The Ulster Plantations: Turning Ireland Protestant and British

by JoHarrington

There is a tried and tested way of a nation gaining a permanent foothold in another country with a view to taking over. Northern Ireland was where it was tried and tested.

Today, Ireland is split in two. Leaving the Northern counties under British control was the only way that Michael Collins could secure the Republic without more bloodshed.

The legacy has been the Troubles, which tore Ulster apart and spread into mainland Britain too; until the Good Friday Agreement caused a ceasefire. As a Briton, I grew up in a world where malls, meeting halls and pubs were frequently evacuated due to Irish initiated bomb scares. I've watched the tentative peace begin to take hold.

These are the modern day repercussions of a quite deliberate British policy in the Jacobean era - the Plantation of Ulster.

Making Ireland English: The Irish Aristocracy in the Seventeenth Century by Prof. Jane Ohlmeyer

A Blueprint for the Cultural Genocide of the Gaels

It wasn't enough for England to have won the Nine Years' War. The government was determined to impose Englishness upon the defeated Irish.

Image:  Hugh O'NeillIt's quite telling to read the terms of the Treaty of Mellifont in 1603. Agreed between Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy - the English Lord Deputy in Ireland - and Hugh Uí Néill (pictured), Ulster clan chief and nominally High King of Ireland, it is a study in dismantling a people.

Some of the items on the list are unexceptional.  The defeated Irish had to promise never to seek foreign aid against English forces again. The usual stuff.

But the bulk of it is something quite different.  English was to replace Gaelic as the national language in the country; Hugh had to lose the title Uí Néill; Brehon Law had to be swopped for English law; and it became illegal for Irish earls to support bards.

That was hitting at the very fabric of Gaelic society.  It was stripping away all that informed national self-identity.  It was asking the Irish to forget who and what they were, and just become English.

The Uí Néill agreed, because he had no choice in the matter.  Plus it would buy him time to allow his people to recover after the scorched earth policies that had led to an English victory.  It's unlikely that he had any intention of following its demands to the letter.

That was probably understood by the English too.  A couple of years later, the proclamations came thick and fast.  The Irish were to answer to no clan chief nor Irish Lord, they were to acknowledge King James as their monarch.  All Catholic priests were to leave the country.

As for Hugh Uí Néill, he was personally targeted. The systematic erosion of his power base led directly to the Flight of the Earls in 1607.  With their passage was the end of centuries of Gaelic clan law in Ireland.

The cultural genocide was underway.  It would take another 250 years to come close to achieving it, but what happened next ensured that the efforts would continue into the modern day.

Books about the Tudor Conquest of Ireland and the Flight of the Earls

What is Cultural Genocide?

No legal definition exists, though it nearly did in 1994. 

The United Nations considered the following for inclusion in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It was left out in favor of genocide per se.

Indigenous peoples have the collective and individual right not to be subjected to ethnocide and cultural genocide, including prevention of and redress for:

(a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities;

(b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;

(c) Any form of population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights;

(d) Any form of assimilation or integration by other cultures or ways of life imposed on them by legislative, administrative or other measures;

(e) Any form of propaganda directed against them.

This isn't illegal under international law now and it certainly wasn't in the 16th and 17th centuries. If it had been, then Elizabethan and Jacobean policy in Ireland would have qualified on every count.

The Beginnings of the Ulster-Scots

For Crown and Corporation! The Taking of Gaelic Ulster

The Plantation of Ulster was traditionally seen as a way of guaranteeing loyalty to the English state, or a religious venture. But there was also money involved.

When Hugh Uí Néill was summoned to see King James in 1607, the Gaelic High King could see a future stretching out before him in the Tower of London.  Or worse. 

English policy in Ireland was now pushing way beyond the treaty.  Eroding away the power of the Irish Earls. 

Uí Néill and TyrConnell determined that the only way through this was to flee to Spain and try to gain military support there.  Their departure became known as the Flight of the Earls, and the beginning of the end for Gaelic Ulster.

King James seized both of their lands for the English crown, and that encompassed most of what is today Northern Ireland.

He also knew precisely what he was going to do with it; a plan which had perhaps been brewing for a while.  He would ensure that this corner of Ireland became English by supplanting the native population with his own.

Unfortunately that sort of thing takes money, something which the Nine Years' War with Ireland and the Anglo-Spanish wars had left the crown in deficit. 

King James turned to the City of London companies and emphasized the commercial benefits of such an undertaking.  The Capitalists agreed.  Now all that was needed was the terms, surveys and people to make it happen.

How the Plantation of Ulster was Planned

Dispossessing the native Irish was key to the scheme's success. Pushing the Gaels from the English settlements was written into the plans.

In 1609, an army belonging to King James escorted land surveyors through the counties of Donegal, Coleraine, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan and Armagh. Their job was to map out the land, in order that it might be carved up for English settlers.

While the City of London companies set about recruiting farmers and traders willing to withstand the risks, in order to gain land of their own; King James was finalizing the way it should all proceed.

The six counties were each split into equal sections.  Some portions were given to the Anglican Church in Ireland, in order to create ministries for the conversion of the native Irish from Catholicism.  Some were given to veteran soldiers from the Nine Years' War, who could be expected to help protect their country-folk now too.

County Coleraine was handed over to the City of London companies.  They promptly renamed the city of Derry as Londonderry, which became the name of the whole county.  This would be the fortified center of British plantation.

As for the Loyalist Settlers, they were categorized in one of three ways:

Undertakers: Primarily rich London traders, these people were required to pay for the passage and settlement of ten English families on their land.  There were no restrictions placed on the amount of Irish people allowed to stay as tenants to these landlords, but the native people were only to be given the least fertile land to encourage them to move on.

Servitors:  These veteran soldiers were not asked to pay for those settlers on their land.  But they were also permitted only five Irish tenants once there.

Both undertakers and servitors were required to build and maintain fortifications, in order to repel the Gaels and protect the settlers.

The Deserving Irish:  (Yes, this category really was called that.)  These people had to prove that they had taken no part in the recent rebellions against the English. They were to act as their overlords in language, culture and Protestant religion. They were allowed to retain Irish farmers on their land, who would be subservient to them.  Again the native farmers could only have the least fertile ground to farm.

Many in this last category were actually ethnically British.  They'd emigrated in earlier, failed plantations and had 'turned native' instead.

The Settlement of Ulster-Scots Loyalists

The first actual crown driven Ulster plantations began in 1610. It wasn't an instant success.

In the neighboring County Antrim and County Down, two Scottish private landlords had been doing the same since 1606.  Those lands were already filling up with Lowland Scots.  But the much bigger enterprise initiated from London was sluggish at best.

The issue was that the venture was so dangerous. It wasn't only the British servitors who were veterans of the war.  Ulster was regarded as one of the most fiercely rebellious Gaelic areas in Ireland.  The countryside was teeming with swordsmen who had fought on the Irish side in the Nine Years' War.

Moreover, it was a big upheaval to emigrate from 'civilized' England into 'wild and barbaric' Ireland.  The City of London companies, now calling this side of their business the Irish Society, were struggling to fill their quotas.

The solution came from King James's homeland. Presbyterian, English-speaking Scots proved a little more willing to secure a new life and land in Ulster.  When their numbers are added to those already flowing into Antrim and Down, the nationality of the Plantation settlers became overwhelmingly Scottish.

Even so, the critical number of British settlers failed to materialize.  In order to work the land to its full potential, many new land-owners allowed the Irish to stay on, albeit at four times their rent.  It was a good, cheap source of labor and a goldmine in cash.

However, that served the business interests of the individual over the cultural displacement policies of the crown.  Enough Irish Gaels were left in Ulster for the conflict to go on.

Four Hundred Years Later: The Fight for Ulster Goes On

This video contains footage from the last fifty years of the 20th century.

The descendants of those planted by the English crown still need the protection of the British army. The descendants of the native Irish are still holding their ground.

It's a Jacobean story which is nowhere near over. 

The current situation is that the Good Friday Agreement has finally brought some hope for a lasting peace.  Nevertheless, when the rest of Ireland became a Republic, Ulster remained in British hands.  Its army is still stationed there, continuing the work of the seventeenth-century servitors.

In the 21st century, the solution is much more complex than it was four hundred years ago. Back then, the settlers could simply go home.  Now they've had four centuries' worth of roots into the ground.  The issue of where 'home' is would be answered by them all as right where they are now.

As for the cultural genocide, it had a mixed success.  The Gaelic language, its laws, clan system and bards have gone from Ulster now.  In that way the Ulster Plantations served their purpose.  But the Catholic religion remains.

And the Ulster Gaels are more adamant than ever before that they are not now, nor ever will be, British.

Books about the Troubles in Northern Ireland

Read these histories to understand the bloody consequences of the Plantation of Ulster; and how that's transpired in the present day.

The Latest News on the Good Friday Agreement

This is how the Ulster Plantation story is still unfolding in the present day.
LabourListHard Brexit border confusion could harm the Good Friday Agreement, SDLP warnsLabourListHard Brexit could be “fundamentally damaging” to the Good Friday Agree...
ITV News'No Brexit impact' on Good Friday AgreementITV NewsThe Attorney General has said 'not one word' of the Good Friday Agreement would be affected by Brexit as a t...
the Irish NewsJournalist Jon Snow's confusion in tweets about Good Friday Agreement referendumthe Irish NewsCHANNEL 4 News host Jon Snow has provoked a storm on social...
Belfast TelegraphColombia has Good Friday Agreement moment of its ownBelfast TelegraphMany on what was the "No" side of the argument in the 1998 Good Friday ...
Updated: 11/25/2012, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 12/05/2012

It's not really something which could be forgotten, because it's all still right there. I was reading a couple of days ago that Belfast City Council have voted to stop flying the Union Flag.

As they did so, Loyalists (descendents of the English and Scottish settlers) began to riot outside. Cars and property were damaged, but fortunately there weren't too many injuries. Riot police were called and they were attacked too.

This was two days ago (December 2012), but it's a direct consequence of what was started in 1610.

sheilamarie on 12/05/2012

Interesting wizzle, Jo. It's amazing how generations hold memories of injustice. Let's hope the peace lasts.

JoHarrington on 12/02/2012

Ulster was extremely Gaelic speaking before 1610, but afterwards it went into some decline. Not immediately though. Obviously all those coming in spoke English; while all of the natives spoke Gaelic. As native people were pushed out, English came to the fore.

But in some ways, the Plantations failed as cultural genocide. There was supposed to be limits on the number of Irish people allowed on each plot, but that didn't happen in reality. The Irish could be charged huge rents, so they were favored by landlords out for cash. Also there weren't the numbers emigrating that James would have liked, so more Irish were needed to work the farmland.

Those Irish people all retained their Gaelic.

Really the death knoll for the Gaelic language as a whole came much, much later. The Irish genocide of 1845-1851 was the biggie, though only within the context of other things happening before and after. Too many Gaelic speakers died or emigrated; and the schools would only teach in English.

However, Gaelic never completely went away. There are still Gaelic speaking areas in Ireland now, though granted not in Ulster. But there are still individuals there who are fluent.

Paul on 12/02/2012

What happened to Gaelic after the Ulster plantations?

JoHarrington on 11/24/2012

I've never even heard of that play. I'll have to look it out. But I'm sure that I've been Brian Friel's name on something today. I'm currently writing about the Nine Years' War, which happened in the decade before the Ulster Plantations. I wonder if he wrote about that too?

kate on 11/24/2012

in A level English we studied 'translations' a play by Brian Friel. It explored these issues and I really enjoyed it. You never seen to see it performed anywhere these days though.

You might also like

How Scottish Independence was Given Away

From the Romans to the English, the Scots had managed to repel every threat f...

Eyam: The Courageous Plague Village in Derbyshire

In 1666, around 800 people chose to sacrifice themselves, in order to save th...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...