Monday, August 19, 2013

Book Review: The Plantation of Ulster

Ireland has always been a troubled and contested territory - through the arrival of the Gaels, and subsequent risings and rebellions and conflicts and battles and wars. The northern province of Ulster has seen more than its share of violence, and in this new book, Jonathan Bardon seeks to survey the history of the plantations of the 1600s. 'In seeking the origins of Northern Ireland's present discontents, historians and social scientists alike are again and again brought back to the British colonisation of Ulster in the seventeenth century.' It's an important study, all the more so because of the many 'widely held assumptions' which are flawed (or at least in need of refinement).

There is every indication that this volume will become the key text for the student of Irish history, with substantial detail and extensive footnotes, yet it will also be a good, solid introduction for the general reader with an interest in the history of Ulster. The unraveling of the threads of our present situation is clear and draws the reader in as the story unfolds. Indeed, there are many echoes and recognisable features from those days to these which are emphasised by the author.

The story begins in the 1570s with the various failed attempts at plantation on the island of Ireland. Sir Thomas Smith in the Ards and Upper Clandeboye in 1571 which was destroyed by Sir Brian MacPhelimy; another attempt by Walter Devereux; the planting of Laois and Offaly (Queen's and King's Counties); as well as Munster and Monaghan. A portrait of life in Ireland at the time is presented, with the Gaelic customs and rituals. Queen Elizabeth's war on the Irish Gaelic lords is portrayed, including the huge English losses at the Battle of the Yellow Ford near Blackwatertown. Mountjoy, appointed Lord Deputy, continues to wage the war, including the decisive victory at the Battle of Kinsale on Christmas Eve 1601 - probably due to Irish incompetence. The rout was described in the Annals of the Four Masters in the following way: 'manifest was the displeasure of God.'

The news of Kinsale spread rapidly, with word of 'bonfiers' in London to celebrate the victory - the Ulster custom of Eleventh night bonfires has an even earlier pedigree than the Williamite wars. The intrigue surrounding the surrender of O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone to Queen Elizabeth at Mellifont Abbey is ironic. Unknown to him, but known by Mountjoy - the Queen who had died several days earlier.

In further echoes of current disputes, Bardon notes the frustration held by loyal subjects at the English pardon and restoration for rebels such as Tyrone. As Sir John Harrington wrote:

'I had lived... to see that damned rebel Tyrone brought to England, honoured and well liked... How I did labour after that knave's destruction! I adventured perils buy sea and land, was near starving, ate horseflesh in Munster, and all to quell that man, who now smileth in peace at those who did hazard their lives to destroy him: and now doth dare us old commanders with his presence and protection.'

A similar sentiment heard among many of those who kept the peace and fought the terrorists in modern day Ulster, who now see them in government.

Another resounding feature seems to be the incompetency of government and the triumph of shoddy administration and bureaucracy. The frequency of surveys, reports and inquiries, and the underestimation of the scale of plantation and the overestimation of the possibility of success seems to have been adopted by their successors in the Civil Service!

Something that I found fascinating was the fact of the mass movement of peoples which was occurring in the 1600s. Of course there was the movement across the Irish Sea from England and Scotland to Ireland. There was also the beginning of emigration across the Atlantic to America. But perhaps the most interesting was the Scottish migration to Poland in the early 1600s. Could it be that the Polish people we're welcoming to our shores these days are the children of those first migrants? History will never allow simple xenophobia.

As the Plantation begins with the opportunity presented by the Flight of the Earls in 1607, Bardon continues to focus in on the key players, their personalities and purposes. There is also plenty of information about the development of our counties, cities, towns and villages. The local reader will find many of the features of our surroundings very familiar, and often dating from this time of renewal and plantation. The plantation of Londonderry receives special attention, through Sir Cahir O'Doherty's rebellion and the subsequent plantation by the City of London through The Honourable, The Irish Society.

Bardon draws the story of the plantation through the rest of the seventeenth century, with the horrors of the 1641 rebellion and the ensuing 'civil' wars. As the author notes, 'Few periods of Irish history are as confusing as the 1640s' - due to the various factions in Ireland fighting against and combining with each other based on loyalties and alliances with the factions and sides in the English Civil War.

I was also interested in the role of the Church of Ireland during the plantation - but my reflections on that have grown so large that they'll appear in a separate blog post!

All in all, this is a brilliant book, fairly presenting the facts of the events surrounding the Ulster Plantation, and allowing the reader to draw the conclusions and trace the effects of those heady days. Having had an interest in Irish history (and even written an overview of Irish history), there was much that was familiar to me - a good reminder of 'old friends'. However there was much that was new to me, with fascinating details and local stories that will stick with me.

I thoroughly recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand Northern Ireland as it stands, and those who wish to get a grasp of the turbulent days of plantation in the north of Ireland. The Plantation of Ulster by Jonathan Bardon is available from Amazon(Kindle).

No comments:

Post a Comment