The Ulster Land War of 1770



The Ulster land war of the eighteenth century was only the acute phase of a large movement the long drawn out struggle between the rent exacters and the tenants. Its start was inevitable after the conditions of the plantation had been broken by the undertakers, and it is only in our own day that it has come to an end with the paying off of a class that used their opportunities for oppression, injustice, and personal aggression. “They rose in dark and evil days” can well be said of these land tillers who banded themselves together as hearts of steel. They posted by stealth their proclamations and threats; they fired houses, they maimed cattle; they broke the laws framed for their oppression; they suffered imprisonment and transportation and hanging rather than suffer the grinding injustice imposed upon them by the rent exacter of the fields they tilled.

The hearts of steel originated on the estate of the earl of Donegall in the county of Antrim. They were men of the tenant farmer, artisan, and labouring classes descendants of protestant and presbyterian planters, and of soldiers in the armies of the plantation, who found that without definite and vigorous organisation in the interests of the people the rent exacters and dissolute lords of the country would lay year by year heavier burdens on their shoulders and drive them into a deeper and more hopeless poverty.

The causes that forced the Ulster farmers into organisations like the hearts of steel were mainly the same as those which led to the formation of the whiteboys the peep o’ day boys, the oak boys to name a few of the combinations that the poor had to enter into for their better protection against the ever-growing encroachments of the rich planters.

The whiteboys in the south, who were catholic, combined to resist landlord exactions, the enclosing of common land, the collection of tithes from them for the ascendant religion, and the penal restrictions, under which the Irish catholic had practically no legal status. The hearts of steel in the north were almost entirely presbyterian and protestant; their grievances were the exactions of the undertakers and middlemen, the tithes of the clergy of the established church, bad trade and bad labour conditions, and the injustice of many employers.

The presbyterians, as well as the catholics, were disabled under the Test Act; they suffered from tithes, unjust cess, heavy taxation, and, above and beyond all, from the greed of the undertakers; and so Ulster tenant right was the great question, the driving power which gathered under its flag all those discontented on account of other matters, and the hearts of steel became, in a word, the “land league” of the tenant right movement of “presbyterian Ulster.”

The Ulster of later years pretended to assume a fine indignation over the actions of the land league of the eighties and the cattle drives of 1908 (though one cannot see that it is ever slow to benefit by any advantages thus obtained); yet, in the battle for tenant right Ulster’s land league, the hearts of steel, adopted tactics beside which its modern “up the country” followers and imitators were tame and law-abiding in many ways; and had it not been for the vigour with which they committed “outrage” after “outrage” it is very doubtful if the Ulster tenant farmer would have enjoyed the comparative security of tenure that he has since held.

But the tenant right movement dates back long before the actual formation of the hearts of steel. That organisation was the outcome, and the people’s answer to a culminating act of intolerable injustice.

As early as 1727 the relations between the undertaker and the land tiller in Ulster had been the cause of great trouble. The former were mainly the descendants of soldiers of fortune, court favourites, criminals, traders, or monied middlemen, who had stolen or been given by those who had so acquired large tracts of land from the Irish people in the preceding century. The tenants were the descendants of the settlers brought over on terms by those who had got such grants of the Irish lands.

These tenant settlers had come over on the definite arrangement that when they had built their own homesteads and tilled the land they were to have a fixed and definite interest in the land they so improved. Land was given to them at nominal rents, and some of it was of the same nominal value when it came into their possession; and it was owing to their industry that it had improved and was of more value. It was let to them on leases for varying terms; and they never doubted that on the expiration of these leases they would be renewed on the same, or, at least, on fair and reasonable terms, as the undertakers, by their grants, were bound to do. When, in course of time, leases began to fall in, the struggle started that has been going on till our own time. Added to this primary trouble between undertaker and tenant there were other causes of discontent on the part of the people. Bad crops, bad trade, and the ensuing poverty weighed heavily on the farmer and the tradesman. Primate Boulter (1724 to 1738), writing to the archbishop of Canterbury in 1728, said: “We are under great troubles here about a frenzy that has taken hold of very great numbers to leave this country for the West Indies (North America), and we are endeavouring to learn what may be the reasons of it and the proper remedies.” In a letter to the duke of Newcastle in the same year (1728) he stated that for some years there have been agents coming from the American colonies, “and deluded the people with stories of great plenty, and estates to be had for going for in those parts of the world.”

It is interesting to see that in 1728 the American colonies were touting for emigrants, and using exactly the same means as a newer colony, Canada, is using to-day. During the summer of 1727 more than 3,000 persons from Ulster had taken ship for America. Scarcely one in ten could pay the cost of his passage, and the rest hired themselves for their passage, or contracted with masters of ships for four years servitude, “selling themselves as servants for their subsistence.”

“The humour,” says Boulter, “has spread like a contagious distemper, and the people will hardly hear anybody that tries to cure them of their madness. The worst is that it affects only protestants, and reigns chiefly in the north, which is the seat of our linen manufacture.”

The question of the tenants’ wrongs had thus forced thousands of families to quit their homes, some for America, facing four years’ servitude to pay their passages; some for the towns though these were few; and numbers for the life of the roads, begging from all they met, or joining the bands of tories and rapparees that then flourished.

The protestant clergy memorialised the lord lieutenant, setting forth the grievances of the people that led to the exodus. The memorial was forwarded to the English government along with the comments thereon by primate Boulter.

Many of the undertakers had laid down large portions of the land in grass in order to avoid the payment of tithes; thus an added burden was thrown on to the tenants who tilled, as the tilled land was especially subject to tithe. The under- takers had also striven to strengthen their hold and power over the land, deeming the same absolute to the exclusion of all rights by the tenants, as clearly enjoined in their grants as undertakers. In his comments on the memorial Boulter says: “If a landlord (undertaker) takes too great a portion of the profits of a farm for his share by way of rent (as the tithe will light on the tenant’s share), the tenant will be impoverished; but then, it is not the tithe, but the increased rent, that undoes the farmer; and indeed, in this country, where, I fear, the tenant hardly ever has more than one-third of the profits, he makes of his farm for his share, and too often but a fourth, or perhaps a fifth part, as the tenant’s share is charged with the tithe, his case is, no doubt, hard, but it is plain from what side the hardship arises.”

The tenants were sometimes cited to appear in the ecclesiastical courts for non-payment of these tithes, and if they failed to appear, they were excommunicated. “Possibly,” says Boulter, “when a writ de excommunicato cafiiendo is taken out, and they find they have £7 or £8 to pay, they run away; for the greatest part of the occupiers of the land here are so poor that an extraordinary stroke of £8 or £10 falling on them is certain ruin to them.” And he relates that in his own experience many of the clergy have chosen to forget their “small dues” rather than go to the great expense in getting them. This reason for foregoing tithe is peculiarly typical of ecclesiastical polity.

Arthur Dobbs–a county Antrim man–in his Essay on the trade and imports of Ireland (1730), after discussing the bishops, who, in order to make the most out of the church lands, “take fines from three to three years, and from seven to seven years,” goes on to speak of the undertakers’ extravagance and the position of the tenants as follows:– Have not tenants daily instances before them of landlords squandering away their time and money, and living above their fortunes upon the prospect they have of retrieving their affairs at the expiration of such leases by raising extraordinary fines, or setting their lands to those who offer most for them? Upon renewal, the improving tenant must pay for the land- lord’s extravagance a sum of money equivalent to the improvement he has made and the utmost value of the land, in case he has been so provident as to have acquired any money, which seldom happens upon such tenures; or he must give a nominal great rent for the future if he renews his lease, otherwise the next person who offers a trifle more gets his land, and he is turned adrift, to serve in a like manner the next whose lease is expired

“What was it induced so many of the commonalty lately to go to America but high rents, bad seasons, and want of good tenures or a permanent property in their lands? This kept them so poor and low that they scarce had sufficient credit to procure necessaries to subsist or to till their ground. They never had anything in store; all was from hand to mouth, so one or two bad crops broke them. Others found their stock dwindling and decaying visibly, and so they removed before all was gone, whilst they had as much left as would pay their passage, and had little more than would carry them to the American shore. This, it may be allowed, was the occasion of the poor farmers going who had their rents lately raised; but, it may be objected, that was not the reason why rich farmers went, and those who had several years in beneficial leases yet unexpired who sold those bargains and removed with the effects. But it is plain they all went for the same reason; for these last, from daily examples before them, saw the present occupiers dispossessed of their lands at the expiration of their leases, and no preference given to them, so they expected it would soon be their own case; to avoid which and make the most of the years yet unexpired, they sold and carried their effects with them to procure a settlement in a country where they had reason to expect a permanent property.”

Such being the state of the tenant farmers of Ulster, the long campaign to secure their rights under the planters’ grants and some fixity of tenure for the tiller of the soil was inevitable; and it is in the next year (1731) that the first reference to tenant right in print is to be found, in the publication of Enquiry into the tenant rights of those who hold lands of church and other foundations, by Everard Fleetwood.

The undertakers sought to go on raising rents with every fresh improvement of the tenant, or with the advent of every new comer who was willing to bid a higher figure than the occupying tenant.

Two or three bad seasons reduced the already impoverished people to a state bordering on famine. The corn crop was so poor that the primate set on foot a subscription in Dublin to buy food and distribute it to the people, and prevent all Ulster flying to America, in which case “the plantation” would be entirely undone.

After all the infinite trouble and infinite cost of planting a protestant population in Ulster, which had been the work of the English government for a hundred and fifty years, they came near losing such a protestant population by emigration, owing to the exactions of a protestant church and protestant rack renters. Corn was cheap and abundant in the south of Ireland, but the people there objected to their corn going to feed the planters. They broke open the storehouses where corn for the north was lying waiting shipment; and weeks elapsed before £3,000 worth of oats, oatmeal and potatoes could be got down to the starving Ulster men. Then we find the primate writing: “The humour of going to America still continues, and the scarcity of provisions certainly makes many quit us. There are now seven ships at Belfast that are carrying off 1,000 passengers thither, and if we knew how to stop them, as most of them can neither get victuals nor work at home, it would be cruel to do it.”

The presbyterian clergy, who had fortunately lost the tithes, which they had deemed a great hardship, suffered considerably, many having their incomes reduced from £50 a year to below £15.

The protestant primate, churchman though he was, appealed to sir Robert Walpole for the restoration of £400 a year, which had been given to the non-conforming clergy of the north of Ireland from the privy purse by Geo. I., in addition to the £1,200 royal bounty, which had previously been suspended.

“It is,” he said, “but doing them justice to affirm that they are very well affected to his majesty and his royal family, and, by best inquiries I could make, do their best endeavours to keep their congregations from deserting the country, not more than one or two of the younger ministers having anyways encouraged the humour now prevailing here; and his majesty’s goodness in giving them some extraordinary relief on this occasion of their present great distress would undoubtedly make them more active to retain their people here. I cannot help mentioning on this occasion that what with scarceness of corn in the north and the loss of all credit there, and by the numbers that go, or talk of going, to America; and with the disturbances in the south, this kingdom is at present in a deplorable condition.”

When the primate had gone on his visitation in 1726, he “met all the roads full of whole families that had left their homes to beg abroad.”

The archbishop accounts for it by stating that many persons had let large tracts of land from 3,000 to 4,000 acres, which were stocked with cattle, and had no other inhabitants on their land than so many cottiers as were necessary to look after their sheep and black cattle, “so that in some of the finest counties in many places there is neither house nor cornfield to be seen in ten or fifteen miles’ travelling, and daily in some counties many gentlemen, as their leases fall into their hands, tie up their tenants from tillage, and this is one of the main causes why so many venture to go into foreign service at the hazard of their lives if taken, because they cannot get land to till at home.”

The present day evil, of parts of the country being turned into great cattle ranches to the utter extirpation of the people was thus a very dominant danger in Ulster during the period under review, and it was met in a truly Ulster way and never allowed to become a permanency in the planted counties.

They were a hardy, stubborn race, these Ulster Irish, and the sons of a long line of fighters. The exactions that ground them down to the poverty line, the tithes of the established church, the unjust cess, the rack rents, and the social disabilities, bad laws and bad trade, all combined to make them turn their eyes to the rising American colonies. The growing system of a newly named “landlord” dominance drove them to seek a fresh home in America they went full of hatred for the English constitution under which they had been driven out, and they were the men or the fathers of the men who helped to drive the English power out of America during the American war of independence. Ulster fathers and mothers instilled into their sons the bitter lessons learned on many an Ulster hillside.

For another twenty years matters went on, sometimes better, sometimes worse; with every year fleets of ships sailing from the Foyle and Larne and Carrickfergus to carry the people to America, and with every year fresh impositions on the part of the undertakers; and shoals of people turned adrift from the homes they had built and thought they had made their own to find some security in other lands, or to beg on the roads if they were too poor to go away. Thus was founded and nurtured the class of tramps which we have with us to the present day the literal outcast that is, those cast out from the land and reduced to beggary by iniquitous laws.

Now and again some act of injustice more flagrant than usual begot reprisals on the part of the people. Then for a season a few townlands, a parish, or a whole county would be in a state of quasi rebellion; but with the removal of the cause or of those who suffered from it, discontent subsided only to be aroused again, and yet again.

One would have thought that a common oppression would have tended more to firmly unite the oppressed than it did that the fiery animosity of the creeds, that has made the name of Ulster infamous for two centuries, would have become more softened, and that a common degradation would have united the tenants in common action.

To a certain extent it was so; and archbishop Boulter, speaking of Wood’s halfpence, pathetically laments: “But the worst of this is that it tends to unite protestant with papist, and whenever that happens, good-bye to the English interest in Ireland for ever.” The English policy was ever to avoid this risk. It was as stated by sir John Davies: “to make a perpetual separation and enmity between the English and the Irish.”

But in the main the bitterness of the feud between the creeds was not allowed to abate one jot, but was kept continually fomented. In many parts of Ulster the protestant farmers were persuaded to bear the callous greed of the undertakers with a false resignation, resting in the assurance of their clergy and advisers that if he was crippled the papists were ruined utterly. Ulster leaders fanned the creed of hatred, instead of the good feeling that might have secured at once tenant right for catholic and protestant alike, banding them together in their common interests; and so, until recent years, a bigotry that the middle ages would have been ashamed of was deliberately cultivated in Ulster by English political parties, and often by the local clergy and undertakers, and in later years by interested parties and a venal press.

In their exactions from their tenants on the church lands the protestant clergy were no whit behind the worst undertakers in the country. They took their cue from them, and never aimed at a higher example. Their “small dues,” as Boulter calls them, whether of rent or tithe, were exacted relentlessly the rapacity of many of them knew no limit. The Belfast News Letter of 26th February, 1754, reports:

“Letters from Dublin say that the patriots, who are the majority of the house of commons, intend to move for opening the grand committee of religion; and

“1st. To inquire of non-residents [clergy] and pluralists by whose neglect the people of their parishes, for want of instruction, remain ignorant papists or infidels.
“2dly. Into exorbitant fines and refusal of renewal of church leases, whereby the tenant’s right is infringed and he, by the uncertainty of the tenure, prevented from amending his estate, whereby the public lose about 500,000 a year of improvements, which would have been made if the tenant’s right of renewal of church lands had not been infringed.”

This “grand committee” was, of course, entirely protestant, as was the whole parliament.

The clergy, whose head expressed boundless solicitude for the people ground under the heel of the undertakers, could themselves exact fines and high rents of which even the worst of the undertakers would have been ashamed. Many bishops came from England, and in a short tenure of office amassed huge fortunes, squeezed out of the unfortunate tenants, mostly of other creeds than their own. (See Appendix)

The protestant clergy had not only excited the hatred of the people by their exactions, but they had also excited the hostility of many of the undertakers as well. At a meeting of the patriot club, held in the market house, Belfast, 16th April, 1755, Arthur Upton, of Templepatrick, in the county of Antrim, in the chair, this resolution was passed: “May all prelates be for ever delivered from attempting to influence the house of commons of Ireland.”

This established church was reactionary and corrupt in its dealings with the people; and it sided with the reactionary and corrupt in parliament. As a consequence, spite of all its former advantages, in large tracts of Ulster at the present time it has no existence whatever. When the power of tithe collecting was taken from it, numbers of churches were closed, and many parishes were joined together to make ends meet. The iniquitous exacting of fines for the renewal of leases might have been surely left to the middlemen and land speculators by these clerics; but the degradation of their office seemed to them preferable to going without a full purse.

With so “respectable” an example before their eyes, every landowner who was hard up, and who was not too scrupulous to replenish his fortunes by legalised plunder, followed suit with even more and more disastrous results to the country. They had the example of the church before them, and surely it could be safely followed.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!