The Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies hosted graduate student Jessica Lumsden for the Shamrocks and Secrets lecture series, which focused on early 19th century Ireland and the growth of a secret and frequently violent society known as the Ribbonmen.
Although many rumors concerning the Ribbonmen still circulate, Lumsden said there are only a few established facts on the society and consequently little historical investigation into the subject.
“What we do have is we have many, many police reports; we have letters of gentlemen who were actively investigating the Ribbonmen; we have newspaper coverage of Ribbon crimes; we have a collection of captured passwords and oaths and signs,” she said. “So you have all these things that indicate what Ribbonmen were up to or at least what they thought they were up to.”
Lumsden said much of what we know about Ribbonism comes from the personal testimonies of informers claiming to be part of the society, as well as scattered references to Ribbonmen in Irish literature.
The sources reveal Ribbonmen operated on both a local and national level, she said. On the local level, Ribbonism was primarily agrarian and the Ribbonmen were involved in “trying to control local trade, local land, local politics and do some local policing of the community.”
On the national level, Lumsden said Ribbonism supported the nationalist movement and worked to repeal the Act of Union that both declared Ireland a part of Great Britain and merged the British and Irish parliaments.
“Ribbonmen are actually critically important to Irish history, and they’re forgotten for a number of reasons,” she said.
Emerging from the remains of a previous secret society known as the Defenders, the exclusively Catholic Ribbonmen became active around 1810 and gained traction between 1816 and 1824, Lumsden said.
Violence was a key component of Ribbonism, and Lumsden said members often left “coffin notices” containing death threats. The 1816 murders at Wildgoose Lodge, in which the Ribbonmen burned alive an informant and his family, cemented Ribbonism’s status as a powerful secret society characterized by violence.
“It caused uproar in Ireland,” she said. “This was violence that was not unknown, but it was violence that was attached to this secret society that was a new secret society, so that gave it some weight.”
Lumsden said following a schism which divided the Ribbonmen into two factions – the Dublin Ribbonmen and the Ulster Ribbonmen – the capture and trial of the secretary of the Dublin Ribbonmen resulted in the collapse of Dublin Ribbonism.
The Ulster Ribbonmen disintegrated soon after, she said, and by the mid-19th century, Ribbonism no longer occupied the position of power it once held.
“The specter of Ribbonism really gets broken after the 1840s,” she said.
The Ribbonmen’s legacy lies in their intricate national network, which Lumsden said enabled the persistence of Irish nationalism.
“These Ribbonmen built this diasporic network of Irish nationalism and fed that fire and kept that network alive so that it could be used by later nationalist groups,” she said. “The Ribbonmen keep alive this nationalism, and then they spread it.”
Originally published in The Observer February 16, 2015