by Regina Jeffers
Known as Cogadh na nDeachúna in Irish, the Tithe War was a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience, complicated by sporadic violence, in Ireland between 1830 and 1836. The conflict came about in response to the enforcement of tithes on subsistence farmers and others for the upkeep of the Church of Ireland. These required tithes, which could be paid in cash or kind, did not consider an individual's religious attachment.
Tithes were an obligation for those working the land to pay 10% of the value of certain agricultural produce for the upkeep of the clergy and the maintenance of the church. In the 16th Century (after the Reformation in Ireland), the church's assets were allocated by King Henry VIII to the new established church. This action created a "double" obligation to those who remained loyal to the old religion, who were then obliged to make tithe payments to both their own church and to the reformed one. Many at the time were also making voluntary contributions to the construction or purchase of new churches to provide Roman Catholics places to worship. The new established church was supported by a minority of the population, 75% of whom continued to adhere to Roman Catholicism.
During the campaign to approve the Act of Union of 1801, William Pitt the Younger promised Emancipation for Roman Catholics, which had been approved by the Irish Parliament prior to creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The king, George III, however, refused to keep Pitt's promises, and it was not until 1829 that the Duke of Wellington's government finally agreed to the Roman Catholic Emancipation Act. Unfortunately, this did not remove the obligation to pay tithes to the Church of Ireland, and resentment grew. "Roman Catholic clerical establishments in Ireland had refused government offers of tithe-sharing with the established church, feating the British government regulation and control would come with acceptance of such money."
Both tenants or owner-occupiers shouldered the burden of the tithes. Generally, these tithes were paid in kind (livestock, produce, etc.).
A system of benefices existed in the Anglican system. A benefice is a reward received in exchange for services rendered and as retainer for future services. Its use was adopted by the western church in the Carolingian Era as a benefit bestowed by the crown or church officials. A benefice specifically from a church is called a precaria, such as a stipend and one from a monarch or nobleman is usually called a fief.
At the time of the Tithe War, nearly half of the clergy were not resident in the parishes from which they drew their incomes. The senior Irish Roman Catholic clergy inflamed the issues because they were dependent on voluntary contributions due to the discontinuation of the Maynooth grant. (In 1795, the British government supported the founding of a Catholic seminary in Maynooth, Ireland. The college was funded by the British government. The grant given to the college was 8000 pounds annually. The rate stayed the same from 1809 to 1845.) The locals resisted paying for the support of two clerical establishments. Roman Catholic bishops and clergy encouraged those who wished to rebel against the payments.
Beginning with the 1829 Emancipation, an organized campaign of resistance created a noticeable "financial crunch" for the clergy of the established church. A compiled list of defaulters led to collection orders for the seizure of goods and chattlels. Violence broke out in the counties of Kilkenny, Tipperary, and Wexford. The Irish Constabulary attempted to force the orders of seizure by taking possession of stock and produce at marketplaces, which created more violence.
Patrick "Patt" Lalor was a farmer of Tenakill, Queen's County, who later served as a repeal MP (1832-1835). At a public meeting in February 1831 in Maryborough, Lalor declared he "would never again pay tithes," and he would "violate no law." He told the listeners that the tithe men might take his property and offer it for sale, "but my countrymen, I am proud to say, respect me, and I believe none of them would buy or bid for it if exposed for sale." Lalor held true to his word and did not resist the confiscation of 20 sheep from his farm, but was able to ensure no buyers appeared at subsequent auctions.
On 3 March 1831, in Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny, a force of 120 yeomanry attempted to enforce seizure orders on cattle belonging to a Roman Catholic priest. This particular priest had meant to protect those who wished to resist tithe collection by encouraging those involved to place their stock under his ownership prior to sale. This was the first clash of the Tithe War, which soon spread throughout Ireland.
On 18 June 1831, Irish Constabulary killed 12 and wounded 20 in Bunclody (Newtownbarry), County Wexford, when the locals resisted the seizure of cattle. This confrontation resulted in a more organized effort on the dissenters. They used warnings, such as church bells, to signal the community to the round up of cattle and stock. On 14 December 1831, resisters used the bell system to ambush a detachment of 40 Constabulary at Carrickshock, County Kilkenny, where 12 constables, including the Chief Constable, were killed.
The clashes and the fatalities continued over the next two years. By 1831, the authorities recorded 242 homicides, 1,179 robberies, 401 burglaries, 568 burnings, 280 cases of cattle-maiming, 161 assaults, 203 riots and 723 attacks on property directly attributed to seizure order enforcement. In 1832, the president of Carlow College was imprisoned for not paying tithes. On 18 December 1834, the conflict came to a head at Rathcormac, County Cork, when armed Constabulary reinforced by the regular British Army killed twelve and wounded forty-two during several hours of fighting when trying to enforce a tithe order reputedly to the value of 40 shillings.
With the difficulty of finding and collecting livestock chattels, as well as the public outrage and the increased strain on police relations, the government, eventually, suspended collections. It was lamented that "it cost a shilling to collect a tuppence."
The Tithe Commutation Act for Ireland was introduced in Parliament in 1838. This Act reduced the amount payable directly by about a quarter and made the remainder payable in rent to landlords. The landlords, in turn, were to pass payment on to the authorities. This permitted tithes to be added to a tenant's rents, thus ending the "violent" encounters of orders of seizures associated with the Tithe War. However, the "tithe" commitment was not removed fully until the Irish Church Act 1869, which disestablished the Church of Ireland.