The Plantation of Ulster

Ulster was the last province in Ireland to be brought under the control of the English Crown. This was finally accomplished following the end of the Nine Years’ War in 1603. With the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne as James I in that year the course of Irish history changed forever. Following the departure from Ireland of the two most important Gaelic chieftains and a large number of their followers in 1607 the government embarked upon a scheme of plantation whereby lands were confiscated and parcelled out, for the most part, to new landowners of English and Scottish origin known as undertakers. Six counties were to be affected in the official plantation: Armagh, Cavan, Coleraine (renamed Londonderry), Donegal, Fermanagh and Tyrone (collectively known as the ‘escheated counties’). These grantees were expected to colonise, being required to plant ten families or 24 men for every 1000 acres they were granted.

The official plantation scheme did not extend to counties Antrim, Down and Monaghan. In Antrim and Down private plantations in the early seventeenth century resulted in the large-scale migration of English and Scottish settlers to these counties.

Londonderry Plantation map cropped

In north-east County Down, two Scots, James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery, acquired large estates from lands formerly owned by Con O’Neill. The British – overwhelmingly Scottish – settlement on the Hamilton and Montgomery estates was heavier than in any other part of Ulster. The largest land grant made in Ulster in the early seventeenth century was the grant of the greater part of the four northern baronies in county Antrim – an area of well over 300,000 acres – to Randal MacDonnell, a Scottish Catholic, in 1603. In order to develop his massive estate, MacDonnell invited lowland Scots to settle on his lands. In 1611 it was noted that adjoining his castle at Dunluce he had founded a village, containing ‘many tenements after the fashion of the Pale, peopled for the mo st part with Scottishmen’. To encourage Protestant Scots to settle on a Catholic-owned estate, MacDonnell contributed to the building and repair of churches.

By 1630 British settlement was well established in large parts of Ulster and there were clear areas of demarcation between areas in which English and Scottish settlers predominated. Scottish settlement was heaviest in north Antrim, north-east Down, east Donegal and north-west Tyrone, while English settlers were in the majority in County Londonderry, south Antrim and north Armagh. Much of the province remained virtually unsettled, including most of north, south and west County Donegal, south County Armagh, mid County Tyrone and mid County Londonderry. The more mountainous areas, far from the main British settlements, remained almost exclusively Irish.

The Religion of the Settlers

It can be reasonably assumed that most of the settlers who came to Ulster in the early seventeenth century were Protestants, even if only nominally so. The Church of Ireland was the established or state church and was organised along episcopalian lines with a hierarchy of clergy. However, several ministers from Scotland came to Ulster in this period who dissented from this view of church government, preferring the more egalitarian presbyterian system. To begin with such men were tolerated within the Church of Ireland and there was no distinct Presbyterian denomination at this time. In the 1630s the government began to clamp down on the activities of ministers with Presbyterian convictions. Those ministers who were not prepared to renounce their Presbyterianism were excommunicated.

In 1636 some of these men, with about 140 followers, set sail in the Eagle Wing for America; they never reached their destination as storms drove the ship back. Many other Presbyterians returned to Scotland. Here Presbyterian opposition to Charles I was also reaching boiling point. In 1638 the National Covenant was drawn up in Scotland which declared Presbyterianism the only true form of church government and bound the nation to the principles of the Reformation. Many in Ulster also signed the Covenant. In response Wentworth insisted that all Scots in Ulster over the age of sixteen take an oath – the infamous ‘Black Oath’ as it became known – abjuring the Covenant. Those who refused to take the oath could be fined and imprisoned. The result was that large numbers of Scottish settlers fled to their homeland; so many left in fact that in some places there were not enough people to bring in the harvest.

Catholic settlers were not entirely unknown in early seventeenth-century Ulster. There was a small, but significant colony of Scottish Catholics at Strabane, under the patronage of Sir George Hamilton of Greenlaw, whose father was Lord Paisley, a prominent supporter of Mary, Queen of Scots. As early as 1614 Sir George’s Catholic sympathies were a source of concern for the government and in 1622 he was described as an ‘Archpapist and a great patron of them’; it was noted that all his servants were Catholics. In the late 1620s the Church of Ireland bishop of Derry became particularly agitated at the large number of Scottish Catholics he believed were living at Strabane under the patronage of Sir George Hamilton and his near relations.

The 1641 Rebellion

If the position for the Scots in Ulster was bad by the end of the 1630s, that of the native Irish landowners was little better. Few had been able to make the transition to a market economy and as a result many had ended up heavily in debt forcing them to either sell or mortgage much, or in some cases, all of their lands. Several of them conspired to rise up in rebellion against the government. On the evening of 22 October 1641 the rebellion began in Ulster, plunging the province and soon the entire island of Ireland into chaos. Under the leadership of the native Irish gentry, most notably Sir Phelim O’Neill (below), castles and towns over much of Ulster were seized by the rebels. Initially bloodshed was limited with a number of the rebel leaders insisting that the Scottish should not be interfered with. Soon, however, the rebel leaders lost control of the peasantry and indiscriminate massacres of settlers began.

The numbers killed in the rebellion have been a source of contention ever since the autumn of 1641. At the time, wildly exaggerated estimates – often considerably more than the entire British population in Ulster at the time – were circulated, mainly in the English press to drum up support for crushing the rebellion. Nonetheless, thousands of settlers did die in the rebellion, at least as many from exposure and disease as from murder. Those who had the means of doing so fled to Dublin or across the Irish Sea to England and Scotland. Others sought refuge with the towns that had not been captured.

In north-west Ulster resistance to the rebels was organised by the Stewart brothers, Sir William and Sir Robert, who recruited an army from among the settlers known as the Laganeers, one of the most efficient fighting machines of the war. Additional support for the settlers came in the form of a Scottish army under the command of Major-General Robert Munro which landed at Carrickfergus in April 1642. The conflict continued for the rest of the 1640s and it was not until Cromwell arrived in Ireland in August 1649 the island began to be brought under control. In Ulster most of the Scots supported the claims of Prince Charles, son of the recently beheaded king. Derry was briefly besieged by the Scots and in December 1649 an army of Scottish settlers was decisively defeated by a Cromwellian force at Lisburn.

Henry Jones