As part of my introductory series on Northern Ireland, we’re going to chat about Ulster Plantation and the beginning of all of this. But before you start getting confused, I know I missed things. We’ll get around to the Reformation and St. Patrick and other fun things. These first few posts are really just going trying to lay the landscape of historical context.
In the history of the world, you should realize that as soon as you read the phrase “and then the British showed up,” something horrific is about to happen. Well, until the middle of the 20th century. So the basic history of the island is that people were minding their own tribal business. And then the British showed up.
In days of yore, Ireland was divided into four kingdoms/counties: Muenster, Leinster, Meath and Ulster. Eventually, these would dissolve into the many counties that currently exist. In 1920, when they partitioned the country, the government took the six northern most counties and created Northern Ireland. This was done because it was the largest concentrate of British supporters on the island. Why there, you ask? Well, let me explain.
Protestant history in Ulster began slowly with the “Century of Plantation.”After the “Flight of the Earls” wiped out the last of the Catholic rulers of Ireland, the slate was clean for England to colonize its neighboring island. In 1607, James I began to send unruly Scotsmen to live in the northern counties of Ireland and create plantations.This act also served James’ need for stronger control over Scotland. By sending the troublemakers that lived along the Scot-English border to Ireland, James was able to further colonize Scotland and definitively colonize Ireland.
The displaced native Irish population were shoved into marginal regions, forced to farm bogsides and mountainous terrain. In modern Northern Ireland, the land divides remain, with Catholic populations living in farming bog lands. The Ulster Plantation was a power play by the British government to control Ireland in any way they could. Since to be “Irish” was synonymous with being Catholic, being British quickly became synonymous with being Protestant and often with being Presbyterian. The struggle of Catholic versus Protestant became endemic and created tensions and prejudices that transferred themselves throughout centuries. The last stand of Catholic leadership occurred in 1690 on the banks of the Boyne River. The deposed Catholic king of Ireland, James II, attempted to raise an army against the forces of William of Orange. James was ultimately defeated and Protestants in Northern Ireland commemorate the battle each year at the height of the marching season.
For the record, it was out of this clear divide that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) drew its support from Catholic populations and the idea of synonymy between Irish and Catholic was expanded to include republican or nationalist; a person who believed in the Irish right to rule themselves at any cost. Thus, although it was difficult to do it before, it became impossible to separate political and social identity with religious identity.
So there you have it – the reason why Ulster was predominantly Protestant. That also brings us up to 1690 and the Battle of the Boyne. I know you’re on tenterhooks to hear about that, so tune in next time to hear about bowler hats.