Dalhousie Law Journal


courts, riotous assembly, Ferryland, loss of wages, flogging, banishment, Irish, Protestant, legal history


In September 1788 a court found 114 men guilty of riotous assembly in the district of Ferryland the previous winter. This event is remarkable for the number involved (45% of the adult male population of the district); for the number of charges (21% of all civil and criminal actions heard in the district's courts over the next 25 years); for the absence of damage to property; and for the severity of the sentences, which included loss of wages, flogging, transportation and banishment. These proceedings occurred in a community where *the majority (Irish planters, fishermen and apprentices) were socially distinct from the small Protestant elite of merchants who dominated government office. It is proposed that this elite exploited the presence of a Gaelic-speaking renegade priest who was bent on undermining .the authority of the papal vicar-apostolic in St. John's, in order to sow division among the rapidly-increasing Irish majority. Taking advantage of a policy of imperial centralization and rationalization decreed in Whitehall and at Westminster, the plan succeeded as the rioters were judged guilty in the name of order and state security. In the short run private interest informed public policy, reminiscent of the use of the law by the supporters of Walpole and the Hanoverian succession at home. The trials in Ferryland in 1788 signalled the end to what E P. Thompson has called a "moral economy, "a flexible and locally-mediated definition and application of the law. But in the longer run, as at home in England, the victors of 1788 themselves had to defer to new definitions of law and administrative accountability decreed from London.

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