The First Plantations (2)

Eleanor Hull
The First Plantations | start of chapter

The plantation of Walter Devereux, first Earl of Essex, and father of the Viceroy, was of a more extensive character. Though long considered, it was undertaken in a manner that gave it little chance of success, and those who urged it on seem to have looked on it rather as a means of ruining Essex in purse and reputation than as a serious political enterprise. He was bound to raise and support out of his own purse an equal number of horse and foot to those supplied by the Queen, and all fortifications were to be paid for between them.

Not having ready money for such an outlay, Essex was induced to borrow £10,000 from the Queen herself, at ten per cent. interest, with forfeiture of his estates in default of punctual payment on stated dates, a bargain by which the thrifty sovereign became possessed of large portions of the Essex estates in England, and her servant became hopelessly involved in debt and embarrassments.

Neither did the irregular position in which Essex was placed in Ireland tend to the advancement of his enterprise. Lord Deputy FitzWilliam was extremely jealous of him, and hampered him in every way in his power; in Essex’s capacity as part-paymaster he was blamed for every complaint made by the soldiery, while his authority to deal either with them or with the Irish was persistently undermined. His position was an impossible one, and largely accounts for the want of success he met with.

The instructions he received from the Queen before his departure in July 1573, as well as his own intentions, were, if plantations are allowable at all, not unreasonable. On his taking leave, Elizabeth besought him to have consideration of the Irish there, since she believed they had become her disobedient subjects rather because they had not been defended from the Scots than from any other reason, and she held that they would yield themselves good subjects on the coming of Essex, and therefore she desired that they should be well used. She also laid it specially upon him that he should not too hastily seek to change the beliefs of people who had been trained up in another religion. Essex expressed his general agreement with these views, though “for the present he could not say what was best to be done,” but he promised “not to imbrue his hands with more blood than the necessity of the cause required.”[10] We can hardly feel that he kept his word.

Essex opened well. He declared that he had come over to check the tyranny of the Scots; he restrained the extortions of his soldiers and he gave the Scottish harvest to the Irish, guarding them while they reaped their corn.

Sir Bryan MacPhelim, who had been ousted from his lands by the Smith settlers, came in and offered his help against the Scots; but only a few days later, news was brought that he had changed his mind and gone out to Turlogh Lynogh, who had newly confederated with the Scots and driven away all his cattle into the opposite camp. This act of infidelity completely changed Essex’s opinion of the Irish and his methods of dealing with them; he no longer put faith in their submissions, or promises, “these Northern people being so false of their word.”

Nor did the new adventurers prove satisfactory. “Not having forgotten the delicacies of England,” they soon made for home, and prejudiced intending settlers by news of the hardships of the enterprise. The soldiers revolted when provisions did not come over, and the Deputy “sat in his chair and smiled,” encouraging all parties to believe that Essex’s adventure was purely a private affair for which the Queen and he took no responsibility. He sent Essex into Munster, when he was badly needed in the North to keep in check Turlogh and the Scots, and he lost no opportunity of undermining his influence with the Queen.

In October 1574 Essex made an expedition into Tyrone and as far north as Lough Foyle, accompanied by Magennis and MacMahon, but Turlogh refused to come, and was supported by Conn O’Donnell, who “was as fast to him as his hand to his body.”

Pen-and-Ink Sketch of Turlogh O'Neill

Pen-and-Ink Sketch of Turlogh O’Neill
Drawn by Barnaby Gooch, and “greatly resembling him” (S.P.I. Eliz., vol. xlv, No. 60, ii)

The O’Donnell and O’Doherty, on the other hand, were quite ready to help against Turlogh, “saying very frankly that it was their duty so to do, and he that would not spend his life and all his goods to conserve her Highness’s dignity, could neither be accounted a good subject nor was worthy to have life.”

Essex took the usual plan of wasting the country by sending out his horsemen to fire the corn, which, he says, he found in great plenty and in large ricks. He estimates that by the time the expedition was over his men had burned five thousand pounds worth of grain. He seized Dunnalong on Lough Foyle from Turlogh and Lifford from Conn, whom he took prisoner, and he cut passes through the woods, wide enough for ten horsemen to ride abreast. He left the country of Clannaboy “all desolate and without people,” Turlogh complaining that his rebellious behaviour was solely due to the arbitrary conduct of Essex.

Essex at length began to see clearly that his plantation would never be allowed to succeed, and he resigned the government of Ulster, asking only of the Queen that he might have her good licence to live in a corner of the Province, which he would hire for money. The costs of his fruitless Irish adventure had left him in debt for £25,473, besides £10,000 owing to the Queen. He died in Dublin on September 22, 1576.

Essex is an example of a type of character which became common during the Tudor period, when men otherwise of taste and culture, and possessed of a certain probity and distinction of mind, yet in their dealings with ‘native’ races lost all sense of honour or feelings of natural compassion.

In his relations with some of the Irish and Scots alike Essex acted with callous and hideous cruelty. His treatment of the families of Sir Bryan MacPhelim and Sorley Boy have left a deep stain on his memory.

We have seen that Sir Bryan had deceived Essex in so treacherous a manner that he had prejudiced Essex against the whole Irish people, but even this is not a sufficient excuse for the revenge taken by the planter. He invited Sir Bryan to a friendly banquet, during which he seized him and his wife and put them to death. His dealings with the Scots were still more ruthless, and the massacre of his wife and family with their dependents on Rathlin Island must have left a deep impression on the mind of Sorley Boy MacDonnell. On a smaller scale it compares with the massacre of Glencoe.

In the summer of 1575 Sorley Boy had information that Essex was marching northward, and he endeavoured to protect his own young family, with the wives of his leading officers, the women, children, and non-combatants, by sending them over to Rathlin Island. They carried with them what they could of their family plate and valuables.

Essex ordered Sir John Norris, then in command of three frigates at Carrickfergus, to sail round and raid Rathlin. “And having given this direction,” he reports in a letter to the Queen, “I withdrew myself toward the Pale, to make the Scots less suspicious of any such matter pretended.”

A small garrison of about fifty men had the charge of the fortress known as Bruce’s Castle, and into it were crowded a large number of the refugees of the better class. On July 22, Norris landed on the island with a considerable force by means of a flotilla of boats. The commander of the garrison was killed on the first encounter, and the constable, after what was evidently a sharp fight, surrendered, “the lives of all within (save those of the constable, his wife, and child) to stand upon the courtesy of the soldiers.” Essex reports:

“The soldiers being moved and much stirred with the loss of their fellows that were slain and desirous of revenge, made request, or rather pressed, to have the killing of them, which they did all, saving the persons to whom life was promised … There were slain that came out of the castle of all sorts 200; and presently there is brought me news out of Tyrone that they be occupied still in killing, and have slain that they have found hidden in caves and in cliffs of the sea, to the number of 300 or 400 more. They had within the island 300 kine, 3000 sheep, and 100 stud mares, and of beer-corn upon the ground there is sufficient to find 200 men for a whole year.”

Sorley watched the awful scene from a headland on the shore, powerless to save the hapless women and children he had thought to place out of reach of his merciless foes.

“He stood upon the mainland of the Glynnes and witnessed the taking of the island, and was like to run mad for sorrow, tearing and tormenting himself and saying that he had lost all that ever he had.”

So runs the grim postscript in Essex’s letter to Walsingham, as in the quiet camp at the Newry out of sight and sound of these horrors, he penned the report of the tragedy on the six hundred victims on Rathlin, caused by his own express command.[11]

Elizabeth received the news in the midst of “the princely pleasures of Kenilworth,” where she was enjoying the magnificent hospitality of the Earl of Leicester. Her woman’s heart seems to have felt no throb of pity for the women and children slaughtered on Rathlin. In one of the most cryptic of her princely letters she speaks of the comfort she takes in a subject “so serviceable” as Essex “in a calling whereof we may, in time to come, take so great profit,” and of her “thankful acceptation of the same.” She shortly afterward promoted Norris, whom she calls “the executioner of your well-devised enterprise,” to be Governor of Munster.[12]

Though the Queen on many occasions showed clemency and patience toward her Irish subjects, for the Scots, her natural enemies, she knew no compassion. Cecil had often to reflect that “her Majesty is more than a man and (in troth) sometimes less than a woman.” Yet at that moment the Queen had cause to feel that her project of sweeping the Scots out of the North of Ireland had come near to being fulfilled.