Crime and Punishment in Queen’s County: Agrarian Crime of the 1830s and Famine Crime 1845 – 1849

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Crime and Punishment in Queen’s County:

Agrarian Crime of the 1830s and

Famine Crime 1845–1849

During the famine, there was widespread fear that the suffering of famine victims would erupt into the violent crime that would threaten property and property owners. There was the widespread talk of insurrection and outrage among resident landlords, merchants and well-off farmers (Nationwide, in 1847, 131 requests for protection of individuals; 275 requests for increases in police and 157 miscellaneous calls for extra police assistance.) One sign of an increase in crime is the progressive increase in the size of the force during these years, from 9,100 in 1845 to 12,500 in 1850 and 1,265 extra constables in 1846 alone. Fear of an outbreak of serious violence was unfounded, however.
Perhaps the lack of serious insurrection during the famine can be explained by the fact that by 1845, Ireland has become the most policed place in the Empire. The RIC replaced the County Constabulary in 1836 and by 1841, the Grand Jury reports Queen’s County, had 41 police stations, 52 Constables, and 262 sub-Constables. At the centre of law and order in Ireland was the Chief’s Secretary’s office at Dublin Castle; the RIC enforced the law and local landlords were the JPs and magistrates, who tried and sentenced people at local courts – petty sessions. Serious crime was tried at Quarterly Assizes.

The First Three Decades

For the first 3 decades of the 19th century, many parts of Ireland saw a great deal of agrarian terror. Leinster Express reports show that outrages such as cattle-maiming, arson, intimidation, and assassination occurred in Queen’s County in the 1820s and 1830s. Organizations such as the Blackfeet, Whitefeet, Lieutenant Starlight and Captain Rock (Rockites) were very active in the county.
In 1832, a petition was signed by the High Sheriff, the grand jury, the body of magistrates of Queen’s County. It petitions for special provisions to deal with a serious disturbance in Laois: anonymous threats and notices, intimidation, murder and conspiracy to murder, ‘night marauders’.
One witness to the parliamentary select committee held in 1830 to investigate, claimed that this period of disturbance dated back to 1815. It peaked in 1832. The county’s two MPs Sir Henry Parnell and Sir Charles Coote called for a select committee in the state of the county.
Several Queen’s County witnesses gave testimony to the committee. John Dillon Esq. from Mountmellick (QC) said that “high rents, want of employment, low wages and tithe” are the causes of the discontent behind the ribbon system in Queen’s County. Other witnesses (Rev. Michael Keogh, Abbeyleix and Rev J Delaney PP, Ballinakill) cite eviction as a major cause of ‘ribbonism’. Delaney testifies that the evictions caused a mini-famine. These two witnesses insist that the crimes (‘outrages’) are not political, but result from the practice of clearing people off the land to make way for grazing.
Bishop Doyle (Kildare & Leighlin –in the 1820s, he had issued several pastorals against secret societies) blamed disturbances on the consolidation of farms at that time. One witness to the select committee testifies that in 1828 ‘one gentleman evicted 89 persons, another evicted 96, another 95, another 8, and another 8. Four years later ‘with the colliers, closing, there are 1,126 men idle. Over almost a decade between the 1820s and 1830s, the Cosby estate had evicted ‘a vast number’ of tenants. The lowest classes, labourers, and cottiers were becoming steadily more insecure and impoverished.

Leagues for communal defence

Gibbons argues that the secret societies were ‘leagues for communal defence’ like trade unions, but also vehicles for ordinary criminal activity. They were involved in a ‘struggle against the many changes that were transforming a … peasant culture, rooted in the land and dependent on it, into something based on commerce and money’ Unemployment in the colliery districts also contributed to ‘Rockism’ in Queen’s County.

Common features of crime are stealing arms from soldiers, yeomanry, mail coach and the homes of the gentry, arson, destroying cattle, corn, and hay, Luddite attacks on ploughs and other equipment, crimes related to goods distrained for rent or tithe. Threatening notices are frequent between February and April when conacre agreements are made. Threatening notices feature accusations of ‘unreasonable rent’, ‘oppressing the poor’, taking arrears of rent from the poor. (There are often sectarian slurs in anonymous notices and letters, but land seems to be the central issue) Anonymous threatening letters are aimed at landlords and at those who take the land. Workmen are intimidated when working for major landholder. There are also notices to boycott members of the community, such as a shopkeeper John Baille. Land jobbers and landholders are warned against taking land without the ‘good wishes’ of the person quitting. In 1830, the Rockites serve notice that a maximum of £6 an acre for conacre, and they threaten equally those charging and those paying more.

In 1830 and 1831, Queen’s County occupied the place previously taken up by Limerick, Tipperary or Cork. Robberies, arson, and anonymous threats are daily experiences in some areas. More than 100 stands of arms were robbed in 1831. Mountmellick and Mountrath fairs are disturbed by Whitefeet and Blackfeet. A stonecutter working on the Mount Henry estate is murdered. There is an attempt on the life of the steward of the Lyster family at Grennan. Lyster himself is fired upon. In 1832 another steward of the same family is murdered. 1832 sees 215 attacks on houses and 226 illegal notices. The following year, there are 320 illegal notices, 622 attacks on houses.

Elections sometimes led to violence. There was, according to the Leinster Express and Sir Charles Coote, a great deal of intimidation and violence during the 1832 elections. The tithe war was particularly turbulent in Laois, and the Leinster Express reports that at that time, there were pews, belonging to respectable families, torn out and burned. In 1832, William Despard (landlord) reported that no tithe had been paid in the county in recent months. Those who are actually willing to pay, are threatened not to pay.

In 1832, at Maryborough Spring Assizes 43 men are convicted for Whiteboyism. In 1834, the disturbed state of the county is evident in the fact that 10 persons were sentenced to be hanged “their bodies hung in chains”. The next year, 15 are hanged and buried within the jail at Maryborough. In the 1830s, the Grand Jury increased the amount of money spent on law and order again and again. The Courthouse at Maryborough is extended. A building is rented in Mountmellick to use for Petty and Special Sessions, and a bridewell and yard for Stradbally and Borris-in-Ossory. A new gaol is built at Maryborough. On top of regular police, the county also has 80 members of the Peace Preservation Force.

The Famine

The famine years saw a reduction in serious ‘outrages’ and an increase in petty crime. The activities of secret societies seemed to drop as the famine took hold. Crimes against landlords, magistrates and so on dropped. The crimes during the famine seem to be the result of starvation and want. While crime related directly to destitution was a serious problem for the police during the famine, the large-scale rioting and plundering that frightened provincial business and professional people did not occur in Queen’s County. Traditional organized agrarian crime declined.
Nationwide, crime rose during the famine. The number of people tried in petty sessions increased from 20,000 in 1845 to 39,000 in 1849. The number of women and children convicted of crimes rose sharply. Queen’s County seems to follow the national trend. On January 27th, 1849, the local newspaper, the Leinster Express, reports that in a period of 25 days 159 prisoners had been committed to the Maryborough Gaol.

Leinster Express, March 7 1846: the correspondent reports that the Assizes are very busy and ‘though the cases are not of a very important nature, they are rather more numerous than they have been for some years past’.
Nationwide, burglary, robbery, livestock stealing, and plundering of provisions rose. Crime was at its highest levels nationwide in Black ‘47, reported offences are 60 percent higher in 1847 than in the previous year. There were 10,000 reports of cattle and sheep stealing, 1,200 incidents of plundering of provisions and more than 1,000 reports of stealing weapons in 1847.

The most common crimes reported in the Leinster Express in these years are stealing food: turnips, oats, potatoes, pigs and sheep. There are also many cases of stealing turf, clothes (and occasionally cash). The victims of crime are sometimes local gentry, but more often farmers. Many of the crimes seem opportunistic. There is a marked increase in the instance of young children and women committing crime. On March 14th 1847, Margaret Kelly, John Hosey and Marius Baldwin (two small boys) are found guilty of stealing potatoes. In the same issue, the Leinster Express records that ‘Queen’s county is not quite as fortunate as Kildare – several districts being in the most abject state of wretchedness, and we are credibly informed that there are whole parishes at this moment without a single potato.”
By January 1847, The Leinster Express refers to the epidemic of sheep stealing as ‘the feast of Mutton’ and bemoans the increase in crime generally. It reports eight separate cases of sheep theft. In one case the sheep was killed in the field and nothing left but the skin. Some of the victims are ‘gentlemen’; others are just farmers.

Why did crime increase?

Hunger, or starvation, seems to be the first cause, but there are also other issues that must be considered. There is a great deal of disruption to normal life. The roads and towns are full of destitute families with no means to support themselves and no food. Violence around the transport of food and provisions to markets, warehouses, ports, or relief points is reported. There are some instances of organized attacks on food transport and a great deal of care is taken to protect food transports, including the delivery of food to Mountmellick Workhouse. A carrier named John Foran was attacked by 20 men at Rossleighn, near Maryborough, and plundered of 9 sacks of Oatmeal the property of James C Sheane Esq of Mountmellick. In Leinster Express, October 1846, the Mountmellick correspondent reports a ‘provision riot… principally women … attacked a cart of meal in Chapel Lane and succeeded in carrying off the contents of one sack.’ On December 5th, 1846, bread carts in Mountmellick are attacked. (The more organized nature of the crime in Mountmellick may be explained by the fact that the workhouse is in Mountmellick and there are regular deliveries of food.) In the same issue, the Leinster Express reports two sacks of flour ‘feloniously taken from a car near Maryborough.’ There are also several attempts to break into the stores of workhouses, for instance in January 1848, RIC constables on patrol arrest three men in the act of breaking into Ballyroan Auxiliary stores.

Temporary Relief Schemes

The temporary government relief schemes of 1846 and 1847, public works projects and the soup kitchens that replaced them, required RIC supervision The government’s public works programme caused worry: it brought large numbers of desperate people together and therefore as the Leinster Express says, ‘facility is given to them to form schemes of intimidation and disturbance’. The public works also meant the movement of cash and provided an opportunity for robbery.
Also, it seems that some people committed a crime in order to be jailed. January 27th 1849, Anne Thompson, Cyprian (prostitute) told the police who arrested her that she stole a cloak for the ‘purpose of being transported’. On being asked in court why she left the workhouse, ‘she gave as her reason that the diet and other comforts of the jail were far preferable to the poor house.’ More people were transported from Ireland in the 13 years from 1840, than in the previous 50 years.
Famine visitors to Ireland, for instance, Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqyeville, express their surprise that the Irish peasantry put up with conditions that would cause insurrection in any country in Europe. Tim Pat Coogan says that the Irish have ‘learned helplessness’, however, we should remember that Ireland is highly policed, punishments are very severe, and the military presence is Ireland during the famine increases from 15,046 in 1843 (very high by British standards) to 29,500 in 1849 (this is 82% of the military stationed in the British Isles) Troops were used to assist rate collectors, protect food transports, to seize property in lieu of rates and assist evictions)

The principal source used for this essay for individual cases of crime is the Leinster Express. Punishments were severe and no allowance was made for suffering or starvation. “Edward Kenny, a small boy pleaded guilty to stealing money, a watch and some clothes from Richard Carter of Ballypickas near Durrow.’ The boy is sentenced to ‘be transported for seven years”. ‘Thomas Phelan was indicted for robbing from Patrick Kennedy of Dysartgallen, 3shilliings, and 6pence while Kennedy was asleep. Transported for 7 years.’, but Denis Mc Donnell found guilty of stealing 4 shirts in Kilabban gets 6 months gaol. Stealing food, turf or clothing gets a prison sentence, sometimes with hard labour (the following is typical, but sentences vary, ‘John Mulhall stole 3st potatoes at Shanahoe, 3mts imprisonment‘ Repeat offenders, however, get transportation for stealing food, for example,’ Ellen Delaney (previously convicted) transported for 7 years for stealing potatoes from Daniel Galbriath. Or Margaret Delaney, and her daughter Fanny white a small girl, pleaded guilty of stealing potatoes from John Brennan of Dysartbeagh and also from Stephen Buttler of Old Borris (found guilty on former occasions of larceny) are separated, the mother transported for 7 years.

On the 29th May 1847, the Leinster Express reports that a sentence of 7 years transportation is given to quite a large group of men for crimes of robbery. Michael Bowes, for cow stealing; Cavan Lalor, for highway robbery; Michael Treehy, Michael McDonald and Patrick Nash, for burglary; John Conrahy and Michael Coleman, plunder of provisions; Thomas Chambers, obtaining money under false pretences; John Whelan, assault with intent to rob; and Patrick McDonald, for burglary and robbery of arms.


Leinster Express January 1845 – December 1849
Lowe, W.J., “The Irish Constabulary in the Great Famine” in History Ireland, vol. 5, no. 4 (Winter 1997), pp. 32-37
Gibbons, S.R. ‘Chapter 17, Captain Rock in the Queen’s County


4 thoughts on “Crime and Punishment in Queen’s County: Agrarian Crime of the 1830s and Famine Crime 1845 – 1849

  • My great great grandfather Martin Pike was transported on the Java in 1833 to Sydney NSW colony for swearing an oath to other than the Crown. I understand he was a Whiteboy from then Queens County. He was in chains in NSW until 1842 on the Iron Gangs.

    • Thanks for your reply Rohan. Local history stories recall tales of the White Boys in the Abbeyleix area of the county. Great to hear from a descendant. Have you written any of your family history anywhere. Would love to read more. Thanks. All the best, Regina.

      • Hello Regina, I have had a professionally produced audio file of Martin Pikes story titled “From Ireland in Chains to the Limestone Plains” after I ran a history walk/talk at the 2022 Australian Capital Territory Heritage Festival under the same title. It has been mentioned on the ABC National Radio program “Australia All Over” last weekend also. I can forward the audio file if it may be of interest.


        Rohan Goyne

        • Hi Rohan, Absolutely, we would love to hear it. If you can share it on a drive to laoisheritagesocietywebsite@gmailcom.

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Laois Heritage Society 2019