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The Road to Northern Ireland, 1167 to 1921

By BBC History
Plantations and penal laws

In the early 17th century, a bid for independence by Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone and the last of the great Irish chieftains, was ultimately defeated by the armies of Elizabeth I in the Nine Years War.

'The post-war settlement was harsh and designed to prevent a future uprising by the Catholic majority.'

O'Neill's surrender at Mellifont in 1603 was followed by his flight to Rome with many other Irish nobles - the so-called 'Flight of the Earls' - in 1607.

The now leaderless Irish were unable to oppose the plantation of Ulster, where many of the new settlers were Scottish Presbyterians. Dispossessed Catholics rose in rebellion in 1641, taking advantage of the turmoil of the English Civil War.

It was ruthlessly confronted in 1649 by Oliver Cromwell, who sought to crush any remaining Stuart opposition and implement the Adventurer's Act - legislation that allowed those who helped defeat the Irish a share in confiscated lands. Massacres and atrocities were committed by both sides, Catholic and Protestant. Cromwell finally subdued Catholic Ireland in 1653.

The accession of James II to the English throne in 1685 created alarm among Protestants in England and Ireland. The birth of an Catholic heir led them, in 1688, to invite William of Orange, husband of James's Protestant daughter Mary, to seize the throne.

After a bloodless coup in England, James was decisively defeated by William in Ireland, at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The post-war settlement was harsh and designed by Ireland's Protestant 'Ascendancy class' to prevent a future uprising by the Catholic majority.

'Penal laws' were passed, limiting Catholic property ownership, education and right to bear arms, and driving out the clergy. As a result of this legislation, Catholic land ownership plummeted to negligible levels during the late 17th and early 18th century.

But the Ascendancy class itself chafed at its lack of power, since ultimate control rested with England. A reform movement of 'patriots' began to lobby for representation (for the Protestant middle class only) in parliament, thereby sowing the early seeds of Irish nationalism.

During the 18th century, political turmoil and revolution in the American colonies and France fired Ireland's desire for independence. In response, many of the penal laws were relaxed, and legislative independence was achieved under the leadership of patriot Henry Grattan.

Published: 2007-02-01



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