The Plantation of Ulster

Ulster had always been the strongest of the four provinces in the struggle against English attacks and domination and for that very reason the English now devised a scheme to make it the weakest. Elaborate plans were drawn up for the entire estates of the O’Neills and O’Donnells to be declared confiscate, resulting in six counties ... Tyrone, Donegal, Armagh, Fermanagh, Derry and Cavan ... to be ‘planted’ with settlers from across the Irish Sea.

In defiance of this, Cahir O’Doherty of Inishowen led an uprising from north Donegal in 1608. He captured both Derry and Strabane, and then advanced into mid-Ulster. However, he was killed near Kilmacrennan on July 5th and the uprising eventually petered out. Other Ulster chieftains like O’Hanlon in Armagh and McMahon in Monaghan had joined in the rebellion but, following Cahir’s death and the failure of the effort, their lands too were declared confiscate.

Of Cahir’s death and the Plantation of Ulster, the “Four Masters” wrote as follows: - “He was cut into quarters between Derry and Cuil-mor, and his head was sent to Dublin to be exhibited; and many of the gentlemen and chieftains of the province, too numerous to be particularised, were also put to death. It was indeed from it, and from the departure of the Earls we have mentioned, it came to pass that their principalities, their territories, their estates, their lands, their forts, their fortresses, their fruitful harbours, and their fishful bays, were taken from the Irish of the province of Ulster and given in their presence to foreign tribes; and they (the Irish) were expelled and banished into other countries, where most of them “died.”

With all resistance now crushed, the ‘Plantations’ could proceed without further hindrance. The largest tracks of confiscated lands were given to ‘Undertakers.’ These were English and Scottish ‘planters’ who undertook to tenant their lands only with English and Scottish Protestants and Presbyterian’s.

They also had to take the Oath of Supremacy and were not permitted to take in Irish tenants. The next largest estates were given to ‘Servitors’, mainly Scottish, who had served the King’s Cause in Ireland, and these were allowed to take on some Irish tenants. The smallest estates were given to native Irish, who received the poorest and less productive lands at the highest rents. Some London merchants and businessmen were given the city and much of the county of Derry ... hence the name ‘Londonderry’.

The native Irish, who had partaken in the uprisings, were banished to the bogs and hillsides, where they were continually pursued and hunted down like animals. As a result, many of them became outlaws and ‘rapparees’ praying constantly on the settlers who had deprived them of their lands. Cuchonnacht Maguire and Rory O’Donnell, two of the earls involved in the ‘Flight of the Earls’ also died in Italy in 1608.

With the accession of Charles to the English throne, certain concessions were promised to Catholics by the Lord Deputy, Thomas Wentworth, in return for large sums of money. These concessions were called ‘The Graces’ but they were never granted even though the Catholics contributed generously.
The dispossessed Irish, particularly in Ulster, still seethed under the terrible injustices inflicted upon them and another uprising was inevitable. Their leader now was Phelim O’Neill who, with Rory O’More, planned a rebellion for 1641. Their plans included the taking of Dublin Castle, but this never materialised as information of the attack was betrayed to the English. However, the Rising did take place all over Ulster on the night of 23rd October 1641 and resulted in an exceptionally bloody and vicious affair. Charlemont fort and Dungannon were the first to be captured and the Rebellion spread like wildfire. Much of the confiscted territories were re-taken, but the insurgents had little organisation and lacked proper leadership. Dundalk was captured by them but they were repulsed at Drogheda and shortly afterwards had to give up Dundalk and return to their homes in disarray.

The arrival of Owen Roe O’Neill with a small army from Spain, at Doe Castle in Co. Donegal in July 1642, was greeted with great joy by the Irish and it gave them renewed hope, resulting in the struggle being resumed. Richard Preston, Earl of Desmond, also arrived from abroad about the same time and he had the support of the Sean Ghall. Owen Roe, a nephew of Hugh O’Neill, the “Great Earl” was a professional soldier and was given leadership of the Ulster army. Taking over control from Phelim, he immediately tried to put some order into the northern insurgents.

A Catholic Confederacy had been formed in Kilkenny in May 1642, but it became bogged down by constant bickering and dissent between the two main parties in the Confederation ... the Sean Ghael (old native Irish) and the Sean Ghall (Old Foreigners or Anglo-Irish). The Sean Ghael sought both religious freedom and complete political separation from England, but the Sean Ghall, who also sought religious freedom, nevertheless wished to maintain the connection with England. A smaller party in the Confederation included Royalists, who were supporters of Charles in the English Civil War then raging. There was also jealousy of Owen Roe O’Neill, who was confined to leadership of the Ulster armies while Preston was given control of the larger Confederate forces.

The Pope sent a special envoy named Rinuccini, Archbishop of Fermoy, with arms and supplies to Ireland, and very soon after his arrival he was quick to recognise that Owen Roe, now the strongest leader in the Sean Ghael camp, was the only leader with potential to save both the Irish and Catholic causes, and so he actively supported Owen Roe within the Confederation. The English then planned a march southwards on Kilkenny but they were intercepted and surprised by the Ulster army under Owen Roe.

Assembling his forces, O’Neill inflicted a humiliating defeat on Munroe’s army at Benburb on the Ulster Blackwater, not far distant from the scene of Hugh O’Neill’s victory at Yellow Ford in 1598. It was 5th June 1646 when Owen Roe completely routed the joint English and Scottish force under General Munroe. The latter, with 6,000 foot and 800 horse, had marched out from Armagh, and O’Neill, the professional, only engaged them in skirmishes throughout the earlier part of the day, but with the coming of evening and the sun now shining directly into the eyes of Munroe’s men, O’Neill attacked. The result was complete victory, with more than 3,000 of the British forces slain and their artillery and stores captured. O’Neill lost a mere 70 men.

As a result of this wonderful victory, Owen Roe should surely have been given complete command of the Confederate forces, but the Sean Ghall were still distrustful of him, as was Preston. Consequently the victory was not followed up and an excellent opportunity was lost. Soon afterwards, with the execution of King Charles on January 30th 1649, Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads came to power in England, leaving the Irish Confederates in complete isolation, and, as a result, there was little option but to terminate the ‘Confederation of Kilkenny’ which had lasted a mere seven years, 1642 to 1649. Further disaster was just around the corner as Cromwell himself arrived in Ireland on August 13th 1649.

Ireland’s only hope now rested with Owen Roe O’Neill, but again disaster struck when the great Ulster leader died of blood-poisoning in Co. Cavan, while on his way to meet the new invader. A poisonous substance had been cunningly injected into his foot by being painted on a nail inserted in his shoe by an English agent. The Irish were now leaderless and left at the complete mercy of the Cromwellians.

The words of the poet Thomas Davis said it all: -
“Though it break my heart to hear, say again the bitter words,
From Derry against Cromwell he marched to measure swords,
But the weapon of the Sasannach met him on his way,
And he died at Cloch Uachtar upon St. Leonard’s Day.”