A Narrow Sea - Episode 15
‘Parishes more wasted than America’
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
During the final stages of the conquest of Ulster Queen Elizabeth’s commanders devastated the countryside by systematically destroying crops, burning stores of butter and corn, and slaughtering cattle. Lord Deputy Mountjoy reported that For all events we have spoiled and mean to spoil their corn…We do now continually hunt all their woods, spoil their corn, burn their houses, and kill so many churls, as it grieveth me to think that it is necessary to do this.
Sir Arthur Chichester, in command at Carrickfergus, agreed that it was not enough merely to attack the Irish for ‘a million swords will not do them so much harm as one winter’s famine’. The inevitable result was famine, a man-made horror which may have reduced the native population of Ulster by as much as one third. Mountjoy informed London:
We found everywhere men dead of famine, in so much that…between Tulloghoge and Toome there lay unburied a thousand dead, and …above three thousand starved in Tyrone…We can assure your lordships, that from O’Cane’s country…we have left none to give us opposition, nor of late have seen any but dead carcasses, merely starved for want of meat.
Mountjoy’s secretary, Fynes Moryson, described ‘carcasses scattered in many places, all dead of famine’ and he concluded that “No spectacle was more frequent in the ditches of towns, and especially in wasted countries, than to see multitudes of these poor people dead with their mouths all coloured green by eating nettles, docks, and all things they could rend up above ground”.
Down was one of the most devastated counties. Here Moryson reported incidents of cannibalism and a most horrible spectacle of three children (whereof the eldest was not above ten years old) all eating and gnawing with their teeth the entrails of their mother, upon whose flesh they had fed 20 days past…roasting it continually by a slow fire.
And so it was that the great estates in County Down granted by King James to his Scottish courtiers, Sir Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton, had ample room for newcomers, if only because the population had been so drastically reduced by war and starvation. The King’s grant to Hamilton specifically stated that ‘the said territories’ were ‘depopulated and wasted’.
The former Lordship of Upper Clandeboye and the Great Ards was divided in April 1605 into three equal parts. Conn O’Neill, the former lord, got lands at Castlereagh and its vicinity.
The grants to Montgomery and Hamilton were so arranged that ‘the sea coasts might be possessed by Scottish men, who would be traders as proper for his Majestie’s future advantage’. Montgomery’s estates were centred on Newtownards and Donaghadee; Hamilton’s lands included an estate on the western shore of Strangford Lough but were predominantly in north Down about Bangor and Holywood.
Montgomery and Hamilton had received their grants on the strict condition that they settled English and Scottish Protestants on their estates – indeed, this was the first time in Irish history that Scots colonists were given equal status with English ones. Both men set about meeting this obligation with considerable determination.
During the winter of 1605-6 Sir Hugh returned from Down to Braidstane in Ayrshire with the purpose of inducing his neighbours to join him. He found many willing to do so. Initially, they included: his wife Elizabeth’s brother, John Shaw of Greenock; Patrick Montgomery of Blackhouse, married to Shaw’s sister, Christian; Colonel David Boyd; Patrick Shaw, nephew of the Laird of Kelso; Thomas Nevin, brother to the Laird of Monkredding and Cunningham; Patrick Moore of Deugh, Kirkcudbrightshire; Sir William Edmonston, 7th Laird of Duntreath, from Sterlingshire; and John Neill of Mains-Neill near Braidstane.
The surnames of Scots who in 1617 took out letters of denization – that is permission to live in Ireland – include Catherwood, Wyly, Boyle, Harper, Barkley, Hunter, Thompson, Crawford, Adair, Wilson, Cathcart, Maxwell, Fraser, Aiken, Harvey, Semple, Anderson, Martin and Speir. The majority settled on Sir Hugh Montgomery’s estates. Among those colonising the Hamilton estates were families with such names as Maxwell, Rose, Barclay, More and Baylie.
The Montgomery family papers describe the conditions the Scots encountered when first coming over:
We shall wonder how this plantation advanced itself (especially in and about the towns of Donaghadee and Newtown), considering that in the spring time…those parishes were now more wasted than America (when Spaniards landed there), but were not at all encumbered with great woods to be felled and grubbed…for in all those three parishes aforesaid, 30 cabins could not be found, nor any stone walls, but ruined roofless churches, and a few vaults at Gray Abbey, and a stump of an old castle in Newtown, in each of which some gentlemen sheltered themselves at their first coming over.
It was not long, however, before these Scots were busy erecting houses and ploughing.
This was the beginning of the most successful British colonising venture in Ireland in the seventeenth century.