A Narrow Sea - Episode 22
Making Ulster Visible
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
It was only when the Elizabethan conquest was drawing to a close in 1603 that recognisable maps of Ulster became available. Making them was a dangerous business. One cartographer, Francis Jobson, observed that Ulster was ‘inhabited with a most savage and rebellious people from whose cruelty God only by his divine power delivered me being every hour in danger to lose my head’.
The man who produced the best maps of the province, Thomas Bartlett, was, indeed, decapitated in Donegal in 1609: as Attorney-General Sir John Davies explained, ‘when he came into Tyrconnell the inhabitants took off his head, because they would not have their country discovered’.
Davies was a member of the plantation planning committee in London. In January 1609 these courtiers published a comprehensive scheme describing how the land was to be divided up and outlining conditions to be observed by the grantees. But it soon became obvious that, in order to make clear grants, a detailed survey would have to be made.
To measure the lands of six entire counties in Ulster before grants were made was quite impossible, at least in the time scale envisaged. Therefore, ‘to avoid His Majesty’s further charge’, the government decided to carry out a survey by inquisition, that is, by talking to the locals. A commission, headed by Davies, was appointed to sit in Dungannon.
The problem facing these commissioners was that the native Irish did not measure their lands in acres or by anything equivalent. The largest unit in a Gaelic lordship was a baile biatach (literally, a territory that provides food), anglicised as a ballybetagh and usually converted by the English into subdivisions of counties known as baronies.
Each ballybetagh was the territory of a corporate kin-group (an extended family) or sept, such as the O’Hagans electing a sublord, the uirí. In some places ballybetaghs had been divided into quarters or sessiaghs (that is, sixths).
The basic land units in each ballybetagh, quarter and sessiagh were what the English described as ‘townlands’. These were known as ‘ballyboes’ in much of Ulster but as ‘tates’ in County Fermanagh and parts of County Tyrone and as ‘polls’, primarily in County Cavan.
The size of these townlands was based on the productivity of the soil: in fertile areas they would therefore be small by comparison with those in mountainous or less fertile ones. If you’re confused by this, imagine how perplexing it was to the English – to say the least, the rationale behind this Gaelic system of marking out land units was very imperfectly understood by the commissioners.
Rather too hastily they decided a townland was made up of sixty acres of ‘profitable’ land and a ballybetagh of sixteen townlands was the equivalent of 1,000 acres. Much trouble was to arise from these assumptions.
A second survey was commissioned in the spring of 1609, headed this time by Sir Josias Bodley, inspector of fortifications in Ireland. Sir John Davies explained that the surveyors - were sent forth into each barony…and in their perambulation took notes…These surveyors, being returned to the camp, out of their notes drew up cards or maps wherein every ballibo is named and placed in his proper situation.
Bodley further explained: We thought it our readiest course that…we should call unto us out of every barony, such persons as by their experience in the country could give us the name and quality of every ballibo, quarter, tate or other common measure in any of the precincts of the same; how they butted or mered interchangeably the one on the other. By which means and other necessary helps, we contrived those maps.
The assistance Bodley and his team received from local people was vital. They were described by Sir John Davies as ‘the ancient natives, especially such as had been rent gatherers and sergeants to the Irish lords’.
Davies noted that many of the locals - spoke good Latin and that readily.
They made it possible to name each townland and determine its boundaries. But not all the Irish were so cooperative: it was during this survey that Thomas Bartlett was beheaded.
Brought over to London, the maps were beautifully coloured in. King James spent hours eagerly poring over them. The project would be, the King observed, a civilising enterprise which would ‘establish the true religion of Christ among men almost lost in superstition’. Lord Deputy Chichester declared that he would rather ‘labour with his hands in the plantation of Ulster than dance or play in that of Virginia’.
Then, in April 1610, the final scheme was published with the title ‘Conditions to be observed by the British Undertakers of the escheated lands in Ulster’, usually referred to as the ‘Printed Book’ and sometimes as the ‘Articles of Plantation’.
From all over Britain, prospective colonists rushed forward to get a copy and to read the terms and conditions for planting the ‘escheated’ – that is the confiscated – lands of Ulster.