The Ulster Land War of 1770



The export of cattle to England excited discontent among the people, and to prevent it cattle driving was tried. The News Letter (24th June, 1766) reports:

“Yesterday morning about 140 bullocks that were driving to Donnaghadee, in order to be transported out oi the kingdom, were stopped by a number of people at Newtown [ards], who drove them to this town (Belfast), without doing them any hurt, where the cattle were delivered up to the owner on his engaging to convey them back to where they came or dispose of them here. We hear these cattle were suffered to pass through Armagh, by making use of the false pretence that they were for messrs. Greg and Company, merchants here.”

This carries on the sequence of cattle driving. It was a favourite resort of Chichester and his planters in 1600, who drove all the Irish cattle they could trace, and what is more, stole them. Here, one hundred and fifty years later, the protestants of Newtownards indulge in the same proceeding.

The following goes to show that Donegall was himself made to suffer in a somewhat personal way. His middlemen and their aiders and abettors were the usual sufferers.

“Whereas of late great abuses have been committed on the Belfast demesnes belonging to the earl of Donegall, by breaking down walls and fences, hunting with dogs, climbing over the castle walls; also the walls of his lordship’s deer park have been frightfully broke or pulled down by idle or designing persons from the adjoining mountain.
Reward of 10 guineas offered. 12th May, 1766.”

This deerpark had been cleared and enclosed at Cave Hill. There is no doubt but this was all done deliberately.

In the summer of 1767 viscount Townshend came to Ireland as viceroy.

One of the first acts of his administration was to suggest a law for securing judges during their good behaviour. This would make them more independent of landlords and ensure even justice. At the same sitting of Parliament (1767) £4,000 was granted for raising hemp. In the next year, 1768, the roads were dealt with; and the News Letter (8th March, 1768) reports thus:

“A committee of the house of commons are empowered to receive a clause or clauses to resolve the laws heretofore made for the repair of roads by six days’ labour of the inhabitants of several parishes in the counties of Down, Cavan, Donegal, Derry, Sligo, Fermanagh, Antrim, and the county of the town of Drogheda, overseers to accept a composition in money or work, and the said committee may also empower vestries of several parishes in the province of Ulster to raise money upon landholders of said parishes for repair of private roads through such parishes.”

But there was no lull in the storm of resentment; the burning of houses and maiming of cattle went on more and more actively. The “landlords” were getting more exacting than ever, clearing large tracts of country whenever leases fell in or when there was any fresh opportunity for them to squeeze more out of the land. Farms were advertised in every issue of the press. To add to the confusion the penal laws against catholics holding land in the same manner as protestants caused endless quarrelling. (See Appendix VI.).

The News Letter of 1sth March, 1768, has this paragraph:

“Sunday last Paul MacLorinan renounced the errors of the church of Rome in the parish church of Belfast.”

On the 5th of April following the meaning of this renunciation “of the errors of the church of Rome” transpires. The explanation appears in this.


“That Paul MacLorinan has lately given notice that he is assignee and heir at law to David MacLorinan of Ballylummin.

“That Hugh MacLorinan is a papist and has no right or title to appoint an assignee and that John MacLorinan, gent., of Kilcross, is the lawful heir of the reveiend Hugh; his grandfather being the eldest sister’s grandson, also a qualified protestant, advises the tenants of said Ballylummin to make no bargain or take no tenures from any person or persons whatever, as I am preparing a bill to make my right good to said estate. That said Paul being an ignorant illiterate man, has been imposed upon by bad advice to his own ruin, etc.

Dated at Kilcross this 4th day of April, 1768. JOHN MACLORINAN. 5th April, 1768.”

In the News Letter, I4th April, 1772, there is an advertisement regarding the shooting of Paul MacLorinan at his own door, whose “renunciation of the errors of the church of Rome” in order to hold property brought another reward, unexpected it may have been, but doubtless much more connected with the ownership of land in dispute than any renunciation of the errors in question. The MacLorinan lands of Ballylummin were in Ahoghill: they were middlemen to the O’Neills.

The end of the matter may be gathered from this advertisement:

“Whereas on the night of the 4th of February, 1772, a party attacked the house of Paul MacLorinan of Ballylummin in the county of Antrim, who after many outrageous acts shot and wounded the said Paul MacLorinan, of which wound he in a very short time afterwards died.
100 guineas reward.”
Dated 6th February, 1772.
“JOHN O’NEILL, Shanescastle.”

It will be remembered that the O’Neills had evicted their papist tenants wholesale from their lands and advertised freely in the News Letter for “good, solvent protestant ones.” MacLorinan was a judge of religions he had tried both.

The relations between catholic and protestant were a source of constant friction. The callous brutality of the penal laws against catholics has never been rivalled in any country in the world, and when the greed for land became an additional factor in the war of the creeds feeling ran very high. This was continually and persistently fanned by the ascendency party.

The earl of Donegall was the planter who gave the lead to his class in the unjust treatment of tenants. He, more than any other, was responsible for the insurrection of the people. He drove them to it there was no limit to his greed, and no length, to which he would not go to exact money. He came of a greedy, grasping, overbearing, tyrannical race; he thought of nothing save his own personal aggrandisement, extravagance, and debauchery. His tenants were of no account to him compared with the wealth he wished and must have to carry on his wicked career. As Froude puts it: “They could not find delicacies in their own country to bestow their wealth on, but carried it abroad to lavish there the entire days’ sweat of thousands of their poor people.” The “law” was on his side and the forces of the crown, when he needed them, to exact his “rights.” He was ever in need of money. The lord Donegall, in whose day this agrarian agitation started, died in 1757, but his successor carried on the game without a break the tenants knew no difference. He died in 1799. His successor was as bad they were all alike. In 1819 this Donegall owed one Kelly, a jockey, about £28,000 for gambling debts. On his father’s death the houses of the children of Israel were illuminated because his post obit bills would then be paid, and so Levi rejoiced.

The vast revenues of lord Donegall were unequal to his expenditure; he must have thousands upon thousands to meet his pressing wants. How was he to obtain them? Froude puts it, “sir Arthur Chichester had been rewarded for his services by vast estates in the county Antrim, and now, his successor, lord Donegall, already by the growth of Belfast, by the fruits of other men’s labours, while he was sitting still, enormously rich, found his income still unequal to his enormous expenditure. His name is looked for in vain amongst those of his rank who were found in the active service of their country. He was one of those habitual absentees who discharged his duty to the God who made him by consenting to exist, and to the country which supported him by doing what he would with what he considered his own, regardless of the rights of others. He demanded £100,000 in fines from his tenantry, and the tenants, all protestants, offered the interest on the money in addition to the rent. It could not be. Speculative Belfast merchants paid the fines and took the land over the heads of the tenants to sub-let. Clotworthy Upton, ancestor of lord Templetown, another great Antrim proprietor, imitated his example, and at once the whole countryside were driven from their habitations. Sturdy Scots, who in five generations had reclaimed Antrim from a wilderness, saw the farms which they and their fathers made valuable let by auction to the highest bidder when they refused to submit themselves to robbery, saw them let to others, and let in many instances to Roman catholics, who would promise anything to recover their hold upon the soil.” “The law may warrant these proceedings, but will not justify them,” wrote captain Erskine, when the evicted peasants and artisans were meeting to express their sense of them; “should the causes of these riots be looked into it will be found that few have had juster foundations. When the consequences of driving six or seven thousand manufacturing and labouring families out of Ireland come to be felt, I question whether the rectitude of these gentlemen’s intentions will be held by the world a sufficient excuse for the irreparable damage they are doing.”

The most substantial of the expelled tenantry gathered their effects together and sailed to join their countrymen in the new world, where the Scotch-Irish became known as the most bitter of the secessionists.

It is rare that two private persons have power to create effects so considerable as to assist in dismembering an empire, and provoking a civil war. Lord Donegall, for his “sendees,” was rewarded with a marquisate and Clotworthy Upton with a viscountcy. If rewards were proportioned to deserts, a fitter retribution to both of them would have been forfeiture and Tower Hill. “A precedent so tempting and so lucrative was naturally followed. Other landlords finding the trade profitable began to serve their tenants with notices to quit. The farmers and peasants combined to defend themselves. Where law was the servant of oppression, force was their one resource. They called themselves hearts of steel. Their object was to protect themselves from universal robbery. Their resistance’ was not against the government it was against the landlords and the landlords’ agents, and nothing lse. In the viceroy they felt rightly they had a friend, and they appealed to him in a modest petition.”

Unjust laws provoke and compel resistance, violence follows, and crime and guilt, but the guilt, when the account is made up, does not lie entirely with the poor wretch who is called the criminal. The hearts of steel destroyed the cattle hi the farmsteads of the intruding tenants. They attacked gentlemen’s houses and lawyers’ offices in search of deeds and leases; of theft they were never accused.

Magistrates, as usual, would not act–they preferred to leave to the government the odium of repressing the riots of which they were themselves the cause. Juries, after the time-honoured fashion, refused to convict, and witnesses to give evidence. The viceroy, Townshend, saw the phenomenon with eyes unjaundiced. He was satisfied that the disturbances sprung from gross iniquity, and that they could be cured only by the lenity of the proprietors, who, if they refused to let their land on more moderate terms, would compel their tenants to go to America, or to any part of the world where they would receive the reward which was honestly due to their labours.

The house of commons thought differently; the gentry of the north petitioned for troops to defend them and the house appointed a committee of enquiry.

The king saw the infatuation of it, the English cabinet felt the inconvenience of it, and the viceroy the iniquity. The [landlords who composed the] Irish house of commons could only see an invasion of the rights of landlords. The committee reported that the increase of rents demanded was not exorbitant. The hearts of steel by their resistance were “dissolving the bonds of society.”

The disorders of Ulster required force to check them, and since the northern juries refused to do their duties it was necessary that prisoners charged with a share in the riots should be tried in counties where they were unknown. In this spirit an act was carried through parliament. The viceroy was called on to employ the army to restore order, and general Gisborne was sent down with as many regiments as could be spared.

General Gisborne executed his orders with moderation. He was received by the people as a friend. They had petitioned parliament, they said, but parliament would not answer them. “The supreme judge himself” had at length looked upon their distresses and excited them to commotion “to cause the landlords, on whom no mild means could prevail, to observe the pale faces and the thin clothing of the honest protestant subjects who had enriched the country by their industry.” They submitted, not to their masters, but to the English commander; they invited him to restore peace, not by killing them, but by remedying their wrongs. Quiet was easily established. The hearts of steel came of a race who had no love for riots, and if redress was refused they had a better resource than rebellion. The exactions had not been universal, and where attempted were not everywhere persevered in, but mischief irretrievable had been already done. The linen trade, from other causes, had entered upon a period of stagnation, and the consequent distress gave an impetus to the emigration to the land of promise, which assumed presently enormous proportions.

Flights of protestant settlers had been driven out earlier in the century. . . . Fresh multitudes now winged their way to join them, and in no better mood towards the institutions under which they had been so cruelly dealt with. The house of commons had backed up the landlords. The next year they had to hear from the linen board that ” many thousands of the best manufacturers and weavers, with their families, had gone to seek their bread in America, and that thousands were preparing to follow.”Again a committee was appointed. This time the blame was laid on England, which had broken the linen compact, given bounties to the Lancashire millowners which Belfast was not allowed to share, and, “in jealousy of Irish manufactures,” had laid duties on Irish sailcloth, contrary to express stipulation. The accusation was true. Religious bigotry, commercial jealousy and modern landlordism had combined to do their worst against the Ulster settlement. The emigration was not the whole of the mischief. Those who went carried their arts and their tools along with them, and at the rate at which the stream was flowing the colonies would soon have no need of British and Irish imports. In the two years which followed the Antrim evictions 30,000 protestants left Ulster for a land where there was no legal robbery, and where those who sowed the seed could reap the harvest. They went with bitterness in their heart, cursing and detesting the aristocratic system of which the ennobling qualities were lost and only the worst retained. The south and west were caught by the same movement, and ships cojld not be found to carry the crowds who were eager to go. “The emigration was not only depriving Ireland of its manufacturers, but of the sinews of its trade. Rich yeomen with their old leases expired refused to renew them in a country where they were to live at other men’s mercy, and departed with their families and their capital.” Thus writes Froude, and we can scarce go further only in proof of all he wrote, with some added local knowledge and many corroborative details.

The formation of the hearts of steel followed the action of Donegall. M’Skimin says:–

“Meetings began to be held about the country, and some excesses were committed. The first house burnt by them was that of John Bill, Ballymartin, in the parish of Templepatrick, on the night of 23rd July, 1769. On the night of 5th December, the same year, they also burnt the house of Andrew MacIlwaine, of the same parish. On the 7th the house of John Douglas shared the same fate, followed by the dwellings of John Busby and James MacAlister, in the townland of Ballypallady. 16th February, 1770, a house was burnt in Ballykeel, Islandmagee, and in March seven head of cattle, the property of William Crawford, Ballysavage, were maimed. About the same time the farmhouse of Craigs, Ballyclare, was burnt. On the I7th of August twenty-three head of cattle, the property of Thomas Gregg, Belfast, were houghed on the lands of Lisnalinchy. About the same time persons went openly through the country collecting money for the support of the “hearts of steel” who were going to lower rent, cess, and tithes. By these means the well-disposed persons in the community were for some time completely overawed, and the system spread rapidly over the entire county and into county Down.”

The authorities were not only disgusted with Donegall’s action, but they tried to play him off with such actions as the following:–

“Dublin, 21st November, 1772. We hear that the right hon. the earl of Shelbourne, who lately embarked for England, has during his short stay in this kingdom let such of his lands as were out of lease at one-third less than the rent formerly paid. His lordship is also determined to reduce the whole of his large income, as fast as the tenants’ interest shall expire, in the same proportion, choosing rather to receive a reasonable gratuity, paid with ease and the thanks and blessings of an industrious people, than the wages of iniquity, extorted from the hard hand of incessant labour, with the curses of the miserable vassals.” (News Letter, 24th November, 1772).

Shelbourne was a courtier, so probably his action was due to a suggestion from George III., who was wroth at men like Donegall raising such trouble in “his kingdom of Ireland” and filling the western colonies with the best of young men, many of them good shots too, who had practised a bit amongst the hills of Down and the slopes of Antrim. Anyway Shelbourne hits hard in his last paragraph “choosing rather to receive a reasonable gratuity [gratuity is distinctly good] paid with ease and the thanks and blessings of an industrious people than the wages of iniquity, extorted from the hard hand of incessant labour with the curses of the miser able vassals.” No heart of steel ever spoke stronger or shot straighter than this “noble lord.”

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