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18 September 2014
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Wars and Conflict - The Plantation of Ulster

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Michael Montgomery, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at the University of South Carolina, examines how the Plantation of Ulster shaped the linguistic history of Ulster

The linguistic history of Ulster
By Prof. Michael Montgomery
Printable version   1 2 3

the official Plantation is often seen as independent from surrounding developments...

The Plantation of Ulster, promulgated in 1609 by King James I and launched a year later, lasted 15 years. Like many other events with definite dates, the official Plantation is often seen as independent from surrounding developments. Although it is given considerable prominence in history books from the viewpoint of the Crown it was only a mixed success. True, it brought thousands of ‘planters’ from England and Lowland Scotland to settle a landscape in six ‘escheated’ (confiscated) counties west of the River Bann that had recently been wrested from Gaelic lords.

But was the Plantation, perhaps the best-known chapter in Scotland's long relationship with Ireland, the landmark it is so often described to be? After all, Scots had been drifting across the narrow waters of the Irish Sea into Antrim and Down for a generation or more (the success of Scottish lairds James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery in bargaining for portions of the land of a Gaelic chief in north and east county Down in 1605 is a famous episode). Moreover, a much larger influx of people crossed the channel three generations later, in the 1690s, after famine and other disruptions beset Scotland.

Ulster-Scots, produced a pluralism that has now differentiated Ulster from the rest of Ireland...

The answer is yes, the Plantation was a landmark. It set in motion or in other cases accelerated a series of migrations, settlements, and interactions that would forever change the cultural and linguistic landscape of the historical province of Ulster. The great majority of those who came then and later in the century were Scottish settlers who with few exceptions spoke neither Gaelic nor English. Their language was Scots, a Germanic tongue that had a common origin with English in the Anglo-Saxon language of Britain centuries Earlier and that was the everyday language of Lowland Scotland at the time. These speakers and the descendant of their language, Ulster-Scots, produced a pluralism that has now differentiated Ulster from the rest of Ireland for 400 years. Ulster-Scots remains to this day a vibrant medium of daily life in parts of four Ulster counties -- northeast Down, north, mid and east Antrim, north Londonderry, and east Donegal.

The ratio of Scottish to English settlers in Ulster during the 17th century has often been put at five or six to one, with one rough estimate reckoning there were 100,000 Scots and 20,000 English at the time of the rebellion of 1641. The proportion would have been much higher in Antrim and north Down and more evenly balanced in the six west Ulster counties involved in the official Plantation scheme. The Gaelic-speaking Irish still formed a significant majority in most parishes in those counties by mid-century. Demographic patterns established by Plantation settlements ensured that there were two, often three, cultural traditions in contact in much of the province.

The Gaelic-speaking Irish still formed a significant majority ...

Plantation settlers from Scotland were dominant in and gradually extended their influence (especially in the form of Presbyterian churches) over parts of the province most accessible by sea to Scotland, for example, the Ards Peninsula and the Lough Foyle estuary. At the same time, English settlers were concentrated in Armagh, the Lagan Valley of north Down, south Tyrone, Fermanagh and elsewhere, producing the Mid-Ulster speech area still discernible today as having much more influence from England and much less from Scotland. Both Ulster-Scots and Mid-Ulster English were profoundly affected by Irish Gaelic, borrowing a good deal of vocabulary and some grammatical constructions. At the same time, with the influx of non-speakers of Irish into much of Ulster, that language receded more quickly there than in other provinces. Elsewhere Irish competed strongly with English until well into the 19th century, and in certain parts of Ulster (north Tyrone, much of Donegal) it did so as well.

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