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The Plantation of Ulster (Irish: Plandáil Uladh; Ulster-Scots: Plantin o Ulstèr) was the organised colonisation (plantation) of Ulster – a province of Ireland – by people from Britain during the rule of King James I. Most of the colonists came from Scotland and England. Small private plantation by wealthy landowners began in 1606, while official plantation sponsored by the British Crown began in 1609. An estimated half a million acres (2,000 km²) spanning counties Tyrconnell, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan, Coleraine and Armagh, was confiscated from Gaelic chiefs, most of whom had fled Ireland in the 1607 Flight of the Earls. Most of counties Antrim and Down were privately colonised. Colonising Ulster with loyal settlers was seen as a way to prevent further rebellion, as it had been the region most resistant to English control during the preceding century.

King James wanted the Plantation to be "a civilising enterprise" that would settle Protestants in Ulster, a land that was mainly Gaelic-speaking and of the Catholic faith. The Lord Deputy of Ireland, Arthur Chichester, also saw the Plantation as a scheme to anglicise the Irish. Accordingly the colonists (or "British tenants") were required to be English-speaking and Protestant. Despite this three of the most "energetic" and "determined" planters were Catholic: the Earl of Antrim, Sir Randall MacDonnell; Baron Audley, George Tuchet; and Sir George Hamilton, with "many Catholic Scots" being planted in the following decades in the barony of Strabane. It is suggested that a significant number of the Scottish settlers spoke Gaelic instead of English or Scots, having come from Gaelic speaking parts of Scotland where English and Scots had only started to make headways. The Scottish colonists were mostly Presbyterian and the English mostly members of the Church of England. The Plantation of Ulster was the biggest of the Plantations of Ireland.

Ulster before plantation

Prior to its conquest in the Nine Years War of the 1590s, Ulster had been the most Gaelic part of Ireland, a province existing largely outside English control. The area was underdeveloped by mainland European standards of the time, and it possessed few towns or villages. Throughout the 16th century Ulster was viewed by the English as being "underpopulated" and undeveloped. An early attempt at plantation of the north of Ireland in the 1570s on the east coast of Ulster by Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, had failed (see Plantations of Ireland). Many of the Gaelic Irish lived by "creaghting" (seasonal migration with their cattle) and as such, permanent habitations were uncommon. The wars fought between Gaelic clans and between the Gaelic and English undoubtedly contributed to depopulation. By 1600 (before the worst atrocities of the Nine Years War) Ulster's total adult population according to Perceval-Maxwell was only 25,000 to 40,000 people.

The 16th century English conquest of Ireland was made piece by piece starting in the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547) and only was completed after sustained warfare in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603). During these wars the force of the semi-independent chieftains was broken. The Nine Years War of 1594-1603 provided the immediate background to the Plantation. A Confederation of northern Gaelic Chieftains, led by Hugh O'Neill resisted the imposition of English government into Ulster. Following an extremely costly series of campaigns by the English, including massacre and use of ruthless scorched earth tactics, the Nine Years War ended in 1603 with the surrender of Hugh O'Neill's and Hugh O'Donnell's forces at the Treaty of Mellifont. The terms of surrender granted to the rebels were generous, with the principal condition that lands formerly contested by feudal right and Brehon law be held under English law.

However, when Hugh O'Neill and other rebel chieftains left Ireland in the Flight of the Earls (1607) to seek Spanish help for a new rebellion, Lord Deputy Arthur Chichester seized their lands and prepared to colonise the province in a plantation. This would have included large grants of land to native Irish lords who had sided with the English during the war, for example Niall Garve O'Donnell. However, the plan was interrupted by the rebellion in 1608 of Cahir O'Doherty of Inishowen, who raided the city of Derry. The brief rebellion was suppressed by Sir Richard Wingfield. After O'Doherty's death his lands in Inishowen were granted out by the state, and eventually escheated to the Crown. This episode prompted Chichester to expand his plans to expropriate the legal titles of all native landowners in the province.

Planning the plantation

The Plantation of Ulster was presented to James VI as a joint "British", or English and Scottish, venture to 'pacify' and 'civilise' Ulster. Therefore at least half the settlers would be Scots. James had been King of Scots before he was King of England and needed to reward his subjects in Scotland with land in Ulster to assure them they were not being neglected now that James had moved his court to London. In addition, long-standing contact and settlement between Ulster and the west of Scotland meant that Scottish participation was a practical necessity. Six counties were involved in the official plantation – Donegal, Coleraine, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan and Armagh. In the two officially unplanted counties of Antrim and Down, substantial Presbyterian Scots settlement had been underway since at least 1606. The plan for the plantation was determined by two factors. One was the wish to make sure the settlement could not be destroyed by rebellion as the first Munster Plantation had been in the Nine Years War. This meant that, rather than settling the planters in isolated pockets of land confiscated from Irish rebels, all of the land would be confiscated and then redistributed to create concentrations of British settlers around new towns and garrisons.

What was more, the new landowners were explicitly banned from taking Irish tenants and had to import workers from England and Scotland. The remaining Irish landowners were to be granted one quarter of the land in Ulster. The peasant Irish population was intended to be relocated to live near garrisons and Protestant churches. Moreover, the planters were barred from selling their lands to any Irishman and were required to build defences against any possible rebellion or invasion. The settlement was to be completed within three years. In this way, it was hoped that a defensible new community composed entirely of loyal British subjects would be created.

The second major influence on the Plantation was the negotiation among various interest groups on the British side. The principal landowners were to be Undertakers, wealthy men from England and Scotland who undertook to import tenants from their own estates. They were granted around 3000 acres (12 km²) each, on condition that they settle a minimum of 48 adult males (including at least 20 families), who had to be English-speaking and Protestant. However, veterans of the Nine Years War (known as Servitors) led by Arthur Chichester successfully lobbied to be rewarded with land grants of their own.

Since these former officers did not have enough private capital to fund the colonisation, their involvement was subsidised by the twelve great guilds. Livery companies from the City of London were coerced into investing in the project, as were The City of London guilds which were also granted land on the west bank of the River Foyle, to build their own city (Londonderry near the older Derry) as well as lands in County Coleraine. They were known jointly as the The Honourable The Irish Society. The final major recipient of lands was the Protestant Church of Ireland, which was granted all the churches and lands previously owned by the Roman Catholic Church. The British government intended that clerics from England and the Pale would convert the native population to Protestantism.

Implementing the plantation

Scottish settlers had been migrating to Ulster for many centuries. Highland Gaelic Scottish mercenaries known as Gallowglass had been doing so since the 15th century and Presbyterian lowland Scots had been arriving since around 1600. From 1606 there was substantial lowland Scots settlement on disinhabited land in north Down, led by Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton. In 1607 Sir Randall MacDonnell settled 300 Presbyterian Scots families on his land in Antrim.

From 1609 onwards, "British" Protestant immigrants arrived in Ulster through direct importation by undertakers to their estates and also by a spread to unpopulated areas, through ports such as Derry and Carrickfergus. In addition there was much internal movement of settlers who did not like the original land allotted to them. Most planters settled on uninhabited and unexploited land, often building up their farms and homes on overgrown terrain that has been variously described as "wilderness" and "virgin" ground.

By 1622, a survey found there were 6,402 "British" adult males on Plantation lands, of whom 3,100 were English and 3,700 Scottish – indicating a total adult planter population of around 12,000. However another 4,000 Scottish adult males had settled in unplanted Antrim and Down, giving a total settler population of about 19,000.

Despite the fact that the Plantation had decreed that the Irish population be displaced, this did not generally happen in practice. Firstly, some 300 native landowners who had taken the English side in the Nine Years War were rewarded with land grants. Secondly, the majority of the Gaelic Irish remained in their native areas, but often on worse land than before the plantation. They usually lived close to and even in the same townlands as the Protestant settlers. The main reason for this was that Undertakers could not import enough English or Scottish tenants to fill their agricultural workforce and had to fall back on Irish tenants. However in a few heavily populated lowland areas (such as parts of north Armagh) it is likely that some population displacement occurred.

However, the Plantation remained threatened by the attacks of bandits, known as "wood-kerne", who were often Irish soldiers or dispossessed landowners. In 1609, Chichester had 1,300 former Gaelic soldiers deported from Ulster to serve in the Swedish Army. As a result, military garrisons were established across Ulster and many of the Plantation towns, notably Derry, were fortified. The settlers were also required to maintain arms and attend an annual military 'muster'.

There had been very few towns in Ulster before the Plantation. Most modern towns in the province can date their origins back to this period. Plantation towns generally have a single broad main street ending in a square – often known as a "diamond",The Diamond, Donegal being an attractive example.

Success and failures

The plantation was a mixed success from the point of view of the settlers. About the time the Plantation of Ulster was planned, the Virginia Plantation at Jamestown in 1607 started. The London guilds planning to fund the Plantation of Ulster switched and backed the London Virginia Company instead. Many "British" Protestant settlers went to Virginia or New England in America rather than to Ulster.

By the 1630s, there were 20,000 adult male "British" settlers in Ulster, which meant that the total settler population could have been as high as 80,000. They formed local majorities of the population in the Finn and Foyle valleys (around modern Londonderry and east Donegal), in north Armagh and in east Tyrone. Moreover, the unofficial settlements in Antrim and Down were thriving. What was more, the settler population grew rapidly, as just under half of the planters were women.

The attempted conversion of the Irish to Protestantism was generally a failure. One problem was language difference. The Protestant clerics imported were usually all monoglot English speakers, whereas the native population were usually monoglot Gaelic speakers. However, ministers chosen to serve in the plantation were required to take a course in the Irish language before ordination, and nearly 10% of those who took up their preferments spoke it fluently. Nevertheless, conversion was rare, despite the fact that, after 1621, Gaelic Irish natives could be officially classed as "British" if they converted to Protestantism.  Of those Catholics who did convert to Protestantism, many made their choice for social and political reasons.

Wars of the Three Kingdoms and Ulster Plantation

By the 1630s it is suggested that the plantation was settling down with "tacit religious tolerance", and in every county Old Irish were serving as royal officials and members of the Irish Parliament. However, in the 1640s, the Ulster Plantation was thrown into turmoil by civil wars that raged in Ireland, England and Scotland. The wars saw Irish rebellion against the planters, twelve years of bloody war, and ultimately the re-conquest of the province by the English parliamentary New Model Army that confirmed English and Protestant dominance in the province.

After 1630, Scottish migration to Ireland waned for a decade. In the 1630s, Presbyterians in Scotland staged a rebellion against Charles I for trying to impose Anglicanism. The same was attempted in Ireland, where most Scots colonists were Presbyterian. A large number of them returned to Scotland as a result. Charles I subsequently raised an army largely composed of Irish Catholics, and sent them to Ulster in preparation to invade Scotland. The English and Scottish parliaments then threatened to attack this army. In the midst of this, Gaelic Irish landowners in Ulster, led by Phelim O'Neill and Rory O'More, planned a rebellion to take over the administration in Ireland.

On 23 October 1641, the Ulster Catholics staged a rebellion. The mobilised natives turned on the "British" colonists, massacring about 4000 and expelling about 8,000 more. Marianne Elliott believes that "1641 destroyed the Ulster Plantation as a mixed settlement..." The initial leader of the rebellion, Phelim O'Neill, had actually been a beneficiary of the Plantation land grants. Most of his supporters' families had been dispossessed and were likely motivated by the desire to recover their ancestral lands. Many colonists who survived rushed to the seaports and went back to Britain.

The massacres had a devastating and lasting impact on the Ulster Protestant population. A.T.Q. Stewart states that "The fear which it inspired survives in the Protestant subconscious as the memory of the Penal Laws or the Famine persists in the Catholic." He also believed that "Here, if anywhere, the mentality of siege was born, as the warning bonfires blazed from hilltop to hilltop, and the beating drums summoned men to the defence of castles and walled towns crowded with refugees."

In the summer of 1642, the Scottish Parliament sent some 10,000 soldiers to quell the Irish rebellion. In revenge for the massacres of Scottish colonists, the army committed many atrocities against the Catholic population. Based in Carrickfergus, the Scottish army fought against the rebels until 1650. In the northwest of Ulster, the colonists around Derry and east Donegal organised the Laggan Army in self-defence. The British forces fought an inconclusive war with the Ulster Irish led by Owen Roe O'Neill. All sides committed atrocities against civilians in this war, exacerbating the population displacement begun by the Plantation.

In addition to fighting the Ulster Irish, the "British" settlers fought each other in 1648-49 over the issues of the English Civil War. The Scottish Presbyterian army sided with the King and the Laggan Army sided with the English Parliament. In 1649-50, the New Model Army, along with some of the "British" colonists under Charles Coote, defeated both the Scottish forces and the Ulster Irish.

As a result, the English Parliamentarians or Cromwellians (after Oliver Cromwell) were generally hostile to Scottish Presbyterians after they re-conquered Ireland from the Catholic Confederates in 1649-53. The main beneficiaries of the postwar Cromwellian settlement were English Protestants like Sir Charles Coote, who had taken the Parliament's side over the King or the Scottish Presbyterians. The Wars eliminated the last major Catholic landowners in Ulster.

Continued migration from Scotland to Ulster

Most of the Scottish planters came from southwest Scotland, but many also came from the unstable regions along the border with England. The plan was that moving Borderers (see Border Reivers) to Ireland (particularly to County Fermanagh) would both solve the Border problem and tie down Ulster. This was of particular concern to James VI of Scotland when he became King of England, since he knew Scottish instability could jeopardise his chances of ruling both kingdoms effectively. Another wave of Scottish immigration to Ulster took place in the 1690s, when tens of thousands of Scots fled a famine (1696–1698) in the border region of Scotland. It was at this point that Scottish Presbyterians became the majority community in the province. Whereas in the 1660s, they made up some 20% of Ulster's population (though 60% of its British population) by 1720 they were an absolute majority in Ulster.

Despite the fact that Scottish Presbyterians strongly supported the Williamites in the Williamite war in Ireland in the 1690s, they were excluded from power in the postwar settlement by the Anglican Protestant Ascendancy. During the 18th century, rising Scots resentment over religious, political and economic issues fueled their emigration to the American colonies, beginning in 1717 and continuing up to the 1770s. Scots-Irish from Ulster and Scotland, and British from the borders region comprised the most numerous group of immigrants from Great Britain and Ireland to the colonies in the years before the American Revolution. An estimated 150,000 left northern Ireland. They settled first mostly in Pennsylvania and Virginia, from where they moved southwest into the backcountry of upland territories and the Appalachian Mountains.


The legacy of the Plantation remains disputed. According to one interpretation, it created a society segregated between native Catholics and settler Protestants in Ulster and created a Protestant and British concentration in north east Ireland. This argument therefore sees the Plantation as one of the long-term causes of the Partition of Ireland in 1921, as the north-east remained as part of the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland. However the densest Protestant settlement took place in the eastern counties of Antrim and Down, which were not part of the Plantation, whereas Donegal, in the west, was planted but did not become part of Northern Ireland.

Therefore, it is also argued that the Plantation itself was less important in the distinctiveness of the North East of Ireland than natural population flow between Ulster and Scotland. A.T.Q. Stewart concluded, "The distinctive Ulster-Scottish culture, isolated from the mainstream of Catholic and Gaelic culture, would appear to have been created not by the specific and artificial plantation of the early seventeenth century, but by the continuous natural influx of Scottish settlers both before and after that episode..."

The Plantation of Ulster is also widely seen as the origin of mutually antagonistic Catholic/Irish and Protestant/British identities in Ulster. Richard English has written that, "not all of those of British background in Ireland owe their Irish residence to the Plantations... yet the Plantation did produce a large British/English interest in Ireland, a significant body of Irish Protestants who were tied through religion and politics to English power."

However, going on surnames, others have concluded that Protestant and Catholic are poor guides to whether people's ancestors were settlers or natives of Ulster in the 17th century. The settlers also left a legacy in terms of language. The Ulster Scots dialect originated through the speech of lowland Scots settlers evolving and being influenced by both Hiberno-English and Irish Gaelic. Seventeenth century English settlers also contributed dialect words that are still in current use in Ulster.