The Origin of Irish Secret Societies

From the Lecture Series: Secret Societies

By Richard Spence Ph.D., University of Idaho

Secret societies have played essential roles in significant historical events. Irish secret societies have also been present in many uprisings in history to bring independence to their homeland. They belong to a long history of resistance that has its roots in several centuries ago and is not still over today.

A scene depicting the Battle of Boyne
Battle of Boyne, After which the protestant elite established their dominance over the catholic majority (Image: Jan van Huchtenburgh/Public domain)

The Inception of Irish Secret Societies

English rule over Ireland began as early as the 12 century, with English kings calling themselves Lords of Ireland. The title continued to be used until 1542, when Henry VIII adopted the title, King of Ireland.

In the 17the century, a brutal episode of war and rebellion killed a third of Ireland’s population and led to the dispossession and decimation of the native Irish nobles. Protestant Ascendency took the place of the Irish nobility. In 1690, during the Battle of Boyne, the Protestant elite of landowners established their domination over the Catholic majority. As a result, the Catholic population was subjugated as peasants and suffered severe punishments based on harsh laws. They were banned from holding public office, marrying Protestants, possessing or inheriting large estates, or even owning a horse worth more than five British pounds sterling.

Against these cruelties, forces of resistance formed, but of course, it had to be underground. This was the root of Irish secret societies.

Flag of the Kingdom of Ireland 1542–1801
Flag of Kingdom of Ireland, from 1542 to 1801, when Henry VIII Called Himself King of Ireland. (Image: TRAJAN 117/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Rivaling Irish Secret Societies

In the mid-18th century, a group called the White Boys emerged. They called themselves White Boys because of the white smocks they wore during their nightly missions. With the hope of staging an uprising against the Protestant elite, they attacked landlord agents and tax collectors.

This is a transcript from the video series Secret Societies. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

In the 1780s, a Protestant secret society emerged called the Peep o’Day Boy, who imitated Freemasons and swore oaths of secrecy. They were rivals with another secret society in Northern Ireland, the Catholic Defenders, and raged a battle with them in 1795, which the Protestants won. Later that year, the Peep o’Day Boys turned into the Loyal Orange Institution, or Orange Order. and swore to sustain the Protestant Ascendancy.

Peep o' Day Boys
Peep O’Day Boys were a Protestant Secret Society that Raged a Battle with the Catholic Defenders (Image: British Library/Public domain)

The name Orange was a tribute to William of Orange, the Dutch Protestant ruler who became King of England in 1689. His army won the Battle of Boyne and established the power of the Protestant Ascendency. The battle’s anniversary, known as the Glorious Twelfth of July, is still celebrated every year. The Oranges wanted it to be a reminder of the oppression and defeat of Irish Catholics.

In 1790, a different secret society emerged that initiated both Catholics and dissident Protestants. The name of the society was the United Irishmen, and it was inspired by the recent American Revolution and the imminent one in France.

Learn more about Medieval Irish literature.

American Revolution, an Inspiration

American Revolution was inspiring for the Irish because it debunked the invincibility of the British Empire and showed that it was possible to rebel against the English.

In 1793, the same year that Britain went to war with revolutionary France, United Irishmen became a real secret underground society by adopting oaths and passwords. They saw an opportunity in England’s difficulty, so they secretly began negotiating with Paris. They planned to land 14,000 French forces in Ireland. But the plan failed and was responded with martial law by the British. Despite this failure, the United Irishmen continued to grow and attracted 200,000 men.

In 1789, inspired by the French Revolution, the United Irishmen launched a rebellion led by the Protestant Irish revolutionary Wolfe Tone. However, the plan to take over Dublin failed because it was uncoordinated and betrayed by informers. Wolfe Tone was arrested and sentenced to hang. He didn’t reach his destined fate at the gallows as he was allegedly murdered by his jailors. Another story holds that he cut his own throat. The year 1798 was a disastrous year for the Irish as many people were killed while English rule was still dominant.

Learn more about English invasions of Wales and Ireland.

Things were not supposed to get better, though. In 1801, the Irish Parliament was dissolved through a new Act of Union. The United Irishmen turned into lodges with rural oaths under names like the Fraternal Society, and the Sons of the Shamrock. Their sign of recognition was a green ribbon, so they were called Ribbon Men. They conducted a guerrilla war against landlords, officials, and, most importantly, the Protestant Orange Order, their arch enemies.

In 1829, the Anti-Catholic laws were revoked in the British Parliament while the Protestant Ascendancy remained dominant. Things were not going to get better, as the struggles for independence were going to extend into the next centuries.

Common Questions about The Origins of Irish Secret Societies

Q: What is Protestant Ascendency?

Protestant Ascendancy refers to the ruling of Ireland by a Protestant minority. In 1690, during the Battle of the Boyne, the Protestant elite of mostly landowners established their domination over the Catholic majority.

Q: Who were the Irish White Boys?

The White Boys was an Irish secret society in the mid-18th century, Ireland. They wore a white robe in their nocturnal escapades, hence the name. Their plan was to stage a rebellion against the Protestant landowners.

Q: Is Peep o’Day Boy a secret society?

Yes. The Peep o’Day was a secret society of Protestants to rival the Catholic Defenders. They imitated Freemasons and swore oaths of secrecy.

Q: What was the Battle of Boyne?

The Battle of Boyne was the battle that established the dominance of the Irish Protestant over the Catholic majority. The Leader of the army was William of Orange, and the anniversary of this battle is celebrated every year.

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