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18 September 2014
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Wars and Conflict - The Plantation of Ulster

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Ireland before the Plantation

Demise of Gaelic life

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Image of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone

Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone ©

Ulster was always the largest area under Gaelic rule since medieval times. Expeditions by the English to complete its conquest during the late 16th century and the alarming example of the Plantations already underway in southern Ireland caused Ulster chiefs to upgrade their military strength. They did this both by 'arming the peasants' - as was reported of Shane O'Neill - and by importing regiments of armoured footsoldiers from the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland at great expense. At the same time the constant fighting not only kept armies on the move, but turned villagers into 'creaghts' - or herds of refugees with their livestock - transferring out of war-torn areas under the leadership of their local lords.

Up to that time the lack of market towns in the area put a limit to the amount of rents Gaelic lords could extract from their tenants, because rent was paid in foodstuffs, which had to be consumed immediately by the lord and his followers or rot away - as Sir John Davies noted in 1607. In the last decades before the Plantation, there were signs that Ulster lords were feeling their way towards a market economy, and the collection of money rents. This would enable them to accumulate a surplus - to buy fine clothes and build larger castles at their tenants' expense and in war-time to pay for troops. O'Neill, O'Donnell and their sub-chiefs obtained royal licences to hold weekly markets at their chief residences, and both Shane O'Neill and Hugh O'Neill, the Great Earl of Tyrone, encouraged Anglo-Irish tenants from the Dundalk area to settle on their underpopulated lands. Hugh O'Neill replaced a patchwork of varying tributes and taxes from his Irish tenants with a single charge of one shilling per quarter year for every cow in their herds, to be collected by the leaders of the creaghts, who kept back a quarter of the sum as their salary. This yielded Tyrone an income of over 2,539 Euros / £1,631 a year, eight or ten times the revenue of MacCarthy Mór in south-west Munster.

Image of Bellaghy Bawn

Bellaghy bawn constructed by the Vintners' Company ©

The Plantation altered this gradual shift from a bartering economy to a money-based one into an overnight transformation. Now it became profitable to rack-rent tenants, since the foodstuffs which they still paid as rent could be sold in the new market towns for export - or traditional tenants might be displaced to make way for more agriculturally productive outsiders. Even Gaelic chiefs who retained some lands had to change their ways or go bankrupt, while some were reduced to leasing summer pastures from the new planters, to camp there all the year round with their creaghts. The breakneck speed of this social transformation accounts for the traumatic grief and shock expressed in Gaelic literature of this period as much as the actual change in landownership. The mushrooming of towns and fenced-off lands, the end of assemblies on hills with their sport and music, and the feasts of the lords, are all mourned.

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<<< Gaelic social life Index
Image of Dr. Bernadette Cunningham The Flight of the Earls traumatised many bardic poets.
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Dr. Bernadette Cunningham, Deputy Librarian, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin
Image of Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin Irish literature of the 16th and 17th century is profoundly aristocratic.
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Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Lecturer in Medieval Irish History, University College Cork
Image of Dr. Nollaig Ó Muraíle Families shifted allegiance from one Gaelic lord to another.
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Dr. Nollaig Ó Muraíle, Reader in Irish and Celtic Studies, Queens University Belfast
Image of Kenneth Nicholls The weakness of the Gaelic system was its defective mechanism of succession.
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Kenneth Nicholls, Lecturer in Irish History, University College Cork
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