Review – Society and Administration in the Ulster Plantation Towns, 1610-89

5 mins read

Brendan Scott
Four Courts Press, €45
ISBN 978-1846827358
Review David Brown

This book is a welcome addition to the existing large corpus of material on the establishment and development of the plantation of Ulster by settlers from England and Scotland in the early years of the 17th century. It departs from the better-known narrative of conquest and colonisation, focusing instead on the nuts and bolts of the plantation efforts: the establishment of towns, urban government, and a market economy. In many ways, however, it is a confirmation that ‘The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft a-gley’, to quote the poet Burns.

From the cover illustration of an early plan for Londonderry to the excellent reproductions of plantation maps by Thomas Raven, the reader could be forgiven for believing that the elaborate plans for the plantation made in London by the colonial authorities were then carried out assiduously by enthusiastic planters. The archaeological survey by Rachel Tracey and Audrey Horning reveals the haphazard reality: those maps and detailed plans were more a monument to the optimism of investors than a record of how Ulster’s towns actually developed. Jonathan Cherry remarks on the redevelopment of existing Gaelic structures to create public buildings and spaces for the supposedly ‘new’ towns, rather than the fresh start indicated by the maps. Parts of the early redevelopment of Ulster, however, were genuinely novel. Bríd McGrath expands in detail on the creation of corporate governance in Coleraine. Reliable and trusted administrative structures were as essential to the successful development of the towns as new buildings or routes for communication. Of equal importance was the development of markets in each town, chronicled by Raymond Gillespie with hints of how the flow of trade could help knit the disparate plantation areas together.

The book comes at a time when the status of the six counties of Northern Ireland, the legacy of the plantation of Ulster, is at the forefront of European diplomatic efforts concerning Ulster. As Gerard Farrell and Colm Lennon are at pains to point out, the result of the early plantation years was not the wholesale expulsion of the native Irish population, but the beginnings of attempts by three communities – Irish, Scots, and English – to find some way of accommodating each other. This approach was not, of course, the choice of the native Irish inhabitants, who found themselves dispossessed of their native lands, tenancies, and commerce. For many, the early 17th century was a time of forced migration and deep poverty.

Overall, the book is well balanced and seeks to treat each community with equal sympathy. Robert Armstrong describes the often arduous task of recruiting Protestant ministers to cater for the new settlers’ spiritual needs, while William Roulston draws attention to the town of Strabane, with its Catholic landlord in the middle of Scottish plantation Tyrone. If the book has a shortcoming, it is the emphasis on the Six Counties, with a single contribution by Brendan Scott – highlighting the development of Belturbet, Co. Cavan – looking beyond them.

There are exceptions, but in general terms the use of primary sources is a little repetitive. The towering contribution of Bob Hunter, both intellectually and financially, is rightly present throughout the volume. Three sources – the Raven maps mentioned earlier, the 1641 Depositions, and Victor Treadwell’s monumental edition of the Commission of 1622 – are used by many of the contributors. Although these sources are always used appropriately, there are other major resources that are not referred to in this volume. These include the transcripts of King’s Letter known as the ‘Philadelphia Papers’ and the O’Renehan transcripts of plantation surveys. The editor, Brendan Scott, mentions that an article on town charters was planned but did not transpire. This is a pity, as charters can reveal a great deal about the plans for a town, and its promoters.

However, these are but suggestions, intended to point the reader towards sources for future research. The book is truly of interest to anybody who wishes to understand how an early modern colonisation project was planned, and how those plans were obliged to ‘mature’ depending on circumstance.

This review appeared in CA 362. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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