Land Settlements from 1500 to 1690

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Land Settlements from 1500 to 1690

As a consequence of the Gaelic revival of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, only the area of the Pale (Louth, Meath, Dublin, and Wicklow) remained under direct English rule by 1500. Other anglicized enclaves throughout the country were controlled by relatively independent Anglo-Irish nobles. Throughout the later Middle Ages English monarchs had attempted to regain control, but it was only with the end of the Wars of the Roses and the reemergence of strong monarchy under the Tudor dynasty (after 1485) that this became a viable prospect. The support in Ireland for the Simnel and Warbeck conspiracies against Henry VII illustrated how England's enemies could use Ireland to launch an invasion of Britain. As an outright conquest of Ireland was initially deemed too expensive, a conciliatory strategy was adopted. The eventual aim was the total reformation of Gaelic society, and in particular an end to the chronic instability and violence associated with tanistry (the English name for the Gaelic inheritance system), the stimulation of economic activity, and the extension of the reformed religion. This program might well have settled the Irish Question, but it lapsed with Henry VIII's death in 1547 and with the rise of ambitious young nobles in Ireland like Shane O'Neill.

By 1550 the government concluded that certain of the "wild" Irish were incapable of reform. As conquest remained impractical, a new type of colonial expansion or "plantation" was posited. Its central tenet was the reformation of the indigenous population through exposure to small-scale colonies of civilized people from the metropolis. This was based on two suppositions: that Gaelic society was less advanced than English, but that it was sufficiently progressive to accept this fact and follow examples of English civility.

The first areas targeted were the Offaly lordship of the O'Connors and the O'More lordship of Leix. A scheme of 1556 called for two-thirds of the natives' lands to be expropriated and allocated to "Englishmen born in England or Ireland." Even with the expulsion of the natives and a substantial influx of settlers, the plantation was only a limited success: sustained resistance from the O'Connors and O'Mores continued throughout the sixteenth century. Despite Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sidney's complaint in 1575 that the "revenue of both the countries [Leix-Offaly] countervails not the twentieth part of the charge, so that the purchase of that plot is, and hath been, very dear" (Moody 1976, p. 79), and despite the Crown's reluctance to support further schemes, private entrepreneurs attempted plantations elsewhere in the middle years of Elizabeth's reign. The ultimately unsuccessful ventures of Sir Thomas Smith and the first earl of Essex in eastern Ulster between 1571 and 1575 further estranged the Gaelic Irish from the government, and Sir Peter Carew's attempted plantation in Idrone in eastern Munster drove the Old English—and hitherto loyalist—Butlers into rebellion.

This extension of plantation to the Old English was a new development, and with the suppression of the Desmond and Baltinglass rebellions between 1579 and 1583, the New English argument that Irish-born magnates could not be relied upon to establish civil society was increasingly heeded in London. Thereafter, plantation was as likely to be employed against the Old English as against the Gaelic Irish, and the confiscation of the recent rebels' lands in Munster furnished an immediate opportunity to impose a large-scale plantation there. Increased state involvement sought to ensure that there was no repetition of the disastrous private plantations of the previous decade. The English officials most closely involved in the development of the project were determined that the plantation be organized along scientific principles, and a detailed survey was conducted to plot out the Munster plantation on paper.

This survey was only partially complete by the time that the scheme had been carried out in early 1587. Almost 250,000 acres were allocated to thirty-five "undertakers" over twenty-five seignories of between 4,000 and 12,000 acres each. Most undertakers were from the English West Country because of its proximity to, and long-established trade connections with, the Munster ports. The undertakers were to construct defensible buildings, encourage English modes of agriculture, erect model villages, and equip the settlers to defend the colony against the natives. Within seven years the undertakers were to settle ninety-one families on each 12,000-acre seignory, "to be entirely maintained of mere English persons without any intermixture of the mere Irish" (Canny 2001, p. 130).

That the confiscated lands of the earl of Desmond were a mosaic rather than a unified block of property greatly complicated the process of settlement. By the time the first undertakers arrived late in 1586, many of the former proprietors were involved in litigation to reclaim their lands, and no undertaker whose grant was being contested could succeed in attracting tenants. Consequently, the transplantation of English settlers proceeded slowly, and by 1598, when the first Munster plantation was destroyed and many settlers were killed in Tyrone's rebellion, there were fewer than 4,000 settlers in Munster, less than a third of the number anticipated. Nonetheless, they had substantially altered Munster's socioeconomic structures: trade in wool, tallow, and hides exported to England (mainly through the port of Bristol) increased substantially, and the settlers yielded the Crown rents in excess of £2,000 per annum. The settlers were developing arable farming; using English breeds to improve husbandry; and putting Munster's natural resources—particularly its dense forests—to profitable use.

According to Edmund Spenser, this was the plantation's major weakness, for "only the present profit [was] looked unto, and the safe continuance thereof [was] ever hereafter neglected" (Renwick edition, p. 126). He deplored the fact that the settlers had not implemented the defensive conditions demanded by the government. Spenser insisted that settlements in isolation could not endure in Ireland, and he recommended the wholesale plantation of the country and an increased role for the army therein. This line of reasoning was consonant with that of the Dublin government and its spokesperson Sir John Davies (solicitor general, 1603–1606, and attorney general, 1606–1619). In his Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never EntirelySubdued (1612), Davies argued that notwithstanding the Munster debacle, plantation, with some modification, remained the panacea for Ireland's ills and so following the Flight of the Earls in 1607 a modified plantation was implemented in Ulster on the lands escheated to the Crown.

To avoid the litigation that had plagued the Munster settlement, all land in Counties Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Derry, Fermanagh, and Tyrone was confiscated. Most of this huge territory was set aside for settlement by English and lowland Scottish gentlemen of means who undertook to transfer tenants of their countries to Ulster (including laborers and craftsmen), to establish new towns, and to build defensible strongholds and arm their tenants. Undertaker estates were limited to 3,000 acres to ensure that private individuals could better afford to meet the defensive conditions demanded. The undertakers were to pay the Crown a rent of £5 6s. 8d. for each 1,000 acres. As in earlier plantations, the undertaker estates were to provide an instructive model for the native Irish, and undertakers were to settle ten British families on each 1,000 acres and were expressly forbidden to maintain Irish tenants. To ensure that these terms were met, regular surveys were to be conducted.

If nurturing civil society was the purpose behind the undertaker estates, the intent behind the involvement of servitors (men who had served the Crown in Ireland) was to maintain in good order the native Irish inhabitants of Ulster, many of whom had participated in Tyrone's rebellion. These servitors were either former army captains or current Ulster garrison commanders and were to "be seated in the places of most danger and best advantage for His Majesty's service and defense of the rest of the undertakers." These men would provide leadership in the event of a crisis, but as they lacked financial resources, they were allowed estates of no more than 2,000 acres. They could maintain Irish tenants in exchange for a rent of £8 per 1,000 acres. Coleraine was granted to the London merchant guilds, which formed a joint-stock company for the purpose of planting the area (thereafter designated County Londonderry). Although bound by the same terms of tenure as the undertakers, they were granted special privileges, as it was hoped they would both introduce skilled tradesmen throughout the settlement and develop the ports of Coleraine and Derry.

One-quarter of the plantation was reserved for the "deserving Irish" (loyal supporters of the Crown). They were settled on estates removed from the lands occupied by their kinsmen in order to undermine Gaelic kin affiliation. They could maintain Irish tenants, but they had to introduce English methods of farming and landholding. The generous endowments of church livings within Ulster, along with other measures, indicated the government's aim to promote Protestantism as well as English civility. The lenient treatment of the lesser septs aimed to "outweigh the displeasure and dissatisfaction of the smaller number of better blood." This policy did not work because few of the "deserving Irish" received what they felt they deserved. Moreover, as surveys conducted in 1611, 1614, 1619, 1622, and 1628 revealed, many of the undertakers neither implemented the defensive conditions nor cleared their estates of natives, having discovered that it was far more lucrative to maintain Irish tenants—whom they could charge extortionate rents—than to settle British tenants. This meant that there existed throughout the entire plantation a substantial, disaffected native population living in close proximity to the settlers.

Hard-line English observers justified such expropriation and its attendant violence as the inevitable and necessary march of civilization at the expense of a people who were "not thrifty, and civil and human creatures, but heathen or rather savage and brute beasts," and there was almost universal approval of the planting of "civil men brought up in the laws of England." Validating this view were a host of anti-Gaelic Irish and Old English diatribes like John Derricke's Image of Irelande (1581), Richard Beacon's Solon His Follie (1594), and Edmund Spenser's View of the Present State of Ireland (1596).

The personal interest taken by James VI and Charles I in the Ulster plantation encouraged the Dublin administration to develop further schemes, and there were further small-scale plantations in counties Leitrim, Longford, Offaly, and Westmeath during the latter years of his reign. As the grantees appointed in these areas were not compelled to establish British tenants on their lands, it is evident that the government was now using plantation as a tool to dismember rather than to reform Gaelic lordships by forcing the lords to divide their lands into freeholds and tenancies. By Charles I's accession in 1625 the government was actively seeking to extend these schemes throughout the country, and in particular to the province of Connacht and the Ormond lordship in south Leinster and northeast Munster.

These areas were distinctly Old English, and the landowners used their court connections to frustrate government progress. Throughout the rest of the country, however, settlers flooded in. By 1635 there were some 18,000 settlers in the re-established Munster plantation, while in Ulster there were almost 35,000. Anglicization by example was successful in some cases, and certain native proprietors established nucleated settlements of foreign tenants on their estates. By 1640 there were probably some 90,000 mainly British settlers in Ireland, the majority having been introduced via plantation.

The resentment engendered among those dispossessed by plantation exploded in the 1641 Rising, which resulted in the deaths of about 12,000 settlers, almost all Protestant. This bloodshed was used to justify the Cromwellian plantation of the 1650s, which followed the long-delayed suppression of the rebellion, but the real imperative was the need for Irish land to reimburse the state's creditors and over 33,000 unpaid Roundhead soldiers who had participated in the British campaigns. The Act of Settlement (1652) declared all land east of the Shannon to be confiscated to the Crown. Most Catholic landowners forfeited their lands and were forcibly relocated west of the Shannon, although some avoided this fate. In September 1653 the English parliament set aside four counties for the government (Carlow, Cork, Dublin, and Kildare) and ten for distribution among the state's creditors (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Laois, Limerick, Meath, Offaly, Tipperary, Waterford, and West-meath). A tripartite survey of Ireland—by jury inquisition, gross estimation, and William Petty's historic Down Survey—was conducted to facilitate implementation of the scheme. Once established on their lands the new proprietors were to draw the natives into a civil condition. It had been hoped that the soldiers would remain in Ireland to form a strong yeoman class, but fewer than 12,000 took physical possession of their lands. Most sold their debentures to their officers, who in turn sold to the Protestant settlers resident in Ireland before 1641. Expected immigration from Britain failed to materialize and the settlement proved a crushing disappointment to those who had hoped that it would achieve the reformation of the country. Indeed, more soldiers sold their holdings thereafter, for the Restoration settlement confirmed only 7,500 soldiers in their new lands.

Overall, William Petty estimated that 11 million acres had changed hands. While the settlement substantially increased the number of Protestants in Ireland, even more importantly, it greatly increased their wealth and power. They enjoyed a complete ascendancy throughout the country, and their control over Irish political and economic life was thereafter almost absolute. The Cromwellian settlement represented the greatest early modern transformation in Irish landownership and created the estate system that lasted until the late nineteenth century. The Act of Settlement (1662), while restoring individual Catholic favorites of Charles II, did little to redress the imbalance between Catholic and Protestant landownership and left just over one-fifth of Irish land in Catholic possession.

Plantation in Ireland failed to achieve its original objective to secure the country, and the government was forced to maintain substantial forces to guard against invasion. While the upper class was anglicized, or more accurately "briticized," this was achieved through expropriation, not reformation. Such expropriation led to several centuries of ethno-religious conflict. If elite Gaelic power structures were successfully dismantled, the lower levels of Gaelic society remained largely unchanged. As successive plantations failed, the process underwent many modifications, but by the end of the 1650s plantation was less about reformation than expropriation. The scale of the Cromwellian plantation, which spectacularly manifested this change, would have astounded the original proponents of colonization. The emphasis of plantation had changed as early as the 1610s, as the Irish Protestant Reformation faltered, and the transfer of power from the Old to the New English reflected this fact. Religion became the new badges of civility, and segregation rather than integration became the hallmark of plantation. Crucially, the suffering engendered by plantation and resistance to it eventually helped to mould the Gaelic Irish and Old English into one proto-nation.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1500 to 1690; Colonial Theory from 1500 to 1690; Cromwellian Conquest; Desmond Rebellions; Legal Change in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; Politics: 1500 to 1690; Sidney, Henry; Wild Geese—The Irish Abroad from 1600 to the French Revolution; Primary Documents: From Solon His Follie (1594); From A Direction for the Plantation of Ulster (1610); Conditions of the Plantation of Ulster (1610); From The Great Case of Transplantation Discussed (1655); From The Interest of England in the Irish Transplantation Stated (1655); From The Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow (1698)


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David Finnegan

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Land Settlements from 1500 to 1690

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