This question arose from my reading of ‘The Two Tipperarys’, by Donal Murphy. The book is primarily about the division of Tipperary into north and south counties in 1838. It was recommended to me as background reading on the life and times of people living in Tipperary in the 19th Century. (I have some ancestors who came from that part of the world.)
Tipperary was apparently relatively peaceful during the Butler palatinate from c. 1200 to the early 1700s. By the mid 1830s, however, the county had established an unrivalled reputation for lawlessness. In 1836, the number of people committed for trial in Tipperary amounted to about 1.4 per cent of the population of that county, whereas the corresponding percentage for Ireland as a whole was 0.3 per cent.
After comparing the data of numbers of people committed for trial with data on the numbers of crimes reported, the author comments:
‘A crude comparison between the two sets of ratios seems to suggest that a higher number of persons per crime was also a Tipperary phenomenon – perhaps an early indication of a co-operative spirit in the county’.
There is also some evidence suggesting that a greater amount of crime went unprosecuted and unpunished in Tipperary than other counties. At the time, one judge described ‘a system of terror’ creating greater difficulties in administration of justice in Tipperary than in other counties. Another reason for many victims to be reluctant to report crimes would have been their limited faith in the administration of justice.
Donal Murphy does not devote much space to discussion of the causes of the high crime rate in Tipperary because it isn’t relevant to the main theme of his book. He suggests distress and famine as a contributing factor, with a crop failure in 1834 being described as a preview of the Great Famine which occurred a decade later. He also mentions ‘the flourishing state of faction fighting, violence for the sake of violence’. This involved personal and community vendettas erupting in gang warfare at town fairs. A variety of groups are mentioned, including the Caravats and Shanavests.
My search for more information about the Shanavests and Caravats led me to Paul Roberts’ contribution entitled ‘Caravats and Shanavests: Whiteboyism and Faction Fighting in East Munster, 1802-11’, published in ‘Irish Peasants, Violence and Political Unrest 1780 – 1914’, edited by Samuel Clark and James Donnelly. Whiteboyism is a generic term referring to outbreaks of agrarian terrorism between 1760 and 1845, primarily aimed at redressing economic grievances of poor farmers and rural labourers. This action was mainly directed against the rural middle class who were their immediate landlords, as a result of various forms of subletting.
The Caravats have their origins as primarily a Whiteboy movement and the Shanavests as primarily a middle-class anti-Whiteboy movement. Both groups were known by different names in different areas.
Paul Roberts suggests that Caravatism was the product of the wartime agricultural boom of 1793-1813, which increased demand for food and resulted in higher rents. This benefited the middle classes, who had long leases, and disadvantaged the poor, who were not protected by leases. The Caravats used terror against better-off farmers and other middle-class elements in an attempt to guarantee the poor access to land and food. Some of their gangs were also involved in other criminal activities such as highway robbery.
The Shanavest movement had links to nationalist political organizations, but it arose in direct response to Caravatism. Its activities included murders and assaults directed against prominent Caravats. Apparently, the political and religious alienation of the middle class from the state inclined them to look to their own resources, rather than to rely on the state for protection.
The activities of the Caravats and Shanavests began in the south of Tipperary, but by 1809-10 had moved to the north of the county and to other counties. The authorities intervened by increasing troop numbers, holding a special commission and arresting forty men involved in the disturbances. This brought the Caravat-Shanavest outbreak under control, but the two movements seem to have lived on with open feuding being pursued under a series of regional names.
Paul Roberts suggests that the economic basis of the feud would have weakened over time as nationalism gained ground among the poor between 1815 and 1845, and the worsening economic situation of the rural middle class after 1813 created fertile soil for cooperation across class divisions. That would explain why Donal Murphy describes the faction fighting in the 1830s as ‘violence for the sake of violence’.
In writing about ‘the good society’ on this blog and elsewhere, I have put a great deal of emphasis on the need for people to be able to live in peace with one another in order to enjoy the benefits of economic and social progress. The history of Ireland in the early part of the 19th Century shows just how difficult it can be for people to live in peace when different groups perceive that others are treating them unfairly.