Jennifer Kelly, 'The Downfall of Hagan': Sligo Ribbonism in 1842.
This brief, but succinct, book in the commendable Maynooth Studies in Local History series examines a subject that has received increased scholarly attention over the past decade, the Ribbon societies of the early to mid-nineteenth century. Jennifer Kelly completed a Ph.D. thesis on Ribbonism in County Leitrim in 2005 and one assumes that this examination of the Sligo organisation was part of that overall research. Dr Kelly uses the individual case of James Hagan, a senior Ribbonman in Sligo town, as a lens to peer into the secret world of passwords, economic protectionism and the ubiquitous lure of informing. Hagan himself became a 'Crown approver' after being arrested by the authorities in 1841. 'The Downfall of Hagan', mentioned in the title, refers to a popular ballad that was coined after the Ribbonman's duplicity was uncovered at the spring assizes of 1842. Public opprobrium was compounded by the fact that he continued to swear young men into the society even after he had taken the decision to work for the police. Kelly, however, successfully portrays Hagan as a reluctant informer who enjoyed his senior role in the society and benefited from the social mobility that membership often gave lower-class Catholics in a society that was tightly bound by economic wealth and sectarian limitations.
While secret societies were nothing new in Connacht during the early nineteenth century, the Ribbonmen seemed to have surpassed any previous groups in their level of organisation and infiltration. While earlier groups such as the Threshers targeted the overcharging priest as much as a ruthless tithe proctor, Ribbon societies were structured along distinctly sectarian lines and aimed at effecting a protectionist economic system in certain localities. If a Protestant did not threaten or compete with Catholic trade or industry, then peaceful coexistence often occurred. However, if custom or trade overlapped and threatened local (Catholic) interests, then intimidation, threats and sometimes violence would be used by the society to rectify any perceived interference from 'outsiders'. Kelly also notes that this organisation extended to England, Scotland and America, where lodges shared Irish passwords and acted as mutual assistance societies to any affiliated member that emigrated abroad. Indeed, Ribbonmen often held a coveted 'travelling certificate', a type of reference from a senior leader in Ireland, which was an important way of getting employment in unfamiliar surroundings
The use of Hagan's information, which helped to convict four Ribbonmen in 1842, gives a clear picture of the structure, strength and threat of the Sligo organisation during this particular period. Hagan himself had joined in 1825 and claimed to the authorities that he had sworn over two thousand men into the organisation over a six-year period. An interesting addition to these numbers is what Kelly calls the 'threepenny men'. These men were of a lower social standing than the formal lodge members and paid 3d to acquire current passwords in return for being a sizable 'reserve' when a show of strength was deemed necessary. According to Kelly, this affiliated section of disaffected labourers and peasants was more sizable, and much more common, than the fully paid up (and usually literate) members of the respective lodges in Sligo. The author also deals with the motives behind affiliating with or joining such a society. Membership of a lodge tended to give important social benefits to those who could rise within its ranks. Indeed, any type of mobility in the social hierarchy of lower-paid artisans, teachers and labourers would certainly have been attractive to young men seeking increased status in the rigidity of the broader class system.
However, this reviewer is not certain that selfish and opportunistic motives were the sole reasons for joining a secret society in the early nineteenth century. An ingrained sense of injustice was apparent among large sections of lowerclass Catholics in Connacht during this period, garnered from a collective memory that stretched back to the horrors of 1798, the penal laws and further back to Cromwell. The implication in the book, that Ribbonmen were devoid of any political motivation whatsoever, is difficult to believe and is probably based on the fact that Kelly often cites Tom Garvin's work on the subject, an author who often writes history with one eye fixed on Ireland's more recent troubles. Nevertheless, the book is well written, accessible and a welcome addition to the historical examination of secret societies in the west of Ireland and their links with the better-known organisations in Ulster and Leinster. It also gives the reader a glimpse of the social and economic tensions of a society that was gradually coming under the influence of an increasingly centralised form of government. It is a fine addition to an already significant series of local histories from NUI Maynooth.
St Patrick's College, Drumcondra
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|Publication:||Irish Economic and Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2009|
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