England was engaged in two great wars during the period of Flood's supremacy in the Irish Parliament--the seven years' war, concluded by the peace of Paris in 1763, and the American war, concluded by the treaty of Versailles, in 1783. To each of these wars Ireland was the second largest contributor both as to men and money; and by both she was the severest sufferer, in her manufactures, her provision trade, and her general prosperity. While army contracts, and all sorts of military and naval expenditure in a variety of ways returned to the people of England the produce of their taxes, the Irish had no such compensation for the burdens imposed on their more limited resources. The natural result was, that that incipient prosperity which Chesterfield hailed with pleasure in 1751, was arrested in its growth, and fears began to be seriously entertained that the country would be driven back to the lamentable condition from which it had slowly and laboriously emerged during the reign of George II.
The absence of employment in the towns threw the labouring classes more and more upon the soil for sustenance, while the landlord legislation of the period threw them as helplessly back upon other pursuits than agriculture. Agrarian injustice was encountered by conspiracy, and for the first time in these pages, we have to record the introduction of the diabolical machinery of secret oath-bound associations among the Irish peasantry. Of the first of these combinations in the southern counties, a cotemporary writer gives the following account: "Some landlords in Munster," he says, "have let their lands to cotters far above their value, and, to lighten their burden, allowed commonange to their tenants by way of recompense: afterwards, in despite of all equity, contrary to all compacts, the landlords enclosed these commons, and precluded their unhappy tenants from the only means of making their bargains tolerable." The peasantry of Waterford, Cork, and other southern counties met in tumultuous crowds, and demolished the new enclosures. The oligarchical majority took their usual cue on such occasions: they pronounced, at once, that the cause of the riots was "treason against the state;" they even obtained a select committee to "inquire into the cause and progress of the Popish insurrection in Munster." Although the London Gazette, on the authority of royal commissioners, declared that the rioters "consisted indiscriminately of persons of different persuasions," the Castle party would have it "another Popish plot." Even Dr. Lucas was carried away by the passions of the hour, and declaimed against all lenity, as cowardly and criminal.
A large military force, under the Marquis of Drogheda, was accordingly despatched to the south. The Marquis fixed his head-quarters at Clogheen, in Tipperary, the parish priest of which was the Rev. Nicholas Sheehy. The magistracy of the county, especially Sir Thomas Maude, William Bagnel, John Bagwell, Daniel Toler, and Parson Hewitson, were among the chief maintainers of the existence of a Popish plot, to bring in the French and the Pretender. Father Sheehy had long been fixed upon as their victim: largely connected with the minor gentry, educated in France, young, popular, eloquent and energetic, a stern denouncer of the licentious lives of the squires, and of the exacting tithes of the parsons, he was particularly obnoxious. In 1763 he was arrested on a charge of high treason, for drilling and enrolling Whiteboys, but was acquitted. Towards the close of that year, Bridge, one of the late witnesses against him, suddenly disappeared. A charge of murder was then laid against the priest of Clogheen, and a prostitute named Dunlea, a vagrant lad named Lonergan, and a convicted horse stealer called Toohey, were produced in evidence against him, after he had lain nearly a year in prison, heavily fettered. On the 12th of March, 1765, he was tried at Clonmel, on this evidence; and notwithstanding an alibi was proved, he was condemned, and beheaded on the third day afterwards. Beside the old ruined church of Shandraghan, his well-worn tomb remains till this day. He died in his thirty-eighth year. Two months later, Edward Sheehy, his cousin, and two respectable young farmers, named Buxton and Farrell, were executed under a similar charge, and upon the same testimony. All died with religious firmness and composure. The fate of their enemies is notorious; with a single exception, they met deaths violent, loathsome, and terrible. Maude died insane, Bagwell in idiocy, one of the jury committed suicide, another was found dead in a privy, a third was killed by his horse, a fourth was drowned, a fifth shot, and so through the entire list. Toohey was hanged for felony, the prostitute Dunlea fell into a cellar and was killed, and the lad Lonergan, after enlisting as a soldier, died of a loathsome disease in a Dublin infirmary.
In 1767, an attempt to revive the plot was made by the Munster oligarchy, without success. Dr. McKenna, Bishop of Cloyne, was arrested but enlarged; Mr. Nagle, of Garnavilla (a relative of Edmund Burke), Mr. Robert Keating, and several respectable Catholic gentlemen, were also arrested. It appears that Edmund Burke was charged by the ascendancy party with having "sent his brother Richard, recorder of Bristol, and Mr. Nagle, a relation, on a mission to Munster, to levy money on the Popish body for the use of the Whiteboys, who were exclusively Papists." The fact was, that Burke did originate a subscription for the defence of the second batch of victims, who, through his and other exertions, were fortunately saved from the fate of their predecessors.
Contemporaneous with the Whiteboys were the northern agrarians, called "Hearts of Steel," formed among the absentee Lord Downshire's tenants, in 1762; the "Oak Boys," so called from wearing oak leaves in their hats; and the "Peep o' Day Boys," the precursors of the Orange Association. The infection of conspiracy ran through all Ireland, and the disorder was neither short-lived nor trivial. Right-boys, Defenders, and a dozen other denominations descended from the same evil genius, whoever he was, that first introduced the system of signs, and passwords, and midnight meetings, among the peasantry of Ireland. The celebrated society of United Irishmen was the highest form which that principle, in our politics, ever reached. In its origin, it was mainly a Protestant organization.
From the first, the Catholic bishops and clergy strenuously opposed these secret societies. The Bishop of Cloyne issued a reprobatory pastoral; Father Arthur O'Leary employed his facile pen against them; the Bishop of Ossory anathematized them in his diocese. Priests in Kildare, Kilkenny, and Munster, were often in personal danger from these midnight legislators; their chapels had been frequently nailed up, and their bishops had been often obliged to remove them from one neighbourhood to another to prevent worse consequences. The infatuation was not to be stayed; the evil was engrafted on society, and many a long year, and woeful scene, and blighted life, and broken heart, was to signalize the perpetuation of secret societies among the population.
These startling symptoms of insubordination and lawlessness, while they furnished plausible pretexts to the advocates of repression, still further confirmed the Patriot party in their belief, that, nothing short of a free trade in exports and imports, and a thorough system of retrenchment in every branch of the public service, could save the nation from bankruptcy and ruin. This was Flood's opinion, and he had been long recognized as the leading spirit of the party. The aged Malone, true to his principles of conciliation and constitutionalism to the last, passed away from the scene, in the midst of the exciting events of 1776. For some years before his death, his former place had been filled by the younger and more vigorous member for Kilkenny, who, however, did not fail to consult him with all the deference due to his age, his services, and his wisdom. One of his last official acts was presiding over the committee of the whole House, which voted the American contingent, but rejected the admission of German troops to supply their place.