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The Plantation of Ulster

Under the Tudors English authority in Ireland gradually extended to the whole of the island of Ireland, but was only completed as a result of a protracted and bloody conflict known as the Nine Years’ War which ended in 1603. From the middle of the sixteenth century onwards grants of land were made to Englishmen of areas formerly held by Irish chieftains or previously owned by suppressed monasteries. In the early seventeenth century during the reign of King James I of England (who had been King James VI of Scotland) large parts of Antrim and Down were granted to men of ‘British’ origin (a new concept following the Union of the Crowns in 1601, unifying England and Wales with Scotland) who introduced settlers from their homelands to their newly acquired estates. The ‘official’ Plantation – affecting counties Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Fermanagh, Coleraine (soon to become Londonderry) and Tyrone – was a scheme to replace an existing Irish tenurial system with one based on contemporary English lines. This plantation scheme was implemented following what became known as the Flight of the Earls, the departure for the continent of the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell (or Donegal) with Maguire the Lord of Fermanagh and their followers. This flight was regarded by the Crown as treason and their lands were declared ‘escheat’, or forfeited to the Crown. Accompanying this plantation was to be the introduction of large numbers of settlers from England and Scotland to Ulster. The scheme did not work out entirely as planned: the numbers of settlers was not as high as anticipated and many of the new landowners did not fulfil the conditions of their grants. Nonetheless, over much of Ulster considerable changes were affected which were to have profound implications for the economy and demography of the province.

Derry and English settlement

The Foyle Valley was one of the key areas of settlement in the Ulster Plantation. The development of the town of Derry became the responsibility of the City of London, as did the plantation of the county of Londonderry (the former county of Coleraine plus other lands, including a site for a settlement on the west bank of the River Foyle). A body was created within the City of London to oversee the business of plantation in the county, called the ‘Society of the Governor and Assistants, London, of the New Plantation in Ulster, within the Realm of Ireland’, later to be called the Honourable the Irish Society. This society was a kind of umbrella group for the London merchant companies who were involved in the plantation. Londonderry quickly became the largest town in Ulster with a population in excess of 500 adult males by 1630. The most famous survival from this period is the walls built in the second decade of the seventeenth century. The full circumference of the walls still stands though there are several more gates now than were originally constructed. Within the walls the most famous building is St Columb’s Cathedral, one of the finest ecclesiastical buildings of its date in the British Isles. This was built between 1628 and 1633 at a cost of £4,000. The cathedral played an important role during the siege of 1689 and includes several impressive seventeenth-century monuments.

Scottish settlement in the Foyle Valley

Outside of Derry, the majority of settlers in the Foyle Valley were Scots. On the west side of the River Foyle in County Donegal the precinct of Portlough was granted to Scots, the chief of whom was Ludovic Stewart, Duke of Lennox, and a personal favourite of King James. On the east side of the Foyle in County Tyrone estates were also granted to Scots. Here in the barony of Strabane the chief grantee was James Hamilton, Earl of Abercorn, another senior figure in Scottish affairs. The Foyle Valley witnessed large scale migration of Scottish settlers in the early seventeenth century. Good agricultural land, ease of access through the port of Derry and the resources of the two leading landlords, Lennox and Abercorn, were all reasons for this. By 1619 there were over 1,000 Scottish men on the Scottish-owned estates in this area. South of the barony of Strabane, the Omagh area was granted to English landlords who had less success in introducing settlers to their estates.

The scheme for the Plantation in Ulster was the first with formal proposals for urbanisation. The development of Derry has already been mentioned. The town of Strabane was developed under the aegis of the Earl of Abercorn and became the largest Scottish founded urban settlement in Ulster. Among the reasons why Strabane prospered was its location, serving a large hinterland in north-west Ulster, and having direct access to the sea via the River Foyle. Strabane also enjoyed the patronage of an active and energetic landowner who contributed directly to the infrastructure of the town by building houses himself, rather than requiring the tenants to do so. Strabane was also a corporate town able to send two MPs to the Irish parliament in Dublin.St Johnstown (across the River Foyle in County Doengal) was also a corporate town, though it never developed beyond a village.

Plantation castles near the Foyle

In the Foyle Valley there are a number of castles built by the settlers, most of which are in ruins. Several of the more important are Derrywoon, Mongavlin and Mountcastle.


Derrywoon castle is now within the grounds of Barons Court near Newtownstewart, home of the Duke of Abercorn. It was built by Sir George Hamilton of Greenlaw, brother of the Earl of Abercorn. A report on the Plantation from 1622 noted that Sir George had ‘begun to build a fair stone house, 4 storeys high, which is almost finished, and a bawn [or walled yard] of stone and lime, 90 foot long, 70 foot broad and 14 foot high. When the compilers of the report arrived at the site they found ‘good store of workmen there upon it’ and were informed that when it was finished Sir George intended to live there himself. The building was destroyed in the 1640s and by the time of the Civil Survey (1654-56) it was described as ‘a ruinous castle burned by the rebels [and] not yet re-edified’. There is no evidence that it was rebuilt.

The castle is L-shaped in plan and varies in height between three and four storeys. At the point of the L is a massive round tower, while in the re-entrant angle is the entrance to the building and next to it a corbelled-out stairway. The three-storey tower appears to be a latter addition to the castle, presumably built to add to the defensibility of the castle. In plan the ground floor of the tower is round, but at first and second floors are hexagonal. It contained gunloops providing defensive cover along the north and east curtain walls of the castle. Aside from these features the castle was built very much with domestic living in mind. The ground floor windows are quite large, though rather plain, and there are numerous fireplaces.


Mountcastle (near Donemana) was built around 1622 by the heirs of the 1st earl of Abercorn. Very little is known about the history of Mountcastle. The 1622 plantation survey noted a ‘good castle of stone and lime, 3 storeys high ……. and about [it] a bawn 54 foot long, 42 foot broad and 6 foot high, with two open flankers’. The fact that it was noted as being uninhabited, as well as there being no gate to the bawn, would seem to indicate that it had still not been completed.It was destroyed in 1641 and does not seem to have been repaired.What survives of Mountcastle consists of a fragment of the south-west corner of a building, with about 3 m of wall surviving on each angle, and with a bartizan or small turret about 4.5 m from the ground. The bartizan, which is not roofed, but open and battlemented, rests on a moulded corbel. This architectural detail is distinctly Scottish.On the interior of the corner a chimney and a wall cupboard or oven can be identified. The ruin is situated on a low hill, with ground sloping away steeply on the north and west, which would have increased its defensive potential on those sides.

Newry and Carlingford

Settlement in the Carlingford area differed considerably from that in north-west Ulster. Nicholas Bagenal, who had been in Ireland in the service of the English Crown, received a grant of Newry in 1550. Through this and subsequent grants Bagenal acquired the extensive lands of the former Cistercian abbey in Newry and became a key figure in south Ulster. Under Bagenal Newry developed into an important town and the gateway to Ulster. In 1575 it was described by Lord Deputy Sydney as ‘so well planted with inhabitants and increasing in beauty and building’. Bagenal himself was commended for his ‘large hospitality and housekeeping’ and his willingness to give ‘entertainment’ to travellers through his town.

Bagenal also acquired lands in the barony of Cooley in north County Louth, including property in and around the town of Carlingford. An inquisition of 1608 noted that the lands possessed by the family in this area included ‘an old castle called the castle of Carlingford … one old house called the constable’s house, with the garden thereof in the said town of Carlingford, a park called the Porter’s Park without the town walls of Carlingford … a water mill in the town of Carlingford … all the chief rents of the burgages of Carlingford …’

The Bagenals were the most important family in the Carlingford area in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They introduced settlers to their lands, many of whom came from Wales including the Trevors, Edward of Brynkinnalt and Richard of Trevalyn. Edward Trevor established himself at a place named after his wife, Rose Trevor, now known as Rostrevor, and amassed a considerable estate in south County Down. Much of south County Down remained in Irish hands until the second half of the seventeenth century when a fresh wave of confiscations following the rebellion of the 1640s resulted in the transfer of most of this area to British ownership. It was a similar storey in south County Armagh.

Late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century castles in the Carlingford Lough area

Several castles in the Carlingford Lough area survive from the military campaigns and settlements of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The more important include Bagenal’s Castle in Newry, Narrow Water Castle near Warrenpoint and Moyry Castle.

Bagenal’s Castle

In the 1990s the shell of Nicholas Bagenal’s sixteenth-century castle in Newry (close to the city centre) was discovered incorporated into the buildings of McCann’s Bakery. Since its discovery, considerable work has been carried out to transform the castle into a museum which is open to the public (see

NarrowWater Castle

Narrow Water castle seems to have been built soon after 1560 by the English though by 1580 it was in Maginness hands (a local family). In 1570 it was described as ‘one new castle within which are two chambers and a cellar and a hall covered with straw and a stable nigh unto the said case … and nine cottage covered with earth with the precinct of the said castle’. In the later eighteenth century the tower and bawn was noted as being used for industrial purposes.

Moyry Castle

Standing close to Kilnasaggart railway bridge is Moyry Castle, a square tower, three storeys high, with rounded exterior corners. There are fragments of the surviving bawn wall. This castle was built in 1601 during Lord Deputy Mountjoy’s campaign against Hugh O’Neill during the Nine Years’ War. It was strategically positioned to guard the ‘Gap of the North’, one of the most important routes into and out of Ulster. It does not appear to have been in use for very long.

Further reading
•Nicholas Canny, Making Ireland British, 1580-1650 (Oxford, 2001)
•Raymond Gillespie, Colonial Ulster: the settlement of east Ulster, 1600-1641 (Cork, 1985)
•George Hill, An historical account of the plantation in Ulster at the commencement of the seventeenth century (Belfast, 1877)
•Michael Perceval Maxwell Scottish migration to Ulster in the reign of James I (London, 1973)
•Philip Robinson, Plantation of Ulster (Dublin, 1984)