Where do I begin? I suppose considering James’ view would be as good a starting point as any. James was king of England, Scotland and Ireland. They were three separate kingdoms – i.e. they had parliaments and laws of their own. The union within the person of James as monarch was an imperfect one, unlike Wales (and I apologise in advance – I’m stating James’ point of view not mine) which was a perfect union because it had no parliament. Its laws were those of England – Edward I and Henry IV had seen to that. James also began with the view that Ireland was just like his other two kingdoms in that he believed that it had a hierarchical system that worked on a pyramid principle with the king at the top, then the nobility. He was of the view that the nobility were essential for the sound governance of the regions – the only thing was that the Irish hierarchy didn’t work in quite the same way as the English and Scottish systems (more on that shortly).
The Anglo-Norman arrival in Ireland during the medieval period was an invasion but it wasn’t a conquest. Various Plantagenet monarchs invested men and money in Ireland but the effect was to create independent Anglo-Norman magnates who married the locals and ruled from Dublin in an area known as the English Pale. They did not take kindly to royal interference.
The sixteenth century saw a change in the Anglo-Irish relationship because suddenly the English were officially Protestant whilst the Irish remained Catholic. Ireland became a potential jumping off point for a Spanish invasion. Henry VIII negotiated with the Irish with no understanding of the way land was viewed or the way in which people elected new chieftains — who weren’t always the son of the previous one. The English began to try to impose their will on the Irish. Inevitably there was a rebellion which only escalated under Elizabeth. 1594-1603 saw The Nine Years War and Sir Humphrey Gilbert who would have found himself at the Hague being found guilty of war crimes – he had the path to his tent lined with the decapitated heads of men, women and children.
James began his reign somewhat differently to the Tudors by issuing pardons all round- remember he believed that a country needed its nobility to act as the arms and legs to the royal head- but Ulster lost its O Neil chieftain and the English declared the old Irish laws to be abolished. Cutting a long story short, a number of earls fled the country and were immediately declared traitors which meant that under English law their lands were forfeit to the Crown. Sir John Davies, the attorney general in Ireland, wrote “[You] have a greater extent of land than any prince in Europe has to dispose of.” He recommended that it be planted on a large scale, because it would not work ” 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”.
James liked the idea of the Ulster Pale – it would reward men who had fought in Ireland, provide land for those turned off it in England, provide a force to keep those pesky Spanish at bay and also break the links between the Scottish Gaelic speaking highlanders and their Celtic counterparts in Ireland. It was also be an opportunity for him to prove his Protestant credentials because ultimately he believed that the Irish would leave off being Catholics and become good Protestants if only thy were provided with education. It would, in theory, also turn a profit for him.
In 1609 there was a survey and the land in Ulster divided into Church land and Crown property. The Crown property was divided into estates of 1,000, 1,500 and 2,000 acres. 59 Scots and 51 English landlords undertook to transport at least ten families to Ulster. They were also permitted to rent out to native Irish tenants. These wealthy landlords were called undertakers. Undertakers were also required to build a sturdy stone house for every 1500 acres. These were designed to keep the Irish out in the event of armed conflict.
There were also a group of men called servitors. These men had been soldiers and were being rewarded for their service.
And of course not all the settlers were men – Davies wanted growing communities to counterbalance the Native Irish.
The third group were the “deserving Irish” – who were deserving because they hadn’t recently done much in the way of rebelling. Many Irish were relocated specifically to be closer to Protestant churches – and garrisons. To describe the Irish as becoming increasingly disgruntled is something of an understatement. James’ representative in Ireland, Sir Arthur Chichester, became ever more concerned that the rights of the native Irish were being ignored, especially when more land was acquired by the English when they claimed that inheritance through gavelkind (inheritance in equal part by all children) wasn’t an English way of doing things and only led to confusion – so confiscated property divided this way. Davies claimed that Brehon Law which included gavelkind was a “lewd custom.”
There was also a lack of understanding about the way in which the land was farmed and the fact that there were no walled towns which was regarded as backward. Essentially the English were warming up to declare the Irish a bunch of barbarians in need of a spot of civilising – a legal conquest justified by a failure to recognise the way that Irish society worked.
Inevitably there was conflict between the settlers and the Irish. In Munster the settlers were forced to flee and whilst there had been enthusiasm for resettlement in Ireland initially- it being closer to home than America- it rapidly became clear that rents and hostile locals were rather large flies in the ointment. There was also the issue that not all the land was that desirable. It wasn’t long before some of the settlers arranged themselves on land that had been designated as belonging to the Irish because it looked more appealing that the patch with which they had been issued.
All of this, is of course, a very straight forward account. It does not take account of revisionist views nor does it look at the complexities of Irish politics – or the generations of conflict that would ensue. Religious identity of either variety would be enough to get you killed, if you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, for centuries to come and its consequences still resonate. James I changed the population of Ireland whilst the armies that followed throughout the seventeenth century did nothing to help the situation.
Fergal Keane’s 2011 Story of Ireland which is currently being repeated on television presents the brutality of Irish history alongside the resilience and creativity of its peoples. It is a good starting point for anyone wanting to find out more.