A laboratory for empire

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), General, Hugh O'Neill, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2009), News, Plantation of Ireland, Volume 17

75_small_1258218383The union of the English, Irish and Scottish crowns in the person of James, self-styled king of Great Britain and Ireland, both facilitated and heralded a monumental shift in ‘English’ Crown policy. Since the Scottish Wars of Independence of the late thirteenth/early fourteenth century, successive English kings and queens had endeavoured to keep the Scots, both settlers and mercenaries (gall óglaigh/galloglass), out of Ulster. Elizabeth’s comprehensive defeat of O’Neill and his confederates in the Nine Years’ War, their subsequent ‘flight’ and the ensuing rebellion of Sir Cahir O’Doherty and his confederates facilitated the Crown’s seizure of nearly 3.5 million acres of land for a comprehensive plantation project. It also enabled King James to address a series of key political, religious, strategic, socio-economic and financial policies. A systematic plantation and the influx of English and Scottish settlers would hamper any attempts by hostile Catholic powers to use Ireland as a back door through which they could invest the king’s Protestant realms. Similarly, James could address the social, economic, political and religious disturbances that had plagued the Scottish–English borders through a wholesale transplantation of people to his Irish kingdom. Furthermore, the resulting capital investment in the Plantation and the foundation of new counties, shires, towns and villages would provide a much-needed financial boost to his depleted treasury.
Elizabeth I’s Monaghan plantation in 1591 and the successful ‘private’ plantation scheme initiated by Hugh Montgomery and Sir James Hamilton on the lands of Conn O’Neill in south Clandeboye (counties Antrim and Down) in 1606 provided suitable templates for the much larger and more ambitious plantation. The remaining six Ulster counties of Armagh, Cavan, Coleraine/Londonderry, Donegal, Fermanagh and Tyrone had passed to the Crown, thus facilitating a plantation that far outstripped previous ventures in Ireland and compared in size and scope with contemporary English, Portuguese and Spanish initiatives in the Americas (see Tostado, pp 38–41; Griffin, pp 46–9). An Irish committee of the English privy council undertook extensive cartographical surveys and stocktaking exercises before publishing detailed conditions and instructions for the ensuing plantation (see Stevens Curl, pp 28–31; Margey, pp 42–5). Lands were divided amongst ‘servitors’ (government officials and soldiers who had served the Crown during the Nine Years’ War), ‘undertakers’ (English and Scottish venture capitalists and men of property, who undertook to plant their newly acquired lands with English and Scottish settlers) and those ‘deserving Irish’ who had supported the Crown or changed sides in the 1590s. Undertakers received 40% of the allocated lands, parcelled out in units of 2,000, 1,500 and 1,000 acres, on condition that they removed the natives, encouraged English and Scottish settlers, founded small towns and villages, and erected castles or ‘bawns’ (fortified dwellings). The ‘servitors’ received approximately 15% of the allocated lands and the native Irish retained 20% of the forfeited properties. Generous grants to the Church of Ireland, Trinity College, Dublin, and the newly founded ‘free’ or ‘royal’ schools at Armagh, Cavan, Dungannon, Enniskillen and Newry furthered the king’s plans to advance the Protestant Reformation and civilise the ‘rude partes’ of his realm (see Milne, pp 33–5).
Finally, the Crown assigned ‘O’Cahan’s Country’, renamed Coleraine and later Londonderry, to the twelve livery companies (trade guilds) of the city of London, in return for the necessary capital to sustain the plantation. For an original figure of £20,000, which would treble by the end of King James’s reign, the companies undertook to construct two new towns of 200 and 100 houses (Derry/Londonderry and Coleraine) and plant their new possessions with London’s surplus population. In return, they received over half a million acres, divided in lots of between 10,000 and 40,000 acres among the livery companies and their subsidiaries, around what would become the major urban settlements in the newly escheated country. Other grants included 116,400 acres for the Church of Ireland and the bishopric of Derry. Sir Thomas Phillips, a veteran of the French and Irish wars, custodian of Coleraine friary, military superintendent of Coleraine and one of the original sponsors of the London venture, held on to a previous royal grant of 19,400 acres. He also received licences to distil ‘aqua vitae’—the forerunner of the Bushmills and Coleraine distilleries. Finally, the new town of Derry and Coleraine received 7,000 acres each, while the native Irish population retained 52,050 acres across the new county. These possessions contained a vast array of valuable natural resources; the rich fisheries comprised inland and coastal herring, eel and salmon fisheries of the Bann, Foyle and Lough Neagh, while the forests included the vast and valuable woods of Glenconkeyne and Killetra, which would provide pipe-staves and the wooden walls for the emerging British navy (see O’Neill, pp 62–5).
‘Derry’s Walls’ are perhaps the most famous, visible and enduring physical legacy of the Plantation (see Lacey, pp 60–1; Scott, pp 57–9). Even before the reign of Elizabeth I, English officials recognised the strategic location of the site and established garrisons there in 1566 and in 1600. Sir Henry Docwra, Elizabeth’s commander at Derry, remarked that the location provided a natural fortress bounded by the river and with steep embankments on three sides, lying ‘in the form of a bow bent, whereof the bog is the string and the river the bow’. Docwra’s fortifications amounted to little more than an earthen rampart and two forts, a hospital and some houses. The 1604 charter highlighted Derry’s obvious advantages ‘by reason of the natural seat and situation thereof, a place very convenient and fit to be made both a town of war and a town of merchandize’. Within two years of Docwra’s departure, Sir Cahir O’Doherty stormed and burnt the town during his ill-fated rebellion of 1608. The following year, a proposal to the king by the earl of Salisbury, lord high treasurer, recommended the establishment of a colony at Derry, described as ‘the late ruinated city of Derry, which may be made by land almost impregnable’. ‘Four wise, grave and discreet citizens’ from the London guilds and the Common Council of the City of London arrived to report on the feasibility of the proposal (see Kelly, pp 66–9). Although they were somewhat reluctant to become involved in what was widely viewed as a hazardous investment, the king prevailed on the merchants, by a combination of persuasion and outright threats, to take charge of the new city (see Stevens Curl, pp 28–31).
The onset of the Ulster Plantation also coincided with the establishment of a small English colony on the Jamestown River in North America, a precarious toehold for the emergence of a British North American empire to rival France and Spain (see Tostado, pp 38–41; Griffin, pp 46–9). Many of those early American planters had cut their teeth in Ulster or learned harsh lessons from the collapse of the Munster Plantation. Tudor and early Jacobean colonial literature, cartography, drawings, prints and illustrations resonated with comparisons between ‘wild Irishman’ and ‘brutish Indians’. The pivotal importance of the Ulster Plantation to the shared histories of Ireland, Britain and the British Empire would be difficult to overstate. It effectively secured the English and British conquest of Ireland, and dramatically transformed Ireland’s physical, demographic, socio-economic, political, military, religious and cultural landscapes. In effect, the Ulster Plantation became England’s, Britain’s and the City of London’s first successful attempt at plantation. Furthermore, the city of London’s vigorous endeavours to protect that investment would have enormous implications for the collapse of the Stuart monarchy in the 1640s (see Wormald, pp 20–3; Ohlmeyer, pp 54–6). It also provided a successful template for British conquest, plantation and imperialism in the Americas, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. Finally, the plantation’s historical, political, cultural, environmental and visual effects have impacted on the two sister cities (London and Derry) and neighbouring islands, and continue to do so until the present day. The servitors, soldiers and settlers who flooded into Ulster, continually criticised as usurpers and interlopers in the contemporary Gaelic literature, would make an indelible mark on the politics, economics and material culture of Ulster, Ireland, Britain and the ‘British’ world (see Caball, pp 24–7; Nic Cathmhaoil, pp 50–3).  HI

Éamonn Ó Ciardha lectures in history at the University of Ulster; Micheál Ó Siochrú lectures in history at Trinity College, Dublin.


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