The Ulster Land War of 1770



The hearts of steel, although extending over large portions of Ulster, were not an organisation in the modern sense of the term. It was the spontaneous action of the men of each townland or each parish, rather than an organised movement directed from a common centre. They swore each other to be “true as steel,” but do not seem to have had any one particular form of oath or initiation. Similar grievances drove them to similar spontaneous action in different places.

Here is a manifesto sent by the hearts of steel of a particular district, which explains their aims quite fully.

“Copy of a letter sent messrs. Joy, dated l0th March, 1772.

‘Oppression makes a wise man mad.’ Bible.

“Whereas many false and malicious reports have been propagated concerning those persons who assemble themselves together, and are known by the name of hearts of steel, especially the charges of rebellion and high treason, in an address lately emitted by either a real or pretended weaver, &c.

Now we, the hearts of steel, who assemble ourselves in the parish of Magherally, in the county of Down, do for ourselves, and in the name of all for whom we correspond, declare before the all-seeing God, who holdeth the hearts of steel in his hand, as well as the hearts of kings, and before the candid and impartial world, that we are true and loyal subjects to his present majesty, our most gracious sovereign George the third, king of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, defender of our faith and privileges. That we will, with our lives and properties, defend his majesty’s person and government against the unjust attempts of all popish pretenders to the crown of these realms, and, should a proper person be appointed, we would assemble and take the present state oaths, and otherwise subject ourselves to the laws respecting government. The behaviour of the protestants and dissenters of the north of Ireland in former and late wars will testify with what unskahen loyalty they carried arms in defence of our happy constitution and the ‘very best of kings.’ These are facts, not words, more sufficient to cast light on our conduct than the base assertions of forty weavers of presbyterian linen, and it has been reported we are a presbyterian mob. We do hereby declare that amongst us are protestants belonging to the established church, as well as dissenters, but not one Roman catholic is ever suffered to appear amongst us. We are also charged with refusing to pay the county cess. We do indeed think one penny per acre sufficient to defray al county charges, considering it is payable twice a year. We know also that the county is imposed upon by the perversion of public money to evil purposes; for some overseers of roads have from ten to forty shillings sterling per day, and some who affect to be called gentlemen have their garden walks repaired also; these are facts we can prove if called upon. Yet, hoping the gentlemen of this county will in future have some pity on the distressed inhabitants, we hereby desire the high constable to issue forth the proper warrants, and the petty constables to execute their offices. They shall meet no molestation from us or any of us in levying the present cess. For the main end and design of our rising is to endeavour to put a stop to oppression in the article of lands. In this case oppression has come to such a height that we are absolutely unable to bear the burden thereof and procure the common necessaries of life for ourselves and starving families, for by the oversetting of our lands the most of the tenants in Magherally are reduced to a state of poverty within these few years. We believe the lands of Magherally at the utmost stretch cannot be lived upon at any price beyond ten shillings by the acre as a mean or middle price, making allowance upward and downward lor better and worse. This we are willing to pay, and more we cannot.

It is not wanton folly prompts us to be hearts of steel; it is the dreadful height of oppression; and was the cause removed the effects would cease, and ‘government and our landed gentry’ would find the very best security against future risings of this kind, the affections of the people.

We further declare that all persons who take the name of hearts of steel in order to impose upon the credulous and exact contributions of the country shall, if taken (which we will endeavour to do), be made public examples to deter others from like practices. And that we will cause all petty peddling thieves to remove out of our bounds, who, though a nuisance to society, yet from some circumstances cannot be overtaken by a prosecution at law.”

“Dated at Magherally this 10th day of March, 1772, and signed by order of the hearts of steel, William Willson, Secretary.”

The exposure of the grand jury system in cess collecting and private peculation is clearly borne out by facts, whilst the rack renting was notorious. The profuse expressions of “loyalty” are somewhat absurd under the circumstances, although the “very best of kings” had no sympathy whatever with the actions of men like Donegall, seeing their conduct caused trouble in an unprepared quarter when he had so many foreign complications on hands at the time, and “the overgreediness and harshness of landlords” had deprived “the kingdom of a number of his majesty’s most industrious and valuable subjects.” An earlier George had cursed the laws which deprived him of such of “his Irish subjects” as had administered to his royal butcher brother such a healthy drubbing at Fontenoy.

That some connected with the movement adopted a more stern method of enforcing the demands is evidenced by a document addressed to Madame Bready, of Greiange, by “The true hearts of steel,” and runs as follows:–

“Madam, I command you to set your land to the old tenens which now is in it at a resonable rent. To be sure we harts of steel knows that you are a lonly woman, and dis not ceair for hortin you, for we will allow you a proaper rent for it, which I think 6s. 6d. a aker is sefisent for it, and a us. 41/2d. for each leas, and we alow your tenends to be obligen to you must take ceair to ansr our requist hi setin your land or if you do not you may expect bad treitment from us soon. So be sure to take our advise at the furst and we will be your friend and homble servants.–C. Justice and C. Fierbrand.
” God save king Georg the third and his subjects the true harts of steel.”

The above was dated 12th March, 1772, and within a month George m. wrote to the viceroy of Ireland, April 6th, 1772:–
“It has given the king great pleasure to hear that the disturbances in the north of Ireland are likely to be quelled without danger or further effusion of blood; but his majesty’s humanity was at the same time greatly affected by hearing your excellency’s opinion that they (the disturbances) owe their rise to private oppression, and that the over greediness and harshness of landlords may be a means of depriving the kingdom of a number of his majesty’s most industrious and valuable subjects. The king does not doubt but that your excellency will endeavour by every means in your power to convince persons of property of their infatuation in this respect, and instil into them principles of equity and moderation, which it is to be feared can only apply an efficient remedy to the evil.”

Thus wrote king George in 1772 on behalf of the Irish tenant farmers, but no effort was made to stop the “private oppression,” “over-greediness,” and “harshness of Irish landlords.”

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