The Irish and the Plantation

The fate of the native Irish during the Plantation is probably the most controversial aspect of the entire scheme. A total of 280 Irishmen received grants of land in the six Plantation counties – in all over 94,000 acres – but only 26 of the more important Gaelic lords were given estates of 1,000 acres or more. The largest grant to an Irishman was the 9,900 acres in south Armagh given to Sir Turlough McHenry McNeill. In the precinct of Dungannon Turlough O’Neill received a grant of 4,000 acres. He was the eldest son of Sir Art O’Neill and grandson of Turlough Luineach O’Neill, chieftain of the O’Neills until he was usurped by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Though he had been promised possession of his ancestral lands in Strabane, when this barony was allocated to Scottish undertakers he was removed and instead given lands in Dungannon. He seems to have been lacked any enthusiasm for developing these lands. In 1618-19 Pynnar noted that he had built a ‘piece of a bawn’ which was five feet high and ‘hath been so a long time’.

The rapid social mobility brought about by the momentous changes resulting from the Plantation scheme was to the advantage of some Irishmen. One who benefited was Brian Crossagh O’Neill, the illegitimate son of Cormac McBaron O’Neill, brother of the Earl of Tyron. In 1611 he was the recipient of 1,000 plantation acres in north-east County Tyrone. In the older dispensation he would not have risen so quickly for he had two older brothers. Yet his new found status did not bring with it social acceptance and growing discontented was involved in a plot to overthrow the Plantation for which he was executed in 1615.

The Irish grantees were permitted to have Irish tenants. Furthermore, there were no restrictions on the keeping of Irish tenants on proportions granted to servitors, or on land reserved for the Church, Trinity College or schools. In fact the only lands where Irish tenants were specifically forbidden were those granted to the undertakers and London companies. On 57% of Plantation land Irish tenants and their families were permitted. But what of the remaining 43%? What was the fate of the Irish on these lands?

Here again, however, we must distinguish between theory and practice. In theory all Irish were to be cleared off the lands granted to the English and Scottish undertakers and the London companies. In reality, however, there is little evidence that Irish families were systematically removed from the undertakers’ proportions. Rare indeed was the comment, ‘I saw not one Irish family on the land’, made by Nicholas Pynnar in 1618-9 of the proportion of Ballyneagh in the precinct of Portlough, County Donegal. A few undertakers did try to enforce this particular rule of the Plantation. For example, in 1622 it was said of Sir William Cole’s proportion of Dromskeagh, County Fermanagh, ‘we cannot learn of any one Irish upon the land for grazing or otherwise, for the landlord conditions strictly with the tenants not to let to Irish’. This state of affairs was, however, something of an exception.

In practice, a shortage of British tenants and the willingness of the Irish to pay higher rents in order to hold on to their lands meant that significant numbers of Irish continued to live on the undertakers’ proportions. Even on the better managed estates the numbers of Irish remained significant. In 1622 there were 120 Irish families on the three Abercorn proportions in Strabane. The numbers of Irish in some areas was significant enough for the ordinary settler population to protest about it. On Sir Stephen Butler’s estate in County Cavan, the 1622 commissioners reported that there were many Irish inhabitants and the ‘British complain thereof generally that they can get no reasonable bargains till the Irish be removed’. One on of Butler’s proportions in Fermanagh, the settlers complained that the ‘Irish outbid them’ for tenancies. In 1622 some of the English settlers in the proportion of Carrowdownan owned by Sir Archibald Acheson in Tullyhunco, Cavan, complained of ‘hard usage’ by James Aughmoty, Acheson’s agent, who had evicted some of them from their holdings ‘under colour of forfeiture for setting to Irish, and the same lands have afterwards been set to Irish’.

In his report of 1618-9 Nicholas Pynnar was particularly damning of the activities of the London companies in retaining Irish tenants. Several of the companies, he noted, were in the hands of agents who ‘finding the Irish more profitable than the British Tenants, are unwilling to draw on the British, persuading the Company that the Lands are mountainous and unprofitable’. He found that on the estate of the Ironmongers’ Company there was ‘an infinite number of Irish’ who gave ‘such great Rents that the English cannot get any land’. The settler tenants on the estate of the Mercers’ Company complained to Pynnar that they paid such high rents for their farms that they were ‘forced to take Irish Tenants under them to pay the Rent’.

Not only were the undertakers culpable as far as letting land to the Irish was concerned, their tenants and the undertenants were also. An inquiry held in Dungannon in May 1631 found that the townland of Beltany in the barony of Strabane, which had been leased in fee farm to William Birsbane by Sir William Stewart, had been sublet by Birsbane to Thomas Graham and was at that time ‘ploughed and pastured by Manus O’Calenane, Arte Moynagh and others Irish’. On the estate of William Snow in Loughtee, Cavan, it was found that three fee farms originally granted to Englishmen were by 1622 in the possession of a single individual who lived in Dublin and let the land entirely to Irishmen. In some areas the Irish were allowed to graze their cattle on the lands of the tenants.

In the early stages of the Plantation several of the undertakers were content to co-operate with Irishmen of local standing in the management of their estates. One who played this role in Strabane barony was Patrick groome O’Devin. He was undoubtedly the most prominent native Irishman in the barony at this time and yet he did not come from one of the ruling families under the Gaelic dispensation. In November 1611 he was part of a jury assembled at Strabane, indicating that even at this stage he was of some importance. He appears in the rental of 1613-5 which has survived for the Eden-Killeny estate first granted to Sir Claud Hamilton of Shawfield. In 1613 and 1614 O’Devin rented the townlands of Drumman, Tirkernaghan, Tirconnelly and part of Aughtermoy and Killeny (in this case Killeny is the name of a townland in the estate). In modern terms this is nearly 3,500 acres. In 1615, following the death of Sir Claud, the entire Eden-Killeny estate was leased to him for £220.

While this arrangement did not continue for very long, it nonetheless highlights the degree of dependency of the British on the Irish in some areas. In the conclusion to his report, Pynnar went so far as to state that ‘if the Irish be put away with their Cattle, the British must either forsake their Dwellings, or endure great Distress on the suddain’. Furthermore, there is some evidence of intermarriage between British and Irish. On the estate of Francis Blennerhasset in County Fermanagh it was noted in 1622 that the widows of two of the tenants had married Irishmen.

In 1628 a compromise was reached which allow the undertakers to lease up to one quarter of their lands to native Irish tenants, but only for twenty-one years or three lives, not in fee farm. There is little evidence that this was strictly enforced. The segregation of British and Irish into clearly defined areas, with the latter on the townlands bordering the uplands, has been observed in the Clogher Valley by Philip Robinson who concludes, in his volume The Plantation of Ulster, that the effect of the compromise of 1628 was to ‘institutionalise the economic segregation which had already taken place’.T.W. Moody in his short article, ‘The treatment of the native population under the scheme for the Plantation in Ulster’, published in Irish Historical Studies (1938), concludes that the process by which the Irish were forced out of the better lands into marginal districts ‘was a gradual one, and was the product of economic forces rather than of any deliberate act on the part of the state’.

Plantation of Ulster: The Story of the Irish

The Ulster Plantation of the early 17th century is widely accepted as a period of critical importance in the shaping of modern Ulster. Published by the Ulster Historical Foundation in association with the R. J. Hunter Committee, this map is a companion to The Plantation of Ulster: the story of the Scots and The Plantation of Ulster: the story of the English and considers the experience of the Irish in the Plantation. It comprises a pocket history with a series of biographical sketches and a map showing places of interest.

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