The process of tarring and feathering can be traced right back through history, as an often unofficial means of punishment or revenge, designed to shame the victim. Wikipedia notes that the first mention of the punishment appears in the orders of King Richard I in 1189. Looking in the archives, I decided to search for some examples of the use of the punishment form in Dublin over time.
While I expected to find many examples of people getting tarred and feathered in the revolutionary period of the early twentieth century, the late-eighteenth century also produced much, a time when there was massive political agitation in the city. Indeed, in a letter to the Prime Minister in 1785, the Duke of Rutland (then Viceroy of Ireland) complained that:
This City of Dublin is in a great measure under the dominion and tyranny of the mob. Persons are daily marked for the operation of tarring and feathering, the magistrates neglect their duty, and none of the rioters – till to-day, when one man was seized in the fact, have been taken…
Much of the tarring and feathering being done in Dublin at this time was, as Neal Garnham has noted, the work of “gangs of tradesmen and artisans” who targeted “importers of foreign goods, workers prepared to undercut the wages of their fellows, and those who informed on the actions of vigilantes.”
There was evidently a degree of popular support for the practice in Dublin. Padhraig Higgins has noted in his study of Irish politics in the late-eighteenth century that when Alexandar Clarke, a master tailor from Chancery Lane, fell victim to a tarring and feathering mob in June 1784 “a crowd of about three hundred from the Liberties” attacked his house, before dragging him almost naked to the Tenters’ Fields for the humiliating ritual.
The practice appears to have become much less common place throughout nineteenth century life in Dublin, or at least much less reported. Tarring and feathering in Dublin was not always restricted to just living people, as the hugely controversial monument of King William of Orange on College Green also fell victim. One publication wrote in 1898 of that statue, noting that “It has been insulted, mutilated and blown up so many times, that the original figure, never particularly graceful, is now a battered wreck, pieced and patched together, like an old, worn out garment.”
The Bureau of Military History statements (first hand recollections of those involved in the 1913-21 period) give insight into the use of the tactic by republicans, and it was reported in the media in May 1920 that “the houses of two newspaper editors were raided and one anti-Sinn Féin editor was tarred and feathered.”
In most cases of tarring and feathering in the subsequent decades, republican involvement seems clear. In December 1934 J.P McEnery, a barrister living in Killiney, was driven to Arbour Hill and left there tied to the railings at the church. He had acted as prosecuting council during recent cases before the Military Tribunal, and McEnery claimed to have been told that this actions had displeased the Irish Republican Army. If McEnery’s case was clearcut, just why William Flood was targeted for the same treatment in October 1935 is less clear. Flood, a former celebrated footballer with Bohemian F.C, was also connected with the Abbey Theatre historically. The attack on Flood occurred in Phibsborough not far from Dalymount Park, and baffled media at the time. Flood had recently returned from holidays to Germany, and a placard was placed upon him that read “DEFAMED IRELAND IN GERMANY.” Flood claimed not to be a political person, and believed that “local jealousy” was at the root of the assault.
The newspaper archives show a massive spike in incidents like this in Ireland in the early 1970s, most of which occurred in the north of Ireland and were related to the troubles. Yet Dublin also saw an increase in this activity, with claims by republican groups that such attacks were a direct response to anti-social behaviour. When two 17 year old teenagers from the north inner-city were tarred and feathered in April 1972, The Irish Times claimed that an anonymous call to the newspaper had claimed this to be the work of the Provisional IRA, as the youths had been “found guilty of violence and other crimes.” There were several such cases throughout the 1970s, and they continued into the following decade, when it was reported that a woman described by a judge as being involved in the Heroin trade “in a big way” was tarred and feathered in the Phoenix Park.
The shocking images of a alleged drug dealer tarred and feathered in Belfast in more recent times put this article idea in my head. For every incident of the kind that was reported, I wonder how many weren’t?