rewards were offered to informers. In one case an informer received £100 for information that brought the culprits of a breech in Moyvalley to justice. As a result, three men were found guilty and were sentenced to seven years transportation20Delaney, Ruth & Bath, Ian. Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789 – 2009 (Dublin 2010) p.106. Several attempted breeches to the Canal’s banks were foiled21Ibid p.107. The extra security and offering informants financial incentives was paying off. By 1828 attacks along the canal had greatly decreased and the Royal Canal Company started removing escorts and its guards22Ibid p.108.
From the public houses in towns and villages dotted along the Royal Canal a campaign of disruption and violent attacks were planned and orchestrated along the Royal Canal. During the 1820s the Ribbonmen became a thorn in the side for the Royal Canal Company. They successfully forced traders to increase the wages of their boat driver’s and crew. They generated local employment as a result of the damage they caused to the canal. Incidents of Ribbonmen activity continued into the 1830s and as a result canal boats travelled in fleets and the canal banks were guarded. The actions the Ribbonmen took reflected the dire economic conditions of mass unemployment and hunger during that period.
As the ranks of the Ribbonmen mainly consisted of poor farmers and labourers the toll of the Great Famine 1845 – 1847 weighed heavy upon them. Many died or were forced to emigrate as the potato harvest failed in successive years. At that time, the potato crop provided for over 60% of the nation’s food needs. As a result, one million people died, one-eighth of the entire population of Ireland. In the decade that followed from 1845 – 1855 over two million people emigrated from Ireland. Although, there was a campaign of Ribbonmen attacks in Westmeath between 1868 and 1871, the Ribbonmen’s ability to organise and exert power over the wealthy and ruling classes had petered out.
The Legacy of the Ribbonmen is still evident on the Royal Canal today. Between Moyvalley Bridges and Longwood Road Aqueduct lies an unusual footbridge over the Royal Canal called The Ribbontail Bridge. This Footbridge used to allow church goers to cross the Canal and attend mass at Longwood Village. The Ribbontail Paddlers Canoe Club operates from Longwood Harbour House on the Royal Canal. Further afield, in the United States, the Ribbonmen were one of the secret societies that would be founding members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) in 1836. The AOH is America’s oldest Catholic Fraternal Organization and continues to be active in several countries around the world. In the United States the AOH aims to support newly arrived Irish people in the US both socially and economically23Ancient Order Of Hibenians. About the AOH. www.aoh.com/about-the-aoh/. Accessed on 15/04/2020.
1 Feeley, Pat. Whiteboys and Ribbonmen. Electronic document, http://www.limerickcity.ie/media/whiteboys%20and%20ribbonmen.pdf, accessed 14/04/2020. P.26.
2 Delaney, Ruth & Bath, Ian. Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789 – 2009 (Dublin 2010) p. 97.
3 Clarke, Peter. The Royal Canal The Complete Story. (Dublin 1992) p. 97.
4 Hughes, Kyle & MacRaild, Donald, Ribbon Societies in Nineteenth-Century Ireland and its Diaspora: The Persistence of Tradition. (Liverpool 2018) p. 3.
5 Ibid. p.5
7 Ibid. p.19.
9 Waterways The Royal Canal. Episode 3 The Long Level. Director Stephen Rooke. Writer/Presenter Dick Warner. Tile Films 2012.
10 Clarke, Peter. The Royal Canal The Complete Story. (Dublin 1992) p. 69
12 Delaney, Ruth & Bath, Ian. Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789 – 2009 (Dublin 2010) p. 99.
14 Ibid p.101
15 Ibid p.107
16 Ibid p.101
18 Ibid p.107
19 Clarke, Peter. The Royal Canal The Complete Story. (Dublin 1992) p.98
20 Delaney, Ruth & Bath, Ian. Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789 – 2009 (Dublin 2010) p.106
21 Ibid p.107
22 Ibid p.108
23 Ancient Order Of Hibenians. About the AOH. www.aoh.com/about-the-aoh/. Accessed on 15/04/2020
Image 1: Ribbontail Footbridge, Longwood Co. Meath. Taken by Peter Mooney 7th of Septemner 2014. https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterm7/15209916712 Accessed 15/4/2020
Image 2: A meeting of Ribbonmen in 1851, as depicted in William Trench’s 1868 book ‘Realities of Irish Life’.
Image 3: Ribbontail Paddlers Canoe Club storehouse, Longwood Harbour, Co. Meath. Taken by Brendan Creedon January 2020.