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18 September 2014
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Wars and Conflict - The Plantation of Ulster

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The Plantation played havoc with this intensely status conscious society...

The Plantation played havoc with this intensely status-conscious society. Suddenly people deemed their social inferiors (Irish and British alike) were rising in the social ladder while those who would normally have been in the elite were rapidly declining. This elitism and social snobbery of Gaelic society is frequently overlooked. But more than any loss of land it explains the sense of lost glory which later infused developing nationalist tradition. 'The people in general are great admirers of their pedigree,' commented an English traveller in 1674, 'and have got their genealogy so exactly by heart that though it be two hours work for them to repeat the names only from whence they are descended lineally, yet, will they not omit one word in half a dozen several repetitions; from whence I gather they say them instead of their Pater noster'. This older lineage definition of status was to continue in Ulster Catholic society alongside the newer landed one, quite independently of wealth and property, and was undoubtedly responsible for the long memory of customary land rights.

the Ulster Catholics were on the losing side in every conflict ...

Even so, by the 1630s evidence suggests that the Plantation land settlement was settling down. Some 40,000 settlers had arrived. But this out of a likely population of between 200,000 and 300,000 left the Irish in the majority everywhere. But all was not well with the Irish grantees. Most Gaelic lords were heavily in debt and the amount of land in their hands was being steadily eroded. Declining branches of the Maguires or the O'Neills would have been a volatile element at any time in Gaelic society, but they would have been kept in check by their Gaelic overlord. With the overlords gone, their restlessness fed on every slight by English officials, many of whom would have been their social inferiors. There may too have been a restlessness for old ways. Moreover, in an unusually turbulent century, the Ulster Catholics were on the losing side in every conflict and each was followed by new land confiscations.

The Protestant gentry in Ulster never had to deal with equals...

It would be difficult to exaggerate the social consequences of the 17th century land settlements for the future of Ulster Catholicism. Only a handful of Catholic landowners survived into the 18th century and very soon these too disappeared, most conforming to the established church. The net result was to place the Ulster Catholics on a lower social level than their co-religionists elsewhere in the country. The Catholics of Ulster and adjacent north Connacht were generally the poorest in the country. This, and the absence of the kind of surviving Catholic gentry which sustained an institutionalised Catholic church elsewhere, dictated its different character in Ulster. Ulster never had a significant 'Old English' class, a Catholic elite accustomed to the practice of power and politics. The absence of such a political tradition is still felt today. The Protestant gentry in Ulster never had to deal with equals, and the distance between them and the socially inferior Catholics bred unrealistic fears of subversion. The picture of an impoverished Catholic peasantry clinging to the hills is far-fetched. But they had lost their natural social leaders - a vacuum which was filled by the Catholic Church - and highly charged local resentments against those who got the land have festered to the present day.

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