Colonial Ulster

The Settlement of East Ulster 1600-1641

Raymond Gillespie

Cork University Press for The Irish Committee of Historical Sciences, 1985

941.606 GIL


Down and Antrim in East Ulster (EU) are the subject of this study. After Kinsale and the Flight of the Earls, the crown confiscated all the lands in the six counties of West Ulster for its formal plantation scheme, ending the power of the troublesome O’Neill, O’Donnell and Magennis Gaelic lordships.

East Ulster didn’t follow this pattern. The Gaelic lordships were smaller and weaker there, they fought amongst themselves and were more compliant to the control of the Dublin administration.

This book is an attempt to understand the social changes in East Ulster in the two non-forfeited counties of Antrim and Down, which were not in the official scheme of the Ulster Plantation. The analysis is mainly concerned with how settlers and natives adapted themselves to the new political, social and economic climate of the 17th century.

Chapter 1: The Physical World


The physical environment was an important factor in shaping the settlement of EU, especially as the limitations of agricultural technology meant that the natural landscape was virtually unchangeable. The terrain could be modified slightly by clearing woodland or marginal land, but was hampered by a limited labour supply and lack of artificial drainage. Landscape influenced warfare, type of farming and communications.


Weather was main factor in determining success or failure of harvests; vital as a source of food and of cash to pay rent when the surplus was marketed. Very dry weather diminished the capacity of rivers to supply power to mills in EU, causing flour and bread shortages. Heavy rain destroyed mills and roads, disrupted transport and communications.

Uneven Introduction of Maps

In 16th c., English and Scottish govts. knew little of the environment of EU. SE Down was best known topographically because of early 16th c. settlement at Newry by Bagnall, later marshall of the army. Belfast area was also well charted because of the strategic position of the castle. In the 1560s, threat of a Scottish invasion had led to a spurt of map-making to assist an enlarged coastal garrison, but the geography of inland areas remained vague. There was some attempt in the 1570s to speed up geographical knowledge as English landowners tried to ascertain the extent of their lands. Topographical information became the main reason for exploration of EU in latter half of 16th c. Nine Years War forced govt. to construct maps of inland areas.

The govt realised that detailed maps would be the best way of bringing EU under control, introducing sheriffs and flushing out rebels. Geographical knowledge showed EU to be an area well endowed with good agricultural lands, woodlands and fisheries, but also of mixed quality land and poor land in some areas.. Antrim and Down rated as one of the wealthiest counties in Ir in 1627. Along the Antrim coast there was excellent land for corn-growning; Glens, however, were wooded, boggy and cliffy, and inland the mountainous areas were unsuitable for tillage.

The land from Lough Neagh to Belfast was fertile. Antrim and Down had lots of river valleys, including the Bann and the Lagan, useful for communication routes. There was salmon on the Bann, cod and ling on Lough Neagh. Timber was an important resource in early 17thc. Used for building, fuel for iron works, pipe staves for export, resulting in eventual shortage by 1640.

Difficulties over Land Ownership

Although knowledge of geography increased, the Dublin admin. remained hugely concerned over precise ownership and size of lands, and extent of grants. Many records of land titles were destroyed in the Nine Years War or never existed. As a solution, Dublin admin introduced an Inquisition: a sworn statement from the local inhabitants on the details of place-names and land holdings. Problematic and inaccurate, however.

The Inquisitions were necessary in law if land was to be granted to new settlers, but in reality they were often ignored in the interests of speed. This led to vicious arguments later over entitlement to land, as record-keeping in Dublin was poor and keeping track of lands granted was often a problem.

In the early days of trying to attract settlers, govt tended to follow natural boundaries, like river Bann, or the old-established native boundaries for convenience. Following traditionally-established land units had the advantage of simplicity, but the disadvantage of having no written document to back them up, and also, these native boundaries tended to fluctuate depending on the strength of the local lord. Later, the govt tried to ‘freeze’ these fluctuating boundaries to try to establish stable administrative units.


Sixty acres of townland came to be regarded as a basic unit for land grant, a useful unit for landlords for leasing purposes. Many landlords insisted that tenants enclose their lands with hedges. Written leases and registration in manor courts helped to stabilise boundaries. As the population increased on the coast, pressure on land meant that accurate delineation was essential. Tenants could only be attracted if title was secure.


By 1620s, map-making and land title had stabilised, but communications remained a major problem in EU. Roads begun in 16th c. were developed in 17th c. with clearing of woodlands and establishment of law and order. Parishes were responsible for the roads in their area. Bridges were very expensive to construct, so many areas relied on fords and ferries. Ferries operated over large bodies of water, such as Carlingford Lough, and were important commercially, but were frequently lost in storms. Rivers were the most effective means of communication in Antrim and Down. With development of markets, demand so great that artificial waterways considered, but too costly.

Links outside Ulster

Antrim and Down traditionally looked to the Pale rather than to West Ulster for markets. Strong land-holding connections between EU and the Anglo-Irish of the Pale. Coastal shipping important. Flourishing trade between Dublin and EU in grain and other commodities by 1620s. Connection with England and Scotland more difficult: rough seas, pirates, costly fares.


A letter between Dublin and EU could take 4-12 days. Poor communications meant that merchants had difficulty in circulating info and bills of exchange, discouraging them from settling permanently in EU, hence little merchant community by 1640.

Remoteness from Authority

Settlers developed sense of isolation from authority. Felt faced with the problem of how to keep the rebellious Irish quiet. This isolation, coupled with ambition to exploit their holdings was fundamental to shaping of EU settlement.


Chapter 2: The Human Background

Attractions of East Ulster

In spite of geography and communications difficulties, EU was a wealthy region; its established Anglo-Norman lordship gave the crown a claim to title of most of the land of Antrim and Down, and it was close to potential colonists, Scotland.

Diverse Group of Settlers

Early 17thc. Settlers included (1) landowners with a bit of money; (2) those with a high social status but no money; (3) younger sons of important English and Scottish families; (4) small landowners and substantial tenants from England and Scotland; (5) large numbers of landless labourers and persons fleeing from justice in E. and S. Predominantly from the SW coast of Scotland, the border areas and the isles. Most of English settlers from Devon, Cheshire, Lancashire.

Reasons for Choosing East Ulster: Push and Pull

(1) Pushed out of Scotland or England

Political rivalries and loss of lands forced the Macdonnell clan out, having lost their land and fortune; others discredited politically from England and Wales and fled to Ireland. Main reasons, however, were social and economic. In early 17th c., growing population, landlord reorganisation and rent increases created pool of people deprived of land with little chance of acquiring new holdings. On the other hand, trade had grown in Scotland during these years, encouraging merchants and landowners to seek outlets for their new-found capital.

(2) Pulled to Antrim and Down

Cheap land, secure title, woodlands, fishing. Already strong links with Scotland through trading and veterans of the Nine Years War. Those who came often encouraged family and friends to follow.

Native Irish in East Ulster

Three groups sought influence: the English administration, the Earl of Tyrone from the west, the Scottish Macdonnells from the north. In their midst, the native Irish of EU swayed with the political wind and with the group whose influence prevailed. English policy during late 16thc. was influenced by the native Irish ability to move with changing realities, and worked on winning potentially loyal natives away from the influence of Tyrone and others. In 1590s, large numbers of freeholders created to hold land directly from the queen rather from the native lords thus weakening their hold on their followers.


Chapter 3: The Demographic Structure

Difficulties of Low Population

Very difficult to measure population, but known to be low in EU in late 16thc. and early 17thc. Nine Years War, illness, poor harvests around 1603 did not help. The new settlement depended on a pool of people for juries, commissions and local offices. Skilled labour shortage for building the new settlement. Labourers needed to work the land and save the harvests. Tenants needed to supply landlords with rental income.

Appears to have been a pattern in EU of slow migration in first decade, speeded up in second, then fell off, apart from slight revival in 1630s. By late 1630s, pop was falling, mainly due to migration back to Scotland and England. Series of bad harvests frightened the vulnerable small farmers and they fled. The Black Oath calling for strict obedience to the king, insisted on by Wentworth, caused others to return to Scotland.

Births, Deaths, Marriages

Marriage age lower in EU than in England, possibly leading to a higher birth rate. Death rate also probably lower as there were fewer epidemics in Ireland. Serious food shortages in Antrim and Down were rarely a problem as there were many very good harvests as well as some bad years. Pop around 1600 may have been under 2,500 (working from Nine Years War pardon list, genealogies and chancery pleadings). By 1630, this figure was possibly 12,000.

Age and sex of settlers were an important factor in the development of the settlement. Figures are scarce, but about half the population was thought to be in the 30-50 age group in 1641. A labouring man’s working life was short, so there was constant demand for large numbers of new labourers and a shortage of skilled workers for building.

Distribution of Population

The settlement altered the distribution of the population in Antrim and Down. Crown title was established in sparsely settled areas and subsequently granted to new landlords. Antrim changed from being sparsely populated to having large numbers of English and Scots, as did the river valleys of the Bann and Lagan, and Lough Neagh.

There was no intention to reorganise the distribution of the native Irish to make room for the settlers, so in many areas the native population from the 16thc. survived, some with quite large tracts of land. Such survival was not approved of by central government, who forbade landlords to take native Irish as tenants. Some landlords ignored this, some enforced it.

Distribution of the settler pop also controlled by communications and the fact that the settlers were often very mobile, moving on if high rents or unstable tenures didn’t suit them. Because the roads were in a poor state, the coastal areas were popular, leading to pressure on land and eventual migration inwards.

By 1641, the labour force and tenant supply were small, unbalanced in age and occupation, uneven in geographical distribution. The settlers’ expectation of rapid economic growth and fast returns from the potentially rich lands of Antrim and Down was retarded.

Chapter 4: The Economic Structure

The shape of the agricultural economy was moulded by inputs of land, labour, capital, and by historical forces. The predominant element was the physical landscape. It was difficult to modify. The level of technology was so low in drainage and manure that change depended primarily on the labour force. Unlike England and Scotland, supplies of capital were limited.

The native Irish still ploughed by tail. It actually was a sensible arrangement: if the horse went over a stone, it immediately halted, thus protecting the delicate wooden plough from being damaged. Because a large number of native Irish were retained by landowners, this practice continued.

Presence or absence of fairs and markets had a bearing on what was grown, as perishable goods required an easily accessible market. Textiles were poorly developed in early 17th c. Yarn and unprocessed wool exported from EU rather than finished cloth. A little tanning. Fishing was important, but usually supplemented income from agriculture.

Types of Agricultural Activity

Agriculture has to be discussed in regional terms in East Ulster. The upland regions of Antrim and Down had poor drainage, so cattle was the norm, with a little oat growing. The lowland regions, such as the fertile East Down, exported grain and oats. Around Carrickfergus in South Antrim, there were 5-600 ploughs. Here the tenants paid in grain because it was difficult to market their small surpluses, while merchants wanted to deal in larger quantities. In the less dense woodland areas, small villages grew up, with livestock and some domestic industry.

By the 1620s, EU exported about a third of the total Irish cattle exports – animals were easier to move than grain. Horses were in short supply, especially for spring and winter ploughing, so tenants shared their animals. Sheep were good for wool and manure.

Tenants’ Outlays

No place could afford to specialise excessively, however. There was always some panic about the possibility of harvest failure because of the almost total absence of other forms of economic activity. A good harvest meant that the rent could be met. This became more necessary as rents increased over time and landlords refused to accept rent in kind.

Tithes also had to be met, as well as royal taxation in the form of army quartering on tenants’ lands, and subsidies to the crown. All this made it difficult for tenants to accumulate capital.

Practice of holding land in severalty common among native Irish – one individual responsible for lease. Holding in severalty persisted because landlords were unwilling to divide the responsibility for rent payment among a number of men.


The main capital outlay which any settler had to meet was in the initial acquisition of his land – between £200 and £300 in the 1630s. This was usually obtained by: a) selling home farm in England or Scotland; b) borrowing money there; c) help of the landlord by staggering or delaying the rent.

Economic Crisis

There was no mint in Ireland. Irish coin was of lesser value, so there was a lack of confidence in the currency. Complex system of loans developed, such as direct loans against land, delayed payment of goods and services.

By the mid-1630s, there was a crisis in the economy due to a) bad harvests; b) slowing in rate of population growth; c) sluggish circulation of coin and ineffective markets; d) Wentworth tried to enforce Black Oath of allegiance to king and established faith, quartering the army on tenants’ lands to do so; e) tenants required to attend musters during sowing or reaping times; f) many fled to England and Scotland because of Black Oath.


Chapter 5: Central Government and Local Interests

Three actors in settlement of East Ulster: central govt, landlords, tenants. In reality, it was the big landlords and central administration of Dublin and London who counted. Relationship of landlords and administration was symbiotic.

All lands and rights attached were in the hands of the crown. Dublin govt controlled granting of lands, rents, rights. Landlords dependent on courts and army for protection. Central govt expected great landlords to act as agents, enforce instructions, maintain law.

In the colonial situation of EU, crown had to establish its right to grant lands to settlers as securely as possible. Failure by the crown to secure title could have serious repercussions for the settlers. Right of the king to the land of EU rested on 3 supports: inheritance, church land, forfeiture of Shane O’Neill’s land. Although royal title to the EU lands had been worked out as a basis for royal authority there, actual relationship between the govt and settlers less defined. No written guidelines, no clear policy of written distribution.

James I wanted a speedy settlement of settlers in Antrim and Down, offered the incentive of large estates with few obligations, apart from building. Lord Deputy Chichester, on the other hand, was concerned about huge landowners and wanted EU to evolve through small land grants to settlers and trustworthy natives, but the king shot him down on this.

Result? A series of large estates with weak crown control and no written conditions to check the landholders’ ambitions. Added to this, the isolation from the Dublin administration encouraged landowners to exploit their rights and privileges. Sheriffs, bailiffs, JPs were virtually excluded from exercising their functions on the estates. Others took the law into their own hands or insisted on their right to discipline tenants and run their estates without interference from royal officials.

The role of judicial officials was minimised by the landlords by their use of manorial courts

Other examples of independence include a refusal to recognise ecclesiastical courts, or tacit support for Catholics, Presbyterians, non-conformists. There were also constant disputes between the Dublin administration and the collection of customs – traditionally locals had the right to collect customs in an area..

Asserting Royal Authority in the 1630s

Before the late 1620s there were few formal attempts to put manners on these landlords, but royal policy in the administration of EU changed in the 1630s. Central administration had to control benefices and the lands with them to ensure that suitable, loyal church candidates were appointed to cures. Lord deputy Wentworth established a commission to recover church lands in the diocese of Down and Connor – land which had belonged to the crown was often presented to landlords in the early 17thc on long leases and low rents. Ferocious rows ensued through the courts.

Wentworth also probed into the affairs of landowners through the Commission for Defective Titles and the court of wards. Succeeded in changing conditions of leasing and upped the rental income for the crown.

Sheriffs and Sub-Sheriffs

The central figure in local govt. Responsible for day-to-day admin and for enforcing decisions of the central administration, processing royal writs, collecting royal revenue, presiding over quarter sessions. Had to be acceptable to local gentry. In early 17th c. EU, nearly all drawn from large landed families. Sub-sheriffs assisted the sheriff; substantial landowners, but not in the upper ranks of landed society.

Justices of the Peace

Body of reliable men to enforce law and order. Prevented disorder before it occurred by taking recognisances from potential malefactors. Most of their work was done as a team of justices at the quarter sessions.


Assize courts were the main way in which central govt officials impinged on EU on a regular basis. Both a law court and a watchdog for govt policy. Dealt with criminal and non criminal cases. Assize judges operated through local jury of about sixteen men, who provided information against accused. Accused was called to bar, judged and sentenced by judge. Assize court also used to avoid people having to go to Dublin over cases involving land disputes.

Episcopal Visitations

The ecclesiastical counterpart of the assize. Bishops transmitted royal ecclesiastical policy, condemned non-conformity, ensured that ecclesiastical discipline and courts were operating efficiently.

Lack of Administrative Personnel

Lack of suitable personnel meant that some local lords were made responsible for apprehending malefactors on their own estates and allowed to construct jails; also the licencing of ale-houses. Clerks of the peace to draw up legal documents were sparse and poorly trained.

Native Irish

The late sixteenth century attempt to diminish the powers of the Gaelic lords in EU was by reducing their landholding, making their title to land dependent on the queen and lessening their influence over their followers so that they would no longer be guaranteed an army to follow them into rebellion. This was carried into the 17th c. In 1605, LD Chichester issued a proclamation that all the inhabitants of Ulster were free and subjects of the king rather than of any lord. Contractual nature of landlord-tenant relationship evolved.

By early 17th c., the only native Irish family with substantial power base in EU was Magennis. Worried about his title to his land, Sir Arthur Magennis actually requested surrender and regrant in 1605. Immediately seized by authorities as chance to weaken his power: thirteen of his biggest freeholders were made to hold their land directly from the crown.

Crown also attempted to bring the natives to ‘civility’ by having some of their sons educated in England. Mixed results. By 1641, the natives were under control and were declining in importance as they were forced to sell and mortgage their lands to meet increasing debts.

Chapter 6: Rural Society

No single ‘rural society’ in early 17thc EU, but a number of different status and cultural groups, which of which had its own concept of society and its place in it.

England built its classifications of society round ownership of land. If a person held land, of whatever size, direct from the king, he was deemed to belong to landed society; if he held his land by lease from another, he was considered to belong to a lesser social stratum.

The native Irish remained a distinct group, retaining their own customs and communities into the early 17thc., including fosterage and rights to land. Status was not determined by value of land or education but by lineage.

EU in early 17c was a society where a man’s title was important because it decreed how much respect he was due. In EU there were problems of assigning a man his place, as many had risen in material terms from their old place in society. Main criteria was the value of his land and the conditions of his tenure, and to a lesser extent, his literacy level. Holding of arms also linked to status. Those who sought upward social mobility moved around, picking out landlords whose leases offered the best deal for advancement.

The native Irish were often pushed downward on the social scale when the landlord introduced new tenants and reduced the Irish to the status of sub-tenant.

Methods of Paying for Land

Socially ambitious in EU tried to buy up more land in the 1620s to extend themselves. Some succeeded, some didn’t. Land acquired in three ways: purchase, grant, mortgage.

At end of Nine Years War, land was cheap because many of the older inhabitants were hard up, and the new settlers were able to do well.

Method of acquiring direct grant of a patent from the crown was used in the early years of settlement, but was subject to abuse as the amount of the land granted was often unspecified because administration didn’t know its exact size. Also, the question of crown title to the land in the first place caused problems of ownership later on.

Mortgaging: this method required the debt to be guaranteed by transfer of the land to a third party until the payment of the principal was completed. Unsatisfactory and caused disputes over improvements on lands and the like. All three systems of acquiring land had loopholes and were vulnerable to lawyers and Wentworth’s probing through the Defective Titles.

Managing the Estates

Required three elements: capital for initial investment, tenants to work the land, and a reliable system of estate management.

Raising capital was a huge problem. Few of the settlers had any to start with. There was no merchant community from whom cash could be borrowed, and sterling was banned from Ireland to protect the shakier Irish coinage.

Landlords chiefly had to build up capital from their own resources: rent, rights attached to leases, manor courts, exploiting natural resources such as wood and iron. Through improvement clauses, the landlords depended on their tenants to develop their estates, but it was not always possible to get suitable tenants, so incentives had to be supplied to make them stay, i.e. creating local markets for their goods.

Landlords had to choose their agents to manage the estate carefully, often a trustworthy relative. Much of the agent’s time was taken up with legal matters relating to land and attending the manor courts. The manor courts were a vital instrument in regulating the affairs of the estate and resolving local problems. Also acted as a central clearing house for records, such has leases. Over time, helped the landlord to secure his legal position and consolidate holdings.

Landlords in Profit

Landlords often had problems in the early years of settlement with difficult tenants and those who couldn’t pay the rent due to harvest failures, but in spite of problems estates developed rapidly. By the 1620s, most estates in Antrim and Down had been sufficiently consolidated and developed to begin producing a significant profit. This trend, however, was dramatically reversed in the 1630s.

Landlords in Debt

In the 1630s, higher crown rents, shortage of coin, poor harvests, the cost of legal disputes, family marriage commitments to the second generation, personal extravagance to uphold social position resulted in heavy drains on resources. By the 1640s most settlers in EU were in severe debt.

Native Irish in Debt

Native Irish and small pockets of Old English landlords also in debt in EU at this time, but for different reasons. Their 16th c. concept of land holding did not centre on the concept of profit or economic rent. A token render or ceart was paid to a lord – who didn’t own any land – in return for services such as protection. The land was held by family groups who paid this sum, fixed by custom. By the late 16th some native lords felt they had a right to own the land over which they had influence. While the new settlers implemented the normal English practice of charging an economic rent for lands, the tenants of the native landlord resisted change to the token rent. The problems associated with the transition from one landholding system to another were difficult to resolve, especially as the Gaelic system of land tenure had no written leases.

Status through Office

By 1640s, most settlers had established titles to land, property disputes resolved, relations with tenants stabilised, estates more profitable. A distinct landed society emerged in EU. Many younger sons and ambitious men broke the economic ties to England or Scotland and strongly resisted any attempts to interfere with the power base. Being a landowner in Ireland was not enough to ensure social position as the English tended to look down on the country’s status, so settlers began to seek additional sources of prestige such as titles and royal office.

Three main types of office: 1) membership of Dublin parliament; 2) appointment to local commissions such as sheriffs and JPs; 3) military commission.

MPs from EU were relatively inactive in the Dublin parliament; they rarely spoke, sat on few committees and were often fined for non-attendance. Landlords were too concerned with building up their own interests at local level, consolidating their lands and rights, acquiring offices to underpin their new social position, to be concerned with national politics. Their initial interests were estate rather than county or country-based.


They also built up networks of relations in EU through suitable marriages and widened their horizons to influential families in other parts of Ireland. Family networks ensured that lands were kept intact and secure through inheritance. Land was passed on through primogeniture: younger sons were given a small piece of land and a profession to keep them happy and discourage them from jeopardising the estate through family disputes.

Adaptation by Gaelic Landed Society

Gaelic poetry reflected the ideas and perceptions of their patrons. At the Flight of the Earls, Fear Feasa O Gnímh, principal 17c poet of the O’Neills of Clandeboy, lamented the changes in Gaelic society, but by the 1630s he was praising the English virtues espoused by Sir Henry O’Neill. The advent of English law radically changed the way in which the Gaelic Irish viewed themselves and the way the poets portrayed them. Poetry came to see the Gaelic lord as demonstrating his superiority through learning, justice and wisdom rather than by military prowess.

Direct result was the decline in the professional poet as the new order didn’t require him to uphold his patron’s prestige or rights. Gaelic society was not extinguished, merely modified.

Social Networks of the Lower Orders

Settlers and natives who were not landed had three structures in the process of adaptation to their new environment: 1) the lordship; 2) the local community; 3) the family.

The largest unit which rural dwellers had contact with was their landlord’s lordship, the combination of rights and property determined by royal patent. Many of the tenants on an estate were bound either to the landlord or to a larger tenant by a lease. The lease was a contract under which the greater landholder provided land and services to the tenant in return for rent in cash, or a combination of cash and kind.

Landlord services took a number of forms: manor courts, apart from being a source of profit to himself, settled disputes and provided meeting points for tenants, and protection from infringements by other tenants.

Landlord also responsible for physical protection. Since landlords organised muster, it was natural for tenants to turn to them to organise defence, even natives relied on their landlord during the 1641 rebellion. Landlord also represented tenants at a national level, such as bringing complaints over 1634 subsidy to the Dublin administration, and would be defended if they came before justices of the peace.

The landlord services in the day-to-day working of the estate were the more significant for most tenants, however, especially the manor court which saved tenants the expense of high legal costs. A more paternalistic than an economic relationship developed, with tenants expecting these services from landlords.

Communities were close-knit, interested in the concerns of their own patch. One officer during the 1641 rebellion lamented that they could not be drawn out of their own area to resist the enemy in another place. They were bound together by bonds of kinship, debt and the mutual cooperation need to solve common problems.

There is a paucity of sources to reveal the workings of the family in EU rural society, but how land was disposed of gives some clues. Primogeniture was the main way of passing on lands, and sometimes partible inheritance – unequal division among sons – if more than one was required to work the lands; also, sometimes through daughters. Few recorded incidents of marital infidelity or marriage breakdown.

Chapter 7: Urban Society

The functions of defence – the supply of food and arms and as bases for troops – and the promotion of ‘civility’ were the urban roles stressed by central government. Local landlords saw urban centres as social and trading places where local gentry could gather and merchants could buy and sell goods. Landlords were also keen to establish market rights for the towns on their estates, which could generate profit in tolls and market court revenues.

Urban growth was not a new phenomenon, although it had declined in the 16thc. due to wars and other problems. Garrison towns were on the decline, giving way to other functions. With the grown of officialdom, certain towns became centres of administration. Carrickfergus and Ballymena were favoured centres in Antrim, Newry, Downpatrick and Dromore in Down.

Many of the early 17th c. inquisitions relating to land holdings were carried out in these town centres. These towns provided points of contact between central govt, local govt and the governed, where courts could be held and the rudiments of royal policy could be read out through proclamations.

Big Towns

The big towns grew rapidly – Belfast, Newtownards, Newry, Carrickfergus – and had complex govt structure, social structure and economy. Also, lots of small market towns and villages whose history is unclear. Bulk of urban pop was settler in origin.

Urban expansion fuelled by the opportunity for profit which it afforded landlords. Town rental income was much higher than from agricultural lettings because of the concentrated number of rent payers on a small area of land. Towns didn’t grow at the speed of English towns, however, due to the constant low levels of population throughout the first half of the 17thc.

Despite low pop, govt and landlords continued to construct towns, mainly wooden built.

Fire, natural hazards and disease due to poor sanitation were problems. Town was dominated by the landlord’s house. Town fields were rented out to townspeople as a way of growing crops in case of food shortage during harvest failure.

There are few records to give a picture of the social and economic structure of the townspeople, but it is clear that many would have had more than one trade or occupation. Much urban employment was seasonal, so many had to have a range of skills to carry them over.

Belfast had shoemakers, clothiers, tailors and glove-makers, but the range of occupations remained very small compared to England and were mostly service occupations, geared towards the demand for luxury goods of the gentry and processing the products of the countryside.

Newry was the main centre of merchant activity in Down, chosen not for its port facilities but for its prestige value as an assize town. The assize brought considerable wealth to a town by attracting local gentry who had a high demand for consumer goods.

Merchant freemen established themselves in a town, developed trading and moved on to other towns. Their merchandise tended to be very mixed – imports of salt, soap, treacle, needles. Because of the difficulty with coin shortage, the merchants added to the EU economy by building up a complex system of credit to facilitate the movement of goods.


Apprenticeship system controlled admission to trades and hence occupational mobility. At the end of the apprenticeship, the master was expected to ensure that the apprentice was made a freeman and to assist him to establish himself either with money or tools.

The political life of the town was controlled by royal charter, which defined the govt and politics of the town by creating a civic elite, i.e. burgesses, and by regulating its relationship with local and national authorities, and defining its rights and privileges.

Sometimes towns got so uppity that the central government became alarmed at their independence and re-issued charters. Recruitment of men to run the town through twelve burgesses headed by the sovereign[sort of chairman] was a major problem as the pop was small and there were few enough suitable individuals who weren’t absorbed in their own efforts to make money.

Problems in the town included violence due to the lack of proper policing; poverty due to the absence of any poor law provision; urban government also restricted by lack of finance as the towns were owned by landlords, depriving the corpo of income from rents and the profits from market courts.

Smaller Towns, Local Market Centres and Villages

These towns had no charters so developed their own forms of govt., often around the market court, set up to control the legal aspects of marketing. Sometimes the landlord who owned the town made his own arrangements for urban govt. The main role of these smaller towns was to facilitate trade.

Many centres were medieval in origin and grew rapidly in 2nd and 3rd decades of the settlement.

By 1640 there were 41 weekly markets and 31 annual fairs in EU. The villages were small settlements that grew up in the 16th c. around abbeys and castles.

Urban Contrasts

By 1640, most corporate downs in EU were experiencing problems with finance, personnel and their economic structure, but other forms of urban life were flourishing. As the govt had hoped, a chain of non-corporate marketing centres developed, regularised through royal grants of market rights which placed the trading system on a formal framework. They made a fundamental contribution to the success of the EU settlement by creating a foothold for the settlers and establishing market centres and social bonds.

Chapter 8: Antrim, Down and the Wider World

Local studies have their merits and their drawbacks. On the one hand, the historian is permitted to see events from the bottom up rather than relying on the perspective of the central administration. On the other, there is a danger that the limited geographical area studied may deviate excessively from the wider national trend, and so it is important to measure the extent to which the patterns of any one study can be imposed on a more general Irish picture.

Aim of this chapter is to measure the extent to which the society which evolved in EU during the early 17th c. was peculiar to that region, or whether the conclusions of this analysis have a wider application. Three relationships examined: 1) landed society; 2) landlord and Dublin administration; 3) landlord and tenants.

Landed Society in Ireland: How they perceived their Status

Three groups: settlers, Old English, remnants of native landowners. Most settlers drawn from socially downwardly mobile hoping to reverse fortunes, or from small landowners wanting to rise in the world. Conditions in early 17th c. favoured expansion of settlement. Most native landholders were in financial trouble after Nine Years War and were willing to sell land. However, the new settlers had great difficulty finding capital and building up their estates.

Old English and native Irish had similar financial problems. Irish especially hit because their view of estate management differed from new ideas of the settlers. Traditional Irish way was not to parcel out land in large estates; it was held by freeholders who owed loyalty, but not rent, to a lord. In return for protection and other services, such as legal judgements, a token amount was paid. As English influence and the market economy grew, Irish lords failed to make the necessary adjustments and fell into debt. These economic problems for landlords were not peculiar to EU.

Like EU, there was a fairly good period in landed finances up to the 1630s, when a crisis set in. The demands of financing political office were a factor, as were cash shortage and high taxes. Landlords raised rents but this was considered counter-productive as it increased poverty. Also turned fixed capital into liquid assets through forms of mortgaging, particularly in Ulster in Connacht.

Landlord’s attitudes differed throughout Ireland. Some eyed the others as nouveau riches. Most settlers craved after local and national office and concerned themselves with the trappings of their new social positions. Questions of precedence and status were hotly debated in the Dublin parliament. By 1630s many native landholders tried to consolidate their place in the new social order by enrolling funeral certificates, which described their genealogy and heraldic arms, in the office of arms in Dublin, and built themselves impressive tombs.

However, in areas were landed estates were scattered, like Sligo, the landlords couldn’t care less about precedence or funeral certs. In the Pale, the Old English saw themselves as a colonial elite with their own lineages which bound them to well-defined families and social groups. They were perceived to be more ‘Irish orientated’ than the new English settlers who were preoccupied with profit and advancement.

Local Lords and Central Administration

This relationship was the real determinant of the amount of power a local magnate had. Royal policy in 16th c. favoured selective expansion of local power through trustworthy, powerful magnates in key areas of Ireland who would act as centres of loyalty and stability. However, by 1605 this policy seen not to promote the ‘commonwealth’ attitude of central govt. Policy shifted towards maintaining order by creating a balance of power locally by 1) promoting the common law which regulated the relationship between landlord and tenant; 2) tighter controls on land grants; 3) Commission on Defective Titles; 4) assaults on any threatening power blocks by the Dublin administration, such as the medieval palatinate jurisdiction of Tipperary, because they had refused to conform to the established religion.

All types of landlord resented this growing central influence, and many succeeded in continuing to consolidate and build up the estates. Dublin administration was hampered by poor records of land holdings and by inadequate and uneven officials throughout the country, limiting the functioning of local government.

In the 1630s, central government began to close in on landlords by reforming institutions. The court of wards, previously operated locally by landlords, was reformed and had new escheators operating in most parts of Ireland, collecting alienation fines and investigating wardships. By 1636, Wentworth’s Commission on Defective Titles had forced over 100 landlords to take out new patents, with increased ground rents, and, sometimes, decreased holdings.

Landlords and Tenants

In reality, there wasn’t a lot that central administration could do to clip the wings of the big landlords. The real threat, however, was posed by the landlords' relationship with the tenants on their estates.

Govt scheme for landlord-tenant relations rested on the common law plea of a contractual bond, the lease. This would limit landlord influence since a tenant had a legal remedy if the landlord became too powerful. A lease also bound a tenant to his land, reduced mobility and gave the landlord a degree of responsibility for the control of potential malefactors.

In reality, what developed between landlords and tenants was a patchwork of agreements which were the varying responses to socio-economic conditions in various areas. In the Pale, there was no shortage of tenants, so the landlords didn’t have to provide additional services for those who worked their land. Unlike EU, Pale tenants had no legal protection through manor courts and had to fight their own battles. Tenants were scarce in most other parts of Ireland, compounded by the socially selective nature of the migration to Ireland, which meant that good tenants were even harder to find. Landlords tried to vet tenants who would not exploit their land but develop it.

Landlords offered inducements to tenants: low interest loans, compensation for improvements, right of renewal of the lease if the tenant was satisfactory. A type of quasi-legal paternal relationship sprang up. Central administration was uneasy about this cosy arrangement, fearful that if the lord was in rebellion, his loyal tenants might automatically follow.

Economic Base to Social Arrangements

The economic base varied throughout Ireland, with different natural resources, social practice, agricultural practice. Munster had mainly cattle and sheep in early 17thc. Pale grew corn; agriculture more commercialised around major towns. The main engine of change, population, grew unevenly and was still small by 1641.

Labour was scarce and settlers had considerable problems in obtaining household and agricultural servants, which was one of the main reasons why the proposed plantation of Connacht in the late 1630s flopped.

Nevertheless, the pop did expand, perhaps doubling between 1600 and 1641. By 1620s, Munster had sufficient surplus to supply migrants to America. Strips of land were consolidated to provide for more labour-intensive and efficient farming. Move towards primogeniture from gavelkind [where land descended to all sons] in the west as the pop rose significantly in the early 17th c. as result of migration from Pale and England.

Role of Landlord in Agricultural Change

Many landlords attempted to improve their estates, introducing improving clauses in their leases, although it was difficult to enforce them. Where tenants were scarce, as in Cavan, the clauses were ignored as they would hardly be evicted due to difficulty in finding new tenants. Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, introduced fancy orchards, agricultural improvements, buildings, perhaps motivated by impressing his English counterparts. He had good trading links with southwest England, so the area avoided much of the difficult credit problems of other parts of the country. Sligo brought in new breeds of cattle and sheep, and introduced liming and marling. On the whole, however, progress was slow, pop remained lowish, rents low, food sufficient, so little incentive to improve.

Unlike other areas, EU did not exploit its mineral resources. Earl of Cork developed iron works in Munster, searches made for gold, copper, silver. Industries such as iron working and glass-making developed in the midlands, soap-making in Derry. Ulster in 1620 exported linen yarn, tallow, hides. Munster: timber. Connacht: hides, tallow, barrelled beef.

EU Colony and other Colonies

Many problems were common to both EU and America, such as definition of property boundaries, low population, dealing with the natives. Some American settlers bound themselves into tight communities, with rigid codes like the EU settlers.

However, the structures of the two settlements were very different due to diversity of opportunity and environment. While EU remained an extension of w. Scotland, America was isolated, with few contacts with kin, land ownership and debt once the Atlantic was crossed. Americans not constrained by a manorial structure ot by royal officials. Colonists in New England allowed to frame their own law codes. The native American Indian was an unknown quantity while the native Irish were well known to the settlers and government. The puritan desire amongst American settlers to build a godly state was much less common in Ireland.

The settlement of Virginia was almost exactly contemporary with that in Ulster, yet did not have a close parallel to the Irish situation. In the early years in Virginia, attempts to establish a coherent system of local govt broke up in disorder and the drive for profit amongst the settlers was left unconstrained. Any attempt to establish a stable pattern of settlement was doomed to failure as settlers pressed inland in search of rapid profits from tobacco. There was almost a total lack of ‘gentry’ in Virginia, who would have given some cohesion, and acted as brokers between the tenant settlers and the Virginia Company by assuming local offices.


Society described in this study characterised by a period of landed, political and economic interests in early 17th c. as settler and native tried to adjust to aftermath of military conquest of 1603 which brought all Ireland under Dublin administration.

Initially central administration supported the process by granting privileges to local landowners in return for rapid stability.

By end of first decade, policy reversed, but the larger power blocks remained. Settler landlords, driven to Ireland by ambition for financial gain, didn’t want to give up power bases.

In 1620s and 30s, central govt tried to tighten its hold, especially under LD Wentworth.

Economic crises in EU in the 1630s – low pop., scarcity of capital, harvest failures, landlord debt, shortage of labour – combined with political crises – the Black Oath and the Covenanter disturbances.

The 1641 rebellion, the civil wars, the Cromwellian administration, the Restoration land settlements of the 1660s would change the old settlements and usher in a new wave of settlers to shape a different society with its legal, social, economic and political parameters.

Máire Ní Chearbhaill, 14 May 2001