The Ulster Plantation

Henry Jones Ford

In 1609, six years after the accession of James VI. of Scotland to the throne of England as James I. in its line of kings, a scheme was matured for planting Ulster with Scotch and English, and the following year the settlement began. The actual settlers were mostly Scotch, and the Ulster plantation took the character of a Scotch occupation of the North of Ireland. In that plantation was formed the breed known as Scotch-Irish, which was prominent in the struggle for American independence and which supplied to American population an ingredient that has deeply affected the development of the nation. It is the purpose of this work to give an account of this Scotch-Irish strain in the composition of the American people, tracing its history and influence.

The circumstances in which the Ulster plantation was formed had much to do with fixing the characteristics of the breed. The plantation was attended by an ouster of native Irish that is a staple subject of censure by historians who, from the point of view supplied by the ideas of our own times, hold that wiser arrangements might have been made in the interest of all parties. But that was not easy to see then. Francis Bacon is reckoned a wise man but he did not see it. In a letter written in 1601 to Cecil, Elizabeth's famous Secretary of State, Bacon referred to three roots of trouble in Ireland:

"The first, the ambition and absoluteness of the chiefs of the families and septs. The second, the licentious idleness of their kernes and soldiers, that lie upon the country by cesses and such like oppressions. And the third, the barbarous laws, customs, their brehon laws, habits of apparel, their poets or heralds that enchant them in savage manners, and sundry other dregs of barbarism and rebellion."

The policy of making English settlements in Ireland was no new thing. It had been pursued fitfully from Norman times. Bacon did not question it, but he argued that further undertakings of the kind should not be left "as heretofore, to the pleasure of Undertakers and adventurers, where and how to build and plant; but that they do it according to a prescript or formulary." In this way the Government would be assured that the places would be selected "which are fittest for colonies or garrisons, as well for doubt of the foreigner, as for keeping the country in bridle." Bacon had the matter so much on his mind that in 1606 he presented to King James Considerations Touching the Plantation in Ireland written in the highest style of his stately eloquence. He said that among the works of kings two "have the supreme preeminence: the union, and the plantation of kingdoms." By a singular favor of Divine Providence "both these kinds of foundations or regenerations" had been put into the hands of King James: "the one, in the union of the island of Britain; the other in the plantation of great and noble parts of the island of Ireland." Adorning his periods with elaborate metaphors in which figured the harp of Ireland, the harp of Orpheus and the harp of David, Bacon expatiated upon the greatness of the achievement "when people of barbarous manners are brought to give over and discontinue their customs of revenge and blood, of dissolute life, and of theft, and of rapine; and to give ear to the wisdom of laws and governments."

At the time this discourse was written the property of the Crown in Ulster consisted chiefly of the abbey lands, and plans were under consideration for settling English and Scotch colonists upon these lands while the Irish lords retained their lands with English title and under English law. But so important did the plantation appear to Bacon, even although thus limited, that he suggested that the King, the better to express his "affection to the enterprise, and for a pledge thereof," should add the Earldom of Ulster to the titles of the Prince of Wales.

Bacon went on to discuss in detail the principles that should govern the enterprise. He thought that "the generality of Undertakers" should be "men of estate and plenty," not that they would go there themselves but that they would have means to engage in the business for the "advancement of their younger children or kinsfolks; or for the sweetness of the expectation of a great bargain in the end." As incentives the lands should be let to them on easy rates and large liberties. Upon the latter point Bacon promptly explains that he does not mean liberties of jurisdiction which "hath been the error of the ancient donations and plantations in that country." He means only "liberties tending to commodity; as liberty to transport any of the commodities growing upon the countries new planted; liberty to import from hence all things appertaining to their necessary use, custom-free." If this wise advice had been acted upon consistently the course of Irish and American history would have been different.

At this time the colonization of Virginia was appealing for support, but in comparison with the Ulster project the Virginia plantation seemed so visionary that Bacon referred to it as "an enterprise in my opinion differing as much from this, as Amadis de Gaul differs from Caesar's Commentaries." He struck the same note in 1617 when as Lord Chancellor of England he addressed the person called to be Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. Bacon remarked that "Ireland is the last ex filiis Europae which hath been reclaimed from desolation and a desert (in many parts) to population and plantation; and from savage and barbarous customs to humanity and civility." He commended the plantations to the special care of the new justice, with the admonition: "You are to be a master builder, and a master planter, and reducer of Ireland."

Bacon's views have been considered at some length because they illumine the ideas with which the statesmanship of the age approached such tasks, and also reveal the origin of some characteristic features of the Ulster plantation. To Bacon's view the tribal system of Ireland with its state of chronic disorder was a remnant of the same barbarism against which Caesar fought in Gaul and Charlemagne in continental Europe. The planting of trusty colonies among uncivilized peoples as garrisons to check their insubordination and as centers from which culture would be diffused was a practice that went back to the times of the ancient Roman commonwealth, had been adopted by many European rulers, and was generally regarded as a well-settled expedient of prudent statesmanship. Nothing in Bacon's remarks indicates any doubt in his mind as to the rightfulness of such a policy in Ireland, although it necessarily involved dispossession of natives.

His only concern was to adopt such measures as would make the policy efficacious. Moreover it should be borne in mind that in that time the feudal principle that the tenure of land is contingent upon personal service to the State had not been overborne by the notions of individual ownership and exclusive right that have since become dominant, although in our own times there are signs of reaction. It seemed altogether fitting that rebels and traitors should be ejected and that the land should be placed in charge of those upon whom the King could rely when he called for service. At the bottom of land tenure was a personal relation between the King and his liege. The State in its modern aspect as a sovereign authority deriving its revenues from systematic taxation and regulating rights and duties by positive law was in process of formation but it was not fully developed until long after the period of the Ulster plantation.

The effect of Bacon's advice in the Ulster arrangements is distinctly marked. To it seems to be due one of the existing orders of English nobility. Bacon deemed it so important "to allure by all means fit Undertakers" that in the memorial of 1606 he suggested that grants of knighthood, "with some new difference and precedence," might "work with many" in drawing them to the support of the cause. Action taken by the King early in 1611 accords with Bacon's advice. The order of baronets, officially described as "a new dignitie between Barons and Knights," was instituted, to consist of gentlemen who should bind themselves to pay a sum sufficient to maintain thirty foot-soldiers in Ireland for three years, the money thus obtained to be kept as a special fund so that it might be "wholly converted to that use for which it was given and intended." The first of these baronets was Bacon's own half-brother, and it appears that Bacon advised the King on points raised touching the dignity and precedence of the new order of nobility. There have been many flings at James I. in this matter of the institution of the order of baronet—it seems to have a special attraction for the sarcasm of writers of popular history—but the record shows that it was inspired by Bacon and was performed by the King as a utilitarian transaction quite in the modern spirit. A similar creation of baronets was planned by King James in 1624 in aid of the colonization of Nova Scotia, the fundamental condition being that each baronet of this class should maintain six colonists for two years. The two classes are still distinguished in their heraldry, all baronets having the right to bear the Red Hand of Ulster on their coat of arms, except those of the Nova Scotian creation who display the arms of Scotland. The order of baronet, although ranking below other orders of nobility in dignity and precedence, may justly claim to possess a distinctly imperial character.

Not long after Bacon's memorial to the King the possibilities in Ulster were enlarged by a series of events which at the same time emphasized the need of vigorous measures. These events serve also to illustrate the clash of cultures that was the underlying cause of Irish anarchy. The accession of James took place just as an uprising aided by Spanish troops had been subdued after more than four years of hard fighting. The submission of the Earl of Tyrone, the chief native magnate of Ulster, whose surrender ended resistance in that province, took place only a few days before James set out from Edinburgh to take possession of the throne of England to which he had just been called. The Irish situation presented an urgent problem to James and his counsellors. That problem, in addition to its chronic perplexities arising from internal conditions, was complicated by foreign influences. The Counter-Reformation was prosecuted with great vigor and success by Jesuit missionaries in Ireland and their plans of making the country an independent kingdom gained the sympathy of Pope Gregory XIII., who accepted the Crown of Ireland in behalf of a nephew. The movement acquired serious importance when Philip II. of Spain gave support to it. He was not inclined at first to have anything to do with the Irish as he was embittered by the way in which crews of wrecked galleons of the Armada had been robbed and murdered on the western coast of Ireland. But English attacks on the coasts of Spain and Portugal, and the support which Elizabeth extended to the provinces of the Netherlands in revolt against his rule, reconciled him to alliances with Irish insurgents, and twice during Elizabeth's reign Spanish forces were landed in Ireland. Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, took a leading part in the dealings with Spain, and he received from the Pope a crown of peacock's feathers. In making his submission he had stipulated for the retention of his Earldom, with its territorial jurisdiction in Ulster, although renouncing his Celtic chiefry. This was done before he had heard of Elizabeth's death, and on hearing the news he is said to have cried with vexation at not having held out for better terms. With such an attitude on his part there was an instability in the Ulster situation, soon to be displayed.