Wednesday 3 May 2023

Edmund Rice the Elder: a family study of Time and Tithes

 Edmund Rice, Tax Assessor

JM Feheney fpm



In his seminal work on the history of the Congregation of the Christian Brothers, Brother MC Normoyle notes that Edmund Rice, grandfather of Blessed Edmund, was a Tax Assessor for the town and liberties of Callan in 1754.[1] Since the Tithes played a significant role in the history of the Catholic people of Ireland, and of the people of County Kilkenny in particular, it may be helpful to take a closer look at the social implications of this appointment at the time. It is assumed in this article that Edmund also performed the functions of a Tithe Assessor or Proctor in Callan.[2] Though Rice scholars may find little that is new in the following pages, it is, nevertheless, hoped that, in this the 250th anniversary year of the Founder’s birth, our focus on the role of members of the Rice family in tax collection will cast some light on the social background of the family in the Callan area of county Kilkenny in the seventeenth century. We will first consider the tithe system in Ireland and then go on to review the history of the Rice family in county Kilkenny in the 18th and 19th centuries.


Tithe System in Ireland

Following the suppression of the monasteries and the legal suppression of Catholicism, the tithing system was introduced in 1542 to provide financial support for Church of Ireland clergy. While originally all land was subject to tithing, in 1735, a Tithe Act exempted pasture land, excepting the holdings of sheep farmers, from tithes. This meant that, from 1735 onwards, the full burden of the tithes fell on small farmers and cottiers, who made their living from agriculture. In general, it was the wealthier farmers and landowners who benefited most from the exemption of pasture from tithes and there were examples of entire parishes that were exempted from tithes because all available land was devoted to pasture. On the other hand, there were places where a large number of agriculturalists, with small holdings, and only a few hundred acres between them, had to pay a substantial percentage of their income in tithes.[3]

While the majority of the original beneficiaries of the tithes were Church of Ireland clergyman in residence in their parishes, there were also examples of members of the laity owning the right to tithes. Thus, members of the choir in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the Duke of Devonshire, who had extensive estates in counties Cork and Waterford, including the fishing rights of the river Blackwater, were listed among claimants for tithe arrears in 1831. Moreover, by the 1830s, almost half of the Church of Ireland clergy claiming tithes were not resident in their own parishes. This led to the farming out of the tithe collecting to enterprising laymen, often known as ‘Tithe Proctors’, the word proctor being a variant of procurator, meaning somebody acting on behalf of another.[4]

Understandably, the tithes were very much resented by the Catholic population, especially in the post-Catholic Emancipation period when, in addition to supporting their own Catholic clergy, they were also expected to contribute to a vigorous fund-raising campaign to finance the building of new Catholic churches.

First Anti-Tithe Agitation

The first anti-tithe agitation was in West Limerick in the early 1820s. This agitation, however, was primarily agrarian in nature and, to a certain extent, the tithes were used by the agrarian leaders to justify and validate their violence. This agitation is generally attributed to the Rockite movement, under the leadership of ‘Captain Rock’, whose identity was kept secret for several years. Among the notable events led by Rockite followers were a) the murder of the teenage son of Alexander Hoskins, land agent of the Earl of Devon on the Courtenay estate, Newcastle West[5] b) the tithe affray in Askeaton on 15 August, 1821, which drew a crowd of 200 anti-tithe masked raiders, some of whom were killed[6] c) the tithe affray in January, 1821, at Keimaneigh, Ballingeary, Co. Cork, immortalised in the Gaelic poem, Cath Céim in Fhía, by Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire[7] d) the numerous attacks on the residences of the gentry in various parts of West Limerick by Rockites attempting to steal arms and ammunition.[8]

No doubt there was an economic reason for the agrarian agitation in the 1820s in West Limerick. One aspect of this was the collapse of agricultural and livestock prices following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1814 and the peace which followed the Treaty of Paris in 1815. The great demand for horses and food stuffs, including cattle and sheep, experienced during the Napoleonic wars, came to an end and both landlords and tenant farmers were hit badly. Moreover, while agricultural and livestock prices fell significantly, rents did not do likewise and tenant farmers were under severe pressure. Another complication which augmented existing enmity between Catholic tenants and the Protestant Establishment was the distribution among the people of what were known as the ‘Pastorini Prophecies’, which foretold the destruction of Protestantism in 1825.[9]

The Peace Preservation Act of 1814, one of the provisions of which empowered the Lord Lieutenant to send a Police magistrate, together with a force of specially armed police, to any area ‘proclaimed’ to be in a state of disturbance, was freely used during the agrarian agitation in West Limerick in the early 1820s. The Government, however, felt that the time had come to set up a better-organised and better-disciplined force. This force, later known as the Royal Irish Constabulary, came into existence with the passing of the Police Constabulary Act on 5 August, 1822. The wisdom of the Government in deciding to found a new police force seemed to be confirmed by the evidence presented in two subsequent Government reports. These were a report on the disturbances in Munster in 1822[10] and a Report of the Select Committee to Inquire into Disturbances in Ireland of 1825.[11] Both made it abundantly clear that policing before 1822 was altogether inadequate to cope with the Rockite-inspired agrarian violence. Within a few years, the new constabulary had police barracks in most parts of the country. It should also be pointed out that, on the whole, the majority of Irish people regarded the RIC as a well-disciplined and effective arm of the law.[12]

Catholic Emancipation

With the capture of Walter Fitzmaurice, alias ‘Captain Rock’, in 1822, the leadership of the Rockite movement received a severe blow. Moreover, the Rockite movement never enjoyed the support of the Catholic clergy who were disgusted at its criminal activities and outrages. By contrast, O’Connell’s country-wide Catholic Association had clergy at several levels of leadership and they brought orderliness and respectability to a non-violent protest movement that offered legitimacy and a certain amount of transparency. It would, consequently, appear that the Catholic Association was instrumental in redirecting the agrarian violence in Munster, especially in West Limerick, along peaceful lines during the years preceding the granting of Catholic Emancipation. The campaign of the Catholic Association did, however, teach Catholics some important lessons. These included the importance of good organisation and effective communication at local level. They discovered that church bells could be used for purposes other than summoning worshippers to religious services. They also learned about the political effectiveness of bringing large numbers together. Not only ‘monster’ meetings, but even large or moderately-sized ones, could not be ignored even by a disdainful Protestant Establishment.[13]

Following the granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1828, Catholic people again took up the vexed problem of tithes for the upkeep of the Church of Ireland clergy. Following the anti-tithe agitation in Munster in 1821-1822, the Government introduced the Tithe Act of 1823, whereby the tithes, which, from 1776 had been payable on agricultural land only, were now extended to pasture land also. While this was welcomed by those involved in agriculture, the widening of the tithe net, to include ‘graziers’ also, greatly increased the number of people who now joined the informal anti-tithe movement. By 1830, the reluctance to pay tithes had hardened into refusal to do so and the new centre of anti-tithe agitation moved from Munster to Leinster, in fact to the home county of the Rice family, county Kilkenny.[14]


The Tithe War, 1831-1834

Though the Tithe War is sometimes described as a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience in Ireland in reaction to the enforced payment of tithes, this is not to deny that this campaign was also marked by occasional outbreaks of violence. The first clash of the Tithe War took place on 3 March, 1831 at Graignamanagh, Co. Kilkenny, when a force of 120 yeomen tried to seize cattle belonging to a Catholic priest. With the tacit, if not the explicit support of his bishop, the priest had organised the people to resist the collection of tithes. Not all the cattle involved were necessarily the property of the priest, for some priests encouraged their parishioners to drive their cattle to the priest’s fields, at the first appearance of the tithe collectors. Since crops and farm stock were often collected in lieu of cash due for tithes, the centralisation of stock during an emergency was an effective strategy in resisting the tithe collectors. Soon after the Graignamanagh incident, a similar confrontation occurred in Bunclody, Co. Wexford, when the police opened fire on people who resisted tithe collection. This time, twelve people were killed and twenty wounded. On 14 December, 1831, a group of tithe resistors ambushed a patrol of 40 members of the Constabulary at Carrickshock, Co. Kilkenny, killing twelve constables, including the Chief Constable, and wounding many others.[15]

After these events, opposition to the collection of tithes spread throughout Munster and Leinster. The Government, now concerned at the spread of confrontations with agents of the law, released figures showing that enforcement of tithe orders led directly to the following catalogue of crimes and outrages: 242 homicides, 1,179 robberies; 401 burglaries, 568 burnings, 280 cases of cattle maiming, 161 assaults, 203 riots, 723 attacks on property. In 1832, the President of Carlow College was imprisoned for non-payment of tithes. One of the worst confrontations occurred in Rathcormac, Co. Cork, in 1835, when armed Constabulary, reinforced by British army troops, reportedly killed 17 people and wounded 30 in the course of collecting a tithe order, valued at 40 shillings. The Government was very concerned at the violence and the employment of such large numbers of police to collect relatively small amounts of tithe money. In 1839, parliament passed the Tithe Commutation Act, whereby the tithes payable were reduced by about a quarter and the landlord paid the remainder, reclaiming it with the rent from tenants, if he so wished. This ended the violent aspect of the tithe collection.[16] Finally, with the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland by the Gladstone Liberal Government in 1871, tithes for the maintenance of the Church of Ireland Clergy came to an end.[17]

We will now turn to Rice family to see if we can discern a change of attitude towards the Tithe question in different generations of that family.


The Rice Family

MacLysaght regarded the Rice family as Welsh, the original name being Rhys. They were influential in Limerick and Kerry from the fourteenth century onwards, many of them featuring as provosts, mayors and sheriffs in counties Limerick and Waterford. The Kerry branch included prominent landowners and many members were loyal Jacobites. About twenty of them lost their lands during the Cromwellian forfeitures.[18] The most prominent branch in the south-west was Spring-Rice of Mount Trenchard, Foynes, Co. Limerick. Several members of the family served either in the British Government or British Diplomatic service, the best-known member being Thomas Spring-Rice (1790-1866), first Baron Monteagle, who became Chancellor of the Exchequer in the British Government. Though it is probable that the Rices of Callan, county Kilkenny, were very distantly related to the Kerry branch, there is no record to date of their dwelling in county Kilkenny before the middle of the seventeenth century.[19] Local lore suggests that this branch of the family originated in the townland of Sunhill, Cuffeysgrange, in the Poor Law Union of Callan, Co. Kilkenny. From there, they seemed to have spread out to neighbouring townlands. Normoyle notes that Patrick, Richard and James Rice are mentioned in the Hearth Rolls for 1665-1666.

From Sunhill, they moved to other tenanted farms in Tullmaine, Burnchurch and Callan towards the end of the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, Edmund Rice, the founder’s grandfather took up residence in Westcourt, where the Founder was subsequently born. Edmund had three sons, Robert, Michael and Patrick and a daughter, Margaret. It was this Edmund who assumed the duty of Tax Assessor in 1754.[20]


Tenancy in Desart Estate

Edmund Rice, the Founder’s grandfather, was a tenant in the large estate of Sir John Cuffe, 1st Baron Desart (1683-1749). This estate, the basis of which was acquired by his grandfather for his services to the Elizabethan campaign in Ireland, had increased over the years, especially following the Williamite confiscations, until it amounted to 8,000 acres in 1876.[21] In 1757, Edmund deeded his tenancy to his son, Robert, who then had a total of 150 acres, all leased from Lord Desart. One of the factors that made it easier for Edmund Rice to accept the unpopular position of tax/ tithe assessor in the Callan area in 1757 could be the alleged ‘aloofness’ which the family adopted in their relations with their Catholic neighbours.[22] McLaughlin reminds us of evidence to suggest that the Rice family was not only ‘fond’ of land, but even willing to supplant evicted fellow Catholics, by taking over their holdings. McLaughlin is possibly overstating this tendency when he describes certain actions of the Rices as ‘predatory’ towards their neighbours. Local tradition, however, records that when John Brennan’s grandfather was evicted from Kylenaskaugh ‘the Rices soon after got possession of it’. The Rices were also known to have taken possession of another farm, that of the O’Grady family, in the same town land.[23]

All this would suggest that, while members of the Rice family were, from the landlord’s perspective, honest, reliable and industrious, they were also fond of land, desirous of increasing the size of their holdings, and willing to do small services to oblige the Protestant Establishment, even if this meant some degree of alienation from their poorer Catholic neighbours.



Local taxes in Ireland in the middle of the eighteenth century consisted of parish and county ‘cess’ payments. The word ‘cess’, a shortened form of ‘assess’, was the usual term for local taxes in Ireland during the period when it was governed by the British Crown. The county cess was a charge levied by the Grand Jury, a body that constituted the primary organ of local government up to the introduction of County Councils in 1898. It consisted of members of the landed gentry, Catholics being excluded until 1793. In each county, the Grand Jury was given responsibility for the building and upkeep of roads, bridges, jails, courthouses and county infirmaries. The members met twice yearly and the normal administration was done by a full-time paid executive officer, termed the Clerk of the Grand Jury. One of the important functions of the Grand Jury was to rule on the validity of indictments and, only after this body had affirmed the validity of an indictment, could the matter go to trial.[24]

The parish cess was intended to meet local expenses and covered such matters as the procuring and administration of a parish ‘pound’, where, among other things, stray animals were impounded until redeemed by the owners. It is likely that the tax assessment Edmund Rice undertook to perform in 1734 pertained to either parish ‘cess’ and/or tithe assessment. While all tax assessors were unpopular in Ireland, the tithe assessors attracted special opprobrium in the nineteenth century, particularly during the so called ‘tithe war’, which we discussed above. Though there is no evidence that either tax or tithe assessors in 1734 encountered the degree of opposition which their successors did a century later, it will be helpful to readers if we briefly refer to the evidence of Church of Ireland clergy in 1831.[25]

In order to alleviate the difficulties of Church of Ireland clergymen, who were unable to collect the tithes owing to them in 1831, the Government introduced the Clergy Relief Fund Act. To benefit from this fund, however, clergy had to submit details of the tithes owed to them and the difficulties and hardships they either experienced or witnessed in the tithe collection process. Since these returns had to be accompanied by an affidavit, we can take it for granted that they were, in the main, true. Most returns stated that tithe proctors or tithe valuators, who entered private properties to inspect and value crops or stock, on which tithes would later be charged, were the most hated among the tithe collecting community. One clergyman in Burnchurch, Co. Kilkenny, an area in which members of the Rice clan lived, reported that his tithe proctor had been ‘barbarously murdered in the open day’ and his process server ‘taken by force from an armed body of police and much ill-treated and sworn never to serve any more law processes’.[26] These employees of the clergy were also subjected to ‘nightly visits ....of men with faces blackened’, as well as being the victims of ‘other various means of intimidation’.[27] John Cousins, a rector in Ballycahane, Co. Limerick, stated that there was ‘little doubt that there is in every barony if not in every parish an organised band for the purpose of intimidating the peaceably disposed and enforcing regulations of the anti-tithe conspiracy’.[28]

Though people to whom tithes were due were legally entitled to ‘distrain’ and sell stock in an attempt to recoup what was owed, this strategy usually failed because of the actions of the anti-tithe agitators. Rev Basil Orpen, a rector in County Cork, complained, ‘The unlawful and seditious multitudes, headed by infuriated priests. ....prevented me from selling cattle distrained under the (Tithe) Composition Act’.[29] Another strategy at public auctions of distrained goods was to make outlandish bids. The rector in Ballymoney, Co. Cork, complained, ‘a large mob assembled and the sale was prevented by strangers in the crowd bidding extravagant sums, the horse not being worth above three or four pounds and people unknown calling up forty, fifty and a hundred pounds and by this means making the sale a farce’.[30]


Rice Tithe Turnabout

As the anti-tithe campaign in county Kilkenny continued to gain adherents in the early 1830s, the members of the Rice clan gradually joined the movement. This was obviously a complete reversal of attitude from the time that grandfather Edmund Rice was pleased to act as tax/ tithe assessor in his native Callan in 1754. As many as 29 members of the Rice clan were listed in the official reports of Tithe Defaulters in 1831. They included Edmond, John, Michael and Oliver Rice from Burnchurch, which was popularly regarded as the Rice homeland in county Kilkenny.[31]

Hand-in-hand with the Rice change in attitude towards tithe collecting was a radical change in the extended Rice family towards Irish nationalism. John Rice, of Newlands, popularly known as ‘The Wild Raparee’ married the Founder’s step-sister, Jane Murphy. This John was suspected of being a member of the United Irishmen and his house at Newlands was raided at night by a band of local yeomen. Not finding him at home, the yeomen burned his house, partly as warning and partly as punishment. John hid in a quarry nearby, later making his way stealthily to Waterford. There, the Founder smuggled him, hidden in a barrel, aboard a ship bound for Newfoundland.[32] In Newfoundland, the story of the exploits of ‘The Wild Raparee’ found their way into a ballad[33], part of which runs as follows:


From Ballyhale to Shievenamon

They searched the woods as they went on;

The corn fields up to Galteemore,

They searched and searched them o’er and o’er.


They ships and traders at the quay

They searched and searched going out to sea,

But tale nor tidings, trace nor sound

Of Rice, the rebel, ne’er was found.





[1] Normoyle, MC, 1976, A Tree is planted. The Life and Times of Edmund Rice. Dublin: Christian Brothers, 3.

[2] While the information to hand specifically mentions ‘taxes’, it is assumed that taxes include tithes.

[3] Bric, MJ, 1986, ‘The Tithe System in Eighteenth Century Ireland’. Dublin: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. 86C, 1986, 271-288.

[4] McCormac, S, The 1831 Tithe Defaulters [Cd. ISBN 09537557 7 0]. Dublin: Eneclann, 2004.

[5] Donnelly, James S Jnr, 2009, Captain Rock. The Irish Agrarian Rebellion of 1821-1824. Cork: The Collins Press, 45.

[6] Ibid., 49, 51

[7] Ibid., 68-69

[8] Ibid., 60, 105

[9] Ibid., 122-127

[10] BPP 1822 (423), 14, Papers Relating to the State of Ireland, May, 1822

[11] BPP 1825 (20), Select Committee to Inquire into Disturbances in Ireland. Minutes of Evidence.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Donnelly, 2009, 207

[14] McCormac, op.cit.

[15] Hanrahan, M, 1990, ‘The Tithe War in County Kilkenny, 1830-34’ in Nolan, W and K Whelan eds., Kilkenny: History and Society. Dublin.

[16] McCormac, op.cit.

[17] Connolly, SJ, 1998, The Oxford Companion to Irish History. Oxford: OUP, 149

[18] MacLysaght, Edward, 1991, Irish Families. Their Names, Arms and Origins. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 143.

[19] Feheney, JM, 1964, ‘Aspects of Rice Family History’. Carroll, Stan (ed.), A Man Raised Up. Dublin: Christian Brothers, 62.

[20] Normoyle, op.cit., 2.

[21] 1876, Return of Owners of Land of One Acre and upwards in Several Counties, Counties of Cities and Counties of Counties in Ireland. Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty. Alexander Thom, 1876; also HCPP, Cd. 1492,

[22] Normoyle, MC, 1979, Memories of Edmund Rice. Dublin: Christian Brothers, 138

[23] McLaughlin, D, 2007, The Price of Freedom. Edmund Rice, Educational Leader. Melbourne: David Lowell, 8

[24] Connolly, op.cit., 227, 535.

[25] McCormac, op.cit.

[26] Official Papers Miscellaneous Assorted (hereafter abbreviated to OPMA) 154/5/2 in Eneclann CD ENECOO7

[27] Ibid., OPMA, 156/2/12

[28] Ibid., OPMA, 156/2/64

[29] Ibid., OPMA, 156/2/55

[30] Ibid., OPMA, 156/2/58

[31] McCormac, op.cit.

[32] Normoyle, 1976, op.cit., 82

[33] Feheney, 1994, op.cit., 54