New Book on History of “Threatening Letters” in Victorian Ireland
Author and veteran UKZN academic Professor Donal McCracken has written a most unusual book! It’s about the history of ‘threatening letters’ in 19th century rural Ireland, titled: You will dye at midnight: Threatening letters in Victorian Ireland. (Eastwood Books, Dublin).
The idea for the book emerged from a study McCracken did a few years ago on the impact of developments in South Africa on Irish politics. Working through old police reports in the Dublin archives he came across tens of thousands of “threatening letters” which had been handed in to the police by members of the public in Ireland and termed at the time as “outrage crimes”.
McCracken says the threatening letters related mainly to the possession of land but were not only addressed to exploitative landlords - he discovered that many were sent by tenant farmers to each other.
‘The correspondence and notices were delivered by the then newly-introduced penny post or were nailed to barn doors, stuck on gateposts or onto farm house walls. They were sometimes destroyed by indignant receivers, but evidence tends to point to the documents being kept, as if it were a bad omen to burn them,’ said McCracken.
‘The content of the threatening letters was very similar and rather surprisingly contained none of the abuse or rudeness of some of today’s tweets. They were neither sectarian nor racist, though some had undertones of class conflict, especially against landlords.
‘The famous agrarian secret societies, such as the Molly Maguires and the Ribbon societies, did engage in threatening letter writing when it suited them in their boycott and anti-eviction campaigns,’ he said. ‘Threatening letters were also sometimes used against “foreigners”, which usually meant trying to get workers from a neighbouring parish or country sacked so locals could get their jobs. Some people even sent themselves threatening letters, either to gain victim status or to get out of some unwanted obligation.’
McCracken said the practice of sending threatening letters was not confined to men as there was evidence that women both sent and received threatening messages. One woman who received such letters carried a rifle around with her - she had a reputation for being able to shoot a rabbit at 300m so was never molested!
McCracken said threatening letter language was stylised, written in a staccato and pseudo-legal blood-curdling English (never in the Irish language), in the hope of giving the impression of legitimacy and gravitas. ‘The letters and notices invariably contained threatening art, crude drawings of coffins, graves, skulls and crossbones, or weapons such as pistols, muskets, daggers and swords. The grammar was often poor with spelling mistakes and little or no punctuation. Some, however, were written in excellent English, giving a clue to the identity of the village threatening-letter writer; usually a school teacher, who no doubt augmented meagre pay by assisting an indignant farmer pen in black ink a brief (usually under 100 words) and clear directive to someone to quit a field, farm, parish, or country… or die, a threat which was rarely carried out. Signatures were often generic and included names such as Captain Rook, Captain Rock, and especially Captain Moonlight and Rory of the Hills.’
McCracken said receivers of threatening letters reacted in different ways. ‘Many ignored them but preceded with caution, sometimes seeking police protection. The British government in Ireland recognised the propaganda value of labelling the practice of threatening letter writing as cowardly and ungentlemanly.
‘However, some landlords were intimidated into leaving their country estates, which resulted in many farm workers losing their jobs.
‘Irish nationalist politicians and priests were invariably hostile to the practice, the former often being recipients themselves of threatening letters. They recognised the damage the letters did to their cause but their attempts to prevent them being written by tenant farmers were usually not successful - rural society could be harnessed by them only when it suited the farmers,’ he said.
Sending threatening letters was illegal, but the authorities rarely succeeded with convictions. For the few who were convicted, there was a great disparity of sentences, ‘ranging two months’ imprisonment to seven years transportation to Australia.’
• Donal McCracken is Professor Emeritus and F.R.Hist.S at UKZN’s Centre for Communication, Media and Society in the School of Applied Human Sciences, at the College of Humanities. He has been an academic for more than 40 years.