The Ulster Land War of 1770



The state of the roads, which were under the charge of the grand jury for each county, and especially the law forbidding narrow wheels on the roads, gave rise to a great deal of trouble.

There was continual abuse by members of the grand jury in getting bridges and private roads made for their own advantage by enforced public labour out of the county cutt, as cess was then called. The Magherally hearts of steel refer to “some who affect to be called gentlemen as having their garden walks repaired also” at the public cost.

The grand jury of Antrim, at the lent assizes, 1763, passed a resolution, which was published on the 12th April, 1763, in the News Letter:–

County of Antrim, Lent assizes, 1763. “We, the grand jury of the county of Antrim, do resolve for the future to enforce the laws relative to the six days’ labour, of which all overseers of the highways and other persons concerned are to take notice; and also that we will be careful to put the laws relating to the narrow wheel cars in execution.”

But the people were not in humour to take grand jury resolutions quietly just then; and in the News Letter in June following this advertisement appears:

“On 26th of May, 1763, a threatening notice was circulated, threatening to burn the property of the right hon. Arthur Trevor and the rev. Bernard Ward in case these gentlemen should not interpose in obtaining liberty for narrow-wheel cars to pass through the turnpikes contrary to law and the good of the roads. Reward of £150 offered.”

At the same time we find that 1,000 oak boys assembled at Enniskillen, and compelled many persons to swear that they would oppose the future presentments for bye-roads made for the private advantage of the grand jurors and their friends. The oak boys assembled in very large numbers, and intimida- ted many of their opponents into siding with them. In the following August the grand jury of Derry passed a resolution thanking John Downing and Thomas Rankin ” for dispersing at Moneymore and Castle Dawson thousands of rioters called hearts of oak.”

The hearts of oak, or oak boys, were mainly the poorer tenants, who combined to bring the landlords into more moderate dealing with them. Cattle were houghed or slashed. Farmsteads were burnt. They resisted unjust cess and high rents and tithe, and very large bodies had to be dispersed by the troops in many places.

They do not seem to have affected the undertakers very much, and things went on as before in spite of their best efforts at intimidation. Many of them lost their lives in the struggle, and those who were captured met with very severe penalties as a rule.

At the Monaghan assizes, in 1764, sir Charles Coote and a lieutenant Mayne were tried for shooting one of the oak boys, but were, of course, acquitted. Here is the report published at the time:–

(News Letter, 16th May, 1764.)

“At the assizes of Monaghan, on Wednesday, the i8th of April, 1764, came on the trial of the hon. sir Charles Coote, knight of the bath, and lieutenant Edward Mayne, for the killing of Alexander MacDonald, a noted captain of the insurgents in the neighbourhood of Castleblayney, in the north. It appeared on the trial so evident from the testimony of the witnesses produced by the prosecutors that said MacDonald had, at the head of a numerous and armed party, attacked sir Charles Coote the igth of July, 1763, at Castleblayney, in the execution of his office, that it was universally judged unnecessary to enter into any evidence on behalf of sir Charles or lieutenant Mayne, who were acquitted in the most honourable manner.”

Of course they were–“in the most honourable manner.” Were they not like Hempenstall, of a generation later, “judge, jury, gallows and all.”

Parliament, instead of endeavouring to remove the causes of discontent, described these disturbances as “invasion of private property,” and talked of “artful and plausible pretences of imaginary grievances.”

The members of the house were all either undertakers or undertakers’ nominees; and the whole force of the law was used relentlessly to uphold the undertakers’ violations. In 1764 the matter was laid before the house of commons.

Dublin, 18th February, 1764.

“The late commotions in the south and north of Ireland being laid before parliament, the house of commons came to the following resolutions thereon:

“Resolved–That it appears to this committee that there have been many riotous, unwarrantable, illegal, and treasonable combinations and insurrections among the people in different parts of the kingdom, to the great disturbance of the public peace, to the interruption of trade and manufactures, to the terror of his majesty’s subjects, to the invasion of private property, and under artful and plausible pretences of imaginary grievance, tending to the general violation of the laws, to the subversion of order and magistracy, and to the destruction of every legal and constitutional subordination.
Resolved–That any person taking upon them, without being lawfully authorised, to tender oaths to others, with threats and violence in case of refusal, are guilty of a very high offence, and are punishable by law for same.”

The house of lords also appointed a committee to enquire into the late tumultuous risings in the provinces of Munster and Ulster. The committee issued a report similar to the resolutions of the commons, full of condemnation of “insurrections,” “outrages,” and “disorders,” but with no proposal of remedial laws.

All combinations on the part of the people were looked upon as illegal; and the very act of combining for any purpose whatever seemed to these legislators a proof of some sinister design against the state or their persons or privileges.

It was quite legal that these self-created “landlords” should combine in every conceivable way to advance their interests; should boycott tenants individually, and also as religious or political classes; should burn their homesteads, and batter down their wall steadings; should drive their cattle; should throw their goods, gear, and plenishings on the public road; should cast them adrift with their wives and children, threatening the same treatment to any who would give them shelter; should do all this, aye, and, as high sheriffs, hang them on the gallows surrounded with hundreds of military guns and bayonets “aiding and abetting.” Let but the tenants meet or combine, and that golden idol, “private property,” (ever, when a landlord’s, more sacred than the very life of a tenant), was attacked, and no name was too bad for them malicious, designing, riotous, tumultuous, treasonable.

George the third ordered Townshend to do his utmost to convince the landlords of their “infatuation.” Viceroy Townshend himself had already introduced a tenants’ pro- tection bill into the Irish parliament, but had been defeated by the popularity-hunting party in the house of commons.

It was even written, at a later date, by lord Castlereagh’s brother, when seeking popularity, that their father “estab- lished with more security than even his predecessors the invaluable understanding of tenant right between him and his farmers, to which the extraordinary prosperity of the Irish estates … is virtually owing.”

It was an agent of lord DonegalTs, named Gordon, who was responsible for the unjust treatment of the limeburners on his estate in 1754 his lordship was content to remain away and take the extra profit. The Gordons were middlemen under Donegall, having taken the lands over the tenants’ heads at Ballysillan.

The News Letter (6th August, 1765) says Lord Donegall “arrived amidst the acclamation of multitudes of his tenants. On this happy occasion there were bonfires, illuminations, firing of great guns, and every other demonstration of that heartfelt joy which could be shown by an affectionate tenantry to a landlord for whom they entertain the highest esteem and respect.”

It is easy to read between these inspired lines. In those days, aye, and later, when tenants were told to “rejoice,” they “rejoiced,” when told to “subscribe” for hill top monuments they “subscribed.” If they did not they were marked men in “the office” books. The Gregs were then “tenants,” and entertained lord Donegall “in a noble manner,” changing the name of their emigrant ship Prosperity to Countess of Donegall. They also called a new pier at Belfast “Chichester key” for reasons best known to themselves. The Gregs were getting into the “society” of the Chichesters in more ways than one at this time. The tenants, dispossessed by the Gregs, had no bonfires, illuminations, or great guns to fire an “affectionate tenantry” had no existence. The whole countryside was in gloom, terror, and threatened revolt. This was the first visit any of the Donegalls had paid to Belfast for sixty years and upwards, so many of the people of Belfast may have crowded the streets to see what a Donegall was like. He might have had horns and hoofs for all they knew.

In this same year we find a notice of his lordship to some of his tenants.

“Monkstown, Ballyhone, Carrantall, Ballycash, Stradnahannah, Whiteabbey, Bally vaston, Ballywinnett, Ballyduff, the Halftown of Ballyhenry, Drumnadroagh, Ballynagolan, Colin ward, and Glengormly, situate in the manor of Belfast and county of Antrim, have of late resorted to other mills contrary to express covenants in their leases.

Now I do hereby give this notice to all the said lessees and inhabitants or undertenants that they do for the future grind all their corn, grain, and malt, of what nature soever, at the said Three Mile Water mill, etc., and I do hereby declare I am determined to prosecute every person guilty of a default as the law in such cases directs. Dated 8th of October, 1765.”

This was another exaction on the tenants, totally at variance with the plantation scheme, and could only be enforced “legally” by the covenants in the leases, which covenants were contrary to the spirit of the plantation. It was entirely subversive of any free dealing on the part of the tenants.

Such encroachments as these, together with the enforced labour on the roads and the grand jury abuses, were sources of continual complaint, and were felt to be particularly burthensome.

“It is notorious,” captain Erskine reported to viceroy Townsend in 1772 after his visit to the north, “what use is made by grand juries of the powers given them to lay cess for roads and bridges. Jobs upon jobs, one more infamous than another, serve to support the interests of some leading men in the country. I do not believe the roads in any part of the world are as bad as in these five counties [Derry, Armagh, Tyrone, Down and Antrim], yet I am told they have from time immemorial been cessed by their grand juries at £50,000 a year.”

The people were compelled to labour on the roads which they used but little at that time and were only permitted to use under restrictive conditions. They were also cessed for private roads that should have been made at the sole expense of the undertakers. Public roads were stopped or made private just as the undertakers desired, adding much to the public inconvenience. These can still be traced in every part of the country. Enclosing walls were built and new roads constructed for private advantage when the old public roads were confiscated. Grand juries freely acquiesced and the people were cessed accordingly, having no voice whatever in the collection or expenditure of the public money, contrary to any free constitution.

The harshness and abuse of power of many magistrates was also responsible in no small degree for goading the people into acts of retaliation.

Theft was the result of want and poverty, and the poorer classes were in virtual starvation. Even the News Letter, l0th February, 1764, contains:

“The tillage farmer is much to be pitied from the poorness of his wheat crop last year and the poorness of the corn.”

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