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PART 1 of 3
This article was originally a talk given by Desmond Rainey to Comber Historical Society in September 2006.

In March 1603 Queen Elizabeth I died. She had left England a powerful nation, and what could typify that more than the defeat of the mighty Spanish Armada sent by Philip II in 1588.

Many ships met their end around the Irish coast, such as the Girona, which ran aground off North Antrim. Elizabeth had also left England a Protestant nation, and she was succeeded by the protestant James VI of Scotland, who now became James I of England. James was the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth had executed in 1587 for treason. James didn’t remember his mother, because he was still a baby in 1567 when Mary fled into England after her defeat at the battle of Langside and threw herself on the mercy of Elizabeth.

So England was a powerful Protestant nation which had just put down a major rebellion by the Catholic Irish. There had been several rebellions against Elizabeth in Ireland, but this was the most serious.

The leaders were Hugh O’Neill, (Picture on left) Earl of Tyrone, and Hugh O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell. Tyrconnell was an old name for Donegal. At first all had gone well for the Irish, and in 1598 they inflicted a disastrous defeat on the English at the Battle of the Yellow Ford on the River Blackwater in County Armagh. Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Essex, fared no better, and on his return to England the Queen had him executed for disobeying orders by making a truce instead of fighting. By 1600 O’Neill and O’Donnell were at the height of their power.

Then a new English commander appeared on the scene. This was the very capable Lord Mountjoy, and he systematically laid waste the country, reducing it to a state of famine. Spanish help arrived at Kinsale in 1601 and the Earls had to march the whole length of Ireland to meet them. But the Spanish were under siege by a strong English force, and the Earls made the mistake of attacking. They were decisively defeated. O’Donnell escaped to Spain, where he died soon afterwards. O’Neill held out in Tyrone until 1603, submitting just days after Elizabeth’s death. James pardoned him and allowed him to keep his title, provided he remained loyal and abolished Irish law in his dominions. That was easier said than done.


O’Neill never felt safe. There were many who would have liked to kill him after all the trouble he had caused. And how could one accustomed to act as a king become an ordinary noble? In 1605 the government began to take action against the Catholics in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot, ordering all priests and Jesuits to leave the country. O’Neill saw this as a sign of coming trouble. He also knew that he was powerless to do anything, and that if he remained he would probably lose his life on some trumped up charge. And so in 1607 occurred the Flight of the Earls from Lough Swilly. Along with Hugh went Rory O’Donnell, brother of Hugh O’Donnell and now Earl of Tyrconnell in his place. They fled to the Continent in great secrecy, and didn’t obtain the King’s leave to go. Therefore they were accused of treason, and the whole of Tyrone and Tyrconnell was declared forfeit to the Crown. The King now also used the late rebellion as an excuse to take over Derry, Armagh, Cavan and Fermanagh as well.


Six counties had fallen into the King’s hands, and the government determined to carry out a great Plantation. These counties had long shown themselves the most difficult to control, and if a large-scale Plantation could be carried out successfully it would end the trouble for ever. The Lord Lieutenant, Arthur Chichester, urged that the native Irish should first be granted as much land as they could cultivate, and then the remainder could be planted with English and Scots settlers to act as a garrison. He thought the native Irish should be allowed to keep at least half the lands.

However, the government was determined on sweeping measures, and in 1609 the Plantation began. It was calculated that there were 510,000 acres of profitable land, excluding mountains, marsh and bog. This was to be divided into blocks of 2,000, 1,500 and 1,000 acres. These estates were then to be leased to 3 different types of planter:

(a) The undertakers. These were English and Scots, who must be Protestants. They undertook to ensure the success of the Plantation by bringing in settlers and building villages and castles for defence. They paid a very low rent for their grants (£5 6 8d per 1,000 acres), and were not allowed to take Irish tenants.

(b) The servitors. These were crown servants, officials and military men. They were mainly Scots, who paid the same low rent as the Undertakers, but were allowed to take Irish tenants. However, if they did so their rent was increased to £8 per 1,000 acres.

(c) The meritorious Irish. Some grants were made to natives whose loyalty the government felt could be relied upon. They paid a rent of £10 13 4d per 1,000 acres and could take Irish tenants. But the native grants only came to 58,000 acres. The native aristocracy became a minority among the landowners of the Province, and they got little of the best lands, which went to the English and Scots.

The Church of Ireland was granted lands, as was Dublin University.


The biggest grant went to the City of London Companies, who received all North Derry between the Bann and the Foyle. They set up a committee called the Irish Society to manage affairs. As a result, Derry came to be known as Londonderry. Three counties of Ulster were not planted. Monaghan was left to the native owners. Antrim was dominated by the Macdonnells of the Glens. James favoured them because they were Scots, and gave their chief the title of Earl of Antrim. Down had already been settled by a large number of Scots who had come over with two Scottish adventurers, Sir James Hamilton and Sir Hugh Montgomery. They had received large grants of land from the O’Neills of Clannaboye for small sums of money. The Ards Peninsula and large parts of North Down were rapidly becoming a prosperous Scottish colony. In South Down the native chiefs and the descendants of De Courcey’s Normans were left undisturbed.

In the late 16th century North Down was in the hands of the Gaelic Irish. There was a time when the Normans had established an English colony here, but that was some 400 years ago and it had become weak. So weak that the native Irish had gradually encroached in the form of a branch of the O’Neill family. These were known as the Clannaboye O’Neills after the name of their founder, and North Down was southern Clannaboye. Their chief in 1570 was Brian McFelim O’Neill, and he ruled from a tower house at Castlereagh known as the Eagle’s Nest. Sir Brian was described in confidential government papers as a true subject, and he had been knighted for his services to the Crown.

But Sir Brian was expendable. England was eager to extend its influence in Ireland at this time, and Clannaboye was one of the weakest and most accessible parts.

A number of English adventurers pressed Elizabeth I into granting them land here, including Captain Thomas Browne, who built the tower house on Mahee Island. But he couldn’t hold on to it and within a short time the O’Neills had regained control. Then Elizabeth’s secretary, Sir Thomas Smith, asked permission to plant Clannaboye and the Ards with Englishmen. He declared Clannaboye to be inhabited by “a wicked barbarous and uncivil people”, blackening their name by identifying them with those in other regions who had lately rebelled against the Crown. His application was successful and he was granted what he could take in 7 years.

What did Sir Brian think of all this? He was obviously not too happy and wrote to the Queen, pleading with her to leave his lands alone. In the meantime Sir Thomas Smith’s son, another Thomas, had arrived in Clannaboye with an armed force. Sir Brian naturally opposed him.


He avoided open battle, rather adopting a scorched earth policy, destroying anything that might be of use to the English for food or shelter. This included the burning of churches, such as the abbeys of Newtown, Bangor, Movilla, Holywood and of course Comber.

Comber Abbey had been a Cistercian foundation, dating from 1199. During the Middle Ages it had been fairly prosperous, owning large tracts of land around Comber. It had been closed down in 1543 as part of Henry VIII’s campaign against the Roman Catholic Church, and its property reverted to the Crown. It had thus lain uninhabited for some 30 years when Smith arrived. Now it became a burnt-out shell.
The English did manage to establish a base at somewhere called Newcastle Comber. We don’t know where that was, but a square fort is shown between Comber and Newtown on a map of 1602. Could this have been it? Here Smith and his men survived the winter of 1572-3. But Smith’s days were numbered, and it was at Newcastle Comber in August 1573 that he met his end, murdered by an Irish retainer on the orders of Sir Brian. Meanwhile Queen Elizabeth had granted virtually all of County Antrim to the Earl of Essex.

He arrived in Ireland at about this time, establishing garrisons at Belfast and Holywood. Smith’s followers sent to Essex for help, and he now engaged Sir Brian in battle at Belfast, which was then only a small village, defeating him and killing over 100 of his men. Sir Brian pleaded with the Queen to be allowed to remain as a tenant in Clannaboye, and received a pardon in 1574. He gave 1,500 cattle as rent for a year. When another Smith expedition arrived, this time under Sir Thomas’ brother, and re-established the base at Newcastle Comber, they obtained recognition from Sir Brian of their title to the Ards. Had this colony succeeded, the area might have come under English influence rather than that of the Scots.

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