History of Northern Ireland 2

From the seventeenth century plantation to the United Irishmen

The Plantation and after


Arthur Chichester, secure as the new King James I’s lord deputy of Ireland, moved rapidly to erode Hugh O’Neill’s authority and left the major Gaelic lords no alternative, save exile in the 1607 ‘Flight of the Earls’.


In the east, Conn O’Neill, chief of the Clandeboye O’Neills, lost control of much of his territory. From his castle at Castlereagh outside Belfast, O’Neill could not resist the influx of English, Manx and Lowland Scots ‘planters’.


Meanwhile, west of the river Bann, most of counties Tyrconnell, Coleraine, Tyrone, Armagh, Fermanagh and Cavan were under royal control by 1608. The following year Thomas Phillips launched a scheme to ‘plant’ Coleraine. The county’s colonisation was to be overseen by the City of London Livery Companies and its name, alongside that of its main urban centre, changed to Londonderry.


Against the background of the civil war that had broken out in England in 1642, the Royalist, Major General Robert Monro, landed a Scots army at Carrickfergus and appeared to turn the tide against the rebels in Ulster at least. However, Monro’s army was smashed at Benburb in 1646 by a force of Ulster Irish led by Owen Roe O’Neill, nephew of Hugh O’Neill.


Catholic, Royalist and Parliamentarian armies ravaged Ireland. The colonists in Ulster, largely loyal to the crown despite their Presbyterianism, were defeated at Lisburn in 1649. By the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the Gaelic gentry had lost their remaining power due to war and famine. However, the decades that followed experienced the relative tolerance of Irish Catholic and dissenting planter alike and peace in Ulster was only broken by the accession of James II in 1685.


The Williamite Wars


James II’s sympathy for religious tolerance at home and for the Catholic absolutist monarchy of Louis XIV on the continent, led to the appointment of the Catholic Richard Talbot as lord deputy of Ireland in 1687. Talbot oversaw the selection of Catholic privy councillors, judges, and county sheriffs and the reorganisation of every Irish borough, except Belfast, in favour of Catholic dominated corporations.


William of Orange, Staadtholder of the Dutch Province of Holland and James’ son-in-law, declared his intention to invade England with the support of the country’s protestant whig aristocracy. In 1688, a Dutch army landed in England and James fled to France. However, his appearance in Ireland the following year, at the head of a French army, made war inevitable.


The largely protestant garrison at Londonderry was soon besieged in the town, after thirteen apprentice boys closed the gates on an approaching force of Catholic ‘redshanks’, commanded by Lord Antrim. Elsewhere, the mobilisation of Protestant forces was less successful. The Jacobite garrison at Carrickfergus held out against a Williamite force and after the rout of William’s supporters at the ‘Break of Dromore’, much of eastern Ulster came under Jacobite control.   


William of Orange landed at Carrickfergus in June 1690. His troops marched through Belfast and Lisburn to the river Boyne, near Drogheda, where on July 1, 1690,  they defeated James’ army. The bloody battle of Aughrim, just over a year later, secured William’s victory and the Protestant dominance over Ulster and the rest of Ireland.


Agrarian protest, sectarian conflict and the 1798 rebellion


The decades following the settlement of the Williamite wars were arguably the most peaceful in the history of the north of Ireland. However, the imposition of political and economic restrictions on the Catholic and to a lesser extent Presbyterian populations of Ulster and the pace of economic change in the late eighteenth century, sparked turbulence.


In December 1770, 1200 armed farmers marched on Belfast from Templepatrick in response to a series of evictions there. These so-called ‘Hearts of Steel’ burned the house of Belfast ship owner and land speculator Waddell Cunningham and came into violent confrontation with the authorities.Their revolt spread and merged with that of the ‘Hearts of Oak’, until military suppression in 1772.


Elsewhere in Ireland, protest groups calling themselves ‘Whiteboys’ used direct action methods against the common agrarian complaints. These included enclosure, evictions, high rents and tithes and the increasing sacrifice of plough land in favour of pasture land. In Ulster and especially in Co Armagh, sectarian animosities also informed the best known protest groups, the Protestant, loyalist ‘Peep of Day Boys’ and the Catholic ‘Defenders’.


Increasingly, the aims of the Defender movement appear to have developed beyond the simple redress of immediate grievances and sectarian rivalries and towards a wider social programme influenced by the ideas of the American and French revolutions. In the later 1790s, Defenders worked closely with the United Irishmen.


Unlike the agrarian secret societies, the Volunteer movement was initially a state sanctioned armed force, locally raised in 1778 to 1779 to guard against invasion during the American war. Its membership, drawn predominantly from the rural and urban middle classes, grew rapidly, from 12,000 in 1779 to 60,000 in 1782. In the aftermath of American independence and economic recession, its political consciousness developed and the Volunteers campaigned for free trade, legislative independence for Ireland and parliamentary reform.


The Society of United Irishmen, the most important of the eighteenth century radical groups, was founded in Belfast on October 18, 1791. Initially based within the northern Presbyterian merchant class and sharing some members with the Volunteer companies, the Society of United Irishmen was an expression of bourgeois interests and ideas.


Support for Catholic emancipation drew this increasingly conspiratorial organisation closer to the Defender movement. The United Irishmen, faced with state repression and espionage, reconstituted themselves as a clandestine group in May, 1795. The insurrection of 1798 saw armed conflict in Antrim, Down and around Ireland and appeared to threaten English authority in Ireland, but was rapidly crushed with savage reprisals. An organisation, regrouped around Robert Emmet, attempted another abortive insurrection in 1803, but by this time the Act of Union had altered the relationship between both Ireland and Britain and Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter in the north.


Further reading
Belfast: An Illustrated History (1982) by Jonathan Bardon; Belfast: 1000 Years (1985) by Jonathan Bardon and Stephen Conlin.