The origins of the Leix-Offaly Plantation. By Dr Diarmuid Wheeler.

We welcome this week Dr Diarmuid Wheeler on an important subject for Ireland and for the midlands, being the colonial experiment known as the Leix-Offaly Plantation. For those interested in the Decade of the Centenaries, the resurgence of interest in the Irish language, 1916 and the War of Independence, knowing the roots of the conflict is essential. The fort of Philipstown would soon be adopted as the county town for the new King’s County of the 1550s. The courts of assize to display the might and power of English law continued to be held in King’s County until 1921 while the name of the county was changed only in 1920 to Offaly. The Civil War of 1922–3 would witness the burning of houses such as Ballyburly, owned by the Wakely family, who had come to Ireland as soldier settlers in the time of Elizabeth.

Dr Wheeler will give his lecture on the Leix-Offaly Plantation to Offaly History from his home in the United States on Monday night 22 March at 7.30 p.m. Email us at with the subject heading  ‘Zoom Wheeler’ for the access code [Ed.]

The beginnings of the midlands colonial project can be traced back to the early sixteenth century when the Tudor government, who firmly believed that Ireland rightfully belonged to the English crown and that the country’s keeping was essential to England’s overall safety, sought to restore the island to its twelfth century “conquered” state from which the crown hoped to profit. Brendan Bradshaw argues that the Tudors and the Old English of Ireland were heavily influenced by Renaissance humanism that encouraged them to bring reform to Ireland. But the administration lacked significant knowledge and experience of the country, particularly during Henry VIII’s reign and quickly realised that reforming the island would take significantly more military and financial resources than they had anticipated. By the final years of the 1530s, it was apparent that a certain degree of coercion and military force would be necessary to bring about wide scale reform. Yet the Tudors were also aware that they could not employ outright force to achieve their objectives, lacking the necessary resources to do so. Instead, the Tudor administration recognised that they would need to accommodate the natives of Ireland, at least somewhat, in order to make their aspiration a reality.

Edward VI

Consequently, they pursued policies of assimilation stretching back to the 1530s and early 1540s with the programme of reform known as “surrender and regrant”. “Surrender and regrant” refers to the phrase coined by William Butler in the early twentieth century to describe the process of integration whereby Gaelic chiefs and English lords acknowledged royal authority, in return for a guarantee of their lands under English common law. The policy was a rationalisation on the government’s part that some kind of accommodation was necessary with the Gaelic Irish in order to fully reform the country. For Tudor officials such as Walter Cowley, who was by no means a supporter of surrender and regrant or an assimilatory approach towards the Gaelic Irish, the ‘reform’ of Ireland’s natives was imperative. Cowley stressed that the English language was to be encouraged, the wearing of Irish apparel forbidden and Brehon law restricted as much as possible. Although Cowley supported a militaristic approach in Ireland such as the establishment of English garrisons and settlements, encircled by areas of English control, his call for ‘reform’ echoed the sentiment among many Tudor officials that so long as the Gaelic culture survived, the Irish would never truly embrace civility or general law and order. In fact, from the late twelfth century onwards, propagandists such as Giraldus Cambrensis promoted English expansion into Gaelic territories so as to introduce English civility (towns, tillage and commerce) to the allegedly savage people who lived in idleness in their woods and bogs. The fundamental problem remained that the Gaelic Irish were deemed different and treated as such by the Tudor state. Ireland’s natives were considered uncivilised and ‘unreasonable beasts’ who lived ‘without any knowledge of God or good manners’ and regularly preyed upon the inhabitants of the ‘English Pale’. The moustaches and hairstyle of the Gaelic natives, their indifference to cover their entire bodies with clothing, lack of good table manners or saddles and stirrups whilst riding, were all significant indicators of their distinctness from their English neighbours. They were also considered to be morally inferior, inclined to lustfulness, prone to divorce and legitimisation of illegitimate children as well as fosterage. These concepts were allegedly largely alien to the English.

Men and women of Ireland in Tudor eyes

“Englishness”, on the other hand, was regarded as legally, culturally and socially superior to “Irishness” in every way. Traditionally, civility distinguished the external differences between civil society and those deemed uncivil due to their ‘rudeness’, ‘savagery’ and unwillingness to conform to a mode of conduct organised by reason and principle. In other words, civility distinguished the social man from the savage. Gradually, a religious dimension was added to this rhetoric. By the 1300s, the English adjudged God to be an Englishman and in the mid sixteenth century, during the height of the reformation, English identity became Protestant and in turn, England also became God’s elect nation with Protestantism regarded as a further significant indication of civility. As a result, English civility was expected to closely resemble godliness as much as possible, and any defection to Gaelic Irish culture or customs, was regarded as cultural degeneracy or cultural corruption.

Giraldus Cambrensis

English culture, particularly lowland English culture, was associated with economic development: towns, commerce and tillage farming. These towns were expected to be well populated and the countryside was supposed to be dominated by manors in addition to open and common fields with a dependent landed peasantry, all overseen by religiously devout nobility, country gentry and monarchy. Gaelic culture was notably different with compact lordships and limited number of towns and in native heartlands bordering English territories, unstable marcher societies. Lowland territories were seen as distinctive in terms of wealth, land use, social structure and patterns of settlement. In direct contrast, border regions epitomised wildness and lawlessness.

The Tudor government believed that the Gaelic natives needed to be deterred from their idleness and encouraged to resort to husbandry. Husbandry was essentially the care, cultivation and breeding of crops and animals and was signified as progress and civility by the administration. Those who did not conform were considered primitive and as such, needed to be “delivered” from their barbarous ways. Ergo, the conversion of neglected waste lands into fully cultivated arable plots that produced corn, represented the gift of civility to Ireland’s natives. For Old Englishmen such as Robert Cowley, Master of the Rolls during Henry VIII’s reign, leaving lands uncultivated was disastrous as it granted the Gaelic Irish a refuge where they could preserve their savage ways and continue to threaten the civil inhabitants of the Pale.

Although the term ‘Old English’ was not coined until 1596 by Edmund Spenser, this group were the descendants of the Anglo-Norman conquest of the twelfth century and had built up a strong foothold in the country in what was termed the ‘English Pale’, serving as feudal magnates, merchants, lawyers and general landowners. The Old English were described by the Tudor government as ‘English of Irish birth or ‘of that country birth’. In Tudor eyes, where the land was uncultivated, so were the people and hence the distinction between ‘civility’ and ‘savagery’. The building and inhabiting of these wastelands was expected to safeguard these same ‘poor earth tillers’ of the English Pale.

In reality, the situation was not so clear-cut. Steve Ellis argues that the Pale frontier was not only a physical frontier, but also a frontier of contact between the two nations. These societies were not completely dissimilar to one another and farming was paramount to the two groups. Pastoral farming in particular was extremely significant to the Gaelic Irish economy where the number of livestock tended to serve as an indication of the wealth and power of a particular Gaelic chieftain. Pastoral farming was also arguably a more advantageous endeavour in turbulent territories such as Leix and Offaly as it allowed for the quick movement of animals when necessary. Although the English viewed tillage farming as a mark of civility, it was more susceptible to warfare in that crops and granaries were usually at the mercy of an invading force. Furthermore, although the soil was unquestionably superior in the Pale where wheat, barley, and rye were grown in abundance, the Gaelic Irish unquestionably practised tillage farming. This included the production of oats, which grew on poor soil to some degree in the midlands. Pastoralism as well as cattle raids were spun as deliberately destructive and disturbingly different and the society that practiced it was considered backward and underdeveloped. In order to promote further the necessity of civilising Ireland’s natives, the Tudor government alleged that pastoralism was the main agricultural method employed by the Gaelic Irish and was therefore a significant threat to the Pale’s security, civil living and the well-ordered landscape of an arable society. But, settlement was determined to a significant degree by the type of physical terrain that prevailed throughout a particular shire. The English also managed to spin this in their favour. William Newburgh, the twelfth century English historian, alleged that Ireland’s soil would have been ‘fertile if it did not lack the industry of the dedicated farmer; but the country has an uncivilized and barbarous people, almost lacking in laws and discipline, lazy in agriculture, and thereby living more on milk than on bread’. Newburgh’s comments highlighted the degree to which pastoralism was an alien concept to the arable based societies of lowland England. Civility thus stood, as the hallmark of acceptable behaviour and norms and without it, membership of civil or civic English society was impossible. Consequently, the Tudors deemed it essential for the Gaelic Irish to evolve from “barbarous rudeness” to “sweet civility” before they could be fully accepted as part of the English polity.

Programmes of assimilation and reform such as surrender and regrant sought to integrate individual Irish lords, both politically and culturally, into the Tudor state by promoting them to the peerage as barons and earls. The Tudors considered the acceptance of the social, economic, and cultural norms of the English state as a crucial means of overcoming the frontier line between civility and barbarism by which a ‘union of manners and conformity of minds’ would be initiated ‘to bring them (Gaelic Irish) to be one people (with the English)’. The move was particularly successful in territories such as Upper Ossory, Clanmalire, Ely and northern Offaly which were assimilated into English shire ground with English administrative structures through the collaboration of local chiefs who embraced the policy of surrender and regrant. Significantly, this presented an alternative model of Anglicisation to the one the government pursued in Leix and Offaly for the majority sixteenth century.  Yet, surrender and regrant was not without its shortcomings. The policy often caused turmoil within clans such as the O’Carrolls and O’Connors as it directly conflicted with their lordships and their extended kinship, forcing the government to provide extensive military and diplomatic assistance in order to secure the chieftaincies. Crucially, there was also no model in place to assist the government with the peaceful extension of Tudor rule throughout Ireland. The most significant issue with this approach was that it did not have the wide spread support of the Old English or Tudor officials in London as it placed conciliation before coercion, ignoring the alleged decay of the Englishry. This was testament to the fact that despite the submission of numerous lords, the deeply ingrained resentments and alleged cultural differences remained between the Gaelic Irish and English that had prevailed for centuries. It also highlights that in the eyes of numerous Tudor officials, the use of military force, however limited, or at least the threat of such was seen as fundamental to reforming the country.

As a result, the government explored alternative approaches to reduce the Gaelic lordships to civility and based their strategy upon previous tactics employed in Scotland and Wales. Tudor intervention in Scotland was a direct result of a perceived threat from France whose monarch, Henry II, was hostile towards England and sought to reclaim English held Boulogne. The campaign was an overriding obsession of Somerset’s government and its origin was quite practical in that the administration could not afford to cover the costs of regular invasions of the territory in order to bring the Scots to heel. His goal was to permanently impose direct rule in Scotland and crush any resistance in the process but force was only seen as a means of ensuring obedience and carrying out punishment when necessary. On the 10 September 1547, Protector Somerset invaded and crushed the Scottish army at Pinkie, which enabled Seymour to enact his strategy of establishing English garrisons in the country. These garrisons were expected to not only offer protection to loyalist Scots and promote the Protestant faith but were also a show of force and symbolic of the government’s aspirations of taking complete possession of the region. Accordingly, forts were built or repaired to house permanent English garrisons and secure English influence throughout Scotland. The move was also intended tounite England and Scotland into ‘one isle, one realm’, which was clearly God’s will, since the two nations dwelt on one island and spoke the same language. But in practise, the move backfired spectacularly and ultimately, a number of scattered garrisons failed to win the Scots over. Still the appeal of garrisons seized Somerset’s mind and unsurprisingly, figured heavily in his plans for bringing the Gaelic Irish to a similar submission.

Protector Somerset

The Tudors had arguably experienced greater success in Wales. The so-called Act of Union of 1536 had converted the marcher lordships of Wales into shires and incorporated the region as an integral part of the Kingdom. Welsh law and customs were abolished and the whole territory was brought under English common law and administrative structures. For the Tudor government, the only credible long-term solution for reforming the country was to transition the Welsh lordships into English shires with uniform administrative structures in terms of law, justice and jurisdiction. Accordingly, sheriffs, justices of the peace and other English local government officials were introduced, primogeniture replaced partible inheritance, the English language was made compulsory for administrative and legal matters and Welsh shires received representation in parliament. The initiative proved incredibly effective and the new system helped to curb the worst disorders making the Welsh appear more civilised.  In a wider context, particularly in terms of Ireland, the successful transition from native lordships to English counties provided a blueprint for reducing other borderlands spread throughout the kingdom to Tudor reform, general law and order and ‘civility’. Its application elsewhere was expected to yield similar results. Accordingly, whenever the administration ran into trouble in Ireland with its reform programmes, individuals such as Sir Henry Sidney and William Gerard who had experience in Wales, urged the government to implement the ‘Welsh model’ throughout Ireland, including the midlands.

By the mid to late 1540s, Tudor officials such as Edward Bellingham, Robert and Walter Cowley, William Brabazon and Nicholas Bagenal among others, promoted the confiscation of Gaelic Irish land and encouraged Edward VI and his government to establish garrisons based upon the Scottish model and gradually implement the Welsh framework to rein in and coerce Ireland’s natives, particularly those of the midlands, towards conformity and leading a civilised life. The twin strategies of coercion and conciliation were employed for the remainder of the century in the hope of reforming the island of Ireland and uniting it once again within the Tudor realm. In the case of the midlands, the Leix-Offaly colonial scheme can more be seen as a frustrated response by the administration to the consistent raids of the O’Mores and O’Connors upon the Pale. The crown was incredibly wary of the threat posed to the Tudor state by these ongoing raids of the Gaelic Irish. With worrying reports of a potential French invasion and the influx of Scots into Ulster, the government feared that Ireland’s natives were planning a pre-emptive attack to ‘rid themselves of the yoke of England’ before they were ‘driven out of their ancient possessions’.  Although this was somewhat of an exaggeration and arguably state propaganda at its finest, there can be little doubt that the various Irish lordships, including the O’Mores and O’Connors, were very much aware of the Tudor government’s agenda to lay claim upon their lands. Although Gaelic raids were largely launched to seize cattle or other forms of plunder, they also had long been the means by which the midlands clans displayed their dissatisfaction with the administration.  But by 1546/7, the government’s patience had well and truly run out and it decided to take action to prevent any further Gaelic assaults upon the heartland of English civility in Ireland. Lord Deputy Bellingham established the fortresses of Fort Protector and Fort Governor in 1547-8, setting into motion the first Tudor colonisation scheme in Ireland, the Leix-Offaly plantation. Such colonial ventures were proposed as a cheap and effective method of spreading English reform throughout Ireland and Anglicising large parts of it. Much like in Scotland and Wales, strategically placed garrisons were expected to subjugate the midlands region and bring it under direct Tudor rule. Crucially, it was only under Somerset that the garrisoning of Ireland beyond the English Pale became the government’s ultimate focus and the very core of its strategy, remaining a crucial component of future policy in the country.

Bronckhorst, Arnold; Sir Henry Sidney (1529-1586), KG; National Trust, Petworth House;

 The administration was very much aware that it could not rely solely on the Old English community of Ireland to plant the midlands with freeholders and instead sought additional settlers ‘out of England’ itself. In the context of civility, the venture was expected to produce a settled landscape inhabited by civil English farmers who were the key to security and safeguarding the overall region with their strict adherence to the King’s laws. The emphasis on the establishment of a loyal settler group in Leix and Offaly who would till the land in place of the wild Irish became a necessary precursor to the introduction of civility to the midlands. William Thomas, the Welsh scholar and clerk of the Privy Council during Edward VI’s reign, although possessing little experience of Ireland, argued that only then would the country be transformed from ‘rude, beastly, ignorant, cruel and unruly infidels, to the state of civil, reasonable, patient, humble, and well-governed Christians’. In the government’s view, the Leix-Offaly plantation was expected to bring the Gaelic Irish of the Leinster region to a ‘reasonable submission’ as quickly as possible with ‘certain garrisons of men of war…in every quarter’. If the natives were unwilling to cooperate with the government’s plan, Thomas Cusack encouraged the employment of ‘the sword’ to ‘destroy all the inhabitants of that realm for their wickedness, and to inhabit the land with new’.  The Tudor administration believed that ‘substantial garrisons’ and an effective midlands plantation would put an end to relentless incursions upon the English Pale and encourage the natives to ‘humble themselves to not only perpetual peace, but also to a quiet obedience and order’. The colonial venture was also desirable as it offered a ‘chance for great profit’ and a ‘yearly’ one at that for the crown with extensive territory on offer for those ambitious and bold enough to seize it.

Irish Galloglass and Kern

However, the enterprise, at least in its early stages, implemented little change in Leix and Offaly. An inadequate survey combined with insufficient land grants and significant Gaelic resistance ensured that the region remained largely unsettled by the early 1560s. That being said, the plantation unquestionably had potential and captured the attention and imagination of the Tudor government.  It presented the opportunity to begin a wider colonisation scheme throughout Leinster and Munster, which the administration hoped would wipe out the final elements of Gaelic culture that had gradually crept into otherwise loyal English districts. Hence, the planting of Leix and Offaly with English freeholders became a significant feature of governing the kingdom of Ireland and served as a model for future colonisation ventures.