The Munster Planters

Eleanor Hull
The Munster Planters

While Mountjoy was dealing with the Tyrone rebellion in the North, Sir George Carew was making his preparations to take up the Presidency of Munster in the place of Sir Thomas Norris, and to carry out the war against Fineen, or Florence, MacCarthy and the new claimant to the title of Earl of Desmond, James FitzThomas FitzGerald. This man, though he was known in his day as the sougaun (or ‘Straw-rope’) Earl, had as fair a claim to the title as many other Irish chiefs had to theirs. His father, Sir Thomas Roe FitzGerald, was eldest son of the fourteenth Earl, but had been disinherited by his father as being base-born. Nevertheless, he had been knighted by Sir Henry Sidney and had married a daughter of Lord Roche.

Carew arrived in Munster shortly after the hurried descent of Hugh O’Neill from Ulster to form his combination with Fineen MacCarthy and Desmond. Hugh O’Neill had returned as the acknowledged head of the Catholic League, and the leader in the coming rebellion which was to combine North and South and to have the support of Spain, whose fleet was again daily expected on Irish shores.

To the former cause of rebellion—the religious discontent—was now added the arrival in the province of a number of early ‘planters,’ who were establishing themselves securely on Desmond’s properties even as far west as Kerry and were pushing out the old owners. Large schemes for the extension of these plantations were under discussion, and the old possessors saw themselves in danger of being gradually ousted from their lands.

Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork

The ‘Great’ Earl of Cork
From a portrait at Hardwick Hall

The eight years that had intervened since the suppression of the first Munster rebellion had witnessed many changes in the occupation of the province. Long before the great confiscations which followed on the conclusion of the Desmond wars, isolated planters had been coming over. When Carew set out on his campaign he had in view as well the protection of the English settlers scattered up and down the country as the suppression of the rebellion. Men on the look-out for fortunes ready-made had been prospecting over the whole country before the end of the Desmond rebellion. They cared little whether the existing proprietors were of Irish or English race.

Sir Peter Carew the Elder went back as far as the first Norman invaders to set up a claim, founded upon the marriage of a daughter of Robert FitzStephen to a Thomas Carew. His claim was so doubtful that, in spite of the industrious investigations of Hooker,[1] uncle of the author of the Ecclesiastical Polity, whom he engaged to make a pedigree, he was advised by the Deputy not to pursue it. Having made up his mind, however, “that there was not in Europe a more pleasant, fruitfuller or sweeter land than Idrone,” he relentlessly pursued his claim and finally forced the then owner, Sir Christopher Chyvers, to acknowledge it.

By Christmas 1568 he was extending a sumptuous hospitality from the old Carew Castle on the banks of the Barrow with Chyvers and the Kavanaghs alike holding of him their old properties. An old woman in the streets of Dublin pointed him out as “the man risen from the dead, to stir those out of their nests who thought to lie at peace.”

Carew’s pretensions were one direct cause of the Butler wars of 1579-80, part of the property of Sir Edmond Butler, younger brother of the Earl of Ormonde, coming within his claims.

Though the Butlers had possessed themselves originally of lands belonging to the Kavanaghs they “could not brook Sir Peter nor digest his manners, nor allow of his offers,” which they looked upon as part of a widespread scheme to get rid of the present proprietors in favour of upstarts who had no real right to the lands they acquired.

Sir Edmond flung off English apparel and “became not only like a meere Irishman but an Irish kerne,” ranging and spoiling whole districts of the most English province in Ireland with fire and sword. The Butlers’ wars and the Baltinglas rebellion added much to the difficulty of dealing with the Desmond rising, a considerable body of troops under Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Nicholas Malbie being drawn off to deal with it.

Lord Butler complained that he was attacked on one side by “the traitors James Fitzmaurice and MacCarthy Mór,” and on the other by the Queen’s troops and Carew, though he protested that he never was or should be false to the Queen or her Crown, and only sought to preserve his own. “This is the order nowadays,” wrote Ormonde to Sir William Cecil; “I hope the Queen’s Majesty, of her gracious goodness, will think of this manner of dealing with her subjects.”

Carew did not live to pursue his doubtful claims on Munster; he died suddenly in 1575, just as he was preparing to occupy the two fine houses he had built for himself in Cork and Kinsale, and left it to his kinsman, Sir George Carew, to revive the claim.

The real plantation began with the vast confiscations which followed on the Act of Attainder at the close of the Desmond rebellion in 1586, when over 574,000 acres of land in Munster were forfeited and vested in the Crown. Each “undertaker,” as the purchasers of these properties were called, who took up 12,000 acres was required to place eighty-six English families on his estate.

Great inducements were held out to suitable planters to take up land. Letters were written to every county in England to encourage younger brothers to become undertakers. Estates were to be held in fee at twopence per acre in the counties of Cork and Waterford, and to be rent free till March 1590, and then to pay but half-rent for the following three years. Their produce was to be transported duty free to any country in friendship with England, and they might import necessaries free of customs.

The plan proposed was that each village or district in England should send a certain number of families complete with all the trades and kinds of husbandry that would be required in the new country; for it was intended that no Irish should be permitted to reside on these lands. But this idea was soon given up. Not only was it difficult to get the right sort of handy and industrious workmen among the hosts of idle men who flocked over, but the planters found it more profitable to retain the Irish on their estates. These were ready to give them the same services in labour that they had hitherto rendered to their chiefs, besides the fourth sheaf of all their corn, and sixteenpence yearly for a beast’s grass, so that many “cared not although they never placed any Englishmen on their estates.”

The foolish and cruel law which would have displaced the natural inhabitants from their holdings fell into desuetude, as did many laws with a similar intent, through their own inherent folly. We find the people living on in their old homes, kindly to the English who had come among them, and perhaps glad of a change of proprietors which, under English law, made them the possessors of their own holdings.

A planter in Co. Cork named Robert Payne has written an interesting account of the experiences he met with on his estate.[2] He was one of those more benevolent settlers that we find here and there who, though they took advantage of the opportunity offered to acquire tracts of land in the fertile forfeited estates, had no ill-feeling toward the people among whom they came, and lived with them on terms of amity and mutual advantage. He took up land for himself and twenty-five partners, each of whom had 400 acres. He brought over with him one chief farmer and four smaller farmers, thus carrying out the intention of the Government proclamation; fourteen freeholders, forty copyholders, and twenty-six cottagers and labourers also accompanied him.

His own family possessed 1600 acres, and he appears to have acted as manager for the estates of absent proprietors. He was an experienced planter, and he gives free advice to hesitating buyers, couched in a sarcastic vein. He bids intending settlers not to be discouraged by tales of the dangers of life in Ireland. Three of the worst dangers at least they will be free from. First, they cannot meet in all the land any worse than themselves; secondly, they need not fear robbery, for they have not anything to lose; lastly, they are not likely to run into debt, for that there is none will trust them.

“The greatest matter which troubleth them is that they cannot get anything there but by honest labour, which they are altogether ignorant of.”

He has a high opinion of the Irish among whom he lives. He finds them quick-witted and of good constitution, keeping their promises faithfully, and more desirous of peace than Englishmen, “for that in time of war they are more charged.” They are obedient to the laws, so that you may travel through all the land without any danger or injury offered by the very worst Irish and be greatly relieved of the best.

He finds it difficult to tell what good fruits England hath that Ireland wanteth; while Ireland is situated more conveniently for the putting forth of all commodities than England is.

This tract, written in 1589, gives us a new view of the general conditions in the South of Ireland after the close of the Munster wars. Though he tells us that most of the kerne or young fighting-men had been killed in the late wars, the better sort of the people are very civil and honestly given, and most of them greatly inclined to husbandry, though as yet inexpert.

Some of them are so rich in cattle, through their great travail, that one man will milk a hundred kine and two or three hundred goats and ewes. This, after the devastations of the fifteen years’ war, is surprising, and leads us to hope that parts of the country had suffered much less than others. He speaks of two very rich districts within the county of Limerick which had belonged to the Knight of the Valley, who had been executed for high treason, as “the gardens of the land” for the variety of their plants, grain, and fruits and the great store of venison, fish, and fowl they produce, though these are everywhere in plenty.

The idle men going about the country after the wars he finds “not unlike our English beggars, only that they are not obliged to give any account of themselves, which should be remedied.”

Lastly he gives an account of their schools. He speaks of a grammar school he had visited in Limerick of 150 scholars, most of whom “spoke good and perfect English, for that they have been used to construe the Latin into English.”

Most of the people about him, he says, spoke good English and brought up their children to learning. Their hospitality was the proverbial Irish welcome, “more plentiful, perhaps, than cleanly or handsome; but though they never did see you before, they will make you the best cheer their country yieldeth for two or three days, and take not anything for it.”

Payne is of the same opinion as Thomas Stafford, Carew’s secretary, that “her Majesty has a great number of loyal and dutiful subjects in this so great and fruitful country”; and that though in the Desmond wars he cannot deny there were many Irish traitors, “yet herein,” he writes,

“judge charitably, for such was the misery of the time that many were driven to this bad choice, whether they would be spoiled as well by the enemy as the worser sort of soldiers at home, or go out to the rebels and be hanged, which is the fairest end of a traitor. But as touching their government in their corporations where they bear rule, it is done with such wisdom, equity, and justice as demerits worthy commendations.”

He tells us that if a case is tried between an Irishman and Englishman the jury is formed half of each nation, and that at the assizes he has frequently seen well near twenty cases decided at one sitting,

“with such indifference that for the most part both plaintiff and defendant depart contented; yet many that make show of peace and desireth to live by blood do utterly mislike this or any good thing the poor Irishman doth.”

Moryson complains[3] that the men of best quality who purchased estates never came over, and that of the two thousand able men who according to agreement ought to have been in the province he could not find two hundred. Most of them resold at enhanced rates in London; of those who did go, few carried out their compact to take over English families or build castles. When the new rebellion broke out most of them fled into the towns, and after the rebellion it was difficult to induce them to return to their estates. Those who remained made demands for horsemen to protect them.

One of the largest of the planters, Sir William Herbert, whose Kerry properties amounted to 13,270 acres, and whose relations with his Irish tenants were of a most kindly nature, complains that in the surrounding undertakers he is associated with such lewd, indiscreet, and insufficient men as disgrace an honourable action, and that it is high time these frauds were met withal.

Fineen MacCarthy too finds in the “outrageous words and violent deeds” of the settlers and soldiers alike a “ready way to make the Irish weary of their loyalty and of their lives.”

According to a list drawn up by Sir Edward Fitton and Sir John Popham, Attorney-General, the largest planters in the South were the two Herberts with over 17,000 acres, Denny and Brown with 6000 each in Kerry, at eight-pence an acre; Trenchard, Courtney, and Barkley, etc., 12,000 acres each, at fourpence an acre. Sir Edward Fitton, Lord Treasurer, one of the most avaricious men of his day, got 16,000 acres in Cork and Waterford.

The generals and officials, such as Sir Wareham St Leger, Sir Thomas Norris, Sir Richard Grenfell, Sir Walter Raleigh, each received a large share. The latter got the enormous grant of 42,000 acres[4] in Cork and Waterford, most of which were later, by the influence of Carew and Cecil, sold to Boyle, “they being altogether waste and desolate, untenanted and of no value to him.” Boyle does not say what he paid Raleigh for his property, but estates in Cork were selling for a penny an acre, in Tipperary and Waterford for 1¼d., and in Limerick for 2½d., an acre.