The 17th-century mass hysteria called “Irish Fright”

DUBLINTIMEMACHINE: A warning from history today. 17th-century English experienced a murderous mass hysteria called “Irish Fright”. They believed innocent minority communities of Paddies were conspiring to massacre English people all over their country.

It is 1688, a period known as the Glorious Revolution. Catholic King James II’s was unable to escape to exile in France and his days are numbered. Across Britain, in addition to the regular Irish worker population, there are small units of demobilised Irish Jacobite soldiers. Most are sheepishly making their way home.

Anxiety about these “sleeper cells” feeds a moral panic in England that Ireland wants revenge for usurping their sympathetic king. Rumours circulate across the massive Protestant-majority country that their Irish servants, soldiers and workers are plotting to rise up across the land and massacre their masters and English locals.

In a 17th century case of “fake news” fictional reports arrive in London that the Irish have gone on the rampage burning rural towns and putting small cities to the sword. Any unexplained disappearance, disaster or disease was blamed on the foreign scapegoat.

There was a great anxiety among many English settlements which had made their fortune on the theft and destruction of their Irish counterparts that finally a reckoning for all their sins and plunder was about to occur.

Where there is guilt there is fear. And surely the revenge for centuries of barbarism would be unimaginably bloody? This lethal propaganda naturally stirs up the terrified English locals. Anti-Irish panic sparks pograms. Lifelong neighbours torch homes and take lives. Xenophobic chaos breakout. They quickly form militias and imprison or murder every Irish civilian in sight.

The Irish Fright lasts only days but it is long enough to result in the murder of hundreds of innocent “foreigners”, uproot and destroy centuries-old communities and alliances and change the relationship between the Irish allies in England forever.

The first tangible chapter in the violent fantasy was an account from the 13th of December 1688. Bishop Gilbert Burnet in London sent a desperate warning to his peers.

“Country Fellows [Irish agricultural workers] arriving about Midnight at Westminster caused a sudden Uproar, by Reporting that the Irish, in desperate Rage, were advancing to London, and putting all before them to Fire and Sword.”

When this message was received by another parish it was relayed again. This time with the additional fearmongering order “Rise, arm, arm! the Irish are cutting throats’. A well-respected clergyman from Leicestershire called Theophilus Brookes raised a militia so massive and relentless that even days after the fog of war had lifted he could still not disband them.

This feverish rallying call raised citizen armies in their thousands as hour by hour more bizarre, bloody and entirely fictional reports arrived. The Irish had besieged Birmingham, burned Cambridge and put Norwich to the sword! They were sparing none, neither women nor children. They would be at the gates of Whitehall by dawn to massacre Parliament.

Later investigation of the source of the catastrophic lies pointed at Orangist sympathisers. These disciples of King William, particularly Marshal Duke of Schomberg, wished to seal the fate of his already deposed rival, whilst also neutralising untold masses of innocent non-political paddies along with him.

Further investigations a century later ascribed some of the scare to starving marauding Irish soldiers who, having grown mad with hunger and despised by English locals, were driven to steal food from farms and villages. An 18th-century account described their desperate situation.

“The disbanded Troops finding themselves Money-less, and incapable of subsisting in a Country where they were so generally hated, took it into their Heads to force open a Country House, to keep themselves from starving. Upon this, a Man in the Neighbourhood ran directly to London”.

Considering the despicable wanton violence and scapegoating which saw mobs of mindless thugs combine with agent provocateurs to disgrace and destroy our capital city on 23rd November lessons of historic moral panic and barbarism are more relevant today than ever. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you know is prejudice and misinformation ignorance can make a monster out of you.