On this date in 1766, Irish priest Nicholas Sheehy was hanged, drawn, and quartered in Clonmel — a victim to the years-long campaign of enclosures by Ireland’s landlords, whom English agriculturist Arthur Young reported as “harpies who squeezed out the very vitals of the people and by process, extortion, and sequestration dragged from them the little which the landlord had left them.”
Sheehy was a sympathizer of the peasant “Whiteboys” resistance movement, so named for the snowy frocks these secret guerrillas donned when out on midnight raids to strike back against the owners where tenants’ livelihoods were at stake. Where landlords enclosed public grounds, Whiteboys knocked down the fences; where they displaced peasant farmer with commercial livestock, Whiteboys hamstrung the cattle.
“It could not be expected,” wrote Margaret Anne Cusack, “that the Irish priest would see the people exposed to all this misery — and what to them was far more painful, to all this temptation to commit deadly sin — without making some effort in their behalf.”
Father Sheehy, parish priest of Clogheen, was one of these, and a villain in the eyes of Protestant elites for his denunciations of enclosure and his comforts to its more muscular foes.
He had interfered in the vain hope of protecting his unfortunate parishioners from injustice; and, in return, he was himself made the victim of injustice. He was accused of encouraging a French invasion — a fear which was always present to the minds of the rulers, as they could not but know that the Irish had every reason to seek for foreign aid to free them from domestic wrongs. He was accused of encouraging the Whiteboys, because, while he denounced their crimes, he accused those who had driven them to these crimes as the real culprits. He was accused of treason, and a reward of £300 was offered for his apprehension. Conscious of his innocence, he gave himself up at once to justice, though he might easily have fled the country. He was tried in Dublin and acquitted. But his persecutors were not satisfied.
A charge of murder was got up against him; and although the body of the man [John Bridge, a former Whiteboy turned informer -ed.] could never be found, although it was sworn that he had left the country, although an alibi was proved for the priest, he was condemned and executed. A gentleman of property and position came forward at the trial to prove that Father Sheehy had slept in his house the very night on which he was accused of having committed the murder; but the moment he appeared in court, a clergyman who sat on the bench had him taken into custody, on pretence of having killed a corporal and a sergeant in a riot. The pretence answered the purpose …
At the place of execution, Father Sheehy most solemnly declared, on the word of a dying man, that he was not guilty either of murder or of treason; that he never had any intercourse, either directly or indirectly, with the French; and that he had never known of any such intercourse being practised by others.
Father Sheehy’s head wound up on a pike (it was said that the birds in reverence would not peck at it), and his name in the rich firmament of Irish martyr-patriots. He’s been occasionally proposed for canonization.
Impelled by the profitable wool export business, landlords began “enclosing” formerly open arable land for pasture, thereby destroying the communal and quasi-communal agricultural models of the middle ages.
For Marx, among many others, this revolution in agricultural production — and the attendant proletarianization of the former peasantry — marks the dawn of the capitalist epoch, when
great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and “unattached” proletarians on the labour-market. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process …
Although, therefore, the English land, after the Norman Conquest, was distributed in gigantic baronies, one of which often included some 900 of the old Anglo-Saxon lordships, it was bestrewn with small peasant properties, only here and there interspersed with great seignorial domains. Such conditions, together with the prosperity of the towns so characteristic of the 15th century, allowed of that wealth of the people which Chancellor Fortescue so eloquently paints in his “Laudes legum Angliae;” but it excluded the possibility of capitalistic wealth.
The prelude of the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production, was played in the last third of the 15th, and the first decade of the 16th century. A mass of free proletarians was hurled on the labour-market by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, who, as Sir James Steuart well says, “everywhere uselessly filled house and castle.” … In insolent conflict with king and parliament, the great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufactures, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions. The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheep-walks was, therefore, its cry … As Thornton rightly has it, the English working-class was precipitated without any transition from its golden into its iron age. (Capital, volume I, chapters 26–27)
It did not suffer its precipitation quietly.
Enclosures were a predominant social problem in England throughout the century, and if contemporaries could hardly descry the shape of the economic revolution taking shape, they worriedly noticed the poverty, the vagabondage, and the depopulated villages.
your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots! not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them. As if forests and parks had swallowed up too little of the land, those worthy countrymen turn the best inhabited places into solitudes; for when an insatiable wretch, who is a plague to his country, resolves to enclose many thousand acres of ground, the owners, as well as tenants, are turned out of their possessions by trick or by main force, or, being wearied out by ill usage, they are forced to sell them; by which means those miserable people, both men and women, married and unmarried, old and young, with their poor but numerous families (since country business requires many hands), are all forced to change their seats, not knowing whither to go; and they must sell, almost for nothing, their household stuff
Commissions studied enclosure; edicts forbade and reversed them; commentators denounced them — all to no effect.
Robert Kett, from a larger painting (click to see it) by Samuel Wale.
Henrician England had plenty of violent social transformation on its plate, of course, and plenty of violent tools to manage it. When the philandering tyrant kicked the bucket in 1547, he left the unfolding social catastrophe to the weakened protectorate government of his sickly nine-year-old heir.
In East Anglia in the summer of 1549, a peasant riot against an enclosure caught a spark. Unexpectedly, when the mob moved to throw down the enclosures put up by Robert Kett (another small landowner), he committed himself to the peasant cause and ably steered the rebellion for six heady weeks.
Kett was the man for his time and place: proving a natural leader, he marshaled the inchoate rage of his countrymen into an orderly, disciplined force.
And Kett meant business, as this fiery (perhaps slightly fatalistic) oration suggests; he well knew that he had committed his own person to glory or destruction.
Now are ye overtopped and trodden down by gentlemen, and put out of possibility ever to recover foot. Rivers of riches ran into the coffers of your landlords, while you are pair’d to the quick, and fed upon pease and oats like beasts. You are fleeced by these landlords for their private benefit, and as well kept under by the public burdens of State wherein while the richer sort favour themselves, ye are gnawn to the very bones. You tyrannous masters often implead, arrest, and cast you into prison, so that they may the more terrify and torture you in your minds, and wind our necks more surely under their arms. And then they palliate these pillories with the fair pretence of law and authority! Fine workmen, I warrant you, are this law and authority, who can do their dealings so closely that men can only discover them for your undoing. Harmless counsels are fit for tame fools; for you who have already stirred there is no hope but in adventuring boldly.
Alas, like the enclosures themselves, the matter was to be resolved against the peasantry by main force. [bits and bobs on the daily progress of skirmishes and battles in this pdf] Though the rebels actually defeated the first force sent against them, they were decisively beaten at Dussindale on Aug. 27.
“We were promised ynoughe and more then ynoughe. But the more was an hawlter.”*
Promises of clemency induced the survivors to surrender peacably; though wholesale punitive bloodletting seems not to have been imposed, the leaders, of course, had to be made an example of.
Robert Kett and his brother, William, were convicted of treason and hanged.
Smoothly leveraging his dispatch in handling the rebellion, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, overturned the national political leadership of the Lord Protector the Duke of Somerset, who was accused of having triggered the rising with an excess of sympathy for the dispossessed peasant class. (Both Somerset and Northumberland would end up on the chopping block themselves.)
* Quote from a survivor of the rebellion, cited by Diarmaid MacCulloch in “Kett’s Rebellion in Context,” Past & Present, No. 84 (Aug., 1979).