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Éamonn Ó Ciardha and Micheál Ó Siochrú, The Plantation of Ulster
by Thomas Herron

Ó Ciardha, Éamonn and Micheál Ó Siochrú. The Plantation of Ulster: Ideology and Practice. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2012. xiii + 269 pp. ISBN: 978-0719095504. $37.00 paper.


This solid, well-edited, affordable, and attractive multidisciplinary collection of essays, The Plantation of Ulster: Ideology and Practice, is a milestone: the first in a series, Studies in Early Modern Irish History, with Manchester University Press. Two other volumes have since appeared: Ireland: 1641. Contexts and reactions, edited by Ó Siochrú and Jane Ohlmeyer and The Scots in Early Stuart Ireland: Union and Separation in two kingdoms, edited by David Edwards with Simon Egan.[1]

The series immediately belies its title in two important ways: it covers more than “Ireland,” with special attention (so far) to Scotland and of course England, and it expands the concept of “history” to include archaeological and literary studies as well. The Plantation of Ulster fits both non-criteria (that cartography is not better represented in the volume is, however, disappointing).[2] When focusing on Ireland, moreover, The Plantation of Ulster admirably covers native Irish (i.e., Gaelic) literature and culture in depth: the book is therefore more “Irish” than many previous “histories” while expanding their scope.

The General Editors of and generous contributors to the series, David Edwards and Micheál Ó Siochrú, outline their goals in the Series editors’ Preface to The Plantation of Ulster:

The study of early modern Irish History has experienced something of a renaissance since the 1990s, with the publication of a number of major monographs, examining developments in Ireland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from a variety of different perspectives. Nonetheless, these studies still tend to group around traditional topics in political or military history and significant gaps remain. The idea behind this new series is to identify key themes for exploration and thereby set the agenda for future research. (xi)

There is much “traditional” political history in The Plantation of Ulster, including discussion of the Stuart “constitutional monarchy,” the idea of “Britishness” and the state, and colonial ideology, but the volume distinguishes itself by focusing on individuals and individual institutions with a regional impact in Ulster. Major players include the city of London, the Catholic Church, towns (including the transformative power of municipal councils and “English urbanism” in a townless land), King James I, and Randall MacDonnell, Earl of Antrim. A fascinating focal point of the opening essays is the counter-intuitive way in which the Plantation of Ulster, for all of its violence, exclusions and biases, helped to develop the Jacobean idea of a “British” polity meant to include all interested parties, be they Protestant or Catholic, Highland or Lowland Scottish, New or Old English, native, non-native or non-Irish, in a new “civil” society directed from Whitehall. Inclusion never meant full equality, understanding, or tolerance, however.

Not only political theorists and Irish and British historians but literary scholars, including regular readers of Spenser Review, should find much to interest them in this volume: essays by literary scholars Willy Maley, Marc Caball, Nicholas McDowell and Diarmaid Ó Doibhlin alongside an essay directly on Spenser by Andrew Hadfield. Shakespeare (especially Macbeth, The Tempest, and Much Ado About Nothing), Milton, Jonson and even Donne (220-21) garner significant mention, in no small part thanks to Maley. The first six essays after the Introduction by historians Ó Ciardha and Ó Siochrú are by historians (Jenny Wormald, Martin MacGregor, Phil Withington, Ian W. Archer, Raymond Gillespie, Brian MacCuarta); the seventh is by an archaeologist (Colin Breen), and the remaining five by the above literary characters who cross easily and admirably into other fields. The volume, like the series, therefore continues an exciting trend in cross-disciplinary collections on Early Modern Ireland that focus on broader international, cultural, political and ideological trends such as the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, Transatlantic trade, Colonization, Monarchy, State Formation, Translation, Republicanism, Nobility, and the “Renaissance” as well as more detailed studies of particular regions and powerful players.[3] (Women as objects of inquiry are, however, skirted in The Plantation of Ulster, although we read about Rois Uí Ógaín, “one of the most gifted scholars of her generation,” on 208.) Scholars interested in the lives, political ideas, and immediate cultural contexts of authors such as Spenser, Milton and Shakespeare should therefore embrace the volume and the series as a child might a puppy, fascinated by each separate part and wondering how it will all grow and develop together in the future.


According to the series editors, The Plantation of Ulster “marks the 400th anniversary of the Ulster plantation, a key moment in the emergence of modern Ireland” (xi). Modernity can be ugly. As the book editors write in their Introduction, culture clashes and sectarianism are obvious legacies of the changes that were begun in the Tudor era with not-so-successful colonial forebears, such as the Munster Plantation that included Spenser and Raleigh. Plantation policy was improved and change of land ownership accelerated by such experiments as the Ulster Plantation (an essay comparing developments between the Munster Plantation, revived in the early seventeenth century, and the Ulster Plantation would have been useful, however; the same goes for any cross-provincial study). As a result of loss of land—between 1603 and 1641, Catholics lost one third of their title to the 90% of Irish land they owned, a process that was greatly accelerated by Cromwell and later events—displacement and killing of noble leadership and “attendant socio-economic and cultural changes,” native Irish Catholic society in Ulster suffered the severe trauma of political dislocation, dismemberment and virtual decapitation (3). Extended, intermittent warfare beginning with the Nine Years’ War in 1594 and culminating in the O’Doherty rebellion of 1608 opened the land to extensive administrative reform and colonial exploitation by English and Scots in Ulster, the main part of Ireland that the Anglo-Normans had never succeeded in colonizing four hundred years previously. Nonetheless, “‘deserving’ Irish (those who had supported the crown)” received land as part of the Ulster Plantation and a few of them prospered (3); none more so than the Earl of Antrim, whose buildings schemes at Dunluce and nearby market towns were ambitious but not always well placed economically.[4]

On the theme of what was and could have been, the opening chapter by Wormald, “The ‘British’ crown, the earls and the plantation of Ulster,” describes how even the most undeserving but powerful of the native Irish rebels, Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, who led the campaign against the English crown and settled for an uncomfortable peace in 1603, might have benefitted from the new political order had he not fled to the Continent with other key leaders in 1607. King James was prepared to accommodate him within a “British” policy, as he had troublesome Scottish lords before him, and so “arguably it proved a huge personal mistake for Tyrone” to depart. “It was no less so for King James, abruptly cutting off his Scottish solution to an Irish problem” and leaving him with no other option than the “massively ambitious” Plantation (26).  

MacGregor continues the investigation of Scottish precedents and colonial connections in his chapter, “Civilizing Gaelic Scotland: the Scottish Isles and the Stewart Empire.” Like others in the volume, MacGregor shows how the Ulster Plantation influenced politics well outside of Ulster. Taking the long historical and broad regional view, he notes the “remarkable military capacity of Gaelic Scotland, specifically Argyll and the [Western] Isles” that strengthened the Gaelic cultural ties between Ireland and Scotland; “the plantation of Ulster was thus an Anglo-Scottish project partly or even mainly about restoring [a] wedge” to re-divide a militarized and “renewed Gaelic communion across the North Channel,” which itself had prospered in a vacuum left by Norse powers in the later middle ages (38). In response to this local Gaelic resurgence, Stuart monarchy “failed” in the Western Isles but not the Campbell and McKenzie clans, who proved better “native imperialists” and “more truly British” on a smaller scale than did the monarchy on a larger one, at least until the 1640s brought further upheavals.

Withington follows with another fascinating discussion, in the essay “Plantation and Civil Society,” of the role that towns, undergirded by an ideology of “corporatism” and “civic humanism” developed by London merchants and a “sprawling Cambridge mafia” (69) of writers, thinkers and policy makers such as Sir Thomas Smith and William Cecil (as well as Spenser and Thomas Blenerhasset), worked within a paradoxical ideology of “monarchical republicanism” to both exploit and transform a conspicuously non-urbanized region on behalf of London, the crown, and individual planters.

England, not only Scotland and Ireland, was profoundly impacted by this exchange of materials, men and ideas. Ian Archer follows with an equally intelligent and complementary essay on the Plantation’s impact on the London companies themselves: the debts and political struggles with the crown that resulted helped create the tensions of the 1640s. Spenser had made the far-seeing “connection between urbanism, civility, security and prosperity” in A View as regards the Munster Plantation (84), which had failed initially due to poor planning, discord, and lack of full commitment (not to mention armed insurrection) on the part of many of its participants. By contrast, Ulster had been pacified twice (in 1603 and 1608), and “There is … considerable evidence that Londoners tried reasonably conscientiously to fulfill the terms of the articles of plantation” while strengthening a sense of themselves in the process: “The Londoners’ participation ran counter to the principles of aristocratic society, for it rested on an extraordinary degree of collective decision making” (91). What was detrimental for aristocrats in England and (especially) Ireland was good for “republican” institutions, but no armies and no king = no plantation.

Raymond Gillespie, a titan in the production of Early Modern Irish, including Ulster, history, continues to insist on the ways that pragmatic goals on the ground modified or contradicted the high-flown ideals of Whitehall planners from “on high” when it came to plantation.[5] Making Ulster British did not necessarily mean making it English, as Nicholas Canny has argued, and economic and social imperatives dictated an ethnically inclusive crown policy: “The logic of establishing markets as part of the plantation scheme lay far beyond the economic imperative and was at the core of forming a new type of society, British in outlook and legal in its articulation” (107). On the ground, the “desires of the government and the realities of profit that attracted the settler” were not always aligned (99). Gillespie’s expertise with the legal nitty-gritty of civic archives is amply on display here.  

Brian MacCuarta follows with a valuable study of the impact of the plantation on a different institution than town, gown and crown, i.e., the Catholic Church in the years 1609-42. Despite major upheaval from the wars and formal suppression of houses of worship, “Evidence exists …of some continuity in Catholic worship down to the 1630s in churches in areas of purely Irish settlement” (123). Moreover, the loose and changing political structures as well as the inability of the Protestant Church of Ireland to swell its ranks with competent, motivated and honest prelates allowed for the Counter-Reformation to water what blasted stumps remained of the old church in the province. The appointment, by absentee Archbishop of Armagh Peter Lombard, of the rector of the Irish College in Douai, David Rothe, as vice-primate in Ireland coincided with the inception of the Plantation in 1609, and an important, forward-looking provincial synod was convened in 1614 between the diocesan vicars and religious orders (Cistercians, Jesuits, and predominantly Fransciscans). Subsequently, the “two major strands of Catholic renewal during the 1610s consisted of diocesan reorganization under [Rothe] … and Franciscan missionaries returning from the recently established Irish Franciscan college in Louvain” (124). While O’Neill toured the Continent, the Continent returned to kneel. Gaelic and Old English society, always interacting on the northern border of the Dublin Pale, became more interconnected and consolidated their “Irish” identity through their mutual faith, which was directed, somewhat ironically, from outside of Ireland, Scotland and England altogether.

Counter-intuitively, “in the early seventeenth century, Ulster served as a permissive frontier, where religious adherence, unacceptable to the authorities in the metropolitan area, could be more freely practised” (133). Simultaneously, mounting rhetoric of “national and religious purification” based on Old Testament examples (such as the Maccabees) was to erupt violently on the Catholic side in the rebellions of the 1640s (135).


Over a third of the collection is dedicated to literary studies or studies of literary figures. Andrew Hadfield, in “Educating the Colonial Mind: Spenser and the Plantation,” discusses Spenser’s View against the backdrop of humanistic ideology and rhetorical practice of his generation and the one following: “The colonisation of Ireland had begun, if not on the playing fields of Eton, then in the classrooms of England” (164). Because Spenser wrote and died before the Ulster Plantation was born, one wonders if Hadfield shouldn’t be bowling on a different pitch, but he does usefully compare Spenser’s polemics to those of the poet and Ulster lawyer and planner Sir John Davies, in particular Davies’s A discouerie of the true causes why Ireland was neuer entirely subdued (1612). The contrast is revealing: “Davies reversed Spenser’s insistence on grand military intervention and argued instead for the spread of law, flattering King James by demonstrating that only now, with Ireland properly subdued, could the rule of law be inaugurated in earnest and the country transformed into another part of Britain” (162). Also discussed are the policies of Sir Thomas Smith concerning the Ards colonial project in Ulster in the 1570s and Gabriel Harvey’s intellectual engagement with Smith and Livy. These men approached colonial theory through their rhetorical educations, including Ramist logic expressed in dialogue format. Argues Hadfield, Spenser’s “dialogue might be read as one large, provocative syllogism”:

Ireland needs to be governed properly.
Proper government will involve methods that will seem shocking.
Ireland requires methods that will seem shocking. (168)

The greatest shock of the Ulster Plantation was surely felt by the natives whose laws, like their culture, Spenser had in the crossbow hairs. For all the “British” inclusiveness of the plantation, local laws had to be changed to fit the English model, and the monarchy and its agents like Davies, Ireland’s Attorney General, eagerly enforced the suppression of native courts. “Nevertheless,” writes Diarmid Ó Doibhlin in his capable overview of Gaelic poetry and prose, “the policy of the new Jacobean rulers initially tended towards tolerance with regard to the learned professions, seeking as far as possible to win them over.”[6] This was because the “new colonizers appreciated the Gaelic literati’s usefulness as a unique repository of historical and literary knowledge (200). The Gaelic literati included not only the hereditary bardic class but the erenagh, the secular church officer “expert in law, customs and traditions” (201).[7] If you were an antiquarian like Spenser, you asked the locals about customs and places and had their poems translated for you. If you wanted to take somebody’s land, you asked where the traditional boundaries lay and according to what lore, before you disregarded that lore for your own. Educated jurors were also highly prized to help the common law function. Davies trusted Irish jurors far more than Spenser did, and quite a few of them “‘spoke good Latin,’” according to Davies, surprisingly so given the supposed barbarism of the rural Irish (201).[8]

The Ulster Plantation was a true melting pot of nationalities that periodically melted down. Much of what remains of the native Irish response to events in Ulster, whether written in Ireland or in Irish colleges on the Continent, resides in poetic manuscripts, and these lament the terrible times. According to Marc Caball in his superb essay, “Responses to Transformation: Gaelic Poets and the Plantation of Ulster,” “the response of the Gaelic intellectual elite to the plantation of Ulster is defined by a powerful and pervasive sense of trauma, alienation and communal dispossession,” including bitterness over the Flight of the Earls (176).  The “flight” of key players of the native Irish nobility to the Continent in 1607 had many causes but was, given the ultimate outcome, a disaster for the structure and culture of Gaelic society left behind. As both Caball and Ó Doibhlin make clear, however, sorrow over loss of patronage and status was not the only response of the bards who were left behind or who travelled with the earls; as a new generation of literary critics (notably Michael MacCraith) are keen to emphasize, Irish-language poets responded in complex and creative ways to political and aesthetic changes. These responses included new verse forms, finding new patronage structures within the church, and adapting to print. Caball focuses on three “Gaelic praise poets” in particular, Eochaidh Ó hEódhusa, Fearghal Óg Mac an Bhaird, and Eoghan Ruadh Mac an Bhaird, to describe their “nuanced and subtle work that acknowledges political and cultural disruption while concurrently endorsing tradition” (185).

The last two chapters in the collection turn back to English-language literature. Willy Maley’s “Angling for Ulster: Ireland and Plantation in Jacobean Literature” provides an overview of the surprising number of poets and playwrights who responded in print to Irish events. Maley nods to Donne, Blenerhasset, Bacon, Burton, Davies, William Lithgow (a Scottish traveler), Riche, Thomas Gainsford, Camden, Speed, Higden and Peter Heylen, and a slew of playwrights including Chapman, Ford, Beaumont and Fletcher, William Fenner (237 endnote 92), Robert Daborne, Shakespeare and Jonson: “In addition to his Irish Masque and Epicoene, Jonson used Irish characters or topics in Prince Henry’s Barriers (1610), The Devil is an Ass (1613), Bartholomew Fair (1613), and The New Inn (1629)” (223).[9] Maley creates a new “in” for scholarship. As he does so often and well, Maley scatters stars in the darkness and challenges readers to make interpretative constellations of them, in this case lighting the way towards a greater appreciation of Ireland’s presence in English literature.

It is a sad case then that the door of the volume should clang shut with Nicholas McDowell’s wide-ranging analysis of Milton’s anti-Irish, pro-parliamentary polemical puff-piece, Articles of Peace Made and Concluded with the Irish Rebels, also known as Observations (1649). This tract, one of Milton’s first commissions as Secretary for Foreign Tongues under Cromwell, insults the Earl of Ormond and Belfast and the entire Irish nation, but it saves most of its vituperation for the Scots Presbyterians, Milton’s bugbear for not wanting to destroy the king and better reform the church.[10] Scotland therefore returns as a primary subject in this volume, rightfully so, since it continued as a thorn in the side of the government in Ulster and London for many years, and Ulster’s problems were British problems.

McDowell makes expert reference to Milton’s use of Spenser’s character Talus (247-48) and intriguing connections between Milton’s Eikonoklastes and the swinish rebels, particularly Caliban, of The Tempest (245-46). Caliban’s foibles reminded Milton of the Royalists, according to McDowell. Moreover, given that “some of Milton’s best friends were from Ireland” (239) and that Lycidas died crossing the Irish Sea to help save the Protestant Church in County Roscommon, it is a pity that McDowell doesn’t explore Milton’s works within the context of positive plantation rhetoric stemming from the Ulster project. It may have been appropriate to end the collection on the idea of paradise lost.


Thomas Herron
East Carolina University

[1] Ireland: 1641. Contexts and reactions, Micheál Ó Siochrú and Jane Ohlmeyer, eds., (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2013), The Scots in Early Stuart Ireland: Union and Separation in Two Kingdoms, David Edwards, ed., with Simon Egan (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2015).

[2] See page 3 of the volume for context.

[3] See the intriguing label of foundational scholar Mícheál Ó Cléirigh as a “Renaissance man,” 199.

[4] See chapter by Colin Breen, “Randal MacDonnell and Early Seventeenth-century Settlement in Northeast Ulster, 1603-30,” 143-57.

[5] See also Gillespie, “The Problems of Plantations: Material Culture and Social Change in Early Modern Ireland,” Plantation Ireland: Settlement and Material Culture, c. 1550-1700, Colin Rynne and James Lyttleton, eds. (Dublin: Four Courts P, 2009), 43-60.

[6] “The Plantation of Ulster: Aspects of Gaelic Letters,” (200).

[7] See also page 189.

[8] See also Jean R. Brink, “Sir John Davies: Lawyer and Poet,” Ireland in the Renaissance, c. 1540-1660, Thomas Herron and Michael Potterton, eds. (Dublin: Four Courts P, 2007), 88-104: 102-04.

[9] Maley apparently misses Dol in Jonson’s The Alchemist Act IV, the daughter of “an Irish costermonger” who has “a strange nobility in [her] eye” and who comes to study mathematics with the alchemist, “A man, the emperor / Has courted above Kelly.” Jonson, The Alchemist, English Drama, 1580-1642, C. F. Tucker Brooke and Nathanial Burton Paradise, eds. (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1933), IV.i.54, 57, 90-91. Jonson must have in mind the Irish alchemist Edward Kelly, whose step-daughter, Elizabeth Jane Weston (d. 1612), was an accomplished neo-Latin poet at the Hapsburg court in Prague and author of Parthenica. Dol is praised in exalted neo-platonic terms and so could satirize Weston or her work.

[10] See also Willy Maley, Nation, State, and Empire in English Renaissance Literature (Basinstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 135-6.


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Cite as:

Thomas Herron , "Éamonn Ó Ciardha and Micheál Ó Siochrú, The Plantation of Ulster," Spenser Review 45.3.12 (Winter 2016). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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