Tuesday, September 01, 2009

So what was east Ulster like before the Lowland Scots showed up?

There's a really dire clip on YouTube from a cartoon called "Captain Planet" that Jacob showed me the other day, where the hero visits Belfast. All the usual stereotypes apply - including the old chestnut (at about 2:15) "you Protestants came over here and took our land". Yawn.

With the 400th anniversary of the Plantation of Ulster next year (remember, Antrim and Down weren't included in the Plantation!) there's a danger that a lot of nonsense will be talked about it. People have been coming and going for thousands of years between the two coasts, but as I often say "the trickle became a flood" in May 1606, when boatloads of lowland Scots began to arrive in east Ulster. Tens of thousands would arrive over the coming years.

As far as east Ulster is concerned, Hugh Montgomery agreed a business deal with Con O'Neill for half of his estates - then James Hamilton convinced the new Scottish King to negotiate a share of the estate for him as a repayment for many favours the King owed him, and the rest is history. But what did they arrive to? ATQ Stewart famously wrote in The Narrow Ground that:

"...Hamilton & Montgomery... did not wrest a fertile, cultivated and prosperous region from Gaelic proprietors. They came instead to a country devastated by war and famine... they created the bridgehead through which the Scots were to come into Ulster for the rest of the century...” (p38)

The Montgomery Manuscripts recorded that:

"... in the spring time, Ao. 1606, those parishes were now more wasted than America (when the Spaniards landed there)… 30 cabins could not be found, nor any stone walls, but ruined roofless churches, and a few vaults at Gray Abbey, and a stump of an old castle in Newton...”

Were there many people here? In Colonial Ulster, Raymond Gillespie estimated the population of Antrim and Down at just 243 families (p55), and in The Scottish Migration to Ulster, Michael Perceval Maxwell estimated the entire population of nine county Ulster at between 25,000 - 40,000 people, but that was "before the Irish debacle at Kinsale and before the devastating campaigns waged in the north by the English which caused widespread famine and ensuing plague..." (p17).

It's probably impossible to know for sure to know how many people there were before the huge influx of lowland Scots, but these references clearly suggest a very small population.

However, in terms of buildings, the often-questioned reference that "30 cabins could not be found" might actually be pretty accurate. In the missing chapter of the Montgomery MSS, it gives further information that shines a light on the situation, under the Savages and the O'Neills:

'...Sir Robert Savage (1272 - 1360)... declared his entire faith in the ancient proverb or tradition that "a castle of bones, with the strength and courage of valiant men, was better than the strongest castle of stones that could be erected. "Never," said this daring youth, "shall I by the grace of God, cumber myself with dead walls... the O'Neill's afterwards adopted the same policy of the Savages, and, instead of attempting to strengthen their territories with castles, absolutely prohibited the erection of such buildings. Carrying out this policy of making Ulster untenable to an invader for want of cover and supplies, they are said to have discouraged agriculture, and encouraged people to keep together in creaghts, thus living a wandering pastoral life. Con O'Neill, the first Earl of Tyrone, cursed all of his posterity who should learn the English language, sow wheat, or build houses...'

So if there was an effective pre-Scots policy to not build houses, then it can hardly be a surprise that the earliest Scots records say there were hardly any houses.

These are just five references. There may be 500 other references to consider before the real picture can be seen. Someone out there needs to do a big piece of work on this whole subject. Hopefully someone will, and will publicise it widely.