Houghing in the West

By the Samuel J. Maguire

Origin and Organization of Movement

By 1711 English settlers had taken possession of vast tracts of mountains in Connemara, built enclosures, raised vast stocks of sheep and black cattle and established Scottish herdsmen. Their example was followed by some of the old Galway families, such as Sir Walter Blake. The Irish were driven off these estates and in retaliation large armed parties in white shirts rode over the countryside during the winter nights "houghing and destroying the cattle belonging to the settlers." The movement swept along Lough Corrib and Lough Mask, through Mayo, Sligo and Roscommon and into Clare. The Scottish shepherds were warned by notice that war had been declared on the proprietors and would be continued until the stock was destroyed.

"All night long would be heard the roaring of the wretched cattle, as they fell under the knife; wild cries and volleys of shots from bogs and mountains, and the huzzas of the Houghers. If the settlers or their servants ventured out, they found their houses burning when they returned. At daybreak the hill sides were strewn with carcases of oxen and sheep lying dead in hundreds or in thousands. The bands by whom the slaughter was accomplished seemed to have started from the earth. Nothing could be traced to the local peasantry. They professed mere ignorance, amazement, and terror. It was found only that, wherever a butchery had taken place, they were gathered in crowds on the morning following to buy the bodies, which the owners were glad to dispose of at any price which they could get."

The movement has been described as "organised with the skill and conducted with the resolution and the energy of a regular insurrection." The warning letters were signed "Captain Eaver". Practically all who were arrested were able to read and write, and it appeared from their confessions that there was a regular discipline among them, and that they had their captains, lieutenants, and ensigns and that pay was paid the men. Ballads were sung about them. Heavy bail was offered for those arrested and large bribes were offered and accepted by jailers. Threatening letters bearing the name of Captain Eaver intimidated witnesses, promised prompt vengeance against all stock masters, and warned the shepherds to keep indoors during the night. Few, if any, outrages were perpetrated on human beings. Some of the settlers paid blackmail to save their flocks, and the money so raised went towards the support of the organisation. The whole population must have been in favour of the movement, which was conducted and planned with a high degree of intelligence and audacity. It paralysed the law and frightened the magistrates. David Power, High Sheriff, County Galway, reported to Government that:

"It is a general rumour in my county, that there are several men with scarlet clothes, and that speak French, who go up and down the country by night. The gentlemen of the country are in great fear and apprehension."

In a letter from Gilbert Ormsby to Joshua Dawson, dated 8th March, 1711, it is stated that a magistrate in Roscommon wrote that it was certain that Irish French officers were landed in his neighbourhood by privateers, that they were supported by greater people than the mob, that some considerable men out of France were lurking and sheltered in the country, and it was feared they would outbid the Government in the rewards they offered.

In the Grand Jury Presentment and Information, County Galway, it is stated that on the 11th November, 1711, a soldier of the Galway garrison, who was shooting not far from the town, met a large armed party. He described the leader as wearing a heavy gold ring, and had a bag full of Spanish coins, a handful of which he offered the soldier. He called the soldier by his name, said he had met him in Dublin, and tried to induce him to join the party. He took nothing from him but his powder, which he returned shortly after, saying they had abundance of ammunition; and he dismissed him, unharmed, with a message, warning the Governor that if any attempt were made to pursue them, the officer who led the party would be assuredly decapitated.

The Presentments and Informations, County Mayo, record that at the end of November 1711, a pedlar in the County of Mayo appeared before the magistrates and informed them that within three miles of Ballinrobe he had been stopped by a party of no less than eighteen men, well armed and with disguised faces, who compelled him to open his box of linen and other wares, purchased his goods with ready money at his own price, and then dismissed him, after making him swear not to speak of his experience for twenty-four hours.

Houghing, which suddenly ceased in 1713, was practically the only agrarian trouble in County Galway in the first sixty years of the eighteenth century. Although many persons were arrested, the difficulty of obtaining evidence was too great, and only a few prisoners were convicted and executed. Orders were given, to burn the carcases of slaughtered animals, in order that the cottiers should derive no benefit "from the crime," to compensate the owners by rates levied on the district, to arrest all nightwalkers, all who travelled in the day time without a pass beyond their parishes, all idlers who were unable to give a satisfactory account of themselves, and finally to execute rigidly the laws against the priests.

List of Houghers

The following is a "List of persons that rendered themselves as Houghers in the county of Galway, pursuant to the proclamation (a free pardon to all who would confess and give securities for their future good behaviour) and entered into recognizances under John Stanton, Esq.: Martin Mac Donagh, of Ballydaly; Darby O' Flaherty; Brian King; James Naghten; Denis Fahy; John Mc Moyle Burke; James Caheron; Daniel Grany; Nicholas Supple; Bryan Morris; Richard Kearigane; Richard Pearle; Herbert O' Flaherty;Francis Murphy; John Armstrong; and Henry Joyce."

All these were described as gentlemen. They entered into recognizances - 100 each for themselves, and their securities, among whom were Edmund McDonagh, Bryan Flaherty, Godfrey Daly, Robert Blake, and Edmund Burke, for 50 each.

In the Information of Connor O' Loughlin, sworn before Robert Miller, Justice of Peace, 1713, it was stated the Houghers killed three hundred "great rams and weathers " on the estate of Sir Walter Blake (the Irish conformist); afterwards, armed with guns and swords, they stole away at night by bridle paths into the Galway mountains, took up their quarters at a friend's house, where they were handsomely entertained; and after a day or two of feasting and hard drinking, went to their work again, and cleared the adjoining farms.