Saturday, 26 June 2010

Dalways Bawn: The Earl of Essex's Plantation in east Antrim

(This is the fourth of a series exploring the history of the Dalway cattle drove trail)

John Dalway’s Bawn and his cattle ‘empire’ in east Antrim were to prove the most enduring legacy of the Elizabethan Plantation carried out by the Earl of Essex in east Antrim in the 1570s.

In 1571, Elizabeth I granted her Principal Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, 360,000 acres of Sir Bryan McPhelim O’Neill’s Clandeboy estates in north Down and south Antrim. This was a grand scheme to reverse the centuries old encroachment of the Earldom of Ulster by the Clandeboy O’Neills. But when Bryan O’Neill laid waste the abbeys and other major buildings in north Down, along with the town of Carrickfergus, the venture appeared ill-fated. Thomas Smith (Sir Thomas’s son) led only about 100 soldier-settlers across to Strangford, and had already realised that it would only be practical to occupy the ‘Ards’ area of north-east Down. With Bryan O’Neill having destroyed any place of shelter or fortification in north Down, the Smith colonists were forced to winter in Carrickfergus. By 1573, the Smith venture had all but collapsed with the assassination of Thomas Smith at Comber, and Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex came to the rescue by offering take over the responsibility for the county Antrim part of the plantation, in return for helping to secure Sir Thomas Smith’s possession of the Ards.

Elizabeth agreed to the deal and appointed the Earl of Essex as Captain General and Governor of Ulster. He had mortgaged his own estate for £10,000 to the Queen as the venture was to be jointly funded between Elizabeth and Essex, including the cost of all fortifications. He arrived in Carrickfergus late in 1573 with 1200 men (ten times more than Thomas Smith junior had brought the previous year). Of these he had raised 200 horse and 400 foot soldiers himself, and the Queen had provided the same number. Each horse soldier that served for two years was to get 400 acres, and each foot soldier, 200 acres.

For the duration of his stay, Essex rarely ventured out of his Carrickfergus base. In his own words, “At my arrival here I found the countries in arms, and no place out of the hands of the Irish rebels or Scots, but only the town of Knockfergus, which the townsmen meant to leave and abandon, having prepared all things for their journey into the English Pale; but the townsmen, taking heart by the bruit of her Majesty's army to be sent under me, staid their determination, and have now settled themselves in their habitation."

Shortly after his arrival in 1573, Essex learnt that Thomas Smith had been killed at Comber ‘by an Irishman of his own household’, and he sent some Elizabethan troops to Holywood, county Down to help protect the house of a Mr. Moore, one of ‘the Queen’s pensioners’ after he too was killed. As Governor, Essex had full use of Carrickfergus Castle, but he also had a base near West Street in the town called both “Essex’s Mount” and “Crannaghbawn” (Wattled Bawn). The street leading up to West Street is still called Essex Street, and Governor’s Place at the south end of Essex Street was originally named Governor’s Walk after him. Along High Street, where most of the Elizabethan tower houses had been built, lived John Dalway (later of Dalways Bawn), Moses Hill (also constable of Olderfleet Castle at Larne), John Lugg (later of Castle Lugg at the western edge of the County of Carrickfergus), Richard Spearpoint (later holding lands at Magheramorne) and Thomas Stevenson (later holding land along with Moses Hill at Straid, near Ballynure). A ‘Bawn’ immediately in front of the castle was owned by Captain William Piers who later attempted to pick up some of the pieces of the Smith colony in the Ards.

The Earl of Essex and his followers (including John Dalway) were intended to get Upper Clandeboy (south and east Antrim apart from Carrickfergus), and Elizabeth’s soldiers were to get whatever lands they could win from the MacDonnells and McQuillans (the 'Antrim Scots') in the north of the county. But between 1573 and 1575 many of the adventurers returned home, disillusioned with the collapse of the Smith colony in county Down and two fruitless but bloody forays into the interior of the county. The most disastrous of these involved establishing a garrison on Rathlin Island to neutralise the threat posed by Sorley Boy MacDonnell. By 1574 Essex recognised that, like Smith, he could not possibly colonise all the area granted to him. He was likely to be confined to the town and county of Carrickfergus if he did not modify his proposals. So a revised scheme was devised for a series of settlements along the Antrim coast from Belfast to north of Larne.

Eventually Elizabeth also accepted that Essex had overstretched himself. On the surrender of Lower Clandeboy and in recognition of the capital he had already invested and lost, Essex was granted the peninsula of Islandmagee. With the exception of a few of his followers that had settled along the north coast of Belfast Lough (Greencastle, Whitehouse ‘Bawn’ and Castle Lugg near Greenisland), most of the colonists, including John Dalway, preferred the relative security of the town and county of Carrickfergus.

It is easy to see why Essex chose to consolidate his own position at Islandmagee. Like Sir Thomas Smith in the Ards, he recognised the natural security of a peninsula as it meant that only the land approach was vulnerable to cattle raids. A tower house was built at Larne (Olderfleet Castle) to defend the mouth of Larne Lough and the short ferry crossing to Islandmagee, and at Whitehead another (Castle Chichester). These were at least partly financed by Elizabeth, and Essex garrisoned them with his own men as outposts of Carrickfergus rather than as private settlements. Moses Hill was ‘constable’ at Olderfleet, and John Chichester at Whitehead. Portmuck Castle in Islandmagee was probably built at the same time, as the Chichesters (when John and later his brother Sir Arthur Chichester were Governors of Carrickfergus) held responsibility for the maintenance of both.

But all was not well for Essex in his private life. His wife Lettice (a daughter of Sir Francis Knollys who was himself involved in earlier attempts to colonise Antrim) had been romantically attached to the Earl of Leicester before her marriage to Walter Devereux. At that time, the Earl of Leicester was Queen Elizabeth’s ‘favourite’, and it was her jealousy that ended his attachment to Lettice and provoked a hasty marriage to Essex about 1560. Not surprisingly, when Essex was in Carrickfergus, she resumed an affair with Leicester and news of this reached him.

The Earl of Essex returned to England at the end of 1575, resolved "to live henceforth an untroubled life"; but he was ultimately persuaded to accept the offer of the Queen to make him Earl Marshal of Ireland. He arrived in Dublin in September 1576, and three weeks afterwards died of dysentery, although poison was suspected at the behest of the Earl of Leicester (who married Lettice shortly after). The massacres of the Clandeboy O'Neills at Belfast and the north Antrim ‘Scots’ on Rathlin Island left a dark stain on the Earl of Essex’s reputation and he was succeeded in his Islandmagee estate by his (and Lettice’s) son, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.

It was in the 1590s that Robert Devereux became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and the Elizabethan surge to colonise east Antrim got fresh energy.