The Ulster Land War of 1770



The tide of daring reprisals had now swelled to its flood. Everywhere it was the same. Bodies of armed men had assembled and set fire to the houses they had built and had been evicted from, or maimed the cattle of those who had taken the farms from which they were driven.

Some magistrates, sympathising with the people, refused to act at all; some welcomed an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with the government (the source of all patronage in Ireland) and became very active. Many of these were not unrewarded. Others acted because they wished to maintain the position they and their friends had taken up as land holders.

By the middle of 1772 the agitation had become less fierce, not by reason of the hearts of steel growing less determined, but because undertakers and magistrates increasingly became more moderate in their dealings, in face of the storm that their many high-handed acts had provoked, and also in view of the royal expressions regarding their conduct.

On the 2nd June the lord lieutenant, addressing parliament, said:–

“My lords and gentlemen.

It gives me great pleasure to observe that the tumults and outrages of the lower ranks of the people, which, unhappily, disturbed some of the northern counties in this kingdom, have now subsided. I flatter myself that these deluded people are fully convinced of the atrociousness of their attempts and of the impossibility of effecting any of the purposes intended by them.

I would, however, recommend it to such gentlemen whose weight and influence lie particularly in those parts to have a watchful eye over their behaviour and to exert themselves with the other civil magistrates in enforcing a due obedience to the laws, and I doubt not but by their authority on the one hand, and by their justice and moderation on the other, a thorough reformation will be effected and the disposition of the people reclaimed to peace and good order.

It gives me great concern to see the assistance of the military power so frequently called upon, for nothing can be more worthy of your serious reflection than to render that resource unnecessary by a judicious improvement of your police, and providing for the due execution of the laws.”
“News Letter, June 9th, 1772.”

The magistrates in the different counties, however, evidently feared any withdrawal of the military.

The sheriff and grand jury of co. Down sent an address to the viceroy, stating that the troops were absolutely necessary to preserve peace and enforce the law in their county.

The following address from Armagh was also sent:

“To his excellency George lord viscount Townshend, lord lieutenant general and general governor of the kingdom of Ireland.

The humble address of the high sheriff and grand jury of Armagh.

We, the high sheriff and grand jury of the county of Armagh, assembled at summer assizes, 1772, sensible of the good effects of your excellency’s assistance in suppressing the late tumultuous risings in this and other counties of the kingdom, think it our indispensable duty to observe to your excellency that the continuance of the same will be absolutely necessary for the safety and peace of this county, particularly since the acquittal of such of the insurgents as were lately tried in the county of Dublin”

This last had reference to those who were tried and acquitted for taking part in the fight at Gilford against Johnston.

The application of the magistrates seems to have been successful, for it is reported in the month of September:–

“Drogheda, 22nd September, 1772. Yesterday ten waggons laden with ammunition, guarded by a party of foot, passed through this town on their way to the north.”

Some trials still went on, but ordinary juries were not to be relied on for convictions.

“Derry Assizes, 19th September (Saturday), 1772.–
Thursday last our assizes ended, at which no one was capitally convicted, nor any remarkable trial, except 15 of the people called hearts of steel, who were tried and acquitted. By some mistake of those who had the care of these men, they made their escape out of court without paying their fees, and notwithstanding an immediate pursuit, they got clear off.”

“Some mistake” was probably a “friend in court” who sympathised with the unfortunate people in their troubles, as they had many friends in many places.
A milder tone was becoming more apparent every day with the authorities. The magistrates were not acting with quite the same ferocity as they had used at the beginning of the agitation, and, as a consequence, the volume of acts of reprisal on the part of the people was lessening appreciably.

Viceroy Townshend’s last proclamation before leaving Ireland is more conciliatory than usual.

“Dublin Castle.
By the lord lieutenant general and general governor of Ireland.

A proclamation.
Whereas, since the month of July, 1770, many wicked and dangerous insurgents have, in a most daring and illegal manner, assembled themselves with arms in large bodies in the counties of Antrim, Down, Armagh, city and county of Derry and county of Tyrone, and have committed divers treasonable and other capital and enormous offences sub- versive of public order and tranquility and ruinous to the morals and industry of the people.

And whereas many persons stand indicted for the said offences, and particularly for the murder of the rev. Samuel Murrell, deceased, several of whom have not yet been appre- hended, which said murder was committed by some malicious persons armed with guns and other fire arms, many other persons having been then present and unlawfully assembled with them, but not intending to join in perpetrating the said treason and murder.

And whereas great numbers of the laborious inhabitants and lower manufacturers in said counties, who have been unwarily drawn and seduced into the said evil practices by the artifices of several wicked persons who were the principal offenders therein, have incurred the pains and penalties inflicted by law on such offences, and under apprehensions thereof do now abscond and neglect their proper business, to the great impoverishment of themselves and their families, who depend on their labour and industry for their support, and to the great obstruction of the linen manufacture in those counties.

And whereas it hath been represented to us by the principal gentlemen of the said counties that, inasmuch as the said treasonable and other illegal proceedings are in a great measure suppressed, the extending his majesty’s most gracious and free pardon to the said several deluded persons who are charged with the said offences, or any of them, with exceptions, nevertheless, of all the principal and most notorious offenders therein, may prove a seasonable act of mercy to those who have been so unwarily seduced, as aforesaid; may restore quiet and security to the said counties, and encourage the well disposed inhabitants to return to their labour and industry. We, the lord lieutenant, therefore, as being desirous to reclaim by mercy, where there is a proper foundation for lenity, as we are determined to punish with the utmost rigour of the law all said great and notorious offenders as have presumed by their treasonable and flagitious outrages to violate the laws and disturb the public peace; and having a tender sense of the sufferings of such industrious members of the community as have been led from their duty by the wicked arts and evil example of all designing persons, do, with the advice of his majesty’s privy courcil of this kingdom, grant by these presents his majesty’s most gracious and free pardon to all and every person and persons concerned in or charged with the said several offences, or any of them, so committed by the said person or persons so unlawfully assembled in great numbers or bodies of men, as aforesaid, except the several persons hereinafter named and described, namely *****

And except also all persons guilty of treason against his majesty’s royal person or against the state. And also except all persons guilty of arson or burning of houses, provided always that such of the said persons who stand indicted for any of the said offences hereby intended to be pardoned, shall, before the last day of the next ensuing assizes to be held for the county in which the said indictment has been found, enter into a recognizance in the sum of £100, with two sureties each in the sum of £50 for keeping the peace and being of good behaviour for three years next ensuing the date of the said recognizance.

And we do hereby strictly charge and command all justices of the peace, magistrates of cities and towns corporate, high and petty constables, and all other his majesty’s civil officers that they do not, at any time after the date of this our proclamation, disturb, detain, or molest any person or per- sons save only the several persons hereinbefore excepted and described for or on account of his or their being concerned in or present at, or aiding in or abetting any, of the said dis- turbances in the beforementioned counties, or any of them, as they shall answer the contrary at their peril.

Charging and commanding, nevertheless, all officers and civil magistrates, in case of any future disturbances, to use such methods for suppressing the same as by the laws of the land they are directed and required.

Given at his majesty’s castle of Dublin, the 5th day of November, 1772.
By his excellency’s command,”

At the close of the year the viceroyalty of Townshend came to an end. He left Ireland on 12th December, 1772. With this year, also, the agitation of the hearts of steel practically ended. In the succeeding years matters quieted down; and as time went on reprisals became more and more isolated, until they died away. Good work, however, was done. The protestant and presbyterian tenant farmers had it forced upon them that unless they fought for their right to live on the land they cultivated, that landlord exactions, the greed of the land-owning and law-making class, would inevitably drive them from Ireland. They fought fiercely and, at times wickedly, it may be, when forced to do so; but dire necessity knows no law; they carried on their agitation in the face of all the power of vested interest, and of the governing class, and without their vital struggle and enormous sacrifice Ulster tenant right and the Ulster customs would never have become a reality, and the remnants of a strong agricultural class would have dwindled to mere serfs, without any rights or claims on the houses they built and the lands they cultivated. More than that, their actions drove a fear into the undertakers a fear of a force they never dared or wished to face again; and so, in later days, what was fought for in 1770 became legally admitted over Ireland a hundred years later, and what Ulster had won, Ireland has received.

The whole case is put plainly and forcibly by an Englishman and a stranger, John Wesley, the preacher, who visited Belfast at this time.

He wrote in his journal:

“1773, Tuesday, 15th June. When I came to Belfast I learned the real cause of the late insurrection in this neigh- bourhood. Lord Donegall, the proprietor of almost the whole country, came hither to give his tenants new leases. But when they came they found two merchants of the town had taken their farms over their heads; so that multitudes of them, with their wives and children, were turned out to the wide world. It is no wonder that, as their lives were now bitter to them, they should fly out as they did. It is rather a wonder that they did not go much farther; and if they had, who would have been most in fault? Those who were without home, without money, without food for themselves and families, or those who drove them to this extremity?”

Ulster suffered heavily in many ways for the folly of the governing classes.

The News Letter (16th April, 1773) states:–

“It is computed that within forty years past 400,000 people have left this kingdom to go and settle in America.”

This is probably an underestimate, and, at best, is only part of the loss. Imprisonment, hanging, with its train of fatherless families and broken-hearted widows, desolated homes, and the countless miseries of a people set adrift, not knowing whither to go. Added to this the utter dislocation of agriculture and commerce that such an upheaval brought about served to keep the whole country impoverished for generations afterwards.

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