Research Objectives and Ambitions

Robert John Hunter did not publish as much as he had hoped during his lifetime. His research extended far beyond his published output. His several filing cabinets of notes, now held at the Public Record Office in Belfast, attest to the breadth of his ambitions. Now that he cannot interpret them himself, we are reliant on these papers alone for clues as to the direction of his research. A number of documents from his archive provide some useful starting points.

Among the papers referred to here are his applications for study leave (PRONI reference D4446/C/1/3), his CVs (D4446/C/1/2) and his ‘Work in progress’ folder (D4446/A/1/222). The applications for study leave are particularly revealing. While none is dated, they appear to span a large period of his career. They refer repeatedly to what appears to be his one overwhelming objective – to complete a large volume on the plantation of Ulster in the first half of the seventeenth century. This was to be a comprehensive examination of all aspects of colonial history and society: political, religious, social, economic, intellectual, cultural and military.

He described his future book: ‘The plantation in Ulster: the English and the Irish, 1608–41’ in one such application:

This will involve a study of the local origins and recruitment of some 250 applicants for or grantees of estates. Their origins were widely dispersed, but significant groups came from East Anglia, London, the West Country and Welsh border counties. Comparative colonial aspects will be investigated and also the growth of the English colony in Ulster and its implications for the Irish population […] Particular attention will be given to the involvement of many of these people in other colonial enterprises, for example, Virginia. The growth and development of the colony in Ulster and its institutions, up to 1641, will be examined. The implications of the plantation for the Irish population, both landless and those who received grants of land, will be studied. A quantitative basis will be provided through the construction of maps.

Other potential titles included: ‘The English and the plantation of Ulster’ and ‘A history of the Ulster protestants/planters’. Evidently, the focus was to be largely on the English as opposed to the Scots. This was to complement T.W. Moody’s, The Londonderry plantation and M. Perceval-Maxwell’s, The Scottish migration to Ulster in the reign of James I. As another application explains:

The English undertakers, about 60 chosen from over 100 applicants, came from widely dispersed origins but with significant groupings from East Anglia, the West Country, and the London area. Of the unsuccessful applicants the most significant was a group from Yorkshire. My intention is to investigate the local origins and circumstances of these people and the processes by which they were selected or rejected by the central government.

Concomitant with this research was a study of:

the origins of the subordinate English population, some 4,000 of whose names are preserved on the Ulster muster roll of 1630, (B.L., Add. MS 4770), by the examination of the names deriving from rental and estate papers of the undertaker families on the eve of plantation or from appropriate parish records. A similar exercise on the origins of the servitor grantees, also some sixty in all, will also be necessary, and a small Welsh component in the colony must be examined.

His research was hindered by the loss over time of many standard sources, including the Irish public records, the records of country administration and of the towns. He sought to compensate for this by gathering material, including estate and family papers, official county records and private papers of county officials, from a diverse assortment of archives. Among his study destinations were obscure record offices all over England as well as in Ireland. These visits had an additional purpose: to fill in the story of the background to the migration to Ulster in the localities, to complement the information provided in more official accounts. At one stage he wished to present the fruits of his labour in a book of documents to illustrate the social and economic history of Ireland in the first half of the seventeenth century.

Topics illustrated would include the following: the structure of population; old Irish; old English; new English; the impact of plantations; landlords and tenants; trade; growth of towns; religious issues; local administration.

In a study leave report he makes the following further proposal for his research:

I worked over a series of Dublin government accounts for the reign of James I. From material from these, and other sources, I am preparing papers on the introduction of English law to Ulster and on government printing in Ireland.

Among the sources critically examined were those of the muster rolls. As well as transcribing them he may have considered devoting a separate book or chapter to the study of them alone. A potential title for this was found among his papers: ‘Men and Arms’: the Ulster settlers, 1630.

His interest in the Ulster Plantation was by no means uncritical and the adverse consequences for the Irish was a key theme of his research, explored in his thesis and afterwards. He nevertheless hoped to illustrate some of the slightly more benign aspects of colonial society. In his ‘Planned Works’ folder he wrote a plan for Volume 1 of his book: ‘The Ulster planters in the seventeenth century, Acquisition survival and achievements’. This included: ‘Education and culture; Religion; Literacy and intellectual activity OR learning; Architecture; “Professionals”’.

Cultural and intellectual history was one of his major preoccupations and led him to explore some of the educational institutions that were formed during the plantation.

… my book on plantation in Ulster … will include cultural dimension and some reference to the schools. I did some work on the Royal Schools in Armagh and Cavan in the 1960s and have been gathering information on them all from a wide range of manuscript sources since then. Proposed title of chapter: ‘The Royal Schools in the Ulster Plantation. Their origins and establishment’ (This could go to c. 1700)

This interest in educational establishments tied in with early plans for research on TCD.

I have plans to do further work on the financial basis of Trinity College Dublin within this period, with the possibility of editing some of their estate and other papers for the Irish Manuscripts Commission. A comparison of the problems and approaches of two colonial universities, Dublin and Harvard, could be especially interesting.

A key interest was the process of anglicisation. He explored this through a study of the book trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries:

This is immensely important for the understanding of cultural change and the anglicisation process in early modern Ireland. One small publication has already arisen from this – ‘Chester and the Irish book trade, 1681’ in Irish, Economic and Social History 15 (1988) – and others are both in hand and being planned.

Trade more generally was a major component of his research. Early on in his career he transcribed the Ulster port books, 1612–15, and then set about cross-checking them with the port books for English ports in the London Public Record Office, Chester and Liverpool. He also conducted extensive research into the history of trade to Ulster both before and after plantation, from Edinburgh to as far afield as Spain. He summed up his rationale as follows:

The value of the port books is enormous for a number of aspects of Ulster plantation studies. They can be used to establish the character of the merchant class of the emerging plantation towns and the incipient commercialisation which was one of the characteristics of plantation. Taken in conjunction with the ‘destination’ port books it is possible to establish whether the names which appear in the process of trading were Chester merchants, London merchants or whatever or were men from the Ulster towns or localities. They thus throw light on trading contact with, for example, the north of England. They can also be used, as names are gradually identified, to indicate the hinterlands of the Ulster ports, for example Strabane merchants trading through Derry. Not only do they demonstrate the way in which post-plantation Ulster became a trading hinterland for England and Lowland Scotland, but they also show the extent to which this did not happen. Very quickly some of the Ulster merchants and others from other ports of Ireland engaged in patterns of trade, probably following on pre-existing Gaelic relationships, direct with Europe which entirely circumvented the home countries and provided them with no economic benefits from colonization. On the other hand the administration in Dublin benefitted from the collection of customs duties which previously, at least as far as the unconquered west of the province was concerned, it had not been able to impose at all. The commodities imported illuminate the plantation economy and the enormous range of imports indicates that Ulster participated in the contemporary consumer society. The port books also provide fairly exact information about the places of origin of the ships that traded with Ulster and indicate the size of local Ulster merchant fleets.

He expressed a desire to write a study of Derry, ‘the principle plantation town’. This was partially inspired by the discovery of some valuable source materials that Professor Moody had been unable to use in his book.

The ‘great parchment book’ of 1639 contains a rental of the city at that date. From it something approaching a map of the city could be constructed and since it generally gives the occupations of the tenants as well, it would provide, if transcribed and published, a virtually unique impression of an Irish town at that time. It is all the more important in view of the fact that hardly any other sources have survived, apart from the rental of 1628 (published by Dean King in 1936) with which it could be compared.

He wrote the above in an application for a research grant to the Irish Society in 1977. In this he offered to publish the 1639 rental in a learned journal prior to completing the remainder of the work.

In the latter years of his life he made forays into subsequent periods of Ulster history. In a personal letter written less than three weeks before he died, he explained what his intentions had been:

As you know my period is about 1580–1660 and is concerned with Ulster. I also hoped to go a little further: (i) studies, c. 1690–c. 1750, (ii) great studies in (1) the book trade to W. Ulster, c. 1820–1880; (2) the intellectual life of Magee (initially a Presbyterian foundation like Princeton) and a study of a philosophical and natural history society here from 1869.

This tied in with his proposed pan-historical ‘intellectual and cultural history of Ulster’, which was to include reference to key thinkers and institutions from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth. His interest was prompted by the dismay he felt at the incursions being made on Derry’s cultural heritage, the Magee Library being amongst them. His research into Magee and specifically Professor John Robinson Leebody became a large preoccupation of his later years, one product of which was his short sketch on the man for the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Moreover, in addition to his 50 published articles, there are also 62 unpublished complete articles and 20 draft articles that demonstrate the direction of his research. Some of these unpublished materials are lectures never intended for publication. However in a study leave application he refers to ‘at least three papers on aspects of the Ulster plantation, delivered to ‘societies’ which ‘are drafts of sections of the proposed book and are not being offered for separate publication.’ Their precise location in the archive is currently unknown. In addition, he formulated research materials for students with the following tag line: ‘they are copyright to me because they are the basis of a book which will be written if I live long enough.’ Some of his unpublished articles will soon be made available on the R.J. Hunter website.

Further general introductions to R.J. Hunter’s research ambitions can be obtained from reviewing the study leave applications themselves, which go into considerably greater detail than has been represented here. Ian Montgomery’s introduction to the archive also provides an excellent guide to Hunter’s research.

The e-catalogue itself is available at:

Laura Hunter Houghton