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Dublin Gangs From the Liberties Back in the Ye Old Times

Dublin Gangs From the Liberties Back in the Ye Old Times – Craig O Reilly delves into the history of the gangs of Dublin

18th century Dublin was a city exploding in population. It had a Protestant majority, but Catholics were coming to Dublin to seek work. The city was expanding and changing rapidly, old institutions were falling apart, and there was a volatile atmosphere in the streets where gangs fought each other for pride, politics, and sometimes outright recreational violence.

One of the long-standing feuds was between the Ormonde Boys (mainly butchers and workers from Ormonde Market) and the Liberty Boys (weavers and tailors from the Coombe Area). The Liberty Boys were protestant and the Ormonde Boys were Catholic. Their feud was said to have come about due to a dispute over their respective places in the annual riding of the franchises, which was a way of marking the boundaries of the Liberties.

However the feud came about, it intensified and became more chaotic as the power of the Dublin trade guilds began to wane. Many guilds had become sectarian, excluding Catholics and often elevating people who had no experience in their guild’s trade. This led to a decline in their ability to function and resolve disputes, leaving a power vacuum for gang violence to break out.

While the conflict could be described as factional, it was also recreational. For the Liberty Boys and the Ormonde boys many of their battles took place on Sunday at the same time of the day.

Fighting could take place as far off as Clontarf and Donnybrook, but most frequently could be seen on Dublin bridges such as what is now known as the O’ Donnovan Rossa Bridge.

Doctors, civilians, and the rest of Dublin knew these clashes between the Liberty Boys and Ormonde Boys as a reoccurring event. Police would often stand back and let things play out, either because it suited them to allow the working classes to fight among themselves or more likely, because there were too many combatants to control.

A newspaper report from the 19th century talks about the scale of fighting:

“A friend of ours has told us that he has gone down to Essex Bridge, when he has been informed that one of those battles was raging, and stood quietly on the battlements looking for a whole day at the combat, in which about a thousand men were engaged.”

Today Essex Bridge is known as Grattan Bridge, and you could walk across it knowing nothing of the violence it was once a stage for. The battles often led to death, and local surgeons became experts at treating skull fractures from shillelaghs (a type of wooden Blackthorn club), knives and whatever other weapons came to hand.

Fittingly, the Liberty Boys and the Ormonde Boys used the weapons of their trade.

It is said the Liberty Boys would cut the leg tendons of their adversary’s, maiming them. The Ormonde Boys, likewise, would leave the Libertys Boys hanging by the jaws on their own meat hooks. It sounds like something from a Martin Scorsese movie, but it is likely true.

One particularly brutal killing involved a police constable, Paul Farrell, also known as Gallows Paul. He was hated by Liberty Boys and Ormonde Boys alike, and they combined to enact punishment: he was seized by the gangs who cut off his testicles and his underlip, then hung him.

In 1734 Jonathan Swift wrote “The Yahoo’s Overthrow” a ballad set to the air of Derry Down, an attack on a sergeant who had threatened Swift. Swift describes him being dragged through the streets by Dubin gangs:

“We’ll colt him through St Kevin’s, St Patrick’s, Donore,

And Smithfield, as Rap was ne’er colted before’

We’ll oil him with kennel and powder him with grains,

A modus right fit for insulters of Deans.”

Swift is often known for his parodies and satires. He  a wrote comical verse, but there’s nothing particularly fantastical about this poem. It could easily be viewed as a thinly veiled threat. It’s clear from newspaper reports and other accounts of the time that Dublin was a powder keg, sometimes for political violence, sometimes just for sheer mayhem.

The ability to quickly assemble and carry out violence was actually one of the reasons given for why penal laws should not be enacted against Catholics. In July 1721, Archbishop William King of Dublin sent a letter to Canterbury in which without even considering the morality of the penal laws, noted the difficulties they would bring:

“The number of papists is greater than that of Protestants in most places 4 to 1 and in some 20 to 1. These have all correspondence and mutual intelligence by means of their priests and they can at any time bring a mob together from very remote places, and when they have set their business, there is no more necessary than to cry “a priest catcher”, and immediately in the open streets of Dublin you shall have a mob of five hundred or six hundred unknown faces to fall on him, and it is well if he escape without a severe beating, nay even houses have been broke open to come at him.”

It’s not clear exactly how this violence died down, and in fact there’s good reason to believe it didn’t. Various political causes would begin to draw on the power of the mob, using riots to assert political power. Some of those who were Liberty Boys and Ormonde Boys would go on to join the United Irishmen, and though the names and faces of the gangs changed over time, their turf war makes for an interesting microcosm of how factional fighting occurred in urban areas during the 18th century.

Often described as a political phenomenon, or relegated to urban areas, the truth is that cities can become volatile very quickly, with the actual reasons being so multi-faceted, it’s hard to even remember how the violence started.

You can also read more about some of the history of the bridges this fighting took place on:



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