A Narrow Sea - Episode 20
The Rebellion of Sir Cahir O’Doherty
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
The Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell fled abroad in September 1607.
Now, King James hesitated - could he really confiscate all those lands in Ulster simply because their owners had left the country?
Attorney-General Sir John Davies assured him he could. Lord Deputy Sir Arthur Chichester added there was no time like the present for ‘the whole realm, and especially the fugitive countries, are more utterly depopulated and poor than ever before for many hundred years’.
And so the earls were condemned as outlaws and, in December 1607 the lands of these departed Gaelic lords were confiscated and put in the possession of King James.
The King now threw himself with enormous enthusiasm into this grand project which he named the ‘Plantation of Ulster’.
It would give him a unique opportunity to reward - at little cost - the many who had claims on his purse. The conquest of Ireland had cost Queen Elizabeth at least two million pounds. King James was left with a huge debt; many merchants and suppliers might be delighted to be paid with landed estates. Certainly his ‘servitors’, that is, the army commanders and senior civil servants, looked forward to generous grants of land in Ulster. Above all, the successful plantation of much of Antrim and Down – which had begun at the start of his reign in 1603 – gave every indication that the colonisation of the rest of Ulster could be a triumphant success.
The outline plan was to colonise in six counties: Tyrone, Armagh, Fermanagh, Cavan, Tyrconnell and Coleraine – the last two would be slightly altered in size shortly afterwards and be renamed Donegal and Londonderry. In the spring of 1608, while the King and his courtiers began discussions on the colonising scheme, Attorney-General Sir John Davies and Lord Deputy Sir Arthur Chichester set out from Dublin to survey the lands abandoned by the earls and to garner all the evidence they could to legally justify their confiscation. On their way they got news of a fresh rebellion in the north. This was to bring profound changes to the scheme of plantation.
Perhaps no Gaelic nobleman in Ulster was more deserving of the Crown’s gratitude than Sir Cahir O’Doherty, Lord of Inishowen in Donegal. As a fifteen-year-old, O’Doherty had joined the Crown forces at Derry in 1600 and he had been knighted on the battlefield for his bravery. He took particular care to abide by English law and was chairman of the grand jury which had judged the departed earls to be guilty of treason. However, he was treated with contempt again and again by the governor of Derry, Sir George Paulet, and, after the governor had punched him in the face during an argument in the spring of 1608, O’Doherty rose in rebellion.
On the 18th of April, he seized the fort of Culmore, about four miles downstream from Derry. The following night he laid siege to Derry itself, took it and set it on fire. Susan Montgomery, wife of George Montgomery the Bishop of Derry, was taken prisoner and Doe Castle (near Creeslough in Donegal) fell to O’Doherty soon after.
O’Doherty was quickly joined by his neighbours the MacDavitts, the O’Gallahers, and the MacSweeneys and by many O’Hanlons. It seems likely they believed the Earl of Tyrone was about to return with a Spanish army.
Derry had fallen when its garrison actually outnumbered its attackers. To recover his reputation, Lord Deputy Chichester had to act quickly. He ordered a general hosting of forces and, outflanked by experienced veterans, O’Doherty was cornered at Kilmacrenan in Donegal and killed at the Rock of Doon ‘by a happy shot which smote him on the head’.
With five Royal Navy vessels Sir Henry Folliott, governor of Ballyshannon, pursued the remnants of the rebels who had taken refuge on the islands off Donegal while Marshal Sir Richard Wingfield crossed the mountains to Glenveagh, where the O’Gallahers made a last but futile stand in their island castle.
The English were getting to know the province they had conquered from end to end, parts of which Chichester admitted had been only recently as inaccessible as ‘the kingdom of China’.
O’Doherty’s head was taken to Dublin to be skewered on a pike at Newgate. Surviving rebels were rounded up and, rather than being hanged summarily as they could be by martial law, were sent on to be tried for treason. When duly convicted they could then be were hanged, drawn and quartered in the usual grisly way.
Meanwhile, the government had already returned to the task of planning the colonisation of the confiscated lands of the earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell. The scheme being perfected in London would soon be far more grandiose than originally envisaged. All the lands of six entire counties would now be confiscated. The enterprise would surely be jeopardised, Attorney-General Sir John Davies wrote, ‘if the number of civil persons who are to be planted do not exceed the number of natives, who will quickly overgrow them as weeds overgrow the good corn’.