Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights

The 16th-17th Century Plantation of Ireland

During the 16th and 17th Century, the English Monarchy and Parliament attained effective dominion over the island of Ireland through a series of confiscations of Irish Catholic-owned land, and the subsequent colonization of this land by settlers from England and Scotland. These ‘plantations’ were to cause extreme demographic and political changes, led at least in part to the irreparable decline of the Irish language, and effectively amounted to a policy of genocide against the Irish Catholic population.

Plantations of Ireland

Many of these plantations were not just tools of colonization; they were also punitive measures that were taken in response to attempted rebellions. Early attempts at small-scale plantations were somewhat unsuccessful, as the dispossessed Irish often took to guerilla raids on the new colonies, resulting in a number of revenge atrocities against the natives and a lack of enthusiasm among would-be English and Scottish settlers for the lands in question. The Munster Plantation of the 1580s was to be the first mass plantation of the country. It was undertaken in response to the Desmond Rebellions. The Crown forces, led by Earl Arthur Grey, used brutal, scorched earth tactics to put down the rebellion of Gerald Fitzgerald, the earl of Desmond, resulting in a serious famine which had killed as many as 30,000 people in just six months in 1582. In all, up to a third of the population of the province may have been killed as a result of the famine which resulted from the English activities in the area, and the province was reduced to a “barren wasteland”. This approach was later advocated by Edmund Spenser in his pamphlet “A View of the Present State of Ireland” as being a suitable way to conquer and subjugate Ireland.

            “Out of everye corner of the woode and glynnes they came creepeinge forth upon theire hands, for theire legges could not beare them; they looked Anatomies of death, they spake like ghostes, crying out for their graves…if they found a lott of watercresses or shamrocks theyr they flocked as to a feast for the time…yet sure in all that war, there perished not manye by the sword but all by the extremitie of famine which they themselves had wrought.”- (Edmund Spenser, quoted in Jenkins, 1952; p132)

The process of plantation continued with the Ulster Plantation, which began in 1606. Again, native Irish Catholics were displaced from their lands in response to their participation in the Nine Years War of 1594-1603, and also due to the departure of Irish Catholic nobility from Ulster for Spain, where they had hoped to raise a force capable of mounting a new rebellion against the English Monarch. It is this plantation which has arguably had the most enduring tangible effects, as it was responsible for the creation of the large Protestant and Presbyterian groups which now hold a demographic majority in Northern Ireland.

Oliver Cromwell

The process of plantation was completed with the Cromwellian plantation of 1652, which was conducted largely as a result of the Irish support for King Charles I in the English Civil War, and the related Irish Confederate Wars, which were a concerted effort by an Irish Catholic government to reverse the plantation system. In revenge for this, Oliver Cromwell led an army of 12,000 men (mostly hardened veterans of the Civil War) in August 1649 to Dublin. This force immediately marched north towards the walled town of Drogheda, which was besieged, sacked and pillaged with the loss of around 1,000 Irish troops and as many as 3,000 civilians, with many of the survivors being sold into slavery. A week after this, the Cromwellian forces similarly laid waste to the town of Wexford in a calculated act of terror against the Irish Catholic population. Over the course of the next few years, his forces attacked and defeated Catholic armies and garrisons in several different towns and cities throughout the country, ultimately ending the Confederate Wars.

Following the pacification of the Irish and Royalist forces, Cromwell enacted a series of penal laws against Irish Catholics, which included banning Catholics from holding office in the Irish Parliament and which expelled Catholic clergy from the country and made the practice of Catholic Mass illegal. Additionally, Catholics were forbidden from living in towns. Most importantly, major land confiscations were undertaken. Any Catholic landowner who had participated in the Confederate Wars were stripped of their lands and deported to the West Indies as slaves (about 40,000 people in total); other Catholic landowners likewise had their properties seized, although they were allowed to receive lands in the western-most province of the country (which were often much poorer than the lands they had given up) in compensation. This was principally done to control the Catholic landlords, by pinning them between the Atlantic Ocean and the River Shannon. Shortly after this, the percentage of Catholic landowners in the country had dropped from roughly 60% of the population to merely 8%. In addition, it has been estimated that as much as a third of the Irish Catholic population of the time was killed or deported.