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West Ulster 1610

The organized Plantation of 6 of Ulster’s western counties – Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone.
by Alister John McReynolds
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Alister is an Historian and Educationalist who is a noted authority on the subject of the Scots Irish / Ulster Scots history and culture. He has taught in the Secondary School and Community College sectors for over thirty years. For the last thirteen years he has worked as Principal and Chief Executive of Lisburn Institute of Further and Higher Education. Mr McReynolds is an Honorary Member of City and Guilds of London and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and a Fellow of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland. His recent work entitled ‘Northern Ireland - The American Connection’ has just been published in the United States on behalf of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. During the past fifteen years Alister McReynolds has spoken at several colleges/ universities/learned societies in the United States. Alister can be contacted by email at amcreynoldsheritage@googlemail.com
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After taking extensive 'soundings' Sir Toby Caulfield reported to Lord Deputy Arthur Chichester in June 1610 that the native Irish still strongly clung to the hope that by the following Spring, Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, would return from exile and take back power in Ulster.  It was not to happen and O'Neill died in Rome in 1616.

The aspiration of the native Irish envisaged a return to a former way of life and an end to what they perceived as British 'ordering' of their lands and culture.  Theirs had been a lifestyle in which Gaelic Ireland had been ruled since medieval time by about 60 chieftains. These chiefs collected 'tributes' from tenants rather than fixed rents and maintained order amongst the native Irish population by deploying the Brehon legal system.  Under this jurisdiction professional judges or Brehons set fines and passed sentences but left enforcement to be concluded by the extended families and chiefs. The criteria used as an underlying basis for judgement was 'case law' and the most recent proclamations of the local chiefs. In matters relating to inheritance law the system was much more inclusive than the conservative English model within which it was only men who could legally inherit land.  Under the Brehon system women and illegitimate children also held equality of inheritance rights. Indeed Hugh O'Neill's own father Matthew had in this way inherited the O'Neill title and lands notwithstanding his illegitimacy. To modern 'politically correct' eyes this system may seem fairer but whether it was in fact 'workable' in seventeenth century Ulster is a moot point.  Arguably it was the resentment felt against Matthew's inheritance, despite his illegitimacy, that so enraged his rival kinsman Shane O'Neill that he had him murdered.

Once these senior chieftains started to hire mercenary soldiers they became virtually military dictators and were thus obviously dangerous to the newly created British Nation. This was true in terms of the leverage and base that they could readily provide for any European powers acting against Britain and its interests.

Another key feature of Ulster prior to 1610 was the position of the native church which had created an effective and extensive system of 'erenaghs' or laymen who acted as elders/stewards in the collection of church rents and tithes. After the Plantation 20% of the Province's landmass became Established Church lands with the ultimate beneficiary being the King as head of the reformed church. Thus the erenaghs lost their prominence and became tenants of the bishops of the Protestant Church. Subsequently some erenaghs became Rectors of the Established Church, acting no doubt with varying degrees of sincerity. Others were evicted and often became fierce and articulate voices in the chorus for the cause of counter-reformation.

In pre 1610 Ulster society Bardic poets were invested with a more than artistic role. Their position was valued to the extent that they might typically be given a tax-free farm and up to 20 cows per year in exchange for writing one poem annually. The strategists in charge of the Plantation blueprint saw these bards as largely 'lauding' or acting as propagandists for the chiefs. That they could be seen as formenting potential rebellion was probably an exaggerated fear.

However the most dramatic difference was that the landscape itself was completely different at the time.  There were vast tracts of virgin un-cleared forest around Lough Neagh and in the Sperrin Glens and Erne Valley.  The native Irish deployed a nomadic from of pastoral farming whereby extended families and animals moved across country in what were known as 'creaghts' to seek summer grazing.  There was little or no tillage of the land in order to make it more productive or grow 'cash' crops.

After O'Doherty's Rising of 1608 Derry had been razed to the ground and the opportunity was there to rebuild it on a 'proper' planned basis and at the same time to create market towns typically around a 'diamond' or market square. Good examples can be seen at Kilrea which was built by the Mercers Company and Macosquin constructed by the Merchant Taylors.

In 1610 a 'barter' system was still in place whereby rent paid in foodstuffs had to be consumed right away otherwise these would deteriorate or rot. The Plantation market towns allowed the development of a money economy and the selling of surplus so that rents could be paid in cash.

Sir John Davies chief architect of the scheme that was to unfold believed that once the Plantation had settled it would, "secure the peace of Ireland, assure it to the Crown of England for ever; and finally, make it a civil and a rich, a mighty and a flourishing Kingdom".

The reality lay somewhere between his unbounded optimism and the objective realism of Sir Toby Caulfield’s findings on the ground.
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