Kildare Voice 5 October 2007
The Insurrection Act of 1807
The new insurrection act that was posted in the towns of Kildare exactly 200 years ago this month was a draconian law even by the standards of the time.
Kildare was ostensibly peaceful. It had been four years since Maynooth was captured and held for two days during Emmet’s rebellion, nine years since most of the county been captured by the 1798 rebels for two days and Prosperous held for four weeks.
After nine years of repression, there was hope that a new act would bring to an end the excesses of the yeomanry and the obstruction of liberties, trade and commerce of local people.
The people were to be disappointed. A late frost had destroyed the potato crop, starvation stalked the countryside, and there were fears of renewed rebellion. Over in London from where the laws emanated, it was the hawks who were winning the arguments.
On August 1st 1807 the Dublin Castle regime sent word that the new Insurrection Act had been passed which suspended trial by jury.
Seven years transportation became the penalty for anyone who broke a sunset to sunrise curfew, administered illegal oaths or possessed arms.
It was pretty grim news for the country at a time when they were anticipating a more liberal regime, Catholic emancipation and the modicum of democracy they had been promised in return for the abolition of Ireland’s protestant-only parliament.
The fears of the reformers had been presuaged by the collapse of the national government in London. The so-called “Ministry of All the Talents” (which included liberal interests for the first time) had been dismissed by George III, the king who went into history for talking to trees.
A new government had been sworn in and a new Lord Lieutenant arrived in Dublin, Charles Lennox, three of whose aunts were married to Kildare grandees and he was a first cousin of Lord Edward FitzGerald.
He arrived in Straffan in the summer of 1807, outlining a hard line policy by a new regime at the home of Joseph Henry.
It is doubtful whether the act had any effect. Over the next twenty years Kildare saw a succession of illegal movements, variously attributed to Whitefeet and Blackfeet and Terry Alts but more likely to be different responses to different local acts of political and industrial oppression.
Locals raided for arms in Athy and Naas. Arms were recovered in thatched houses in the north of the county. Staplestown appears to have staged an outright revolt against the local militia.
Tithe seizures were a continuous source of discontent. A raid to recover seized grain in Straffan led to a call for the reinforcement of the militia in Celbridge. In Kilcock, canal builders breached the newly finished banks to try to get a few months extra work to avoid starvation.
Colliers across the border in Laois and Carlow took an early form of industrial action and an unknown number mown down by local militia gunfire.
Kildare town even had an alleged rebellion all of its own planned for June 1814, according to the paranoid local magistrates.
In 1820 Dubliners barricaded the Grand Canal to prevent an attachment of armed rebels breaking through from north Kildare. Lawless said it was the Dublin magistrates who had created the alarm all of their own accord.
They regarded Kildare as soft on potential rebels in Dublin, where the shrieks and screams of people helping the police with their enquiries could be heard from “Major” Henry Sirr’s quarters in the Castle yard. Wellesley had to curtail Sirr’s excesses with a new police system in the capital a year after he arrived.
Through this time an entire generation had grown up under emergency measures which gave autocratic power to an ill disciplined police. The insurrection Act of 1796 had been prolonged to 1802. Martial law was imposed from 1803 to 1805. The Insurrection Act was renewed in 1807 and was to be again for four years after the so-called rebellion of June 16 1814.
Throughout that period the Habeus Corpus act was suspended, giving the yeomanry effective powers of internment without trial.
Cloncurry tells of a man named Kenny from Bishopscourt who was sentenced to be transported because he had travelled into a proclaimed district by accident after dark. He was released after months in prison but his business was in ruins.
It was an unhappy time for Kildare.
24 Mar 1796 Insurrection Act makes it capital offence to administer oaths
May 23 1798 Rebellion throughout county
23 July 1803 Rebellion in north of county
1 Aug 1807. Insurrection Act replaces 1796 act, seven years transportation for breaking curfew
30 May 1809 Laois MP Henry Brooke Parnell loses motion for inquiry into manner in which tithes are collected
June 16 1814.Alllegation of new rebellion in Kildare town
June 1820 Outbreak of panic in Dublin on false news of rebellion in Kildare
19 July 1823 Irish Tithe Composition Act
Eoghan Corry in his regular Kildare Voice feature examines the extremeties of martial law in 1807. Our thanks to Eoghan.