This dissertation traces the rise and decline of the Ribbonmen, a militant, nationalist society. It argues that Ribbon Societies created a blended organization that incorporated nationalist rhetoric and aims while continuing to use methods of resistance learned through agrarian societies. The fluidity of Ribbonism enabled these societies to survive for more than half a century and provide a local alternative to the modernizing British state apparatus in Ireland.
This dissertation sets out three distinct eras of Ribbonism from its origins c. 1810 to the rise of Fenian organizations in 1858. The first period reflected the roots of Ribbon Societies in the early Defender organizations of the late eighteenth century. It ended with the failure of the Rockite Rebellion in 1824-25. The second period marked a turning away from practical preparation for rebellion towards more immediate issues, such as employment and access to land. In 1839, Ribbonism in Ireland faced a seismic change when the Dublin Ribbon Society was destroyed by purposeful government action. In the wake of the trial of the secretary, Richard Jones, public perception of the Ribbon Society shifted. In this critical moment, the end of revolutionary Ribbonism began and the organization experienced a slow decline in its domestic importance as a force for political change. In this final stage, Ulster Ribbonmen continued to focus on sectarian conflicts at home, while Ribbon Societies abroad became increasingly important for their ability to facilitate connections and jobs for immigrants fleeing famine and desperate poverty.
This dissertation also attempts to explain how the revolutionary aspects of Ribbonism became lost or downplayed after the middle of the nineteenth century. The final chapters turn to the literature of William Carleton, who wrote obsessively about Ribbon Societies, and to the writings and aspirations of the Young Ireland movement that attempted to recreate the republican nationalism of the 1798 rebellion in their own image in 1848. Carleton and the Young Ireland writers began to place Ribbonism in the category of agrarian movements or delusional fantasies in the 1840s. Their prominence as authors remained uncontested by a society composed of primarily small farmers, artisans, and laborers.