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18 September 2014
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Wars and Conflict - The Plantation of Ulster

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Church of Ireland - Alan Ford

the Plantation was not purely a secular enterprise – it also had a closely linked religious purpose...

The Ulster Plantation was designed to reshape the political, economic and social landscape of Ulster, and, in many respects, it did just that, by changing irrevocably the pattern of settlement and landholding in the province. But the Plantation was not purely a secular enterprise – it also had a closely linked religious purpose.

Just as the settlers were supposed to introduce what King James and his advisers saw as the superior British habits of loyalty and civility, so too they were meant to bring over with them the equally superior Protestant religion and serve as examples and even missionaries to the ‘backward’ Catholic population. As one optimistic contemporary observer put it, Plantation ‘will bring wealth, religion and the form of true religion into that province, which though it be an ancient inheritance of his Majesty… yet hath it been suffered to lie in the hands of barbarous and irreligious peoples for hundreds of years past.’

the King appointed Protestant bishops to all the Ulster sees...

The settlement of the province and the creation of a Protestant church thus went hand in hand. The Church of Ireland, established as the state church by Henry VIII, had had little or no presence in Ulster during the 16th century. But after The Flight of the Earls in 1607 and the subsequent Plantation, the King appointed Protestant bishops to all the Ulster sees. These bishops in turn set about taking over the previously Roman Catholic churches and dioceses in order to create an anglicised Protestant church, filling their parishes with clergy from England and Scotland who had come over with the settlers. A pattern soon emerged, of Protestant clergy settling in the major towns and fertile lowlands where they built new churches and cathedrals (such as St Columba’s Cathedral in Londonderry), which in turn were attended by the Scots and English colonists.

By the 1630s some of the dioceses in Ulster were, by Irish standards, rich and increasingly prosperous, with a good preaching ministry. Indeed, Ussher possessed one of the greatest intellects that the Church of Ireland ever knew – James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh from 1625 to 1656, a master of church history, chronology, theology, and biblical languages.

He set out to show that St Patrick was, theologically, a Protestant...

Ussher is famous as the man who worked out that the world was created on 23 October 4004 BC. The condescending smiles with which most modern readers greet this dating make it difficult to appreciate Ussher’s intellectual achievement: he used a remarkable range of contemporary historical, biblical and scientific skills to date specific events in the bible and then count back to the foundation of the world. His dating was widely accepted for the next two centuries, and formed the basis of most Protestants’ world view in Ireland.

From the point of view of the Ulster church, Ussher’s most significant contribution was his book, A discourse of the religion anciently professed by the Irish and Brittish, published in 1631. In this Ussher examined the history of the Early Irish church after the arrival of St Patrick. He set out to show that St Patrick was, theologically, a Protestant who had operated in Ireland independently of the papacy. According to Ussher’s thesis, Ireland had succumbed to the evil influence of Rome in the 11th century from which the Church of Ireland was now seeking to rescue it. This historical assertion enabled Ussher to create a respectable parentage for the Church of Ireland: it was not invented by Henry VIII, it was the legitimate heir of the Early Celtic church – hence the Church of Ireland was the rightful owner of the Irish churches and cathedrals, hence it, not the usurping Roman Catholic church, was the church to which the Irish people should give their allegiance. What Ussher had done was to create a respectable origin myth for Irish Protestants, one which was to have a powerful impact, right down to the 20th century.

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