A Beginner’s Guide to Plantations in Ireland

Map showing plantations in Ireland

A map highlighting the areas subjected to British plantations in Ireland. Although the plantations in Munster did not cover the entire shaded area, it has been simplified for the purposes of this map. Modern county boundaries are also shown. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been mulling over a longer post on this topic, but it’s taking a while, so I decided to write something shorter, more along the lines of a “for Dummies” or The Guardian’s Pass Notes series. So here goes:

Plantations in Ireland

What? Plantations.

Where? Counties Leix, Offaly; Munster; Counties Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh, Cavan, Donegal and Coleraine.

There isn’t a County Coleraine! I thought you were supposed to be the expert. I am. And there was. It was enlarged and renamed County Londonderry.

Or “Derry”. No: the fact that the English called this new county “Londonderry” is a matter of historical record. There never was a County Derry. . Can we get back to the Plantations?

Plantations? I know all about them. Good for the environment. “Enivronment?”

Afforestation. All those extra trees help reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. You’re barking up the wrong tree.

Ha ha ha. In fact, this type of plantation actually led to the widescale destruction of Ireland’s forests. But that’s a side-issue.

Now you’re talking in riddles. People were planted, not trees.

That doesn’t help. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century British monarchs encouraged their subjects in Britain to move to Ireland and settle there.

In the aforementioned counties. Now you’re getting it.

When was this exactly? In Leix and Offaly from 1556; in Munster around 1580; in the northern counties from 1606.

I thought it was spelt “Laois”… That’s the modern spelling. But it was renamed Queen’s County anyway. And Offaly became King’s County.

I’ve never noticed strong monarchical tendencies in that part of the country. There aren’t. The plantations there failed to take root.

Can we drop the arboreal analogy please? Sorry. The native Irish rejected the authority of the British and their professed right to decide over the ownership of the land. The intention was to make the counties more peaceable and easily defended against attacks by filling them with ‘loyal’ inhabitants. In fact, the newcomers just provided easy targets for pillaging and the whole enterprise ran at a huge loss due to the costs of maintaining order and fighting the local Irish clans, especially the O’Moores and O’Connors.

And what about Munster? The Earl of Desmond also rebelled against the English overlords. After his defeat, his lands were confiscated, divided up and given to ‘undertakers’ who contracted to clear the lands (about 30,000 acres in total) and refill them with English settlers.

“Undertakers” sounds quite sinister. It means “someone who undertakes to do something”: they were the Elizabethan equivalent of entrepreneurs. The idea was to let private individuals manage the land, build castles, towns, bawns (fortified farmhouses), roads etc., and let out portions of the land to Britons they would help ‘import’. But from the point of view of the native Irish driven off their lands, it probably did acquire a sinister undertone.

And was this plantation successful? Again, not initially. A great number of the Irish returned to their lands, and many English settlers were killed or scared away by the Nine Years’ War (1594–1603).

Another rebellion? A very nearly successful one, and one that ended inconclusively. The instigators this time were the great Gaelic chieftains of Ulster, such as Hugh O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell. At that time Ulster was the part of Ireland most resistant to English influence.

So what happened? After losing the Nine Years’ War, the main Irish earls left for the continent with their families, allies and retainers (the ‘Flight of the Earls’). This was a good legal justification for confiscating their lands and beginning another plantation.

Didn’t the English government have any better ideas? “British”, not “English” by this point, England and Scotland having been united under one king: James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland). James didn’t want to spend any more money: much of the previous century had been spent in ruinously expensive warfare to subjugate this or that part of Ireland. One argument in favour of plantation was that it was a cheap way of rewarding supporters, including soldiers who’d fought in Ireland, and that taxes and rents would mean that the whole enterprise actually brought the treasury a profit. One innovation this time round was the enlisting of the London livery companies in the plantation scheme.

“Livery companies”? What are those? A bit like trade unions – they were organised by profession: grocers, drapers, mercers…

…butchers, bakers, candlestick makers… Actually, there were two companies for candlestick makers, depending on whether the candles were made of wax or tallow. But let’s get back to Ulster. The various companies were given rights to develop and exploit economically parts of the confiscated lands.

Which parts? The new county of Londonderry, obviously.

An old town plan of the fortified town of Londonderry

An old town plan of Londonderry, the last fortified town to be built in Europe. (Picture source: http://www.loughs-agency.org/discover/activities/maritime-heritage/39-plantation-of-ulster)

Ah yes, silly me. And how did this plantation work out? Third time lucky? Partly. Most towns in Ulster date from that period, and there were large-scale population redistributions. But the undertakers never managed to bring over all the tenants they had contracted to. Plus the whole scheme did rather neglect the fact that, while the land might be technically ‘ownerless’, it wasn’t uninhabited. That meant that the land was never properly cleared: many of those who lived there either refused to leave or left but soon returned.

And that was permitted? Officially, no. But the undertakers wanted to make money. An Irish tenant was better than no tenant, and indeed often better than a British one, because the Irish could usually be squeezed for higher rents.

So how come there are so many Protestants in Northern Ireland today? A lot of them are descended from settlers who came over not as part of any plantation scheme but on their own initiative. These were largely Scots Presbyterians, and they settled in the areas closest to Scotland: Antrim and Down. But this was a longer process that went on after the end of the official plantation. The end result was the patchwork you still find in Northern Ireland today, with Protestant and Catholic areas scattered across the province, but a majority of Protestants in the east.

And they all lived happily ever after? Oh God, don’t get me started…

A Beginner's Guide to Plantations in Ireland by