Ireland’s Wars: The First Plantation

Ireland had changed.

As the 1540’s went by and Henry VIII left this mortal coil, it was clear that the Tudor dynasty had greater plans for Ireland then a fallback to the previous position of limited intervention and reliance on nobles who were more Irish than English. The reigns of Henry’s children would see a marked shift in the balance of power on the island, starting with his only (legitimate) son Edward, then his eldest daughter Mary, and finally Elizabeth.

The surrender and regrant policy that characterised the last years of Henry’s reign and the first years of his son’s was not without its problems. Irish kings and chiefs were willing to accept the Kings authority and a new title, but many of them were still far outside the legitimate control of the English administration, and were determined to continue on with life as they had in the past. Some, like those in Leinster, did fall under the English yolk in a much stronger fashion than they had before but for places like the Earldoms of Tyrone, Tyrconnell and Thomond, political and military life – with plenty of fighting between them, unsanctioned by the Tudors – kept going.

The Pale had its own problems to deal with, though these problems actually contributed to the policies that followed. Money was the primary one, with the Pale nearly always finding itself in constant debt at this time, as it had been for generations. A constant military force had to be maintained to protect the Pale from raiders, and other money was siphoned off in “black rents” to native Irish clans with not enough trade coming in to make up the difference. This area of predominant English control had failed to really expand for a long time, pegged in by neighbours of far greater martial power.

A constant strong of different Lord Deputy’s were introduced from the mid 1540’s to the 1560’s in an effort to rectify the problems, but none of them were really able to garner much success, despite a variety of approaches. Some used a soft method and tried conciliation with the Irish, mixed with a hefty dose of bribery. Others focused what money and energy they had on building, improving walls and fortifications. Others tried to take the offensive whenever they could. The constant changes in policy merely insured that none of them could be completely successful.

Added into all of that was the continuing efforts at religious reformation, which failed to take hold in most parts of Ireland, usually engendering greater opposition to English intervention than anything else. The native Irish, and large parts of the Anglo-Irish nobility, lacked any enthusiasm for the reformation process, though some were ably bought off on occasion with the granting of land formerly belonging to monasteries.

But this series is about war, not religious politics. By the time Edward was on the throne, the Tudors and their establishment were determined to make a better go of things in Ireland, there was just a divide about how to do it, put down as a choice between “the sword and the word”.

Those who advocated the sword wanted a substantial, committed push into the area around the Pale with force, making whatever Irish clans were in the way submit, and destroy anyone who failed to do so. Having done this, the new lands would be resettled by more loyal patrons of the King, protected by newly built castles and forts. The inspiration was the English takeover of Wales centuries before, which had indeed largely fallen to a strategy of gradual colonisation based around castles.

But this approach had its drawbacks. It would be very expensive, both in terms of raising troops and building plans. There was the strong possibility that a plethora of prospective colonists would not show up to take on new lives on the Irish frontier. And there was no guarantee that the native Irish could actually be beaten back for any amount of time.

The “word” approach was that of soft power, of the continuing use of surrender and regrant. The idea there was to seek out the most loyal and trouble free native Irish, make them subjects of the King with all of the protections and rights that came with that, and help them begin a process of land cultivation that would lead them to become more settled and less likely to be fractious with the Pale. Influenced by the feelings of the renaissance and by an early form of social Darwinism, the “word” approach was based on the belief that it was an English responsibility (and right) to tame and civilise the Irish on the fringes of the world, by helping them to adapt to English customs and society. After a time, the problem of the Irish would cease to exist, because the Irish would no longer exist.

This also had its drawbacks. It was a long game, and the citizens of the crown and the Pale were seldom patient. It was hard to find Irish that truly fitted the criteria, and that could be relied upon not to simply raid into the Pale the second they had the opportunity.

Land was the key issue. It was a generally accepted belief that the native Irish who so often raided into English lands would not do so if the land that they owned went through a process of cultivation that made it more productive – Ireland was still an island that contained large swaths of forest, bog and hills that was unsuitable for farming. That could be changed. Both the “sword” and the “word” had this element in their planning, just the “sword” meant for English colonists to do it once the Irish were expelled or annihilated, and the “word” was willing to try and let the Irish do it themselves – with English overlordship of course.

Depending on who was Lord Deputy at any given time – and that changed with depressing frequency – both tactics were used, separately or together. There was a general theme in the short reign of Edward for increased militarisation of Ireland, with the standing armed forces of the Pale rising five fold in the 1550’s, much to the further detriment of the areas finances. Soldiers weren’t cheap. The return for such a large force existing was not exactly stellar either. The English did branch out into south Leinster and did build more fortresses and smaller garrisons west of the Pale, but had little luck in exerting their will as they might have wanted.

Such realities can be seen in occupational warfare up to the present day. The nation-building exercise that the Tudors were trying to carry out carries much of the same hallmarks that the NATO effort in rural parts of Afghanistan does today, such as an emphasis on numerous small garrisons exerting control over a large area, and the entrustment of key security issues to native allies. As it is in Afghanistan, the strategy was hit and miss in Ireland. The native Irish continued to raid the Pale.

When Catholic Mary came to power after her little brothers death in 1553, the Reformation problem was solved for a time. But even with the end of religious fracture in Ireland, her and her Spanish husband’s approach to the island was no less brutal or lacking in finesse.

Mary and her Lord Deputy’s decided to push out further to the west, focused on a targeting of the modern day counties of Laois and Offaly, then largely controlled by the O’More and O’Connor clans. Mary moved forward with designs of plantation in the two areas, a pilot project for how the rest of the island would be brought under control. The natives were presented with the option of moving to the western most third of their territory if they weren’t interested in becoming loyal and faithful subjects of the crown. The rest of the land would be cultivated and offered up to whatever loyal Englishmen were willing to live there, with plans for efficient organisation of the affected areas into different shires ruled over from new forts that would evolve into towns. The settlers would bring English language, dress, customs and housing, be responsible for the upkeep of towns and roads, with provisions, Kilkenny-like, of plantation disallowing the hiring of Irish labourers or tenants.

Plantation is an ugly word in Irish history, and this was the first real one, differing from normal invasion in that it was supposed to centre around civilian activity introduced from outside, not military. It was, for the most part, a failure. English forces, numerous, cohesive and with a technological edge, were able to force the O’More and O’Connor clans westward, but it was all part of an extended and vicious small scale war that carried on throughout the 1550’s and beyond. The Irish lacked the ability to meet their opponents dead on, so fell back on the traditional methods of raid, ambush, scorched earth, targeting of supplies and attacks to the rear.

Some of the Irish sources seem especially bitter about this conflict, dubbing it a “war of annihilation” carried out by the English with the express aim of wiping out the native Irish population in the area. While this might well have been an aspiration for some English commanders and nobles, the complete extermination of the native Irish in Laois/Offaly was not ever pursued with official purpose. When the limited amount of English settlers began to move in, the native Irish targeted them immediately, possibly with support from other neighbours who were edging towards open rebellion against the crown themselves, like the Desmond FitzGeralds.

Though the Tudor monarchy signalled its commitment by pumping large amounts of cash into the enterprise, serious problems emerged throughout. Not least was the sheer lack of colonists. Farmers in England proved unwilling to move to the edge of their world and risk death at the hands of Irish raiders, no matter the incentive of large amounts of potentially fruitful Irish land. What little colonists were found tended to either already be from the Pale or be part of the military itself. Many were forced to disregard the plantation rulings and hire Irish labourers to get by. With few farmers moving in and not many Irish willing to live under the crowns rule in the manner demanded, the Tudors were left supporting a military occupation and brutal insurgency war with no money being generated from rents or taxes on the new land. Ireland increasingly resembled an economic sinkhole. Those colonists or natives who did throw their lot in with the English vision were routinely left undefended by the forces of the crown, stretched quite thin, and so were either driven back from burnt farms or were forced to undertake raids against the Pale to survive – livestock was still the common target.

The usual distractions also served to weaken the effort. There was constant trouble in Ulster, from the rebellious Earldoms and Scottish invaders/raiders. Plenty of Irish, like those who had fought on the side of the FitzGerald’s in the 1530’s, were finding themselves in the employ of the French monarchy, leading to fears of England being surrounded to the south, west and north by enemy powers. The restoration of the Kildare Earldom and Gerald FitzGerald to the position he had been hunted from after the Silken rebellion, part of the soft power rapprochement with former enemies, did little to alleviate the situation, though it caused some rejoicing among the Irish. In terms of colonisation, the English were just beginning to look further afield, to the New World. In such circumstances, it is hardly a surprise that the plantation effort broke down.

The plantation of Laois and Offaly – or King and Queen’s county as they became known – was not a total failure but was certainly not the great success Edward or Mary would have hoped for either. The O’More’s and O’Connor’s were beaten back but remained a threat for a long time, and raids on the Pale did not cease. Both of those clans were eventually neutralised as dangers, but it took many years of fighting and that would prove a significant drain on manpower and resources. The financial situation was poor and it was becoming clear that it could not hope to improve for some time. Further, rebellions were either breaking out elsewhere, or were close to breaking out, with Ulster being a particular problem.

Colonisation, especially by such outwardly military means, is a complex process that can falter due to a number of factors, many of them present in Laois and Offaly. There wasn’t enough of a military to subdue the natives or to adequately protect the Pale at the same time. While the English held an advantage in terms of military technology, primarily in the amount of musketry and cannons they could bring to bear, the Irish were no Native Americans or Aztecs. They weren’t that far behind, and had extensive experience in dealing with such a disadvantage. The English lacked the civilian manpower to make the colonisation effective. They lacked the finances to keep the process going to a committed degree and the money that was being pumped in was being largely wasted. Worst of all, in the lead up to and during the attempted plantation, they lacked a coherent and lasting strategy of either hard or soft power, the switching between the two making either less effective than if just one had been pursued to a conclusion.

Colonisation needs a capable military force to clear hostiles, hold territory and provide for a safe environment for building and stability. It needs an absence of nearby distractions and potential military enemies. It needs a substantial civilian element that can move and start to make the, land productive in terms of agriculture and taxes. It needs commitment, such as from those seeking a lasting position in a new territory or those looking to spreading religious change.

All these factors were present in places like Africa and the New World, but were frequently absent in the Irish plantations, which goes some way to explaining why they were not totally successful, especially the first one. But they were another crucial step on the road to the proper Tudor conquest of Ireland, which would really step up in the time of Elizabeth I. The plantation of Laois/Offaly does also show the realities of English interest in Ireland, which was not simply a case of imperialistic ambitions and a hunger for power – as so many Irish sources would have you believe – but was, more cynically speaking, a grab for land and settlement possibilities in a nearby area. Elizabeth would return to the idea of plantation, and would have a far different outcome.

But before that she would face different challenges in Ireland initially, including a dangerous member of the O’Neill family. That will be the focus of the next entry.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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8 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The First Plantation

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