Gang violence has featured on Come Here To Me before; with the Pinking Dindies, the Liberty Boys and the Ormond Boys of the 18th century, through the various fracas’ of the Animal Gangs and on to the Black Catholics in the 1970’s and 80’s and onwards all making an appearance. Dublin has always had its fair share of troublesome groups and there’s always plenty to write about them.
One event we haven’t yet covered that jumped out at me recently while reading John Edward Walsh’s “Rakes and Ruffians,” was a three day riot involving both the Liberty Boys and the Ormond Boys which brought Dublin to a standstill in mid- May, 1790. Accounts of Dublin from the late 18th/ early 19th century are rarely without mention of the two groups whose infamy is still regarded to this day. Injuries, maimings and deaths are all purported to have taken place in this encounter, making it one of their bloodiest.
According to J.D Herbert’s Irish Varieties, for the Last Fifty Years: Written from Recollections, the Ormond Boys were the “assistants and carriers from slaughter-houses, joined by cattle drivers from Smithfield, stable-boys, helpers, porters, and idle drunken vagabonds in the neighbourhood of Ormond Quay,” whilst the Liberty Boys were, “a set of lawless desperadoes, residing in the opposite side of the town, called the Liberty. Those were of a different breed, being chiefly unfortunate weavers without employment, some were habitual and wilful idlers, slow to labour, but quick at riot and uproar.”
The Liberty Boys notoriety spread further than Dublin, and references to them can be found in several newspaper articles from across the water, including one in the Leeds Mercury from January 1867 which refers to them as French Huguenots who have “degenerated physically.” “They are the Liberty Boys of Dublin, the dwellers in ‘The Coombe,’ or hollow sloping down to the river, famous for their lawlessness, their strikes, and their manufactures of poplin and tabbinet. They do not seem at all favourable specimens of humanity as you watch them leaning out of windows in the tall, gaunt, filthy, tumble down houses around and beyond St. Patrick’s.”
The hostility between the two gangs often led to full scale riots between upwards of 1, 000 men and these occurred several times a year, but especially in the run up to the Mayday festival. The city would be brought to a standstill, with businesses closing, the watchmen looking on in terror, as battles raged for the possession of the bridges over the Liffey. Walsh’s book reports the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alderman Emerson as saying “it was as much as his life was worth to go among them” regarding such riots.
The battle this piece refers to though began on May 11th 1790 and lasted several days. The riot coincided with an election in the city, although an opinion piece in the Freeman’s Journal on the Thursday of that week described the violence as wanton, saying:
“The situation of the capital on Wednesday night was dreadful in the extreme; it was shocking to civilisation, for outrage was openly and without disguise directed against the civil protection of the city. On other occasions, grievance, from sickness of trade, from injury by exportation of foreign commodities, from the high price of provision and the low rate of labour, grievances from the want of employ and a variety of other causes were usually alleged for the risings of the people, but on the present occasion, no grievance exists, and the fomenters of disorder are without such a pretension. “Down with the police” is the cry and demolish the protection of the city is the pursuit.”
“In different parts of the town, prodigious mobs of people were assembled and the avowed purpose of their tumultuous rising was declared in the vehemence of their execrations against the police. “Down with the police, five pounds for a police man’s head.” They were the shouts which filled the streets.”
“In Mary Street, no passenger could escape the shower of brick bats and paving stones intended for the police. In St. Andrew’s Street, the scene was if possible more dreadful, for the mob not content in driving the Police watchman before them proceeded to pull down the watch house in which he took refuge. .. (The Men) were obliged to fire and three of the rioters fell.”
The riot only came to a conclusion on the Thursday due to military intervention, when a “party of men on horse dispersed the rioters and stood guard for the remainder of the night which prevented more bloodshed and massacre…. The blood of the unfortunate wretches who met their unhappy fate rests at the door of those few incendiaries who stimulated by their playful insignias unthinking persons to destruction.” And people think Love Ulster was bad!