by David Edwards
Once upon a time in Ireland, in the days before desktop publishing, it was relatively unusual for a dissertation – even a history dissertation – to be published in full book form. Thumbing through the back issues of the periodical Irish Historical Studies, which each year supplies a hand-list of ‘Theses on Irish history completed in Irish universities’, it is striking how few of the dissertations completed during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s achieved much notice after their completion. Only a minority would later reappear as monographs, published by some university press or other (usually English), or a commercial publishing house (very often English). The great majority of dissertations had to settle for more limited public exposure, in the form of articles derived from the main body of the dissertation text which might be accepted for publication by a variety of national and international peer-reviewed periodicals and specialist journals. Yet even those dissertations that produced an article or two can hardly be said to have achieved their full potential. Indeed, more often than not, once published, the extracted articles were viewed by many who read them as a convenient substitute for having to consult the dissertations from which they derived. As a result, for several decades, a very large proportion of the very best scholarship on Irish history went mostly unread.
For the early modern period the non-publication of one dissertation in particular has seemed especially regrettable, R.J. Hunter’s ‘The Ulster plantation in the counties of Armagh and Cavan, 1608–1641’, completed in Trinity College, Dublin in 1969. As anyone who has attempted to teach it at third level can attest, the plantation in Ulster has long continued to be one of the most contested episodes of Ireland’s past. Early in my career, as a tutor in Modern History at Trinity in 1988–9, I found the task of teaching the plantation to be poorly served by most of the available secondary literature. Simply put, much of what had been published was unequal to the questions raised in class by bright freshman students curious about the actual mechanics of seventeenth-century colonisation and its political justification and who were mindful of the plantation’s lingering presence behind much more recent events. Most popular histories of the plantation era were unreflectively partisan, either pro- or anti-colonist in approach, while supposedly more balanced academic writings tended to avoid the very questions that students most often asked about the plantation scheme in order to make sense of it: Why was it done? Did it make Ireland easier to govern from Whitehall, or more difficult? How was it done? To what extent did the transfer of millions of acres that it entailed rely on the use of coercion? What sort of opposition did it face, and how easily was this overcome? Frustrated at being unable to answer the students’ questions satisfactorily, I raised the matter with Aidan Clarke and Ciaran Brady: it was through them that I discovered R.J. Hunter’s dissertation, hidden away in the stores of Trinity’s library.
I was aware of his name. A few years earlier I had been introduced to Bob at a college prize-giving and had briefly chatted with him and his friend Kenneth Nicholls over dinner, since which I had read three or four of his articles as background to my research. His dissertation, however, proved a revelation. It was not just that it provided answers to many of the questions I had been confronted with as a tutor. Looking over the notes that I took from it, I see that I filled nearly forty pages of foolscap with Hunter’s insights into a range of issues that went beyond my immediate teaching needs – I was struck by his detailed knowledge of the background of his English, Scottish and Irish protagonists; his careful scrutiny of the series of surveys commissioned by the government immediately before the plantation began, and throughout its subsequent development; his grasp of the various legal (and extra-legal) mechanisms that underpinned the plantation and how they affected peoples’ lives, from the greatest of the planters to the humblest of tenants and those that were made landless; and I was clearly impressed by his observations on the disparity between the government’s assumptions about the positive impact of the plantation and the reality of its introduction on the ground in Cavan and Armagh.
Hunter’s command of his subject – in places magisterial – was grounded on a strong chronological foundation, in which each development was located in its proper time and place, a meticulous process which allowed even minor details to gain added meaning as, expertly, they were fitted in to a larger sequence. By the 1980s some studies of colonisation in early seventeenth-century Ulster had moved away from chronological or ‘narrative’ history, adopting instead a thematic approach to the subject. While this approach did yield some important new insights, it was largely dependant on there being a fully rounded chronology of often very complex occurrences. Reading Hunter, it was clear that the accepted chronology on which such studies rested was deficient – what scholars had identified as key trends were sometimes interpreted out of sequence or, more often, without proper awareness of other relevant developments.
His chapters on the period 1619–1637 (Chapters 4–5, and much of Chapter 6) are a case in point. Too often the historiography had concentrated on the early years of the plantation, from its inception in 1608–09 to Pynnar’s Survey of 1618–19, before cutting hastily to the late 1630s, to Wentworth’s campaign against the Scottish settlers and the run up to the plantation’s overthrow by the Irish in 1641. By ignoring the crucial ‘middle period’ after 1619, a succession of scholars had helped to create a mostly false impression that little of moment had occurred in Ulster before the Scottish crisis erupted – that is to say, that the plantation had settled down, and that the Irish rebellion, when it came, was unexpected, a terrible shock, ‘a bolt from the blue’. Hunter knew otherwise. By giving equal coverage to the middle years he was able to observe a very different scenario, in which the plantation underwent a series of emergencies due to fear of invasion or local rebellion (or a combination of both), and which continued until shortly before the Scottish crisis. Characteristically, he did not place a heavy emphasis on this point, preferring instead to let the facts, arranged in sequence, do the work.
But it is not just his treatment of the background to 1641 that stands out. His careful tracing of events provides important elucidation of much else besides. For instance, discussing the evolution of the plantation project before 1610, he anticipated the work of later scholars (notably John McCavitt) in revealing the distaste of the lord deputy, Sir Arthur Chichester, for the scale and form of the plantation scheme that was eventually approved in Whitehall, and after 1610, the deputy’s constant support of the army interest in Ulster over that of the planters. Early in Chapter 3 Hunter shows that the 1615 conspiracy was far more serious than is sometimes thought, and probably shocked James I into renewing the plantation, whereas just a little earlier royal enthusiasm for the colony had been visibly flagging. A few pages later, Hunter throws an especially penetrating light on the post-1615 situation in Ulster in his treatment of George Allen’s hopelessly unrealistic militia project, and the abject failure of the planters and the crown to agree on an agent or official to mediate between them. Historians have long noted the mutual incomprehension and suspicion that gradually emerged between the planters and the state during the 1610s and 1620s, particularly over the retention of Irish tenants, yet few have described this as well as Hunter. He shows how government plans to keep the Irish segregated from the ‘British’ heartland were confounded by the economic realities that pressed on many planter families unable to attract enough English or Scottish tenants, and in Armagh and Cavan the proliferation of Irish of all sorts appears to have reached peak levels by c. 1630, to the alarm of Dublin and London. Yet even here Hunter brings fresh light and deeper understanding, able through careful sifting of the evidence to suggest that on some estates planters had endeavoured to co-operate with the requirement to limit the number of natives to a quarter of the available land. Plainly, inter-ethnic relations varied widely from estate to estate, accommodating and business-like on one, cold and guarded on another; the tension and volatility that this engendered lurks between the sentences.
At the end of his chronological narrative Hunter’s treatment of Wentworth is no less striking. According to many discussions of the subject, Wentworth was harsh towards the planters, oppressing most of the Scots but antagonising the English too, so much so that English Ulster planters were prominent among his adversaries and played a significant part in his downfall. In Hunter’s hands this familiar tale is significantly altered. The governor is shown to have initially intended to bring the colonists to book; however, as his proposed plantation of Connacht ran into difficulties and came more and more to consume him, Wentworth is depicted as modifying his position over Ulster, and in Armagh and Cavan – though not in Londonderry – his administration adopted a more conciliatory attitude than is generally realised.
The second section of the dissertation is just as accomplished, attempting nothing less than a comprehensive social and economic history of the two counties in order to measure the full impact of the plantation on everyday life in Ulster before 1641. Re-reading it recently as it was being prepared for publication, I was just as impressed as when I first read it twenty years ago. While some fine studies of aspects of the plantation’s economy have been published since the 1970s, few are better than Hunter is here. Beginning with an overview of the native Irish experience that ranges from the main Irish grantees included within the plantation to the thousands of Irish that it left landless (Chapter 7), he explores in detail the main ways in which the English and Scottish newcomers set about the task of transforming the region and eking out livelihoods for their families and followers – their trades and occupations, their uneven record of building activity, their disputes over terms and conditions of occupancy, their frequent recourse to litigation and the courts. The chapter on towns (Chapter 8) will be partly familiar to students of the period, some of its contents having appeared in Hunter’s well-known essay ‘Towns in the Ulster Plantation’, published in Studia Hibernica in 1971, but even so the chapter contains much added information on Armagh, Charlemont, Mountnorris, Tandragee, Cavan, Belturbet and Virginia, which was otherwise omitted from the article.
The depth of understanding that Hunter brings to these and other aspects of plantation society is matched by the depth of the archival research that underpins it. Not content to confine his inquiry to standard primary sources such as the State Papers or the Carew Manuscripts, he ranged far and wide in search of new material. Just look at the bibliography at the end: it provides one of the most extensive listings of manuscript materials in the National Archives of Ireland, the National Library of Ireland, Trinity College Library, and Armagh Archiepiscopal Library ever produced by an Irish early modern historian. To this day few scholars have discovered as much material in these repositories as Hunter did. This is not to say that he managed to find everything. At the time of his research little was known of the survival of Irish historical papers in the United Kingdom, outside the British Library, TNA, or the Oxford and Cambridge libraries, as the system of county and local record offices was still in its infancy. Accordingly, he was unaware of the Valentia papers, now at Oxfordshire County Record Office, which contains important estate documents from Cos Armagh, Cavan and Down that would have added significantly to his analysis; likewise the Culme papers in Dorset County Record Office have valuable private papers concerning planter families in Co. Cavan. Yet even these sources will probably only augment what Hunter found elsewhere. The enduring quality of his dissertation is a testament to his huge appetite for what Kenneth Nicholls calls digging, and what I prefer to call sleuthing – constantly sniffing about, asking more questions, looking for new evidence in places that no-one else has looked.
It is deeply regrettable that the exceptional calibre of Hunter’s work was not better recognised when it was submitted as a thesis in 1968. Shockingly it was only awarded the degree of M. Litt and not the PhD it so richly deserved, due, it is believed, to the harsh assessment of its external examiner, but also possibly to a difference of opinion in relation to the interpretation it deployed between Hunter and his supervisor, the late T.W. Moody. Hunter never really recovered from this setback. He would not attempt to publish the thesis, even in modified form, because his confidence was weakened. It gives me great pleasure to see the thesis in book form at last. Its appearance helps to right an injustice; better still, it makes for an excellent book. In the current slew of publications marking the quadricentennial of the plantation it will take a very special work to top it. I think you will agree, once you have read it.
Finally, for their assistance with this project I would like to thank Dr. Margaret Curtis-Clayton, Aine Sheehan and David Heffernan at University College Cork (UCC).