The Cromwellian Plantation – Cromwell in Ireland

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In October 1641 rebellion broke out in Ulster. The Irish rebels killed over ten thousand settlers and many more fled to the walled towns for safety.

Exaggerated stories soon spread regarding the massacre. Some writers claimed that 300,000 Protestants had been killed. This was a vastly exaggerated figure and Protestants in England were outraged at these events and waited for an opportunity to send an army against the Ulster rebels.

For the next eight years, however, England was the scene of a fiercely fought civil war between King Charles I (1625-49) and the extreme Protestants or Puritans led by Oliver Cromwell. The fighting also spread to Ireland where armies supporting both sides fought each other. After the execution of King Charles I in 1649, the new ruler of England, Oliver Cromwell, decided go to Ireland, to gain control of the country using the excuse of seeking revenge for the massacre of the Protestants in 1641.

On 13 August 1649, Cromwell and his army of 12,000 experienced soldiers landed at Ringsend near Dublin and set out for Drogheda the ‘gateway’ to Ulster. Cromwell’s capture of Drogheda and the massacre, which followed, set the scene for his conquest of the rest of the country. This he achieved within a short period of time and when he returned to England in May 1650, most of his work was done.

By 1652, Ireland was a country worn out by ten years of warfare.  Famine and plague were widespread. Wolves roamed the countryside and even came into the neighbourhood of the towns in search of food. Because so many men had died in the war, and with many Irish soldiers going overseas, large numbers of women and children were unprovided for.  The English government had these rounded up and sold as slaves to work in the sugar plantations in the West Indies including approximately two thousand of Galway’s population. Inishbofin, off the Galway coast, was used as a prison for many Catholic priests who were either executed or also transported to the West Indies. The reward for the handing over of a priest to the authorities was five pounds. This was in the hope that the Catholic religion would die out in Ireland from lack of priests. However, many priests remained in Ireland to continue their ministry in disguise. Galway was one of the last cities to surrender in 1652 and it was then that the last major plantation in Ireland took place.
This new plantation was Cromwell’s principal method of gaining control of Ireland. He decided to clear most of the country of Catholic and of Protestant landowners that remained loyal to the king and decided to give the land to those who supported him in the civil war. The ‘adventurers’, who had financed his campaigns, also got the land he had promised them for their help.

To enforce the Cromwellian Plantation detailed maps of the countryside were needed. Sir William Petty, a doctor in Cromwell’s army, led a team of soldiers in surveying the entire country. This was called the ‘Down Survey’ because Petty and his men wrote ‘down’ all the details of the landscape and the end result was ‘The Book of Survey and Distribution’.

Armed soldiers guarded Petty’s surveyors against attack from Tories or Irish outlaws. Petty was richly rewarded for his work and as well as his fee of over eighteen thousand pounds, he also gained a vast estate near Kenmare in Co. Kerry. The survey was completed within a year and the maps produced were very accurate, interesting and informative. They were the best maps available until the Ordnance Survey maps appeared in the 1840s.
As soon as the country was surveyed and mapped, Cromwell’s government was ready to go ahead with the plantation. The Earl of Clanricarde was appointed ‘Receiver of Connaught’. Most of Munster, Leinster and Connaught were taken over by Cromwell’s government because the landowners in these provinces had fought against the English parliament. Under the Act of Settlement (1652) leaders of the rebellion were to lose all their lands. Those who could not prove that they had been loyal to the parliament were to be transplanted to Connaught to much smaller estates. All transplanted landowners were ordered to be west of the River Shannon by May 1654.  This gave rise to the saying ‘To Hell or to Connaught’. A mile-wide stretch along the Shannon and the west coast was reserved for Cromwell’s soldiers as a means of providing security against the Irish landowners. Ordinary farmers and labourers remained behind to work for their new English Landlords.

Although not the largest of the plantations, the Cromwellian plantation had the greatest long-term effect on land ownership. As a result of the changes which it brought about Ireland became a land deeply divided between Protestant landlords and Catholic tenants. Because of this and former plantations the amount of land owned by Catholics was greatly reduced. Whereas Catholics owned 90% of the land in 1600, a hundred years later only 15% of the land remained in their hands and for the next two centuries a small number of rich Protestant landlords ruled Ireland.

This group became known as the Protestant Ascendancy and they believed in keeping as much land as possible in Protestant hands. They rented out the land to Irish tenants who never lost hope of recovering these lands whether by violent or peaceful means.

Although the control of land by English landlords often led to violent action on the part of tenants, it was largely by peaceful means that the plantation settlements were eventually overturned and from 1880 onwards the native Irish became owners of the land once more.

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About this record

Written by Finbarr O'Regan

Published here 08 Feb 2021

Page 028 of the The Lamberts of Athenry Book archive.

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