Irish Alterations in Identity: Ulster 1560-1660

The Irish people transformed from a culture whose identity was based on ethnic paradigms to an association embracing Catholicism as a result of the Ulster Plantation. This occurrence was a plodding process, which, to fully understand, one must look at the nature of the Ulster ideal of identity before the plantation actually implemented. Furthermore, the causes and results of the plantation prove to display key interests in the development of Irish identity.

The disposition of the Ulster identity before the plantation actually was imposed is critical in the comprehension of the transformation that ensued. “The area broadly represented by the six countries of the present Northern Ireland and three northern counties of the Republic-Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan-has had a distinctive identity from the earliest of times. This had been in past a product of geography” (Moody, 1). Naturally, there existed certain stereotypes in Europe pertaining to the character of a people and their positioning in the world. The Irish were believed to be a barbarous race, clinging to the remotest extremity of the known earth. Although in later centuries this theory was certainly established to be spurious, some aversion and ethnic stereotyping still existed to the Irish community, despite the islands relative proximity to the rest of Europe. This would encourage the ideology of intruding English civility upon a race believed to be outlandish.

Ireland’s geography still proved to have additional lingering effects on its history and identity. England, fearing the powers of Spain and other nations, viewed the isle to the west as a strategic weak point where invasion could easily occur. This fear leads, in part, to the justification of the constant English presence that would pervade Irish history. Naturally, the conception of a culture’s identity from outside sources will reflect on the treatment of that society. Therefore, other nations impressions would have a profound impact on Irish character.

The metamorphosis of Irish identity as a result of the Ulster plantation is based in part by the historical actions that lead the province’s domination to occur. When King Henry the VIII of England (1509-1547) divorced to marry Anne Bolin, he made a fatal blunder, for a relation was shattered with Spain. Furthermore, he rescinded a promise to the Church, and forged his own religion. Repercussions pressed beyond his rule into 1585-1604, when the Anglo-Spanish conflict was raised, awakening justified fears pertaining to Ireland as a militaristic weak point. Spain’s main interest was to remove English power to have further success in the Netherlands where they wished to centralize power. Although the Spanish armada was defeated in 1588, a critical connection between the Spanish and Irish formed. The resident Irish noted the wealth and intensions of Spain. Additionally, there was a unifying link between religion and the nations. Moody states:
The total conquest of the island�was more embittered because the religious changes constituting the English reformation�the Protestant Episcopal Church established by law was the church of the new English conquerors, while the mass of Irishmen, though their church was proscribed, remained invincibly Catholic. So the cause of Gaelic independence became linked with the cause of Catholicism in Europe, and England was faced by the new peril of a Spanish attack upon her through Ireland.

In the near future the King of Spain kept using fleets of ships in his marauding, however, this was now accomplished via Ireland where there was the chance for local support.

The Irish began to claim a substantial chapter in history due to the families of O’Neill and O’Donnell that dwelled in Tyrone Tycronell respectively. Previously rivals, the families united against the common hatred of a British power, which had established itself in Dublin, and the encroachment of new politics in Ulster. Often with the aid of the Spanish, many militaristic attempts were fought towards victory. Notably successful on the part of the Irish, was the 1598 battle of Yellow Ford (Wallace). The Irish released a massive ambush upon the British, resulting in the greatest victory over the opponent in history. British pride plummeted into the pits of despair.

There were many attempts to subdue the Ulster power families. The most successful in this was Lord Mountjoy, who managed to establish a fort behind O’Neill’s lines. (An act the Earl of Essex had attempted and failed, for he lacked the full and genuine support of England) The garrison successfully disrupted the lives of the residents, and the people returned to English ways of life. The Irish sprit was hard to crush, however, for “Lord Mountjoy could not bring his adversaries to terms by conventional military means, despite his major battlefield success. A scorched earth policy had to be employed which affected large parts of Ulster” (MacCurta, 9). This act only proved to give the Irish more reason for embitterment as time progressed, causing the seeds of hate to form in the hearts of many men.

The culmination of the nine years war occurred at Kinsale in 1601, where the powers of Ulster, O’Neill and O’Donnell, were defeated. The two great leading families fled their native soil, O’Donnell to Spain, O’Neill trudging back to Ulster. This action is commonly known as The Flight of Earls. “The Departure of the earls in 1607 is considered as the key event paving the way for the plantation of Ulster. After all, it provided the opportunity for widespread confiscation of lands” (MacCurta, 11). Ireland couldn’t succumb to English rule unless English culture could be dominant. This was a welcome idea among the Pale in the Dublin area, however, it was not so with the rest of the nation. Relying partly on prejudices that had existed for centuries, Irish barbarism and vulgarity was to be replaced with English civility and priggishness. This was to be accomplished by placing English citizens onto Irish soil to live and show the natives how to behave as their culture.

However, this did not work out exactly to plan, “This central feature (transplantation) of the Ulster plantation scheme was never entirely realized: the Irish were too hard to displace, the colonists too glad to find tenants on the spot” (Moody, 5). In actuality, “in 1622 Irish were permitted to become tenants on one-quarter of the undertaker’s proportions” (Robinson, 65). Therefore, hardly any of the Irish were removed from their lands; however, there was a constant English presence, which breed discontent on both sides. Many of the resident Catholics felt the newcomers were tearing down the best long-term religion they ever knew. Furthermore, there were superstitions and prejudices pertaining to the other being possessed by the Anti-Christ, if they themselves weren’t one. Therefore, it was as if the Catholics felt they had a god-given right to resent the newcomers. There was a definite belief in evil on both the Protestant and Catholic sides, and each demonised the other.

The rebellion in 1641 proves a key factor in determining the will of the Irish people and aids in the definition of their identity. The rising was both something less and something more than an attempt by the dispossessed Irish to overthrow the plantation in Ulster. The persistence with which loyalty was avowed-by the original leaders, by their Old English allies, by the clergy and by the prime upholders of the expatriate tradition, Owen Roe O’Neill-together with the use of loyalty as a bindery principle within the confederation itself, carries enough cumulative conviction to suggest that, even if the leaders dissembled at the outset, the chord they struck was a true one (Roebuck, 34).

Therefore, the Irish people were unifying towards some common goal and possessed a common feeling pertaining to the nature of their country and their status within it. Additionally, in the 1640s and 50s, the English crown proposed and executed the Cromwellian episode, where the goal was to confiscate Catholic land and eliminate Irish spirit. At this point in history the Irish Catholics were being persecuted directly and deliberately. Ethnicity was not the unifying factor alone, the Irish were now moving towards a final stage of in their current identity, that being, religion.

Religions differentiation wasâÂ?¦inseparable from and religions denomination was the hallmark of, differing cultures and communities. Catholics belonged to the community that was the Gaelic stock, that had suffered defeat and (unjustly they believed) disposition, that had been forced into a mold of political impotence and of social and economic inferiority, that looked for deliverance to the overthrow of English power in Ireland, that longed for revenge on its supplanters and cherished an inheritance of bitter folk-memories” (Moody, 9-10).

Catholicism became a crucial part of Irish identity, especially by the year 1660 when an interim from Catholic persecution and a focus on re-establishing an Episcopal Protestant church occurred. (Foster)

To conclude, Irish identity transformed into one not of ethnicity, but of religion. The conflicts in Ulster have set the stage for modern Ireland today. Despite new and advanced forms of communication, however, tolerance for all denominations is still a challenge for people throughout the world. Hopefully someday, all communities will find a source of identity and be comfortable and confident enough in it, to accept others.

Works Cited
Foster, R. F. The Oxford History of Ireland. Oxford and New York: Oxford Liberty
Press, 1989.

MacCurta, Brian. Ulster 1641: Aspects of the Rising. Antrim: W&G Baird Ltd.,

Moody, T. W. The Ulster Question: 1603-1973. Dublin: The Mercier Press, 1974.
Robinson, Philip S. The Plantation of Ulster: British Settlement in an Irish
Landscape. Northern Whig Limited, 1994.

Roebuck, Peter. Plantation to Partition: Essays in Ulster History in honour of J. L.
McCracken. Belfast: Blackstaff Press Limited, 1981.

Wallace, Martin. 100 Irish Lives. London: David & Charles Ltd., 1983.

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