The Ulster Land War of 1770



While farmers were in a bad enough way, we may well suppose that the farm labourers were worse off still. Then little was said and less thought of them, though it was from the labouring class that many of the hearts of steel were drawn, and many of the depredations were their acts.

The labourer had other things to contend with as well as the rapacity of many of the land-holders.

In the News Letter of 31st July, 1759, there is the following announcement:

“Dublin, 28th July. Most of the Irish labourers that went from hence to work in England have been impressed for the sea service.”

It is no wonder that Ireland, from Antrim to Kerry, was in a state of turmoil; that the people were glad to escape to America. The News Letter announces happenings like this with the cold brevity of indifference, and with never a thought of the women who worked and waited at home and the children who watched for the fathers who returned no more to dandle them on their knees.

Most of the undertakers of the period did not regard them- selves as having duties to their tenants; they only recognised that they had rights very definite rights, and very definite legal means of enforcing them.

O’Neill of Shane’s Castle at this period (1759) tried to exert his rights with a high hand. He wished to wipe out the ancient village of Eden-dubh-carrig, and enclose the tenants’ lands for a deer park.

The clearance was effected, and the land enclosed by a stone wall. His plantations were repeatedly destroyed and his wall thrown down. He blamed the older race for this, and tried to clear out whole townlands.

He advertises in the News Letter of 16th February, 1759: “To be let to solvent protestant tenants from the 1st November next the following lands situate in the county of Antrim, part of the estate of Charles O’Neill, of Shane’s Castle.

“In the denominations of Monterevdy Mac Anally, O’Connors, O’Neills, O’Hagans, O’Boyles.

“In the denominations of Feevagh Cregan, Ballymaloskerly, Muckrim and Gallagh, Dromremond, Clonkeen, Grogan, Munyrodd, Drumcullin.

“The above lands being at present inhabited by a numerous set of indolent, lazy people, mr. O’Neill is determined to bring ejectments immediately and have them turned out in order to have the lands cleared before the 1st of November next for any industrious tenants who may propose and any of his tenants from the Braide who want farms shall have the preference of any other persons. Proposals may be given to the said Chas. O’Neill, esq., at Shanescastle.”

This Charlie O’Neill, or “protestant Charlie,” as he was called, was a terror in his day. He had conformed to the English church, and speedily conformed to the land laws and ways of the same people, regardless of the traditions of his proud ancestry. The O’Neills had ever treated their people as friends and co-owners of their common lands. Their houses crowded around the castle, the door of which was never shut; their graves mingled together in the old churchyard. The little town had traditions of ancient fame, for here the O’Mulhollans lived, and here they treasured the sacred “bell of the will,” or saint Patrick’s bell. Its last hereditary custodian was a schoolmaster at Eden-dubh-carrig, and its fullest historian bishop Reeves. Then the break came; but the retainers did not conform, and speedily a wall was raised around the demesne and the people were expelled from their old homes, their very graves levelled, and a “plantation” introduced. The princely clan of O’Neill could not long stand to this. They quickly dwindled and died away, in debt, indecency, and disgrace, and now Shane’s castle knows them not. They caught the planter blight, and soon faded into oblivion. Many are the tales told of the drunken immorality in the vaults of the old castle during the expiring regime of these O’Neills.

These “indolent, lazy people” were the owners of the land that Charles O’Neill lorded it over dispossessed at the plantation. In November of the following year, however, there is another advertisement of O’Neill’s, which may help to explain further why he desired only protestant tenants, seeing it was only protestants who had votes.

“To the gentleman, clergy, and freeholders of the county of Antrim.
I request the favour of your votes at the next general election for my eldest son, John O’Neill, to represent you in parliament for this county, etc., etc.
I am, gentlemen, with the greatest respect and esteem,
Your most obedient servant,
4 Nov., 1760.

Nine years after this Charles O’Neill died on the race course at Broughshane after the success of his favourite “Poddreen mare” which raced with a Largey woman’s beads around her neck. When this O’Neill was not proseltysing or evicting tenants he was horse-racing or cock-fighting. He kept “The Feevagh cock-fighting club” in full sport. His son John carried on his father’s policy with even more vehemence.
He was M.P. for county Antrim and was made an English viscount for his services in 1795, just three years before he was assassinated in the streets of Antrim. We have heard the name of him who piked O’Neill, he had suffered in the O’Neill evictions and took advantage of the battle to effect his revenge. Horrid dark deeds were done on both sides during the Ulster land war and after.

The seeds that were sown by men like O’Neill have sprung up ever since in a plentiful crop of bigotry and hatred. The dispossessed retaliated, not only on the undertaker, but on those they looked upon as fresh planters–supplanters trulythe one has cherished the memory of a bitter and intolerable wrong, while the other remembers that he is a supplanter and must fight against any growing strength or privilege to his old-time enemy. Herein is much of the secret of the Ulster problem-much of the family, personal and parochial bitterness is here explained. The exorbitant rents wrung from many of the farmers by cleric and lay rent exacters, and still more by the middlemen, were not always so easy to collect as such “proprietors” might have wished. Thomas Greg met one too many for him in William Rainey, as the following advertisement proves. Such examples as this must have made the Gregs Wish that ‘they had back in their pockets the big fine they paid the Donegalls for these lands.
News Letter of 5th September, 1760:-
“Whereas in the night of the 2nd of September, 1760, William Rainey, of Ballylinney, in the county of Antrim, farmer, clandestinely carried away and removed off his farm in Ballylinney aforesaid sundry cows, horses, grain, and household goods and furniture, and conceals the same with intent to defraud Thomas Gregg, of Belfast, merchant, of a considerable arrear of rent due for said farm; in which clandestine carrying away the said William Rainey has been aided and assisted by diverse persons unknown, contrary to the form of the statute in that case made and provided, which enacts that any person or persons who shall wilfully aid and assist any tenant to convey away his goods and chattels, or secrete the same in order to defraud the landlord of his rent, shall forfeit treble value of such goods so removed.”
Then there is the offer of a satisfactory reward to a discoverer, and a caution to parties who “shall hereafter aid or assist any of my tenants to convey away or conceal their cattle in order to defraud me of their rents.”
“Dated this 4th day of September, 1760.
Each year the country was becoming more disturbed. Tumultuous gatherings became common. In 176I a mob pulled down and destroyed the turnpike at Ballynasey, at the end of the town of Lisburn, commonly called Askey’s gate. On 18th May, 1762, in Lisburn town, a mob made themselves very unpleasant to the earl of Hillsborough; and in the following issue of the News Letter (25th May) there is this advertisement raising a boycott on Lisburn market.
“We, the underwritten drapers, deeply affected with the unparalleled bad treatment and indignity offered to the right hon. the earl of Hillsborough, a noble and public spirited peer, by a riotous and tumultous mob, assembled in the town of Lisburn, the 18th inst., and having at same time been and being now in danger of our lives by resolving to obey the laws in the town of Lisburn. We do resolve and give this notice that for two markets days at least, or until such time as the peace of the said town and country adjacent be fully settled so as we can go about our business with safety, that we will not buy any brown linen in the market of said town of Lisburn.”

Several years later we find men being tried for assaulting lord Hillsborough, and also for administering an unlawful oath to him, so he, too, was in the thick of the fight. The Lurgan weavers, however, fearful of the linen-buying shopkeepers, and to prevent this boycott, at once repudiated the imputation that they were concerned in the disturbance at Lisburn, which had disgraced this “protestant civilised country.” The linen weavers, in their address to the earl of Hillsborough, presented 20th July, 1763, refer to the “unhappy disorder that arose among our brethren in a neighbouring town.”

Another address to the same person from the principal manufacturers and weavers on July, 20th, says:-
“We think ourselves peculiarly called upon on this occasion to declare to your lordship and to the world that we look with equal horror and abhorrence upon those wanton and dangerous insurrections that have of late so disturbed and disgraced this protestant civilised country. We hope, however, that all who have been concerned in those disturbances will soon see their wretched folly and delusion.” (N. L., July 29th, 1763).
In a letter from Halifax to Egremont in 1772 we find:-
“So many people are directly or indirectly concerned in these illegal practices, and so many have been seized on information or suspicion, that in several places the majority of the people have been struck with consternation and have fled to the mountains, insomuch that a famine is, not without reason, apprehended from the almost general flight of the labouring hands.” The troubles in Ulster, though starting at first in the more protestant connties of Antrim and Down, soon spread to the other counties of the province.

Colonel Wedderburne writes to the earl of Hillsborough on 26th July, 1763:–

“I take the liberty to acquaint your lordship that last night three companies of the 68th regiment, under the direction of doctor Knight, fired upon a body of the hearts of oak at Newtownstewart. They killed four, wounded seven or eight, and took seventy-seven prisoners. Of the prisoners, thirty- seven are sent to this gaol and forty to Derry. A great captain of the rioters, one Robinson, is amongst the killed.”

The News Letter of 5th August, 1763, reports:–

Monaghan, 30th July, 1763.
“There has been another engagement between the oak boys and a troop of horse at Watled Bridge, in the county of Fermanagh. Coote led the troops. Seven of the rioters were killed, wounded fourteen, took thirty prisoners, and carried them to Cavan jail.”

The oak boys intended to get arms in Belturbet.

This was followed on 2nd August, 1763, by a proclamation of the privy council.

“A proclamation by privy council. George Armagh, John Ponsonby.

Whereas we have received information that numbers ot disorderly and wicked persons have of late assembled themselves in several of the northern counties, and marched into different parts of said counties, distinguishing themselves by certain names, marks, and badges, and by threats and violence compelling parties to take certain oaths, and magistrates to take oaths that they would assist them on such traitorous designs.”

Charles Coote, of Coote Hill, Co. Cavan, was most active on the undertakers’ side of the war, and the government was not slow to recognise his services, as the following extract from the calendar of home office papers (1760-5) shows:–

Earl Halifax to the lord lieutenant of Ireland.

“As a mark of the royal acceptance of the laudable services rendered by Charles Coote, of Coote Hill, county Cavan, esq., in the late tumultuous and illegal insurrections in the northern parts of Ireland, the king desires his excellency to invest him (mr. Coote) with the ensigns of the order of the bath, and that the ceremony should be performed in such a public and distinguished manner as may show the respect due to the king’s order. 16th December, 1763.”

From Cromwell’s time the Cootes would be nothing the worse of the “order of the bath,” publicly or privately administered, physically or morally.

In the county of Antrim disorder was also increasing.

Belfast 19th April, 1763.
“On Thursday night last, a number of persons armed, went to his majesty’s gaol at Carrickfergus, for the county of Antrim, and with sledges and other weapons broke open the dungeon, and set at liberty James Martin, the soldier under sentence of death, and who was to have been executed last Saturday for the murder of Hugh MacClughan; and also Robert MacGulloch, under sentence for a burglary committed by him in the town of Lisburn, in the month of January last. It having been suspected that some of the soldiers quartered in this town were concerned in this most audacious attempt, on Friday morning their officers ordered them under arms, and information having been given against five of them, these five were immediately disarmed and put under arrest, but before a proper guard could be raised to convey them to gaol, four of them forced their way through a number of armed soldiers who stood sentry over them, and made their escape. The fifth, after receiving several wounds, was secured, and next day sent down by the water to the gaol at Carrickfergus; as also another soldier who was concerned and became approver. The magistrates and officers of the army were extremely active on this occasion. On Saturday eleven more of the soldiers, mostly of the grenadier company, were missing, and have made their escape, from which circumstance it is suspected they were also concerned in this most atrocious crime.”

This daring rescue caused a great flutter among the authorities, and a reward of twenty pounds was immediately offered for the apprehension of Martin.

“Whereas on the night of the 14th of April last his majesty’s gaol at Carrickfergus, for the county of Antrim, was forcibly and feloniously broke open by a number of armed men unknown, in open defiance of the law, and William Martin, a soldier under sentence of death for murder, and Robert Gouligan, under the like sentence for burglary, confined in the dungeon of said gaol, were set at liberty, and went at large and made their escape.

“Now, I, John Henry, esq., sheriff of the county of Antrim, do hereby offer a reward of twenty pounds sterling to any person or persons who shall apprehend the said William Martin and lodge him in any of his majesty’s gaols in this kingdom within three months of the date hereof. Given under my hand this 18th day of April, 1763.

Of course any death occasioned by one of the hearts of steel was called “murder,” whilst the four peasants at Newtownstewart were only “killed” by colonel Wedderburne, as were the seven by Coote at the Wattled bridge. Hanging at the gallows green of Carrickfergus was the reward of the one; “the ensigns of the order of the bath,” “as a mark of the royal acceptance,” was the reward of the other. The odds of the fight were, therefore, a little lopsided.

“Truth for ever on the scaffold, wrong for ever on the throne
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above
his own.”

James Russell Lowell.

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