James Connolly


The Re-Conquest of Ireland


Chapter II
Ulster and the Conquest

In the foregoing chapter we have dwelt with the consequence of the Conquest of Ireland as it affected the Celtic or Catholic Irish and endeavoured to demonstrate to readers that the duty that now lies upon the Irish working-class democracy is in the nature of a reversal of that Conquest and all that it implies. That, in short, every step taken towards making the wealth-producing powers of the country the common property of the Irish people, though it may be decried in the name of patriotism by the spokesmen of the privileged classes, is yet in effect a step towards the reversal of the Conquest and the re-establishment of the ancient freedom upon a modern basis. But it remains to be discussed how and in what manner the Conquest affected the rank and file of the armies of the conquerors, how they and their descendants fared as a result of their adventures. This is all the more important because the children of these men of the rank and file are now an integral part of the Irish nation, and their interests and well-being are now as vital to the cause of freedom and as sacred in the eyes of the Labour Movement as are the interests of the descendants of those upon whom a cruel destiny com- pelled their forefathers to make war. If in this brief setting forth of the position of the working-class democracy in Ireland we have to refer to the question of religion, it is not in order that divisions upon these lines may be perpetuated, but rather that it may be learned that, despite diversity of origin, the historical development of Ireland has brought the same social slavery to the whole of the workers, let their religion have been or be what it may. Certainly the opinion implied in the existence of sectarian political societies in Ireland is that religious ideas, or rather varying beliefs upon religion, were the real basis of past Irish politics, and the Orangemen are told that the Orange festivals of to-day are commemorations of great victories won by their leaders in the cause of ‘civil and religious liberty’.

The belief we acquire from a more dispassionate study of history in Ireland is somewhat different. Let us tell it briefly:–

In the reign of James I the English Government essayed to solve the Irish problem, which then, as now, was their chief trouble, by settling Ireland with planters from Scotland and England. To do this, two million acres were confiscated – stolen from the Irish owners. Froude, the historian, says:–

Of these, a million and a half, bog-forest and mountain were restored to the Irish. The half a million of fertile acres were settled with families of Scottish and English Protestants.

A friendly speaker, recently describing these planters before a meeting of the Belfast Liberal Association, spoke of them as:–

Hardy pioneers, born of a sturdy race, trained to adversity, when brought face to face with dangers of a new life in a hostile country, soon developed that steady, energetic, and powerful character which has made the name of Ulster respected all over the world.

But Mr. W.T. Lattimer, the author of a History of Irish Presbyterianism, speaking of the same planters states on page 43 of his book:–

Amongst these settlers were so many who left their country for their country’s good, that it was common to say regarding anyone not doing well that his latter end would be "Ireland".

And a writer in the seventeenth century, the son of one of the ministers who came over with the first plantation, Mr. Stewart, is quoted by Lecky in his History of England in the Eighteenth Century, as saying:–

From Scotland came many, and from England not a few, yet all of them generally the scum of both nations, who from debt or breaking of the law, came hither hoping to be without fear of man’s justice in a land where there was nothing, or but little as yet, of the fear of God. On all hands Atheism increased and disregard of God, iniquity abounded with contentious fighting, murder, adultery.

The reader can take his choice of these descriptions. Probably the truth is that each is a fairly accurate description of a section of the planters, and that neither is accurate as a picture of the whole.

But while the Plantation succeeded from the point of view of the Government in placing in the heart of Ulster a body of people who, whatever their disaffection to that Government, were still bound by fears of their own safety to defend it against the natives, it did not bring either civil or religious liberty to the Presbyterian planters.

The Episcopalians were in power, and all the forces of government were used by them against their fellow-Protestants. The planters were continually harassed to make them abjure their religion, fines were multiplied upon fines, and imprisonment upon imprisonment. In 1640 the Presbyterians of Antrim, Down, and Tyrone in a petition to the English House of Commons declared that:–

Principally through the sway of the prelacy with their factions, our souls are starved, our estates are undone, our families impoverished, and many lives among us cut off and destroyed. Our cruel taskmasters have made us, who were once a people, to become as it were no people, an astonishment to ourselves, the object of pittie and amazement to others.

What might have been the result of this cruel systematic persecution of Protestants by Protestants we can only conjecture, since, in the following year, 1641, the great Irish rebellion compelled the persecuting and persecuted Protestants to join hands in defence of their common plunder against the common enemy – the original Irish owners.

In all the demonstrations and meetings which take place in Ulster under Orange auspices, all these persecutions are alluded to as if they had been the work of ‘Papists’, and even in the Presbyterian churches and conventions the same distortion of the truth is continually practised. But, they are told “all this persecution was ended when William of Orange, and our immortal forefathers overthrew the Pope and Popery at the Boyne. Then began the era of civil and religious liberty”.

So runs the legend implicitly believed in in Ulster. Yet it is far, very far, from the truth. In 1686 certain continental powers joined together in a league, known in history as the league of Augsburg, for the purpose of curbing the arrogant power of France. These powers were impartially Protestant and Catholic, including the Emperor of Germany, the King of Spain, William Prince of Orange, and the Pope. The latter had but a small army, but possessed a good treasury and great influence. A few years before, a French army had marched upon Rome to avenge a slight insult offered to France, and His Holiness was more than anxious to curb the Catholic power that had dared to violate the centre of Catholicity. Hence his alliance with William Prince of Orange. In his History of Civilisation Guizot, the French Protestant Historian, says of this League:–

The League was so powerful against Louis XIV that openly or in a hidden but very real manner, sovereigns were seen to enter it who were assuredly very far from being interested in favour of civil or religious liberty. The Emperor of Germany and Pope Innocent XI supported William III against Louis XIV.

King James II of England, being insecure upon his throne, sought alliance with the French Monarch.

When, therefore, the war took place in Ireland, King William fought, aided by the arms, men, and treasuries of his allies in the league of Augsburg, and part of his expenses at the Battle of the Boyne was paid for by His Holiness, the Pope. Moreover, when news of King William’s victory reached Rome a Te Deum was sung in celebration of his victory over the Irish adherents of King James and King Louis. Similar celebrations were also held at the great Catholic capitals of Madrid and Brussels.

Nor did victory at the Boyne mean Civil and Religious Liberty! The Catholic Parliament of King James, meeting in Dublin in 1689, had passed a law that all religions were equal, and that each clergyman should be supported by his own congregation only, and that no tithes should be levied upon any man for the support of a church to which he did not belong. But this sublime conception was far from being entertained by the Williamites who overthrew King James and superseded his Parliament. The Episcopalian Church was immediately re-established, and all other religions put under the ban of the law. I need not refer to the Penal Laws against Catholics, they are well enough known. It it sufficient to point out that England and Wales have not yet attained to that degree of religious equality established by Acts XIII and XV of the Catholic Parliament of 1689, and that that date was the last in which Catholics and Protestants sat together in Parliament until the former compelled an Emancipation Act in 1829.

Mr. Fisher in an introductory note to his book, The End of the Irish Parliament, thus describes the position of the Irish people, Protestant and Catholic, after the overthrow of the Irish forces and the breach of the Articles in the Treaty of Limerick granting religious toleration:–

Not only were the representatives of Roman Catholics expressly excluded, but even the members of the Scottish colony in the North were, for the greater part of the eighteenth century, proscribed and excluded from equal civil rights by an obnoxious test which no loyal member of the Scottish Church could take.

As Mr. Fisher is a modern author of unimpeachable loyalty and opposition to all things savouring of Catholicity, Nationalism and Socialism, his evidence is valuable for the sake of those unable or unwilling to undertake the work of personal investigation of older authorities.

For the Presbyterians, the victory at the Boyne simply gave a freer hand to their Episcopalian persecutors. In 1691, after the accession of William III, a Presybterian minister was liable to three months in the common jail for delivering a sermon, and to a fine of £100 for celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

In 1704 Derry was rewarded for its heroic defence by being compelled to submit to a Test Act, which shut out of all offices in the Law, the Army, the Navy, the Customs and Excise and Municipal employment, all who would not conform to the Episcopalian Church. Ten aldermen and fourteen burgesses are said to have been disfranchised in the Maiden City by this iniquitous Act, which was also enforced all over Ireland. Thus, at one stroke, Presbyterians, Quakers and all other dissenters were deprived of what they had imagined they were fighting for.

After Derry, Aughrim and the Boyne, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Quakers, and all other dissenters from the Episcopalian Church were thus shut out from representation in any parliamentary borough. They were excluded from all seats in the Corporation, even in such places as Belfast where they then formed almost the entire population; in fact it is even alleged by Protestant writers that at that time greater toleration was shown by King William’s government and its immediate successor to Catholics than to Protestant dissenters from Episcopacy.

Presbyterians were forbidden to be married by their own clergymen, the Ecclesiastical Courts had power to fine and imprison offenders, and to compel them to appear in the Parish Church, and make public confession of fornication, if so married. At Lisburn and Tullyish, Presbyterians were actually punished for being married by their own ministers. Some years later, in 1772, a number of Presbyterians were arrested for attempting to establish a Presbyterian meeting house in Belturbet.

In 1713 the Presbyterians attempted to secure a foot-hold in Drogheda. Their rivals, the Episcopalians, took alarm and, upon a Presbyterian missionary, the Rev. James Fleming, of Lurgan, proceeding to Drogheda, he and three of his co-religionists in that town were arrested and committed to stand trial at the Assizes for ‘riot and unlawful assembly’, said offence having taken the form of a prayer meeting on Presbyterian lines. The Rev. William Biggar was also, in the following week, committed to prison for three months for the same ‘offense’. Rev. Alexander McCracken of Lisburn was fined £500 and committed to six months’ imprisonment as a ‘non-juror’.

In the same year an Act passed in the English Parliament made Presbyterian schoolmasters liable to three months’ imprisonment for teaching. The marriage of a Presbyterian and an Episcopalian was declared illegal; in fact the ministers and congregations of the former church were treated as outlaws and rebels, to be fined, imprisoned, and harassed in every possible way. They had to pay tithes for the upkeep of the Episcopalian ministers, were fined for not going to the Episcopalian Church, and had to pay Church cess for buying Sacramental bread, ringing the bell, and washing the surplices of the Episcopalian clergymen. All this, remember, in the generation immediately following the Battle of the Boyne.

Upon this point the testimony of the great anti-Catholic historian and champion of the propertied classes, Froude, is very interesting. He says:–

Vexed with suits in the ecclesiastical courts, forbidden to educate their children in their own faith, treated as dangerous to a State which but for them would have had no existence, and associated with Papists in an act of Parliament which deprived them of their civil rights, the most earnest of them abandoned the unthankful service; they saw at last that the liberties for which they and their fathers fought were not to be theirs in Ireland. If they intended to live as freemen, speaking no lies, and professing openly the creed of the Reformation they must seek a country where the long arm of Prelacy was still too short to reach them. During the first half of the eighteenth century, Down, Antrim, Tyrone, Armagh and Derry were emptied of Protestant inhabitants who were of more value to Ireland than Californian gold mines, while the scattered colonies of the South, denied chapels of their own and if they did not wish to be atheists or Papists, offered the alternative of conformity or departure, took the Government at their word and melted away.

During the turmoil following the Protestant Reformation in England it is recorded that the landed aristocracy of that country became Protestant or Catholic just as their profession of one faith or the other seemed necessary to save their estates. They were first Catholic, then turned Protestant with Henry VIII in order to share in the plunder of the rich estates of the Catholic Church, its monasteries, endowments, &c., and as monarch succeeded monarch the nobility changed their faith to suit that of the monarch, always stipulating however for the retention of their spoil.

In Ireland a somewhat similar phenomenon was witnessed at the later date with which we are dealing. The landed aristocracy amongst the Presbyterians did not withstand the persecutions but studied their comforts by renouncing their religion. The author of the History of Irish Presbyterianism says, and the saying is well corroborated elsewhere, that “the Presbyterian aristocracy had gone over to Prelacy which they had sworn to extinguish”, and in another place he thus sums up the results of this upon the political situation of the Presbyterians, and he might have included all the sects outside of the Episcopal Church in the century immediately following the Battle of the Boyne:–

Presbyterians, having no political power, had to submit to political persecutions. The feudal system which transferred the ownership of the soil from the toiler to the landlord was one of the many evils introduced by the power of England. The Presbyterian farmer was a serf who had to submit to the will of his landlord, and in elections when he had a vote, to support the enemies of his creed, his class and his country.

The Test Acts which were responsible for much of this persecution of Protestants by Protestants in the name of religion were practically abolished by the Irish Parliament under pressure by the armed Volunteers in 1780, but the iniquitous system of private ownership of land had already at that time borne bitter fruit to the Ulster Protestant farmers.

As the rank and file of the Protestant armies had been defrauded of the religious liberties for which they had fought, so also were they defrauded of their hopes of social or economic independence.

We have pointed out before, that the Ulster plantation of James I was a scheme under which the lands stolen from the natives were given to certain Crown favourites and London companies, and that the rank and file of the Protestant English and Scottish armies were only made tenants of these aristocrats and companies. Tyrone, Derry, Donegal, Fermanagh, Armagh and Cavan were entirely confiscated. The plan was worked out by Sir Arthur Chichester, ancestor of the Marquis of Donegal. For his share in the transaction he received the entire territories of the clansmen of Sir Cahir O’Doherty; the London companies, which had financed the war, received 209,800 acres out of a total of 500,000 acres, and other ancestors of the Orange aristocracy got the rest. In addition to the above-mentioned plunder, when Sir Arthur Chichester resigned his position as Lord Deputy in 1616, he received certain lands in Antrim and the title of Baron of Belfast.

All the Antrim lands were settled by a Protestant tenantry, the Catholics being driven to the hills and glens or allowed to remain on sufferance as labourers. As was natural from the political circumstances of the time, and in order to preserve the appearance of fairness, these Protestant tenants were at first granted very long leases. Under the security of tenure afforded by these leases, they worked hard, reclaimed the land, built houses, drained, fenced, and improved the property.

Also, under the terms of the promise given by William III, when in answer to the petition of the English woollen manufacturers he suppressed that industry in Ireland, but promised bounties to the linen industry as a compensation, the cultivation of flax and the manufacture of linen grew up in Antrim as a further contribution to the prosperity of the tenants of Lord Donegal.

But in and about the year 1772 the leases began to expire all over the country. What happened then is best told in the words of the Remonstrance of Northern Protestants sent to the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Townshend, in that year:–

The landlords thirsted to share the people’s benefits by raising their rents which would have been very reasonable to a moderate degree, but of late they had run to great excesses.

When the tenant’s lease was ended, they published in the newspapers that such a parcel of land was to be let, and that proposals in writing would be received for it. They invited every covetous, envious, and malicious person to offer for his neighbour’s possessions and improvements. The tenant, knowing he must be the highest bidder, or turn out he knew not whither, would offer more than their value. If he complained to the landlord that it was too dear, the landlord answered that he knew it was, but that as it was in a trading country, the tenant could make up the deficiency by his industry.

Those who possessed the greatest estates were now so rich that they could not find delicacies enough in their own country to bestow their wealth on, but carried it abroad to lavish there the entire day's sweat of thousands of poor people.

The two worst extortioners were Lord Donegal and a Mr. Upton. On the estate of Lord Donegal a large number of the leases expired simultaneously. The landlord refused to renew them unless he received the enormous sum of £100,000 in fines as a free gift for his generosity. As the tenants could not raise this great sum they offered to pay the interest upon it in addition to their rent, but this was refused, and then some “hard-headed, shrewd and enterprising Belfast capitalists” offered the money to my lord and secured the farms over the head of the tenants, who were accordingly evicted. According to Froude, in his English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (and Froude was as bitter, malevolent and anti-Irish a historian as ever wrote), “In the two years that followed the Antrim evictions, thirty thousand Protestants left Ulster for a land where there was no legal robbery, and where those who sowed the seed could reap the harvest”.

Those who remained at home did not accept their fate with complacency, nor show that voluntary abasement before the aristocracy characteristic of their descendants to-day. They formed a secret society – ‘The Hearts of Steel’ – which strove by acts of terrorism to redress some of their grievances. In a manifesto issued by this organisation in 1772 the following sentence appears:–

The Supreme Judge himself had excited them to commotion, to cause the landlords on whom no mild means will prevail to observe the pale faces and the thin clothing of their honest Protestant subjects who had enriched the country by their industry.

When in the same year six of their number were arrested and lodged in the town jail of Belfast, the members of this Society assembled from all parts of Down and Antrim, marched upon Belfast, stormed the jail, and released their comrades. The thin clothing and pale faces of honest Protestant workers are still in evidence in Belfast. Let us hope that they will ere long be marching again to storm the capitalist system which has for so long imprisoned not only the bodies but the souls of their class.


Last updated on 15.8.2003