The tithes were a church tax or levy on agricultural produce and livestock. From the middle ages the church had received this levy, notionally one-tenth of earnings, for the support of the clergy. This tax sometimes collected in kind from agricultural produce had been converted into a cash payment calculated on the price of farm produce in different areas by the 19th century. The tithe applotment books, as they are called, exist for the civil parishes dating to the 1820’s and 1830’s. In fact these books are a valuable genealogical research source.
Following the Reformation in the 16th century the tithes, a legally binding tax had become payable by all denominations to the clergy of the Church of Ireland, the established church. This tax was resented by the Catholic and Dissenter portions of the population. It formed part of the agenda of agricultural protest formulated by the secret societies of the 18th and 19th centuries. These societies flourished in different parts of the country and reached a peak between 1760 and the beginning of the Great Famine in the 1840’s. The Whiteboys and Ribbonmen were the local societies, but other oath bound groups having many common features, though with differing regional aims, existed. These were known as the Oakboys, Hearts of Steel, Rightboys, Whitefeet, Threshers, Rockites, the Defenders and Shanavests among others. These societies were the source of major agrarian disturbance with maiming of animals, destruction of property, violence and murder resulting from their protest actions.
Even today tales can be related of the tithe proctor, the individual who collected the tax at a dividend to himself in many cases, the distress resulting from the unwillingness or in some situations the inability to pay, and the resulting unrest, disturbance and violence arising from tithe enforcement and distrainment of animals.
Following Catholic Emancipation in 1829, outright resistance to the payment of Tithes resulted in what became known as the “Tithe War”. The war started in Graiguenamanagh in Co. Kilkenny in October 1830 when the cattle of the parish priest Fr. Martin Doyle, who had resisted the payment of the tithes with the approval of his bishop, James Warren Doyle, were distrained for non-payment. Nominally a campaign of passive resistance which spread nationally, the use of police and military inevitably resulted in violence. During the 1830’s the government issued 43,000 decrees for non payment, with 242 homicides and massive damage to property. Arrears had amounted to one million pounds by 1833. An attempt in 1834 to collect a forty-shilling tithe from a widow Mrs. Ryan in Rathcormac, Co. Cork, by means of soldiers and police resulted in a confrontation with the local people resulting in nineteen deaths and thirty-five people injured.
The story of Pat Lalor of Tenakill and the seizure of twenty five sheep to satisfy the tithe demands of Rev. Mr. Latouche in 1831 is well known and the failure of the sale of the animals ended the practice in the Queens and adjoining counties.
Legislative attempts in the 1830’s to end the war had little affect with two bills failing to solve the problems. The ongoing agitation with regard to the tithes were widely reported in the local papers with the Leinster Express largely supporting the establishment line, while the Leinster Independent supported the anti-tithe position. The Independent reported over three pages on the proceedings at the Great Heath on SundayJune 17th 1838. Page two was entirely devoted to the meeting:
Anti-Tithe Meeting on the Great Heath, Maryborough
On Sunday last, the 17th inst., an extremely numerous meeting of the landholders and inhabitants of the parishes of Maryborough, Mountmellick, Stradbally, Mountrath and others adjoining was held on the Great Heath. At the commencement of the proceedings the attendance was not so great but in short time the crowds coming in by every road, and over every hill around swelled it immensely. The objects of the meeting were to petition parliament for a total abolition of tithes, and consider the best means of giving effect to a continued opposition to the detested impost. A very commodious platform had been erected and the most popular and influential of the anti-tithe leaders in the county were present. Among them we observed Michael Dunne Esq. J.P., Patrick Lalor, Esq., Edward Cahill, Burrowes Kelly, Joseph Lyons, Daniel Egan, Robert Carter, Edward Maher, Stephen Corcoran, P. Molloy Esq., Rev. Mr. Nolan P.P., Mountrath etc. etc.
On the motion of Burrowes Kelly Esq., seconded by Joseph Lyons Esq., Edward Cahill was called to the chair, Daniel Egan was appointed secretary.
A verbatim account of the speeches followed continuing on page three. The front page carried the resolutions passed under a headline, “Anti-Tithe Agitation”:
At a meeting held on Sunday 17th last at the Great Heath, Queens County. Edward Cahill Esq., in the Chair, D. Egan, Esq., Secretary.
The following resolutions were unanimously carried:
Proposed by Matthew Delaney Esq., and seconded by Patrick Lalor Esq.
Resolved – that the maintenance of the clergy of any one denomination of Christians by forced contributions levied upon the remainder, appears to us equally inconsistent with the interests of true religion and the peace and tranquillity of the country. That we therefore consider an immediate settlement of the tithe question imperatively necessary and that the people of Ireland cannot be satisfied with less than a full apportion of tithes to useful public purposes or their total abolition.
Proposed by Robert Carter Esq., and seconded by Andrew Ryan Esq.
Resolved – That it is peculiarly inconsistent and unjust of the Established Church which founds its religious system upon private judgement, and the right of every man to exercise that judgement in matters of religion, to resort for its maintenance to compulsory assessment, but the enforcement of which the consciences and rights of others are grossly violated.
Proposed by Thomas Pim M.D. and seconded by Thomas Kilbride.
Resolved – that the tithe system has been productive in Ireland of discord, enmity, perjury, bloodshed and every crime most abhorrent to Christianity under pretence of supporting which it has been defended and upheld, that as Christians and citizens we are determined to use all constitutional means to procure the total extinction of this iniquitous impost or its appropriation to useful public purposes.
Proposed by James Dunne Esq., and seconded by Daniel Egan Esq.
Resolved – That a petition founded on the above resolutions; be adopted by this meeting and forwarded to the Members of the Queen’s County and Kilkenny, for presentation to the House of Commons, and that the Member for the City of Kilkenny be requested to give it his support.
Proposed by the Rev. Mr. Lalor Mountrath, and seconded by Patrick Lalor Esq., Mooney.
Resolved – That we immediately open a subscription in our respective parishes, to form a stock purse for all purposes not prohibited by law, but particularly for the legal protection of all persons that now suffer, or may hereafter be visited with persecution for conscience sake.
Proposed by Joseph Lyons and seconded by James Dunne Mountrath Esq.
Resolved – That the meeting in consistency with the expressed principles, think it advisable to communicate to Mr. O’Connell the Liberator of his country, and acknowledged representative of Irish popular opinion that no measure will fully satisfy the people of Ireland but the appropriation of tithes to useful public purposes or their total abolition.
Proposed by Burrowes Kelly Esq., and seconded by J. Dunne Esq.
Resolved – That we feel incumbent on us to express our gratitude to the Irish Executive Government, for their steady and impartial administration of the existing laws and the sincere desire evinced by them to promote the welfare of the Irish people
- Cahill Chairman
- Egan Secretary
It was then proposed that Mr. Cahill do leave the Chair and Mr. Lyons be called thereto. Thanks were returned to the former Chairman and the meeting separated”.
Later in 1838 the Tithe War came to an end by the enactment of the Tithe Commutation Act. Under the Act the tithe became a rent charge at three quarters of the old composition payable twice yearly by the head landlord. The Act removed the tithe proctor the immediate source of discontent.