Public Disturbance

Riot was the great weapon of the unrepresented poor, and the nightmare of eighteenth-century governments, whose means of law enforcement were slender. The level of literacy was low, news unreliable, rumour rife, unemployment high and faction fighting an established ritual between certain groups. Riots could easily be whipped up by demagogues playing on real or fictitious fears. Frequently they caused extensive damage to life and property, and most prominent politicians could expect to have their windows broken and filth slung at their carriages in the course of their careers.

Riots could spring from a wide variety of causes. Food riots, triggered by shortages, high prices and real or suspected hoarding, were cyclical occurrences. Feeding the capital was a matter of law and order as well as of humanity, and the same was true of other sizeable towns, particularly Cork. The discovery of a priest catcher, or the execution of a popular criminal, could easily result in a riot or lynching.

Economic distress often triggered riots, as combinations were well established in Dublin and other sizeable towns. Apprentices could riot in an industrial dispute; for instance, at Cork De Latocnaye found that ‘the apprentice-shoemakers had by common accord, struck work, in order to force their masters to increase their wages.’ They had marched through the streets shouting and accosting master shoemakers in their houses. When the magistrates appeared with a detachment of soldiers, a taunting game of hide and seek ensued until dark. Traditional faction fights were another source of riot and the two factions, like twentieth-century football fans, often got out of control.

Political riots were a feature of life in Dublin, accompanying virtually every major political confrontation. During the 1713 election the Whig and Tory disputes led to a spectacular riot. The mob, which included a number of students with Jacobite sympathies from Trinity College, stormed the polling platform. The sheriffs, who felt that law and order had collapsed, sent for the army.

A troop of dragoons was hastily sent to quell the trouble. One rioter was shot dead and another seriously injured. Some soldiers and rioters were arrested and brought before the courts, where the soldiers were exonerated and the rioters convicted. When the poll reopened further trouble was avoided by having separate polling stations for each party. From time to time the mob actually broke into the Parliament House.

In 1759, when there were rumours of a political union with Great Britain, there were a series of major disturbances.223 Thomas Waite (2154), the Under-Secretary at the Castle, wrote to Sir Robert Wilmot, the Lord Lieutenant’s Secretary in England, that ‘I thank my stars I never saw such rioting in a civilised country as there was here the beginning of this month; the day that the mob took possession of the Parliament House, they threatened everybody alike.’

Officials were uncertain as to what exactly had started the rampage. Lord Chancellor Bowes (0196) thought that it was ‘the efforts of those wicked insinuations to the prejudice of Government in 1753 which, with the natural dislike to English rule, has rendered the people easy of belief of all suggestions to its prejudice’. The rioters forced members of both Houses to take an oath never to consent to a union. A peer was stripped of his robes and the Attorney General injured. The mob broke into the Parliament House, installed an old woman in the Chancellor’s seat in the Lords and threatened to burn the Journals of the House of Commons.

The Lord Mayor of Dublin and the sheriffs refused to intervene, and order was finally restored by the army. The Chief Secretary, Richard Rigby (1789), wrote to Wilmot that had ‘the mob been suffered to remain till it was quite dark, many houses had been pulled down, and many people murdered, I have not the least doubt … These mobs and parliaments are damned troublesome to be sure, but assure yourself they don’t appear half so formidable to us here, as … to you at a distance.’

In 1780, Lord Lieutenant Buckinghamshire declared that ‘you will find in no spot any Set so determin’dly and so flagitously mischievous as in the City of Dublin.’ Four years later Lord Lieutenant Rutland wrote to Pitt that:

This city is, in a great measure, under the domination and tyranny of the mob. Persons are daily marked out for the operation of tarring and feathering; the magistrates neglect their duty … In short the state of Dublin calls loudly for an immediate and vigorous interposition of Government.

The mob had again broken into the House of Commons and on this occasion demanded that John Foster (0805), MP for Co. Louth and shortly after Speaker, ‘should be delivered up to their rage with a rope about his neck’. This was the background to 27 Geo. III, c. 15, which was modelled on the British Riot Act, and to the Police Bill, 27 Geo. III, c. 40.

In a hierarchical society traditional influence was important, and the FitzGerald family enjoyed great prestige among the Dublin mob. Many members of the family represented the city in parliament. In 1780 the Attorney General, John Scott (1891), wrote to John Robinson, the Secretary at the Treasury in London, that the 2nd Duke of Leinster (0745) was:

a very high and vain weathercock, whose face turns the City of Dublin, and some other interesting parts of this kingdom, almost to peace or war. Give him what he asks, or more, at least until we have a peace, and you are the gainers. Is it necessary – I hope not – to assure you that I have no interested bias in this affair?