The Plantation of Ulster

Eleanor Hull
The Plantation of Ulster

Two projected changes in Ulster had, in 1607, determined Hugh O’Neill that nothing was left for him but flight from his native land. The first was the intention, often discussed but hitherto abandoned, to place a President over Ulster. Long ago Sussex had made the wise suggestion that O’Neill himself should be made President, and thus made responsible for the quiet and good government of the country on the Queen’s behalf, but this plan was rejected, and for many years no step was taken.

When, during Sir George Carey’s[1] short term of office as Deputy, the dreaded sheriffs appeared in the North as a preliminary to the appointment of Chichester (then governor of Carrickfergus) as President, Tyrone openly refused obedience to any save to her Majesty and her Deputy, and the scheme fell through; though the military districts into which the country was divided up did not differ from it in principle. “Rather than live under the like yoke and considering the misery he saw endured by others under the like government,” he exclaimed, “he would sooner pass all to himself than abide it.”

The second immediate cause of O’Neill’s flight was the oft-mooted plantation of Ulster with Scotch and English settlers. The idea of plantations had been much in the air. The settlements of English in Virginia overseas, the writings of Bacon, the experiments of Sir Thomas Smith and Essex in the North, and of the Munster planters in the South, had turned men’s minds toward the project during Elizabeth’s reign; but the attempts hitherto made in Ireland had not proved very encouraging.

Essex’s plantation was a failure, and in the South of Ireland many of the estates had reverted to representatives of the original owners. The settlers either did not come or were driven out by the old proprietors, who made continual onslaughts upon them; or they were frightened away by the disturbances in the province.

But the idea was not dead, and when James I came to the throne he looked to a new plantation in Ulster as a means of rewarding his Scottish adherents and of increasing his own revenues.

On the one hand, his counsellors were representing the plantation as a work of God, put by extraordinary fortune into his hands to carry out; on the other, the officers and soldiers who had fought in the wars of Ulster were pressing for the lands that had been promised as their reward. The departure of the Earls afforded the opportunity for which all were impatiently waiting, and no time was lost in taking the work in hand.[2]

Ever since the days of de Courcy parts of the North had been settled by Anglo-Norman families, and Lecale, the present Co. Down, was studded with castles and castellated towers dating from their occupation. The old planters—the Savages, Russells, FitzSimons, Awdleys, Jordans, and Bensons—remained on their lands, in close proximity to the family of Magennis and the O’Neills of Clannaboy.

Sir Arthur Magennis was the most Anglicized; he had become so ‘civil’ that he gave up bonaght, paid rent to the Queen, and wore English clothes every festival-day; he could still, in 1586, put sixty horse and eighty foot into the field. Clannaboy was owned by Sir Con MacNeill Oge, a warlike chieftain, who so annoyed the citizens of Carrickfergus by his raids and depredations that they offered to pay Sorley Boy MacDonnell £20 in wine, silk, and saffron to defend them from him. He was kept quiet in the castle at Dublin, where he was sent as prisoner, and most of North Clannaboy had been given to Sir Bryan MacPhelim.

The Scots had a strong hold in Antrim, and the Queen’s reinstatement of the MacConnells or MacDonnells on the old Byset estates had established their claim to the Glynnes or Glens of Antrim. Parts of Clannaboy were held by the Clan-Donell, while the MacGills, Macaulays, and Clan-Alister occupied the coasts on the north-east.

The Route, claimed by the MacQuillans, contained the ruins of forts and monasteries built by the Normans, but they had been driven into a corner near the Bann. In the main, the province east of the Bann remained Irish until the plantation, with a large admixture of Scots, though certain portions, such as the Newry and the Mourne district, had been handed over to Sir Nicholas Bagenal and other Englishmen.

The only English fort east of the Bann was Carrickfergus (then usually called Knockfergus); they held also Carlingford Lough. West of the Bann the country was in 1586 purely Irish.

Except the forts of Dungannon and Charlemont west of Lough Neagh, with a portion of land round them, and the distant and isolated forts of Culmore and Derry on Lough Foyle and of Ballyshannon on Donegal Bay, no part of the vast stretch of country lying between Lough Neagh and the Atlantic, including the present counties of Londonderry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, and Donegal, was in the possession of the English.[3]

Sir Arthur Chichester

Sir Arthur Chichester.

There is no doubt that the departure of Tyrone and Tyrconnel gave the Government the opportunity for which it had been waiting. Chichester, who had become Lord Deputy in 1605, writes joyfully to the King that “all will now be his Majesty’s,” and follows this up with the proposal of driving out all the inhabitants of Tyrone, Tyrconnel, and Fermanagh with their goods and cattle to inhabit waste lands across the Bann, the Blackwater, and Lough Erne, which he holds to be “an honest and laudable act, void of iniquity and cruelty.”

It is difficult to realize what sort of act would have seemed wrong or cruel to Chichester. Nor is it clear why flight from their country should involve forfeiture of the Earls’ lands. But the vast confiscation had been long contemplated, and Tyrone was hardly reported out of the country when Sir Thomas Phillips, an old ‘servitor’ who had seen service both on the Continent and in Ireland, and who had been rewarded with an early grant of land east of the Bann, put in a claim for “a good share of Tyrone’s land” near Coleraine to plant with English. He became one of the most active and successful of the planters.

The King, who shortly before had received Tyrone with honour, now approved of the forfeiture of his estates, adding the instruction that Scottish planters were to be admitted with the English; that he preferred English who had been servitors,’ i.e., who had served with the armies of the Crown in Ireland, rather than new men from England; that plots of land were not to be too large or bestowed on needy persons; and that the Irish of good note and desert were to have plots and were to be treated with respect and favour—excellent suggestions, some of which were grounded on experience gained through the failure of the Munster plantation, with its vast, ill-defined grants.

The lands for disposal included not only the districts under the direct sway of the two exiled Earls, but the large portions of Fermanagh vacated by Cuconnacht Maguire, who accompanied the Earls in their flight, the property of O’Kane (O’Cahain), and the property of Inishowen west of Lough Foyle. This belonged to the brave but unfortunate Sir Cahir O’Doherty, whose lands were forfeited after his brief revolt arising out of an altercation between him and the deputy-governor of Derry, one Pawlett, whose arrogance and inexperience wholly unfitted him for the post.

Sir Cahir was slain in a skirmish in July 1608, just as the first commissioners were setting out for the North, one of the matters with which they were charged being to determine whether he had died in actual rebellion, thus securing his attainder and the immediate resumption of his lands by the Crown.

Chichester himself was an early applicant for Sir Cahir O’Doherty’s property, with its valuable fishings on the island of Inch, on which he had long set his mind. It is difficult to acquit him of having purposely delayed to read the letter written by the King just before Sir Cahir’s outbreak into revolt, ordering the restoration of his estates, some part of which had been granted away to Sir Ralph Bingley.

Chichester’s own application for the property was received in London, and the rights passed to him, before this important letter was opened, and by this ruse Chichester secured to himself, in addition to the lands he got from ‘defective titles,’ a revenue of £10,000, and Inishowen, besides an extensive tract of land about the present city of Belfast. There had been a castle on this spot since Norman days; but the modern city dates from Chichester’s occupation. The castle and lands were granted to him in 1612, when he brought over immigrants from Devon to people the district; in 1613 it received its charter of incorporation with the right to send two members to Parliament.[4] It was O’Doherty’s country that brought him his large income; otherwise he purchased his estates and “never asked for advancement, though he grumbled like a right Western man.”

O’Kane’s country of Cianachta stretched from the eastern side of Lough Foyle along the coast to the Bann, and inland across the great forests of Glenconkeine and Killitragh, which yielded as fine timber as could be found in any part of the British dominions.

On this valuable property cattle were raised in large numbers, and from old days a trade had been carried on in the skins of red deer, sheep, squirrels, martens, and rabbits, which were shipped to Brabant, then the centre of trade for the North of Europe.[5]

The fisheries both on the Bann and along the coast were of great excellence, and attracted the industrious Dutch fishermen and the Spaniards, Philip II having made a treaty with O’Kane for fishing on his coast. The quantities of herrings taken after Michaelmas “brought yearly above seven or eight score sail of his Majesty’s subjects and strangers for lading, besides an infinite number of boats for fishing and killing.”[6]

Such was the report of the agents of the London Companies sent over to inspect the country in 1609. There were, besides pearl-fisheries in Lough Foyle, multitudes of wild fowl of all kinds, and materials for house and ship building in plenty.

All over the North corn, rye, peas, and beans were grown; the report says that they were raised in such quantities that they could not only supply their own neighbourhood, “but also furnish the city of London yearly with manifold provision, for their fleets especially.” Hemp and flax grew there more freely than elsewhere, and the linen yarn spun was finer and more plentiful than in the rest of the kingdom.

The O’Kanes had been a powerful clan, and it was the duty of the chief of the house to cast the gold sandal over the head of the O’Neill on his election at Tullahogue; his three castles and richly endowed monasteries testified to the wealth as well as to the piety of the family.

Among those whose lands were now declared forfeited were several who had been found on the English side during the recent rebellions, and it was no doubt of these chiefs that the King was thinking when he gave directions that Irish of good note and desert were to be treated with respect and favour. But, in the scramble for land that followed, the claims of these men were forgotten, or they had to be content with plots which must have seemed small indeed beside their former rich possessions.

Young Maolmora O’Reilly, whose father was slain at the battle of the Yellow Ford, fighting on the English side, received only a small portion of his own lands in County Cavan, though his mother was a niece of the Duke of Ormonde; and Conor Roe Maguire, who had taken the Government side and had been given three baronies of the Maguire lands in Fermanagh, also had to be content with a fragment of the estate shortly before bestowed upon him. Such men became, in fact, merely undertakers, like any other applicants, and took such portions as they received under the same conditions.

A like fate befell the septs of the MacSweeneys, or MacSwynes, on Lough Swilly, and the O’Boyles and O’Gallaghers, both Donegal clans. The MacSwynes had been so warlike a race that it was commonly said that the chief with whom they sided was certain to carry off victory, though all Ireland were ranged against him. Sidney found the clan “grown to such credit and force that, though they were no lords of lands themselves, they would make the greatest lords of the province both fear them and be glad of their friendship.”[7]

Maolmora of the Club, or Staff, claimed to be descended from “Swaine, King of Norway,” and he kept up the ferocious habits suitable to this ancestry. He and his men were freebooters with a strong dash of the pirate. For a refractory tribesman to be brained by the club of his chief was in his eyes an honour; the lesser criminals were hung out over the parapets of the castle in “gads” by their fellow-clansmen.[8]

Others of the race believed themselves to be descended from Suibhne (Sweeney) Menn, monarch of Ireland 622-635. They were linked in kinship with the O’Neills, but in the sixteenth century they usually fought on the side of the O’Donnells, and they fell with their ruin.

The blind bard Tadhg O’Higgin describes with much warmth the hospitalities of Maolmora MacSweeney’s house, the great concourse of poets gathered round him, who stood up and pledged him in ale quaffed “from golden goblets and beakers of horn” till they retired to rest a while before dawn.[9]

The MacSweeneys were looked to as holding the balance of power in the North between the two predominant clans, but the quarrels between different branches of their own house, the MacSweeney Fanad and MacSweeney Doe (i.e., na dtuadh, “of the axes”), occupied too much of their attention to allow of any such clear policy, and they fought on all sides indiscriminately—as often against their own kin as against outsiders.

Though Sidney believed they possessed no lands, these septs claimed to be freeholders by letters patent; and Chichester says that any settlers sent to replace them must be very powerful to suppress them; “to displant them is very difficult.” In the end they too were admitted to some portions as undertakers, under similar terms with the strangers.

Among others who claimed indisputable rights in the land were merchants of the Pale to whom Tyrconnel had, in the time of his distress, mortgaged “great scopes of land for small sums of money,” and the widows and mothers of the great chiefs, among whom were the Ineen Dubh MacDonnell, mother of Hugh Roe, the widows of Maguire and O’Boyle, and the mother of O’Reilly. Davies found it convenient, on various grounds, to find all these titles “void or voidable in English law” so that the pretenders “are left entirely to his Majesty’s grace and bounty.”[10]

There was little chance that justice would be done to these claimants. By Irish law women did not inherit; by English law the merchant conveyances became void because they had received them from O’Donnell. If, in any case their legal rights seemed clear, it was always possible to point to the sweeping act of confiscation passed on the downfall of Shane O’Neill (11th Elizabeth), “the dead case,” as the Attorney-General Davies called it, as a cause through which they had been forfeited.

With so many loopholes for legal casuistry to exercise its gifts upon, it would be difficult for any desirable property to escape forfeiture, or for any rights to be upheld. In the final distribution, however, their jointures were continued to these ladies of rank for their lives, with reversion to the Irish or to the Crown, though several of them were removed from their own homes and settled in other districts.[11] Some of them appear to have sunk into great poverty, for they were without protection, and most of them were aged. Their position and power were gone, and their Irish tenants, even more than the undertakers, seem to have taken advantage of their loneliness and their defenceless position.

There are letters from Sir Donal O’Kane about his wife and from Sir Niall Garbh O’Donnell about his sister, which show the straits into which these women were driven. Both letters were written from the Tower of London in 1613, where O’Donnell and O’Kane were incarcerated.

The Council in London writes to Chichester that “after long attendance here” the ladies are returning to Ireland, and they have asked for some means to carry them over, since their tenants, to whom under the Irish system they have granted out cattle, have refused to make any repayment or to supply them with any means.

Lists of the tenants’ names and the number of cows placed with them are enclosed. These lists are of great interest, for they show that the old Irish method of loaning out cattle to the tenants was still in common use at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

In the later days of the plantation it is a frequent source of complaint that those tenants who still held by this old system of ‘commins’ from the reduced chiefs, who were now unable to enforce their rights, took advantage of their freedom to decline to pay their dues. They drove the cattle they had received from these Irish lords into creaghts or lonely places, and would neither give them up nor pay for them in kind, as they had been accustomed to do. Their masters, who had plots of land allotted to them by the Government, but no cattle to place on them, were left without any means of subsistence, and often had to take to the wild life of the wood-kerne and robber, as so many of the swordsmen had done, simply from helplessness to enforce their authority over their own tenants. They were far worse off than the tenants themselves.

In the case of the two ladies belonging to the captives in the Tower, Chichester appears to have exerted himself to recover their dues, for the letters preserved are written to thank him for his intervention on their behalf.[12] Nevertheless, when, some time afterward, the Duchess of Buckingham, being in the neighbourhood of Limavady, visited Sir Donal’s widow, her husband having died in the Tower in 1628, she found her “sitting on her bent hams before a fire of branches, wrapped in a blanket, in a half-ruined edifice of which the windows were stuffed with straw.” If the men found it hard to exact their dues under the new conditions, it is little wonder that a lonely widow, without friends, should have fallen into utter poverty.

Another lady, wife of Sir Cormac MacBaron O’Neill, was in hardly better condition. During a tour in the North, Sir Humphrey Winche, Chief Justice, “little Winch of Lincoln’s Inn,” as Chamberlayn calls him, was forced owing to ill-health to halt a night at her house. Her husband, too, was prisoner in the Tower. “His lady gave them house-room, but had neither bread, drink, meat, nor linen to welcome them, yet kindly helped them to two or three muttons from her tenants.”

Sir Cormac had proposed, on the flight of his half-brother Tyrone, that he should be made custodian of his lands, apparently for the purpose of preserving the rents in case of Tyrone’s return, but the Government distrusted his intentions and placed him in custody.

Another of the same family, Sir Art MacBaron O’Neill, elder half-brother to Tyrone, was removed from his own estate in Armagh, in the district called after him Oneilan, to a proportion of two thousand acres in Orier. In the wars in which his family were involved he had taken the English side. He and his wife were now very aged, and he begged that the new grant should be made out in the joint names of himself and his wife, so that if she survived him she might not be left in poverty, a request that was readily granted, as it induced the old couple to remove at once.[13]

How such people managed to live, cut off from all their old associations, without any dwelling ready to receive them or retainers to work for them, it is difficult to imagine. Even to the Commissioners in London the whole problem seemed to require “the greatest and most serious consideration.”

When it came to the point it was indeed found incapable of realization. The old inhabitants were first reprieved, because it was found that the new settlers did not come over by any means so promptly as was expected; and when they began slowly to filter into the country, often without the workmen they had stipulated to bring with them, they found that they would die of starvation if the country-people left and drove away their cattle. They needed them for building and for service, and they found that they were willing to pay high rents in order to be left in their old districts.

A mutual sense of need induced a mutual sense of protection; being on the spot, they saved the cost of bringing over English and Scottish labourers. They were contented and at home, while the newcomers felt entirely at a loss in the new conditions. In consequence, numbers of them never removed, but settled down, after the great upheaval, as tenants to the new settlers. Their descendants remain to this day all over the country.