The Plantation of Ulster

Jonathan Bardon's history marks the 400th anniversary, but it's far from opportunistic

Jonathan Bardon’s history of the Plantation roughly marks the 400th anniversary of the most successful systematic colonial undertaking in early modern European history. For good or ill we have lived with the consequences ever since.

Bardon has been a supremely effective writer of general narrative history, whether of Belfast, Ulster or Ireland. Here he rarely loses the thread and has a telling eye for quotation.

Thus we have Thomas Blennerhasset urging others to come to Fermanagh: ‘Art thou a gentleman that takes pleasure in the hunt? The fox, the wolfe, and the wood-kerne do expect thy coming.' For him the dispossessed Irish were merely animal prey.

At the outset Bardon seeks to confound previous easy assumptions. Catholic Ulster was not exterminated in the war of conquest up to 1603, although extermination was a weapon notably employed by Sir Arthur Chichester.

He surely over emphasizes the survival of Catholic leaders who took the government side, and under emphasizes the extent to which Catholics lost the most fertile lands in the province. Indeed his own narrative undermines any such case. It may have taken a century, or the ‘long plantation’, for consequences to work themselves out but, the die was cast from an early stage.

The impetus for conquest and plantation lay in growing English assertiveness and the need to secure Ireland against Spain. Hence the emergence of a new generation of adventurers and colonial promoters, and James I, first monarch of the United Kingdom, was particularly won over to plantation.

Those urging the venture drew on precedents from Roman history and previous failed endeavours in Ireland, but they were already building on developments following the defeat of the Irish in 1603. To the fury of soldiers and servitors, the Irish leader, the Earl of Tyrone, was pardoned, but the partisan application of English law by the victors made his position untenable, leading to the Flight of the Earls in 1607.

Meanwhile in County Down, Hugh Montgomery freed Con O’Neill from captivity and, working with James Hamilton, defrauded him of much of his territory in circumstances on which Bardon is unable to cast new light. Their unofficial plantation in the Ards Penninsula from 1605 onwards was to prove the most successful of all.

The official plantation of counties Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone from 1610 onwards was prescribed in the utmost detail with areas designated for Scots, English, and natives. Undertakers were to build castles and towns and to bring settlers with them, while removing the Irish.

As ever, English government could prescribe but things worked out differently in Ireland. There were insufficient willing investors of weight in the project, hence royal insistence that an unwilling City of London should take on Derry. Above all it proved impossible to develop the new settlement without the native Irish. Often they were willing to pay higher rents than new settlers.

There are questions about the quality of the new immigrants. According to Bardon, their standards of agricultural practice were frequently no better than those of the natives. As Presbyterian minister, Andrew Stewart said, they were ‘generally the scum of both nations’ (i.e., England and Scotland).

Bardon suggests that this was ‘unfair’ without saying why. Surely it was starving Scots and desperate Englishmen who were prepared to take on wolves and lurking wood-kerne. Colonial settlement was ever thus.

By contrast Bardon takes at face value contemporary English judgements on the incompetence of the surviving Gaelic gentry in the new era. Yet as his narrative makes clear, the takeover of their lands continued by both fair means and foul. Amongst the most rapacious were the new bishops of the established church.

Religious persecution combined with loss of land helped trigger the rebellion of 1641, a disaster for the Irish merely re-enforced in the Williamite War. On both occasions the settler community was intent on preventing any concessions to those who were defeated.

For all its success by, the end of the 17th century the Plantation of Ulster lacked the simplicity of the American colonial endeavour, one often modelled on Ulster experience. There, the Indians were exterminated or driven further into the wilderness, and often by Ulster Presbyterians. In Ulster the natives remained.

Bardon continues his tale right down to the recent Troubles in which: ‘The unchained sectarian dragon leaped from its cage as fear, suspicion, atavistic hatred and memory of ancient wrongs gushed to the surface…’ Thus, thanks to the Plantation legacy, we are apparently an endlessly doomed people or peoples.

Yet by the end of the 18th century, Catholics and radicals had abandoned Jacobite dreams of reclaiming lost lands. Instead they sought political reform, and it was surely the prolonged failure to reform or democratise Irish government that had the enduring incendiary effect. That is quite another story.

Indeed developments since the Good Friday Agreement suggest that there always was a political way out of Bardon’s endless Plantation legacy impasse, and one founded on equity.

The Plantation of Ulster is published by Gill & McMillan.