Look at Illustration Book, plate 25, house built in the Irish style, from map of Vintner’s settlement at Bellaghy, 1622.  What can we learn from this type of building about the lives of people in early seventeenth-century Ireland?


Taken out of its context, this little dwelling does not amount to much – a chimney, mud walls, thatched roof and perhaps two rooms. It is in its geographical location, its relation to nearby houses, and the circumstances of its building, that its interest lies.  Conflict between England and Ireland has gone on for a thousand years, and continues still;  the building of our house intersects the history of this conflict at an interesting point, the ‘Ulster plantation scheme’, started in 1608[1].   The essence of this enterprise was the building, on a large scale, of entirely new settlements in Ulster, inhabited exclusively by people professing the Protestant religion.   The scale and conditions of the Plantation had a massive effect on life in Ireland, fuelling the ancient conflict in ways which are still unresolved.


When an area had been designated for plantation, any Irish living in the area were by law dispossessed, and forcibly removed to other parts of Ireland, often to Mayo in the West1.  This was unconditional for the ‘native Irish’, who were considered by the authorities to be sub-human;  but another, more prosperous, category of inhabitants were the ‘Old English’, who had lived in Ireland for generations and professed the Roman Catholic faith.  These were permitted to stay (perhaps[2] on condition they abandoned their faith and ‘turned Protestant’), though Canny(2002) points out that they were harassed by the settler ‘New English’.  Further, as Clarke tells us, the dispossession of the native Irish was not strictly carried out, and many remained, “embittered and degraded, waiting their chance to strike back” (p.193).   This hostility was recognised in setting up the Plantation conditions, and each ‘undertaker’ of 2000 acres or more had to provide (Irish Documents) “a stone house, with a strong court or bawn about it” and ensure a well-maintained stock of arms.  A ‘bawn’ is a fortified enclosure, typically enclosing a grand house and offering protection to a neighbouring settlement[3] .  The settlement at Bellaghy included our house, which depended, with several richer dwellings, on the protection of the Bellaghy bawn.


The inhabitant of our house, then, would have come from England, tempted by the chance of betterment and an allocation of land or employment.  Canny, who is perhaps less than impartial, claims that the settlers were a “motley collection of mainly impecunious fortune-seekers--servitors (soldiers and administrators) for the most part--who looked on Ireland as their land of opportunity and devoted themselves single-mindedly to self-enrichment” (Canny (2002)).  We may doubt that our man could look forward to much enrichment, but he had a snug little house for his family, plenty to eat, and a bit of land to run his beasts;  against that, though, he faced the hatred of the local people, and lived with the knowledge that his personal security depended on that of the settlement, which in turn depended on arms and fortification.


We note, in conclusion, that the human cost of the Plantation was appallingly high.  Our house was a tiny cog in the far-ranging and confident administration, effectively colonial, with the native Irish cast in the role of native Indians (also seen as sub-human) some years later.  Just as India was left with its railways, so Ulster benefited, for a time at least, from efficient administration and industrial prosperity.  But the forced migration and dispossession created lasting bitterness.  Irishmen have (of course) expressed this in song, notably the poignant memory of “Bonny Bonny Slieve Gullion” in County Armagh;  but the first fierce physical expression was the revolt of 1641, only thirty odd years after the policy’s conception.  This revolt devastated the settlements3 – and, incidentally, totally destroyed[4] the bawn which had the duty of protecting our little house.



‘Bellaghy Bawn’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-nireland/A803459

Canny, N.(1994) [1989] ‘Early Modern Ireland’, in Foster, R. (ed) The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Canny, N.(2002) Making Ireland British, review by Brendan Bradshaw at http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m0293/473_117/92203936/p1/article.jhtml

Clarke, A.(1967) ‘The Colonisation of Ulster and the rebellion of 1641’, in Moody, T. (ed) The Course of Irish History, Cork, Mercier Press.

Coward, B.(2003) [1980] The Stuart Age, London, Longman.

‘Irish Documents’ http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/harlandj/ireland/irish_docs/ir_docs1.html, ‘Plantation in Ulster’.

Lentin, R.(1995) [Video Cassette] A220 TV1 Programmes 1-4, Milton Keynes, The Open University.


[1] Coward, p.127

[2] Canny (1994), p.132

[3] See e.g. Lentin, at 1 hour 8 minutes, and Clarke, p.192

[4] Bellaghy Bawn, ‘Burnt to the ground’