The First Plantations

Eleanor Hull
The First Plantations

The idea of planting parts of Ireland with English settlers had long been mooted in London, and the chief visible result of Queen Mary's short reign was the attempted plantation of Leix and Offaly, which were shired under the names of King's and Queen's Counties, and granted during the Vice-royalty of Lord Sussex to sundry tenants, most of whom were “mere English,” but who were soon so ruined by the old inhabitants that many of them had relet their grants to the original Irish owners.

This was the first attempt at one of those plantations which were to be tried in various parts of Ireland with varying success during the next reign. It was among the articles of instruction given to Sir Henry Sidney when he first came over as Deputy in 1565 that he was to consider how these counties were to be settled with good subjects and the O'Connors and O'Mores expelled. Full powers were put into his hands to let lands and to make grants of any land void by “death, escheat, or forfeiture.”[1]

It was hoped that the leader of the O'Mores, Rory Oge, might be induced to “renounce his aspiring imagination of title to the country” which he and his forefathers had possessed, and be content with such portion of freehold as the Deputy thought meet for him.

But neither Rory Oge nor his clan were so easily disposed of. Placed on the borders of the Pale, they carried on a fierce and prolonged struggle against English rule. They fought through eighteen insurrections in sixty years, and up to the time of Essex their attempted suppression had cost the State over £200,000, large garrisons having to be maintained in the newly planted towns of Maryborough and Philipstown.

The most ruthless means were taken for the extirpation of the chief inhabitants. Perrot writes in April 1587,

“I caused to be hanged Conell MacLysaghe O'More, Lysaghe MacWilliam O'More, three notable men of the Kellys, and I have Conell MacKedagh O'More's head upon the top of the Castle so that there remaineth not one principal of the O'Mores, but Shane MacRosse … and Walter Roghe, whose heads I am promised very shortly. I have also taken the young fry of all the O'Mores, saving one whom I am promised to have. So I do not know one dangerous man of the sept left.”[2]

Rory Oge and his elder brother Callogh had been educated in England. At Ormonde's request in 1571, and in spite of orders that no O'More should hold land in Leix, Callogh was given a grant in his father's country.[3]

But Rory refused to settle down; he headed a wild band who ran through the towns “like hags and furies of hell with flakes of fire fastened on poles,”[4] attacked the Pale, and burned the town of Naas with five hundred people in it, himself sitting on the cross in the market-place, making “great joy and triumphe that he had doone so divelish an act.” This is not surprising when we reflect that such men as Alexander Crosby and his son Francis were chief governors of Leix. Francis it was who perpetrated the savage massacre of the chief men of the district at Mullaghmast, and who hung women and children on the spreading tree before his hall-door at Stradbally.[5] Grim legends of death-coaches still cling around this house.

When Rory was at last captured by Sir Barnaby FitzPatrick in 1578 his son, Owny, took his place, showing himself as fearless and indefatigable a fighter as his father had been. At one time Sir Henry Harington, a nephew of Sidney, was a prisoner among them; his opinion was that the Irish at home were so kind and hospitable to all newcomers that he would willingly have hazarded to live among them for life. But the terms asked for his ransom were so high that Sidney said he would not have given them “to enlarge Philip my son.”[6]

In 1600 they made an even more important capture. When the Earl of Ormonde was travelling with Carew to suppress the Munster rebellion, and was in command of the forces, he was surrounded while at a conference with Owny, and only got his release by the intervention of Tyrone and on payment of a ransom of £3000. Leix was by no means a waste under the O'Mores and O'Connors.

An English army, making its way to revictual the garrison of Philipstown, was amazed to find the rebel's country “exceedingly rich in all the means of life; the ground well tilled, the fields fenced, the towns inhabited, and the highways in good repair”; the reason of this good condition they ascribed to the fact “that the Queen's forces during these wars never till then came amongst them.”

Lord Mountjoy's campaign in 1600 speedily changed all this. His army brought with them sickles, scythes, and harrows, and as they advanced they mowed down the corn and burned the country, leaving a waste behind them.[7] The common soldiers found the duty so painful that only the example of their officers induced them to obey the command.

By Owny's death in a skirmish near Timahoe in 1600, resistance came to an end. But the O'Mores clung to their own districts, and when an attempt was made in the reign of James I to transplant them to Kerry and Clare they kept drifting back, saying that they preferred to die in their own country rather than to live anywhere else.

Much later another of their race was to become one of the chief instigators of the rebellion of 1641, and the right hand of Owen Roe. This Rory was an accomplished man, and his activities and adventures gained for him the title of “the Irish Robin Hood.” Numerous ballads in the native tongue celebrate his exploits.[8]

The plantation of King's and Queen's Counties languished for many years. It only revived during the Stuart period when a number of French Huguenot refugees established themselves in and about Portarlington, where they planted fruit and vegetable gardens, and opened spinning and weaving industries, gradually making of this district one of the most prosperous and well-managed parts of the country.[9]

The early attempts to make similar plantations in Ulster had been uniformly unsuccessful. In October 1572 a grant had been made to a Mr Chatterton, of the Fews, Orier, and part of Armagh, but he was killed by the Irish, and the more ambitious project of Sir Thomas Smith and his illegitimate son to colonize the Ardes in Co. Down, after the confiscations consequent on the rebellion and death of Shane O'Neill, was not more prosperous.

Smith was Professor of Civil Law and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, and Secretary of State under Elizabeth; he had been ambassador to France in 1562 and 1572. The idea of a colony had long occupied his mind, and a grant in the very heart of Shane's country and close to his old home beside Newry, which in Shane's day closed the passage to all strangers going north from Dundalk, seemed an excellent opportunity to carry out his views. But he found it impossible to subdue the inhabitants, and the death of his son in an encounter with the Irish in October 1573, brought the settlement to an end. The district later became the property of Sir Henry Bagenal, Marshal of Ireland and father-in-law to Tyrone.