The Ulster Land War of 1770



In March, 1754, it was publicly announced that it was intended to build a linen hall in Belfast. Considering the population of the town, the new scheme meant “a big order” for builder, workmen, and contractors. The fourth earl of Donegall seized the occasion to do a very arbitrary act. He was, and always had been, an absentee. He lived and died without ever seeing his Antrim estates. He lived in luxury and riot in foreign lands. The limeburners in the parishes of Belfast and Carnmoney naturally hoped to get large orders for the supply of material for the new buildings. The earl, on the pretext that the limeburners “delayed builders and raised prices,” soon picked a quarrel with them. He had the giant’s strength and used it like a giant. He “let to others the right and property of the limestone and the sole power and right of burning lime in the said parishes on payment of ‘small’ rent, and contracting to supply builders at certain prices, with power to take up and seize all lime burned on the estate other than by their direction or allowance, or for the manuring of land on his lordship’s estate.” Gordon, his agent, inspired this arbitrary conduct. The dispossessed limeburners, it is natural to suppose, did f not quietly submit to this oppression. (News Letter, 24th May, 1754).

Acts like this provoked reprisals; and among all the landlords in Ireland none sowed the wind with the unsparing hand of the Chichesters, earls of Donegall, and none reaped the whirlwind of outrage and resistance as they did.

On their estates especially, and all over Ulster, men were beginning to learn that if they would live on the land, they must fight for their footing, and fight with what weapons they could; and none could be worse than those employed by their oppressors.

Discontent, begotten of arbitrary injustice, was spreading, and wherever it grew reprisal and outrage followed swiftly. These were the only weapons in the hands of the people; there was no tribunal by which fair rents could be fixed to which the poor could appeal. Even if there had been, the judges were partisan and dependent on parliament, and the undertakers had almost the sole control of electing the members of parliament, and could rely on the courts to uphold their dominion.

They looked upon and considered such membership of parliament their personal property, and their “rights” were respected by the members they elected. To such an extent did this iniquity run that upon the extinction of these pocket boroughs enormous sums were paid to these undertakers as “compensation” for the loss of “rights” that were never theirs and to which they had no equitable claim whatever, if they had been asked to “show title.” Their nominated members freely voted such sums to their patrons.

The tenants had to hold the land or starve; they had to pay what the planters demanded or be driven from the homes, which they had raised by their own industry; and if those who were forced to quit took vengeance on the undertaker or on the land grabber who evicted them, who is there that could blame them, or say that in spite of well nigh every act they committed that they were not grievously wronged, or that they had not good cause for their struggle?

It was war, open, ostensible war a fight for life and a just cause; and those who now blame the acts committed must know that even in recent years greater and more far-reaching acts of violence and plunder, cattle driving and house burning have been committed by high generals and great armies in other climes, with less excuse, earning titles and parliamentary thanks and large public grants.

One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero; Lords are privileged to kill, and numbers consecrate the crime.

In the News Letter of 31st January, 1755, there appears the following advertisement:

“Whereas upon the night of 19th December, 1754, some malicious and evil disposed persons did level and destroy 83 yards and upwards of new double mearing ditch between John Greg and Samuel Kernaghan in the townland of Edenderry and parish of Belfast, and also did cut and break 60 trees, and did destroy many of the quicks, and as there is great reason to believe that the same was done by said Kernaghan and his accomplices.
Reward 5 guineas on usual terms.
Belfast, 31st January, 1755.”

To a further advertisement in same paper, on 18th February following, there is appended the following footnote:

“Any person concerned in levelling the ditch or cutting the trees (excepting the said Kernaghan), who will discover it, may depend on not being prosecuted, or meeting with any trouble. John Greg.”

This was on the Donegall estate. Tenants leases had fallen in, and before renewal heavy fines were demanded. Larger sums than the tenants could or should pay were asked; but the earl must have cash to carry on his gambling in England, and so it occurred to him and his agent to sell the lands to middlemen, who could exact what rents they liked or go into possession of the tenants’ farms themselves, confiscating all their property and rights, or turn the lands into grazing ranches. This particular townland of Edenderry is now in the city of Belfast, on the Crumlin road, near Legoniel, but was then about two miles from the town, high up on the hillside. Kernahan was, doubtless, the evicted tenant. The Gregs were the first of the land-grabbers about Belfast. John Greg came from Scotland in 1693, and amassed money as a trader in Belfast, and so he was able to satisfy the Donegall desire for hard cash. His son John left for the West Indies about this time, where he was a planter and slave owner. Like father, like son. The name is not now to the fore in Belfast, but it will appear many times in many places in these pages. Many ballads at the time held up the Gregs to public odium. One verse is given by Benn:

“Donegall all his tenants may plunder and fine,
And a Greg and base Cunningham aid the design–
Then the mischief they breed with such terrible zeal
They falsely impute to the poor ‘hearts of steel.'”

The growth of the middlemen, ever a sure sign of decay in a country, was rapid in Ulster at this time. They were an unhealthy growth, and never even contemplated by the plantation scheme.

In the News Letter of 17th October, 1755, we find again:

“Whereas some evil disposed persons on the 2oth August broke the ditch of Mile Cross dam, whereby the tenant in person is much damnified.

“Four guineas reward.
Dated 10th September, 1755.”

This was a change of scene, being a mile from Newtonards, in the County of Down. The person “damnified” must have had some connection or business relationship with the Belfast middlemen.

On 24th January, 1755, the men of the four lower baronies of the county of Antrim, in order to encourage tillage and husbandry in general, and thereby to promote the interests of their country, resolved to form themselves into a club, to be called the farmers’ society. This meeting took place in Coleraine, with John Macnaghten in the chair.

But the influences working for better conditions were few and faint beside the flood of oppression and exaction by which the Ulster people were losing their lands and being swept out of the country.

The Belfast News Letter of this period is filled with accounts of outrages and advertisements offering rewards for the discovery of the perpetrators of them. We are quite unable to crowd them into these pages; some, but only a few, will be found in the appendix (page 133).

Houses were entered or fired into or burned, stables were fired, horses and cattle maimed. Here is a typical advertisement, taken from the News Letter of 3rd October, 1755:–

“I do hereby promise in the name and by the authority of the rev. doctor Patrick Delany, dean of Down, that I will for him and on his account give a reward of 40 guineas to the person or persons who shall discover the author or authors of the letters signed captain Burner or captain Cutter, or any burners of hay or corn or maimers of cattle in consequence of those letters in the deanery of Down, to be paid by me upon any one or more of them being convicted of any of those crimes.
Ballee, 2nd October, 1755.

When leases expired, the undertakers took to advertising the tenants’ farms to let over the heads of the tenants, often desiring a change of religion, giving a preference to protestants even when the farms were owned by catholic tenants Advertisements like the following were very common:

“To be let to solvent protestants in the barony of Upper Iveagh and county of Down the farms now held by Daniel Creany, Patrick Corran, Owen Byrne, Bryan Morgan, Edward and Hugh O’Hare.”
“To be let to solvent protestants” was the wording of many of these advertisements. The landlords did their part in keeping catholic and protestant tenants at war with each other, secure in the belief that by doing so there was more safety for their interests and more chance of an increased rent; and so continually we find one creed evicted and another advertised for, which action at once created the bitterest religious animosity between those who might otherwise have lived at peace.

On the Massarrene estate in county Antrim, in 1755, there were to let Alexander Ingram’s farm, containing 109 acres; James Strayhorn’s farm, containing 84 acres; Samuel Stray- horn’s farm, containing 100 acres; and this was but typical of many others.

On the same estate in the following year the malicious burning of three houses is reported. Here is the history of the Ulster farmer at the time dispossession and reprisal. The Ingram’s farm or the Strayhorns’ farms were let over their heads and all their interest confiscated. It was the land speculator’s opportunity. He increased and grew rich, buying land and letting at ever higher rents for those who would not or could not go to America must have land whatever they paid for it. The land was the principal employment, and in many places the sole employment of the people.

In May, 1757, John Greg of Belfast the same who had his ditch destroyed, and was then a heavy dabbler in lotteries bought by public auction the tenants’ lands of Ballywalter, Ballycalcatt, and Ballylinney, in the county of Antrim, from lord Donegall. He sublet the lands, acting as middleman. This was resented very bitterly by the tenants. Any who would not or could not pay exorbitant rents were cleared out, and their farms given to others. Those cleared out, driven to desperation, would, in their eagerness to get land, offer any price, and take fresh farms over the heads of other tenants, who would be turned adrift to serve others similarly in turn. Starving tenants outbid each other in their dire necessity to obtain a home, and the middleman mulcted them all.

The middlemen, however, did not always escape the wrath of the people.

On 13th December in that year (1757), about four o’clock in the morning, a number of persons gathered outside Greg’s house in Belfast. The night watch had retired. At a given signal they wrecked the house, and disappeared as mysteriously as they came. No other house in the town was touched. In the next issue of the News Letter the advertisement of John Greg’s reward for the discovery of the marauders is printed.

“About the hour of four o’clock of the morning of the I3th inst. several idle persons assembled opposite the dwelling house of John Greg and wrecked it. Now, I, John Greg, out of regard for my future safety and the safety of the town in general, offer 10 guineas reward for the discovery of the rioters.”

The “idle persons” were fairly busy that night at any rate. If they were idle at other times it was because Greg had seized their farms and robbed them of their employment. Greg was a fair type of his class.

If farmers and weavers did not prosper, the shipping trade did. In every harbour there was an emigrant ship; and year after year crowds of people had to stay in Ireland for want of shipping to carry them away. For those who could not go the outlook was black enough. Driven into a corner, unable to pay, and unable to live without the land, what wonder that they should try to intimidate those at whose door they laid the blame.

Where offenders were caught and indicted at the assizes they were often treated with a severity that must have only tended to further embitter the feelings of the people. It is certain that they did not deter them from fresh action, as such severity seldom ever does.

In 1758 one James Dowell, for cutting an ash tree, was burned in the hand. The damage done was only sixpence, otherwise he would have been hanged. Hanging was the punishment for minor offences like theft, as well as for serious crimes; and as the land war grew more bitter in the succeeding fifteen years, the public hangings at places like the gallows green, beside Carrickfergus, became a daily occurrence. Here a permanent heavy, stone pillared, triangular gallows was erected, and kept in continual use. When hangings were not taking place, horse races and sports took place on this green. William Orr was “legally” murdered here in 1797.

Withal the outrages grew in number. In many districts threatening notices were posted up at night, and those who acted in defiance of them often found that the burning of their houses or the maiming of their cattle was the price they had to pay for running contrary to popular feeling.

The following is a sample of the proclamations issued by an inflamed peasantry in 1758:

“This is to give notice to all the inhabitants of the parish of Derrykeehan that will assist or help to draw tythe, or give place to stack or any conveniency thereto they may expect all that they have to be demolished, except John MacKinny in Carnaff, who hath made ready his garden for it. Take notice of this that he that will go contrary to this Notice given need not expect that Thomas Harter damning and singeing his soul will save them from us.

Anthony Burnall.
Patk. Flamer.
Peter Fire and Sword.
James Envy and Hearthatred.
George Hunt you Esq.”

This was promptly followed by the following counter-blast:–

“Whereas an advertisement was posted at Derrykeechan, on or about the 3rd of September instant, a copy whereof is above set forth.

“We the grand jury of said county, at an assizes held for the same at Carrickfergus the eleventh of September 1758 in order to discover and bring to justice the author or authors of said advertisement, do hereby promise a reward of 20 guineas to the person or persons who shall within three calendar months discover and prosecute to conviction the author or authors of said advertisement.
Dated at Carrickfergus the 14th September, 1758.
“H. Skemngton, and ors.”

The threats in these notices of the people were carried out to the letter. The signatories to the one given are suggestive of their methods. “Anthony Burnall” and “Patrick Flamer” show a preference for perhaps the easiest, safest and most effective way of carrying on the land war. “George Hunt you Esq.” adds a touch of grotesqueness, if not humour, beside which the official proclamation is flat reading. The undertakers and planters invariably “esquired” themselves on all occasions, no matter what their race or antecedents; so this was hitting them sorely, playing on their own characteristics in the names thus added by the hearts of steel.

In September, 1758, we find seven stacks of turf set on fire beside Ballywalter, in the county of Down; on 5th January, 1759, a dwelling house is burned at Carnmoney, county Antrim; and on 28th February of the same year “an assault with intent to commit burglary” [viz., taking firearms] on a house beside Killinchy.

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