Towards the end of the 14th century a branch of the powerful Gaelic O’Neill family moved from West Ulster into what is now Antrim and Down. Becoming known as the Clandeboye O’Neill’s, they became increasingly powerful and were seen as a growing threat by the English monarchs, especially Elizabeth. Not only did Gaelic chieftains and powerful Anglo-Norman families contest English rule in Ireland but the country was also seen as a back door into England for her great rivals, France and Spain.
In 1571, Elizabeth, a great believer in colonization, granted her Secretary-of-State Sir Thomas Smith a huge 360,000 acres of East Ulster to plant English settlers in an effort to seize control of the Clandeboye O’Neill territory and control the native Irish. The grant included all of the area we know of today as North Down and the Ards, apart from the southern tip of the Peninsula, which was controlled by the Anglo-Norman Savage family.
Unfortunately for Smith, the booklet he printed to advertise his new lands was read by the Clandeboye O’Neill chief, Sir Brian O’Neill, who just a few years earlier had been knighted by Elizabeth. Furious at her duplicity in secretly arranging for the colonization of O’Neill territory, he burned down all the major buildings in the area, making it difficult for the plantation to take hold. Launching a wave of attacks on these early English settlers, the O’Neill’s scorched the land Smith claimed, burning abbeys, monasteries and churches, and leaving Clandeboye, ‘totally waste and void of inhabitants’.
With the subsequent collapse of the Smith colony – mismanagement and the death of Smith’s son also contributed to its failure – Elizabeth was forced to agree to a peaceful compromise with Brian O’Neill’s successor, his grandson Con O’Neill, in 1587.
Over the next few decades the English stepped up their campaign to rule Ireland, particularly in Ulster. Despite Smith’s failure, the concept of colonization, or plantation of settlers, continued to appeal. But it would take a Scot, King James 1, to give the go ahead for the first successful plantation, and two Scots, Sir Hugh Montgomery and Sir James Hamilton, to oversee it. Perhaps even more importantly, the settlers this time would not be English, but Scots, far hardier and temperamentally suited, King James believed, for the task ahead.