Threatening letters and threatening notices were the curse of nineteenth-century rural Ireland. [3]

In Ireland, in any difficulty, the first resource of many is intimidation. — William Bence Jones (1880) [46]

A substantial number of threatening letters were a consequence of internecine unease and conflict within Irish peasant society. By the nineteenth century, the phenomenon had acquired a veneer of modernism and, at times, even a political respectability. In essence, though, it had not changed in at least a hundred years. There was an innate conservatism in much of tenant society, which often expressed itself in reluctance to change or to accept change, the battleground being control and possession of land. In the 1880s, many landlords who strove to improve their estates, their output and the lot of the tenants were faced with passivity bordering on passive aggression or outright hostility. [87]

Decorated initial D

onal P. McCracken’s detailed analysis of threatening letters and associated notices or posters in nineteenth-century Ireland disproves a fair number of common assumptions or myths about them. Although historians have claimed that the Famine gave rise to these anonymous letters that threatened death and mayhem to the recipient, he points out “that the threatening letter was merely a development from pre-literate times; an odd hybrid of denunciation and what, in South Africa, is called ubuntu or neighbourliness. The threatening letter had a great advantage. It inserted an additional stage between spreading malicious rumour and taking action. It escalated the rumour without the need to take potentially risky physical action” (x). This practice lasted beyond the age of Victoria. In fact, “the Irish agrarian threatening letter and notice survived the home rule drama, the 1916 Rising, the Anglo-Irish war and partition” and manifested itself in the 1920s when the “Irish suffragettes, harking back perhaps to the Ladies Land League, were probably ahead of the field in writing threatening letters. The imprisonment of several members also produced a flurry of threatening letters” (225).

Certain parts of Ireland, McCracken explains, have “a long tradition of threatening letter writing” (13), particularly “Counties Westmeath, King’s County [Offaly], Longford and, to a lesser degree, County Meath; the tradition also spilled over into the Connaught counties of Tipperary, Roscommon and Leitrim” (13). During Victoria’s reign the police counted approximately 36,000 threatening letters, but probably only a third of such letters were reported to them. Therefore, at a conservative estimate, actual number was at least 100,000, which means that “a threatening letter was sent once a week in every one of the 32 counties in Ireland for the whole duration of Queen Victoria’s reign” (9).

Neither the authors nor recipients of these letters threatening murder and other forms of mayhem turn out to what common lore holds true about this rural phenomenon: first of all, the very poor did not in fact send such letters to wealthy landowners. “The impoverished labourer with his one acre potato patch was less likely to write a threatening letter to the 30-acre tenant farmer from whom he sub-rented than that tenant farmer was to write to the larger farmer who had a field which the tenant regarded as rightfully his own. Correctly, much has been made by modern historians of the young unmarried men, sons of farmers, who had attended the national school and who were the backbone of the agrarian groups who, under various names, terrorised sections of the local community, not least by writing threatening letters” (28). True, a number of such threatening letters were sent to wealthy landlords, a few of whom left Ireland, but these letters represent a very small minority of those sent.

It is perhaps excusable to believe that the main recipients of threatening letters and threatening notices were tyrannical landlords engaged in evictions. The reality was more complex, however. Threatening letters, invariably, related to the ownership and occupation of land and were aimed not only at landlords and their often-hapless agents but also family members of landlords and land agents. More often, though, threatening letters were sent to a wide range of community members: large farmers; smaller tenant farmers; middlemen; subtenants such as the occupiers of small tenant sublets or conacre plots; tenant occupiers of land vacated because of eviction and sometimes what was, in effect, forced emigration; those in the dying occupation of agricultural labourer; and even those market town-based merchants who offered credit to the agricultural sector. To this list must also be added law enforcers such as magistrates, sheriffs, bailiffs, summons’ servers, Emergency men and assize judges. . .. Threatening letters were sometimes targeted at the man in the Big House and, of course, the much-maligned Irish land agent was, in the parlance of modern terrorists, a ‘legitimate target’, but letters were more likely to be tenant-on-tenant or at least tenant-on-larger tenant farmer. Threatening letter writing cannot be dismissed simply as an example of class warfare. [18, 31]

Three of the book’s many graphs and tables: Left: Convictions for threatening letters, 1844-50. Middle: Senders and Recipients of threatening letters and notices. Right: Numbers of persons receiving special pokice protection, 1887. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

As McCracken, who butresses his argument with dozens of graphs and tables, explains, “practically the whole of rural Irish society was drawn into the phenomenon of threatening letters and notices. . . . The perpetrators, however, were confined to a fairly narrow social base centred on the small tenant farmer. The largest numbers of threatening letters were mainly sent by just four groups: tenant farmers, sons of tenant farmers, subtenants and labourers” (143). The authors of these missives threatened vengeance for a range of real and imagined or even absurd grievances — they raged against not only against evictions and callous treatment of tenants but also against another farmer who grazed his cows on land to which the writer wanted access or someone who hired “foreigners” — that is, fellow Irish Catholics from a town half a dozen miles away — to repair a road. But

in the world of threatening letters, all is not always as it seems. Given the high moral justification against the tyrant landlord, the heartless land agent, the landgrabber and the rent-payer – besides the fact that such villains were often anything but villains – attacking such individuals was frequently a cloak for less worthy motives. Leaving aside the ‘outing of the other’, greed, revenge and jealousy were never far from the surface in most threatening letters. The police were quick to pick up other motivations too. W.E. Vaughan cites an instance where the authorities suspected that a wife had written what appeared outwardly to be an agrarian threatening letter against her husband. [26]

People also sent threatening letters to themselves “to maintain a victim status” (27) or as an excuse for not fulfilling an obligation or agreement, say, to lease a field to someone else. Threatening letters also provided “plenty of opportunities in such situations to revisit old scores and extract revenge under a cloak of upstanding piety.” Threatening letters were also sent between feuding secret organizations (21).

Given the authors and their major concerns, it is perhaps not surprising that very few such letters were sent to the queen (105) or to local policeman. It is surprising, however, that one finds “few outright sectarian threatening letters” (41): Catholic hostility to Protestants and the reverse do not seem to have been a significant factor, and there are no instances of threatening letters written in Gaelic. Similarly, although “threatening letters are, by definition, meant to intimidate, it is remarkable how few contain either foul language or even insults” (67).

McCracken also tosses cold water on myths beloved of novelists about threatening letters. For example, “the image of the gruff old Irish squireen reading a semi-literate threatening note addressed to him, with the postage stamp stuck on with the queen’s head upside down, screwing the paper up into a ball and throwing it into the wastepaper basket or into the grate of the roaring wood fire with a curse, is a myth. Most people who receive threatening letters cannot resist the temptation to keep them” (44). Similarly, “there are very few instances, though beloved of novelists, of letters or notices being tied to stones and thrown through windows” (51).

Following the law of unintended circumstances, two developments supposed to improve Ireland enabled the explosion of threatening letters — a new educational system that taught people how to read and write and the penny post, which provided a means of sending threatening letters to those people the writer wanted to terrify — modern technology enabling “the old Irish peasant tradition of trying to terrorise one’s opponent with the least possible chance of retribution” (12). Those people who could not write used clerks or schoolmasters to create their missives. The police — the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) — rarely arrested people for such threats, and when arrested the perpetrators rarely faced conviction (193), in part because magistrates often distrusted so-called experts in handwriting analysis.

As McCracken points out, a key questions must be “is whether the writers of threatening letters carried out their threats. From the number of murders in Ireland, the answer is sometimes, but clearly these were exceptions” (48). Letters always preceded these killings, for it “seems to have been a ‘point of honour’ to warn the intended victim” (48). Most recipients of threatening letters brushed them off, some of the landowners or more prominent land agents remarking that they received hundreds of them. Some landowners refused police protection, relying instead upon arming their servants and retainers. Women were not exempt from such epistolary attacks, and McCracken tells of two intimidating women who did not even rely upon others:

One of the most hated people in Mayo in the early 1880s was Harriet Gardiner (1821–1892), who lived with a companion woman, Susanna Pringle, in a fortified house called Farmhill outside Killala. She gained a reputation for large-scale evictions, as well as being eccentric and not pandering to Irish rural conventions. Apart from her fortified house and the guns she carried when out and about, she showed no fear of the Land League and its ‘secret messengers’. Whatever her sins, it is difficult not to see an element of misogyny in contemporary attacks against her. In the early 1880s, Mary O’Callaghan, though regarded as ‘an Irish version of Lady Macbeth’, was described as a ‘graceful, well-dressed, thoroughbred Irish gentlewoman’. As the post-boy refused to deliver letters to her home in Maryfort, Mary O’Callaghan would walk to the post office herself, armed with a rifle and a revolver. She had a reputation for never missing a shot at a rabbit at 300 metres, so she was not molested. [20]

Not all landowners and landlords receiving these letters could hit a target almost a thousand feet distant, and some left Ireland. “Viscount Lismore left, having endured as much harassment as he could stand. This, in turn, had other impacts that were often not intended by the sender. When such local potentates ceased residing on their estates, employment for many vanished overnight. In the Lord Kenmare instance, when due to the impact of the Land War, he shut up Kenmare House and moved to live in London, ‘All the labourers employed on the estate are discharged, as well as some of the gamekeepers’” (47). Shopkeepers, artisans, and their employees also suffered — hardly the intention of the letter writers.

What Were the Letters Like?

Left: Letter and envelope dated 1869 from “Captain Rock” addressed to Peter Rush of Westheath. Right: Coffins were the most popular images in threatening letters. Both courtesy of the National Archives of Ireland.

Any person coming to pay rent to that son of a hoor, Perry, or coming to settle with him in any way, I am still thirsty for their blood; so by the God of Heaven do not be the cause of my coming from Templemore, or if you do i will pay the rent for you to the last farthing; and ye land-jobbers that are in the habit of buying the grass in the lands of Newgrove clear out on the 1st day of March instant, or by the Immaculate jesus I will clear ye out. Clear out, clear out.
Captain Moonlight [65]

Co. Armagh
Look to this.

Jonesboro’, Dec’. 12, 1851. To all this concerns, and beware of Genl. Avenger. I am not Fools. I am giving you timely warning, all Tyrants and oppressors of the Poor. Its like the Thief of the Gallows; its over you particular landlords, particularly in the seed time, if they don’t give their tenants Seed Oats to put in their land, and lower their rents, it will be measured with their corpse. And their is Mr. Chambrié [magistrate and landlord], a Beggarman, he had better keep close, for, if he does not, he may have his coffin ready; but we will bury him when he will neither have coffin or shroud around him, for its too Good for an oppressor of the Poor, as an idle-hearted rascal; besides who prides in the downfall of his country men; we need not wonder (he is no Irishman), and there is poor Bumper Squire Jones [magistrate], he would not be bad, was it not for his bad rascal of an agent, Johny Hill, the House Racker; but between Hill and Hell there is but one letter; if Hill was in Hell Jonesboro’ would be much better. Mr. Fortescue [magistrate] is a good man, but there is room for improvement; and Crawford [RIC sub-inspector], the desperate Rascal, he had better watch and pray, for if all police in Ireland were watching him, he will go the road, for Hell is yawning for him long since. We will send him to Fiddler’s Green. It is long since he should have got it; there is an Establishment in Jonesboro’ that will soon be set flames to. It will take Whipper in McDonald [Peter McDonnell? Landlord of Meigh] to never sleep, and to hell with all the Police of Ireland. We will send all who wears the cloth to Blazes. Hell is open for Crawford.

I am, General Vengeance [19]

McCracken, who offers many examples of such letters, explains that “Ink was the usual medium used for threatening letters and those threatening notices which were not printed. Despite what novelists supposed, blood was very rarely used. Occasionally pencil was employed” (53). The threatening letters generally follow a formula: “Leaving aside the bad English and crudeness, there is a sameness about many Irish threatening letters. Many of them are written in what the writer obviously considers to be a legal format . . . with the intention of overawing the recipient as well as giving an indication of legal legitimacy, fair-mindedness and attention to due process, none of which was actually the case” (53). Many didn’t employ upper-case letters or punctuation, and “occasionally the style was an attempt at being formal, or what the writer imagined to be formal. Capitals were, in such instances, frequently used, sometime imitating a flourished style, as in a printed poster for a circus or a fair. Invariably, the tone of these threatening letters was a mixture of pomposity, sweet reason and moral rectitude, laced as a counter-point with a concluding stylised viciousness” (64-65). They were often signed Captain Rock, Rory of the hills, or Captain Moonlight and embellished with crude drawings of coffins, swords, knives, and firearms, oddly enough, usually obsolete flintlocks rather than modern rifles and revolvers.

In the second half of the book, which repeats many of the points made earlier with additional examples, McCracken turns to several related issues, such as the role of Irish newspapers in publicizing and disseminating threatening letters, the history of British laws concerning them, boycotting, and the rise of the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union (ILPU) and other reactions to Irish nationalism. ‘You Will Dye at Midnight’ offers the reader a large number of primary materials, many images of letters and notices, and a great many graphs and tables, all of which occasionally gives the impression of an author who has devoted decades to carrying out research on his subject and insists on sharing every last bit of evidence he has gathered with his readers. Despite much repetition McCracken’s clear, strong writing, fair mindedness, and many insights make this an essential book for understanding Victorian Ireland.

Links to Related Material


McCracken, Donal P. ‘You Will Dye at Midnight’: Threatening Letters on Victorian Ireland. Dublin: Eastwood Books, 2021. Pp. 257 + xvi. ISBN: 978-1-913934-16-3 Paperback ISBN: 978-1-913934-24-8 ebook.

Last modified 3 December 2021