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18 September 2014
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Wars and Conflict - The Plantation of Ulster

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Image of The Honourable the Irish Society coat of arms

The Honourable The Irish Society coat of arms ©

Securing adequate finance to underpin the Ulster Plantation was one of the key problems affecting the success of the grandiose plans to colonise six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster. Seeking to ensure a cornerstone for the entire settlement project, the Plantation strategists in London devised a novel plan to ensure that substantial private funding was invested in an early version of a private-public partnership. A large tract of land consisting mainly of what was known as "O’Cahan’s country" was set aside to lure investment by a syndicate of 12 London Companies which later became known as ‘The Honourable The Irish Society’.

‘O’Cahan’s country’ was chosen because of its abundant natural resources, raw hides, tallow, beef and iron ore. The fishing stocks of the Bann and the Foyle were an additional allurement, offering vast quantities of eel and salmon. Just as enticing for the London Companies, however, were the region’s vast forests, at a time when the production of pipe staves was critically important to the economic development of England as a maritime nation. Despite the enticement of prospective riches, it was by no means certain that the London Companies would jump at the opportunity offered. Lingering fears that the Earl of Tyrone would return from the continent and overthrow the Plantation were widespread.

To the great relief of James I, London Companies were persuaded to become involved. At the outset, considerable initial investment in buildings and equipment was required. At first, rapid progress was made. Sir John Davies, an eyewitness, memorably drew a classical allusion having observed building work at Coleraine during the summer of 1610. Commenting on the ‘ferment of activity’, Davies compared the scene to the building of Carthage in Virgil’s ancient classic, The Aeneid.

Image of Thomas Raven's map of the Walls of Londonderry

Thomas Raven's map of the Walls of Londonderry ©

Despite such early signs of progress, the London Companies soon ran foul of the crown authorities for failing to meet their Plantation commitments. Year after year, the native Irish populace was allowed to remain working the land, whereas it had been stipulated that they should have been transplanted elsewhere for security reasons. By late 1612, King James I had had enough, notifying his Irish viceroy that he had learned that while the Londoners ‘pretend to great expenditure…there is little outward appearance’. The London Companies were accused of being more interested in profiteering than in fulfilling their settlement commitments, cutting down vast swathes of forest to export as pipe staves. While such criticism was to some extent justified, in other respects the sluggish progress of the Plantation reflected the fact that realisation of the Ulster Plantation greatly exceeded expectation in the short term, the objectives proving much too optimistic. Indeed, it was a measure of the difficulties involved that labourers on the estates of the London Companies worked ‘wth the Sworde in one hande and the Axe in thother’, such was the fear of attack.

With time, the London Companies made substantial progress, leaving a profound mark on the area. For instance, the infant ‘city’ of Derry was renamed Londonderry and the county also became known as Londonderry as a result of its association with London. The impact of the London Companies remains in many ways, in place names such as Draperstown, but most conspicuously by the walled city of Londonderry.

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Image of Dr. Raymond Gillespie The London Companies were only interested in profit.
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Dr. Raymond Gillespie, Lecturer in History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth
Image of Dr. Mary O'Dowd The London builders lived in all male communities.
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Dr. Mary O'Dowd, Senior Lecturer in Modern History, Queen's University, Belfast
Image of Professor Nicholas Canny The London Companies invested more money than the other planters.
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Nicholas Canny, Professor of History, National University of Ireland, Galway
Image of Dr. John McCavitt The London Companies wanted the Irish to work on their land.
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Dr. John McCavitt, School Teacher, Abbey Grammar School, Newry
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