Saturday 24 June 2017

How the plantations sowed their bitter seeds

Maurice Hayes lauds an engaging look at this divisive period

By any standard, the Plantation of Ulster was a crucial episode in modern Irish history, the key to much that has happened since. It saw the end of the Gaelic lordships, the sweeping away of a culture and the implantation of another, and the introduction of the religious conflicts which were to characterise the area for the next four centuries.

In this highly readable account of the plantations, Jonathan Bardon does what he does best in synthesising current research and scholarship, drawing on the work of others in the field, finding historic and geographic parallels and presenting the facts, with judicious commentary in a highly digestible form.

The Plantation of Ulster and the Flight of the Earls represented the final breaking of the power of the ancient Gaelic chieftains, resulting in dispossession, the clearance of vast areas and their repopulation with planters brought in from England and Scotland, a colonial venture comparable to and run in parallel with Virginia and the Carolinas.

It was also carried out in the ebb and flow of international geopolitics and a struggle for supremacy on the continent involving England, France, Spain and the pope, and at a time of deep religious division. Indeed it was the concurrence of sectarian conflict with the struggle for land which differentiated this from earlier invasions and ensured a legacy of bitter division on denominational grounds.

That apart, what is remarkable is the extent to which the whole thing was carried out as an administrative exercise, with its own printed book of rules, with commissioners, auditors and progress chasers seeking to meet the demands of the king for action.

The unfounded optimism, the lack of information and the grossly inaccurate surveys and maps, which meant that some smart operators got three times as much land as intended, all sounds strangely modern.

There were speculators and developers, those who had their arms twisted to invest and those who took advantage of the predicament of others, those who acquired for a quick sale and those who soldiered on, the native Irish in negative equity, with NAMA-like figures repossessing and reallocating land and estates in the midst of war and bloody mayhem.

Here it is all set down as a series of transactions in an estate agent's brochure -- the lack of passion with which bloody events are recounted, the human tragedy on all sides scarcely to be imagined.

What does come through is the complexity of the relationships, the shifting allegiances as people changed sides, the division between the English and Scottish settlers, accentuated later by religious differences between Anglican and Covenanter, the extent to which Catholics like McDonnell and Hamilton prospered as planters, and the number of times when the struggle could go either way.

Native Irish were moved, not eliminated, and the degree of intermingling over the centuries has resulted in a hybrid society in which the main differentiating factor continues to be religion.

Put in the context of British history, we have Sir Francis Bacon, fearful of overpopulation in England, proposing a scheme of colonisation to James I while he was only too anxious to reward his Scottish supporters, clear the Borders of reivers and the Lowlands of the casualties of poor harvests, paying off soldiers who had subdued Ireland and served in foreign wars.

Bardon follows them to America where as the Scots-Irish they cleared the land of Indians and trees with the same enthusiasm, a stone in the shoe of society, God's eternal frontiersmen.

Bardon has established an enviable reputation, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland, for providing readable and concise histories which are accessible to the general reader without compromise of academic standards.

In an area where history is often seen as an armoury with which to withdraw weapons to attack and defeat one's political opponents, to legitimise the status quo or to undermine it, he has managed to preserve a reputation for fairness and balance. This book adds to it.

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