The Plantation of Ulster (2)

Eleanor Hull
The Plantation of Ulster | start of chapter

It fell to Sir Arthur Chichester to carry out the proposals for the Plantation of Ulster. He brought to his Irish administration the ability, avarice, and ruthlessness which were combined in so many of the leading figures of the age. His recipe for the ills of Ireland was one common in his day:

“famine to consume them; English manners to reform them.” “I wish the rebels and their countries in all parts of Ireland were like these; they starve miserably and eat dogs, mares, and garrons where they can get them. When they are down, it must be good laws, severe punishments, abolishing their ceremonies and customs in religion, etc., that must bridle them.”[14]

Elsewhere he writes:

“I have often said and written that it is famine that must consume them; our swords and other endeavours work not that speedy effect which is expected.”

Chichester had as his right-hand man the Solicitor-General for Ireland, Sir John Davies, who accompanied him when, as Deputy, to which post he was raised in 1605, he made those tours of the northern province which determined the course of action to be followed in regard to the plantation.

Davies was a man of active, inquiring mind, and to him we owe a considered study of The True Causes why Ireland was never entirely subdued, a masterly sketch of English dealings in the country up to his own time.[15] His ready pen and aptitude of description were employed in reports and letters describing his own and the Deputy’s tours in various parts of the country. He was a voluminous poet of a didactic kind, vain of his classical attainments, and shrewd in his judgments. But he did not hesitate to fit the law to his proceedings if he thought the King, of whom he was a most loyal sycophant, could be served thereby; and his legal judgments varied as circumstances required to serve the purposes in view. He was more deeply engaged in making the most of present opportunities than influenced by abstract ideas of right or justice.

In the original plan of the settlement, before the flight of the Earls, the chief aim in view seems to have been the sweeping away of tanistry with a regrant of lands to tenants holding directly from the Crown. The native titles of MacMahon, Maguire, and O’Reilly were to be extinguished and a repartition of the counties of Monaghan, Cavan, and Fermanagh made.

We may give Chichester the credit of believing that he honestly conceived that his scheme of settling the surviving peasants upon the land as freeholders, when the awful famine had done its work, would be the beginning of a new prosperity for the North. He determined to set them free from the authority and exactions of their chiefs and to give them lands of their own, to be held for a fixed rent directly from the Crown.

A tour was undertaken by Davies before the flight of the Earls, probably in 1606, to inquire into the present conditions on which the chief lords and inferior gentry and inhabitants of these counties held their lands under the native system, but he finds himself uncertain whether the smaller holders were tenants-at-will or not; a certain number of such as were fit to serve on juries were, however, created freeholders, and of these in Monaghan alone there were found to be over two hundred.[16]

The condition of the Church is described as deplorable, the churches lying in ruins and their lands waste, many of the new Protestant parsons and vicars “poor, ragged, ignorant creatures, whom ten parishes united would not maintain in decency,” and the Bishop of Kilmore with the best parsonage in the kingdom holding neither service nor sermon in either of his dioceses, “but diligent in visiting his barbarous clergy to make benefit out of their insufficiency, according to the proverb that an Irish priest is better than a milch cow.”[17]

But these preliminary steps, which have some show of justice and equity, were but the first warnings of the gigantic confiscations of Tyrone, Derry, and Donegal which followed on the flight.

We have seen that during his visit to the North Davies was unable to determine whether the inhabitants were freeholders or tenants-at-will. In Fermanagh “the greatest part of the inhabitants did claim to be freeholders, who, surviving the late rebellion, had never been attainted, but, having received his Majesty’s pardon stood upright in the law, so that we could not clearly entitle the Crown to their lands.”

Thus the project of plantation was hampered by the quietude of the inhabitants, whom there seemed no excuse to evict from their holdings. But reflection opened to Davies’s mind a way out of the difficulty. Later in the year, while travelling in Munster, he writes to Salisbury that he has to make to him “an overture of a matter of good advantage which I confess I understood not before my last journey into Ulster.” He then makes the iniquitous suggestion that by the Act of the 11th Elizabeth, on the conclusion of the wars with Shane O’Neill, all lands were vested in the Crown, and consequently O’Kane’s country and all the old freeholders’ possessions in Tyrone “are actually and really in his Majesty’s hands and the tenants are for the most part intruders upon his Majesty’s possession.”[18] Davies proposes to include them all in the sweeping Act of confiscation, which was to transfer their properties to English or Scottish settlers.

In 1608–09 took place commissions ordered by James I for the purpose of (a) a survey of the escheated lands, (b) assizes for the trial of men detained in gaol since the last rebellions, and (c) to find that O’Doherty had died in actual rebellion, which would make his lands forfeit to the Crown. All three went on together, the second being simplified by the refusal of the jurors to convict and by the previous clearance from the gaols of large numbers of persons who had been committed, on account of the difficulty of guarding them.

Chichester and Davies were accompanied by Sir Thomas Ridgeway, Treasurer, and “they took time by the forelock,” Davies having undertaken before Michaelmas “to present a perfect survey of six several counties which the King has now in demesne and actual possession in this province; which is a greater extent of land than any prince of Europe has to dispose of.”

Chichester’s intimate acquaintance with the province supplied the necessary notes and instructions, and Davies sent in from time to time reports of their progress, which supply much valuable information as to the state of the North at that time. The appearance of the stately cavalcade among the wild mountains to the west of the Carntogher range filled the inhabitants with astonishment.

“They wondered as much to see the King’s Deputy as the ghosts in Virgil wondered to see Æneas alive in hell.”

They wondered still more when they were called together to be told, in long legal discourses, that his Majesty “may and ought to dispose of these lands, as he is about to do, in law, in conscience, and in honour.”

The owners retained a lawyer of the Pale to plead their rights and to claim the benefit of the proclamation made only five years before, whereby the persons, lands, and goods of all his Majesty’s subjects were taken into his royal protection; but against the arguments set forth by the Attorney-General such pleas were powerless. The arguments were, indeed, only excuses to give a show of justice to a fixed resolve.

The total of the escheated lands amounted to nearly 3,798,000 acres, of which about 55,000 acres were reserved for Irish of different ranks. An attempt was made to avoid the loose grants which had proved a failure in Munster by parcelling the lands out in quantities of 2000, 1500, and 1000 acres with a proportionate quantity of wood; though one applicant, old Lord Audley, made an application for 100,000 acres in Tyrone, “the fairest and goodliest country in Ireland universal,” as Sir T. Cusack had called it in 1553, which was more than the estimated total quantity to be divided in that county. “He is an ancient nobleman ready to undertake much,” is Chichester’s cynical remark on this offer; but like many others made by the undertakers it was soon to be shown that his proposals far exceeded his power to pay or to plant.

The applicants for lands were of three kinds: English and Scottish undertakers; servitors, or officials and soldiers who had served in Ireland; and Irish. The King favoured the Scots, of whom Chichester had the worst opinion, counting them “worse than Irishmen”; but applications from the Lowlands came pouring in from needy Scots, who thought to build up new fortunes in the sister-isle.

It was decided that towns were to be built in Derry and Coleraine on the choice lands with excellent fishing in sea and river already appropriated to their own use by Chichester, Phillips, and Sir Randal MacDonnell, who most unwillingly exchanged them for larger grants elsewhere.

A formidable difficulty was the great extent of the lands claimed by the Church. Though Davies had correctly shown that the ‘termon,’ or Church and monastic lands, were not the private property of the bishop, any more than the tribe lands were the property of the chief, but were held from time immemorial for the Church by lay administrators, the redoubtable Bishop Montgomery of Derry claimed all the Church lands as his own property, and the newcomers had to fight him step by step. He wrestled so well that out of 6343 acres he secured three-fourths for his personal use, and invited over several other members of his family. The Dean claimed 373 acres, but the commission had to insist on provision being made for the poor incumbents, the bishops moving a petition for compensation for the loss.

Chichester, in reference to the bishops, speaks of the “insatiable humours of craving men.” These church lands became a chief refuge for the Irish people who had always lived on them and who were preferred to strangers; so that, though by their covenants the bishops were bound to plant one-third with British, in practice these lands remained largely Irish districts. The total of Church properties in Ulster amounted to over 68,000 acres.

Meanwhile, in London, large properties had been put up for sale and, largely through the King’s personal influence, the problems of a special “London Company” plantation in Ulster were discussed, and a party of three gentlemen representing the City Companies went over to prospect. Their report, intended to tempt buyers, was so encouraging that the lands were taken up at once on the London market. They found good lands, very fair woods, and rivers. The natural resources included skins of animals, salmon, eels, yarn, pipe-staves, tallow, and hides, besides “ore from which a smith can make iron before one’s face and turn that in less than one hour into steel.”

A lottery was held in London, and the City Companies formed themselves into twelve groups, which were to divide out the allotted lands between them. Thus came into existence, on January 28, 1609–10, what became known as “The Irish Society,” for the management of the Irish estates incorporated by charter in 1613; and the ancient city of Derry took the name of Londonderry, by which it has been known ever since.[19]

The lands were to be held by the three classes to whom they were granted by different tenures; English and Scottish undertakers must plant with English and lowland Scots only; their grants were of 2000 and 1500 acres respectively, holding by knight’s service in capite, or of 1,000 acres, holding by the same service, but of Dublin Castle and not of the King, like the larger holders. They were to be free from rent for two years, but were bound to build a castle, a house of brick or stone, or a court or bawn according to their rank, and to see that their followers also built themselves houses.

The second body of planters were the servitors, army officers and officials who might plant either with British or Irish, and who held in fee-farm; they also must build and settle within two years.

The third body were the old inhabitants, who were to be freeholders and were to build a strong court or bawn. Timber was given free, and for five years all planters could import, duty free, all personal necessaries, and for seven years they might transport their own produce free of custom. The terms to the Irish inhabitants, though hedged about with stipulations against alienating property once it was taken up, were far from unjust. They were, considering the ideas of the day, even generous.

It would really seem to have been Chichester’s design to settle a contented peasantry on the soil. Serfdom was abolished, and though the Irish must reside on the plains, under the eye of the servitors, to keep a watch on their movements, this resulted in practice in planting them on some of the best lands.

The Ulster plantation was probably the only attempt made in that day of plantations to provide for the original inhabitants at all; having wiped out the chiefs, the peasants were thought to be harmless. Davies is probably right in saying that, among a series of plantations of which he knew, none other had taken the poorer classes into consideration.[20]

Whatever might be the after difficulties arising from the mixture of races in the North, there is no doubt that the retention of the old inhabitants was one main cause of the final success of the plantation.

But the immediate prospect of moving the Irish in possession from their old homes, and parcelling them out into new districts among the servitors, few of whom had as yet appeared in the North, was one before which even Chichester quailed as the time drew near, and it is no wonder that several members of the party who were to have accompanied him to carry out this business suddenly bethought them of their age and impotence of body, of the foulness of the ways and the ill-lodging they would find in Ulster, when they were called upon to start. Chichester had just received this report from Sir Toby Caulfeild:

“Touching the natives, it will shortly be many of their cases to be wood-kerne out of necessity, no other means being left them to keep a being in this world. … They hope that the summer being spent, so great cruelty will not be offered as to remove them from their houses upon the edge of the winter and in the very season when they are to supply themselves in making their harvest.”[21]

Large numbers did indeed become outlaws, especially the swordsmen and larger holders, who would not consent to hold their lands under the newcomers; they took to the woods and they and their sons became ready material for the rebellion of revenge of 1641. Others went with Colonel Stewart, who was enrolling bands of mercenaries to take part in the wars of Sweden; but of the thousand who volunteered, or were sent away, the larger number were driven back by storms into English harbours, and made their escape.

Besides the few greater chiefs who received grants of land for life in different parts of the country, there remained of the peasant population large numbers who preferred to stay in their old districts and pay good rents to the new landlords or to settle on the Church lands as tenants, the commissioners finding that the words ‘transplanting’ or ‘removing’ were “as welcome as the sentence of death.”

The undertakers were slow in coming over, and this gave the Irish a reprieve, as it was perceived by the authorities that there would be no sowing for the next harvest if they were ordered off their lands. When the new owners did begin to dribble in, many of them were quite unable from want of capital, or the difficulty of persuading workmen to come over, to fulfil the conditions of the plantation. Few of them were men adapted to the work of building up a new country, “much defect being observed, even by the Irish themselves, in their proceedings.”

A large number of them had taken up lands purely as a speculation, to sell again if they were allowed to do so; others, like the City Companies, sent over agents ill provided with money to pay workmen, or without men to build the stipulated houses and bawns.

There was little to induce labourers to volunteer, for though the Government had fixed the conditions and rents for the planters they made no terms for the working immigrants, and the large undertakers took full advantage of this oversight.[22]

Numbers who came soon became disheartened and took the first opportunity to go home again; the more determined who struggled on found themselves dependent, in a large number of cases, on the help and experience of the Irish who were living on the lands when they arrived. Their markets supplied provisions, and their cattle provided milk; their labour was needed not only for the next harvest, but for carrying out the preliminary work of the plantation as builders and labourers. In order to remain, they were ready to pay higher rents than the English and Scots, who, like their masters, had come over in the hope of making their fortunes, and were often equally impecunious.

Thus, as time passed on, mutual necessity brought about mutual accommodation; and one report after another complains of the retention of the inhabitants on their old holdings long after the time arranged for in the Plantation leases.[23]

In fact the plans proposed in London could not be carried out, and at the beginning of the reign of Charles I the Ulster landlords generally were found to have systematically violated the law enjoining the removal of the inhabitants, and a later Act was required in 1626, which stipulated that only a fourth part of the undertaker’s properties should be let to Irish, and that they should be gathered into villages and not allowed as heretofore to live scattered over the estates; but in 1629 it was found that this order had been likewise ignored, for the people remained in their old districts, though they were called upon to build better dwellings and as far as was possible to adhere to such rules as those of wearing English dress, learning English, and sending their children to school.

Those who took to ‘creaghting,’ or wandering about with their cattle, disappeared into the woods and mountains, and multiplied in a reckless and improvident fashion, having nothing to hold them in restraint; they held their own markets and they supplied the ‘wood-kerne’ with food and often with shelter.

Pynnar’s survey in 1618–19 shows that numbers still remained on the estates. The condition of the plantation hardly looked promising. A Presbyterian minister writing in 1645 or later describes the first-comers as “in general, the scum of both nations (Scottish and English); … all void of godliness, who seemed rather to flee from God in this enterprise than to follow their own mercy; made up of different names, nations, dialects, temper, breeding”: not the sort of people under whom a plantation could prosper.[24] Reporting to Salisbury about the close of 1610, Chichester writes:

“The undertakers from England are, for the most part, plain country gentlemen, who may promise much, but give small assurance or hope of performing what appertains to a work of such moment. … The Scottishmen come with greater port and better accompanied and attended, but it may be with less money in their purses; for some of the principal of them … were forthwith in hand with the natives to supply their wants; and in recompense thereof promise to get licence from his Majesty that these may remain upon their lands as tenants unto them, which is so pleasing to that people, that they will strain themselves to the uttermost to gratify them, for they are content to become tenants to any man rather than to be removed from the place of their birth and education, hoping [as he conceives] at one time or other, to find an opportunity to cut their landlords’ throats; for they hate the Scotch deadly, and out of their malice towards them they begin to affect the English better than they were accustomed. … He [Chichester] will do his best to prevent their revolt, but greatly doubts it, for they are infinitely discontented.”[25]