Vol. 9 No. 3 - 2011
Professor of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
On 8 May 1610 King James I granted to one William Powell 'of Castleparke within the honour of Tutbery in Stafford county' 2,000 acres in the barony of Oneilland north Armagh, comprising more than thirty townlands, which were to be erected into the manor of Ballyworan or Ballywarren1. The surveying for the allocation was rather rudimentary and in fact the grant was nearer to 8,670 statute acres. While the name Portadown does not appear in the grant the land lay around what would become the town. It was not an act of selfless generosity by the king. Rather the grant was part of a number of land allocations made within a few months of each other.
To the north of Powell's new allocation lay two blocks of land granted to two Brownlow brothers from Nottinghamshire. These would subsequently be amalgamated into one estate with the new town of Lurgan at its core. To the south-west of Powell's estate, around Richhill and Legacorry, lay the lands of Francis Sacheverall. Beyond this were the lands of John Dillon who, like Powell, came from Staffordshire but with possible Devon roots. Due west were the lands of John Heron, the twenty-six year old son of a judge from Norfolk. This area, the barony of Oneilland, was an area assigned to English settlers in the new plantation of Ulster.
The ten grantees of land in the barony of Oneilland came from Leicestershire, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire, and Staffordshire2. The crown had obtained this land after the departure of the principal Ulster earls to continental Europe in September 1607 leaving a political and landholding vacuum in Ulster that needed to be filled.
The main over lord in the Oneilland area had been Art McBaron O'Neill of Loughgall, an illegitimate brother of Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, who was one of the leading participants in the flight of the earls. The genealogical connections between Tyrone and Art McBaron were even more complex than this, since Art's first wife was the younger sister of Hugh O'Neill's first wife. Thus when O'Neill was deemed to have committed treason by leaving Ireland without royal permission not only his estate but the territory under the control of his extended family was confiscated. In recompense Art McBaron was granted some 7,000 acres in the barony of Orier3.
The fate of those who occupied the land controlled by O'Neill in north Armagh is more complex. However, some of the sixteenth-century families of the area, such as the McCanns, reappear frequently in early seventeenth-century sources suggesting that despite the introduction of new settlers at least some remained relatively undisturbed in the area.
The new grantees in the wider plantation were of different types and of varying backgrounds. Some were English and some Scots while others were royal servants and 'deserving' Irish. The escheated (or confiscated) counties of Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Fermanagh, Derry and Tyrone were divided among them with the barony of Oneilland reserved for English settlers while in County Armagh the Orier was assigned to the Irish and the Fews to the Scots.
The new grantees were not simply the recipients of unqualified royal largesse. Their grants were made under a series of conditions. New grantees, or undertakers, were required to introduce settlers onto their estates. The original 'Orders and conditions' of the plantation issued in 1608 had stipulated that each of the undertakers was required to 'within two years plant or place a competent number of English or Scottish tenants upon his proportion' and to remove the native Irish4. However, the revised conditions of 1610 were much more specific, requiring the larger undertakers to plant '24 able men of the age of 18 years or upwards being English or inland Scots' within three years. Smaller undertakers were required to settle ten families on their land, the revised conditions stipulating how the property was to be divided among the settlers in freeholds, leaseholds and tenancies at will, thus attempting to regulate not only landholding but social structures and relationships.5
The undertakers were expected to remove the Irish from their estates, settling them instead with British tenants. In August 1610 a proclamation was issued requiring the Irish on the undertakers' estates to remove themselves to the lands of servitors, other natives or the church but explaining that they might be permitted to stay given the low numbers of settlers that had arrived. To ensure the harvest could be saved the older inhabitants were allowed to stay on their lands for a further year. The following year the removal date was extended yet again until May 1612, but this still proved ineffectual. Undertakers found it more convenient to keep their native tenants and charge higher rents than they might have got from settlers without the inconvenience and difficulty of finding settler tenants6. As well as introducing settlers, undertakers were required to build and develop their estates. They had to build a residence for themselves and to construct towns on their lands to allow a market economy to develop.
William Powell had little interest in the property that he had been granted in Oneilland as part of the plantation scheme. He was a royal courtier who was equerry of the king's stable and had responsibilities for the royal stud7. His grant was a reward for a royal favourite and clearly he had no interest in living the life of an Ulster rural gentleman. By 1611 he had sold the estate to Richard Roulston. He had apparently done little or nothing with the land. The surveyors of the state of the plantation in that year reported that no settlers had been attracted and nothing had been done by way of building save 'two bays of a house'8. Roulston went to work with enthusiasm since he had experience in this area and was something of an entrepreneur and was later to be granted the right to control the erection of saw mills in Ireland in 16199.
Like Powell, Roulston was from Staffordshire. He was a Cambridge graduate and a clergyman who had apparently come to Ireland with Lord Saye, and had received a small grant of land in the barony of Oneilland10. By 1613 a new survey of the plantation recorded that he had built a windmill and eight houses. He had frames for four more houses ready to be set up. Some 100,000 bricks were burnt and ready for use and yet more were being made for the building of a brick house and bawne, of which the foundations were already laid.
In terms of settlers he had fulfilled the requirements of the plantation and the surveyors noted that they were present on the estate with their goods and cattle11. Much of these materials utilised what was available locally. Timber for house frames, for instance, was readily available from the local woodland and brick was a common building material in the Lagan valley to judge from the plantation surveys.
Roulston may have been enthusiastic about plantation but he quickly discovered that he had over-extended himself. He was forced to mortgage most of his own grant in Armagh in 1618 and by 1619 he had sold the manor of Ballyworan to Michael Obbyns from Rutlandshire in the south-east of England12. There is a good deal of mystery about this transaction.
First, it is not clear how Obbyns heard about the availability of the land. There is, however, one hint as to how this may have come about. In 1622 a Michael Obbyns 'gent' was recorded as a tenant of sixty acres on the Armagh estate of John Dillon and if this is the same man it might suggest that he was already in Ulster as a tenant and heard about the possibility of an estate for sale13.
Secondly, it is not clear how he raised the money for the purchase of the estate. The 1622 Commissioners surveying the state of the plantation reported that ' the gentleman himself [Obbyns] is now prisoner in England and that his wife only that lives in the house', although by 1626 he had been released from prison and was living on his lands14. His problem appears to have been that he contracted substantial debts, and in 1626 he owed £200 to a Robert Horsfall, who had sued him in the Court of King's Bench in England for the debt.
In order to settle such debts he was forced to sell some of his Irish lands to satisfy his creditors15. The origin of these debts were is unclear. They probably arose from trying to borrow the money to purchase the estate. There is one hint that Obbyns may have borrowed from others locally for this reason. In the Ulster Muster Roll of c. 1630 this estate was described as being held by Richard Cope and Mr Obbyns16. Who Richard Cope was is uncertain but he was probably related to Sir Anthony Cope who was also an undertaker in Oneilland barony, possibly a son, and he may have advanced money, possibly on a mortgage, to allow Obbyns to buy the estate. Obbyns died in September 1629 and the property was inherited by his wife, Prudence, and his son John.
Whatever financial arrangements had been made over the acquisition of the land had clearly been redeemed by 1631 when a regrant of the estate was made to Prudence and John, together with the right to hold a Saturday market and two two-day fairs at 'Porterdown' on 1 November and on the feast of Pentecost17. Neither mother nor son lived long after the grant and John's son Hamlet, then only six months old, succeeded to the estate18.
Roulston and Obbyns may be regarded as the makers of modern Portadown, but there is little evidence on the ground to mark their achievements. War in the 1640s undoubtedly took its toll on the building fabric. The town was said to have been burnt and the castle taken in the early stages of the rising in 1641. 19More mundanely, the passage of time ensured that little survived of the early settlement. The seventeenth-century surveys of the estate describe the houses constructed by the settlers as frame houses, similar to those on the adjoining Brownlow estate around Lurgan. These houses were constructed from a timber frame infilled with brick or plaster. In many cases the timber frame was simply set on the ground which meant that over time it rotted and needed to be replaced, giving such frames a life of less than a century.
In Lurgan the late seventeenth-century landlord Arthur Brownlow tried to deal with this problem by including clauses in his leases that the timber frames would be set on stone foundations to prevent decay, but no leases have survived from Portadown to see if the same efforts were made there20. However, this lack of surviving remains should not blind us to the importance of a newly created estate and, in particular the new village of Portadown that lay at its core.
The importance of this estate lay in its strategic position as a crossing point of the River Bann that controlled access through the broad corridor of the River Lagan valley. One indication of the importance of this site is that by 1641 a substantial bridge had been built across the Bann there. Whether this is the same bridge that was described in 1682 as ' a fair wood bridge upon thousand foot in length' is not known but if it was this was a remarkable structure21. There were virtually no Ulster bridges at this date that could have matched this structure. Only the great stone bridge at Belfast at 2,562 feet, built in 1681, might match that in Portadown for length.
Perhaps even more significantly the new settlement on the manor of Ballywarren may have had a wider role in Ulster's communications network. The earliest forms of the place name 'Portadown' as they are recorded in the 1640s suggest that the town may actually have been a port. It was the 'Port of Down' according to a number of those who made depositions following the outbreak of the rising of 164122. This conceivably reflects the role of Portadown as a way into Lough Neagh, which was widely used for water trade across the province in the seventeenth century since boats on the lough gave access to a significant parts of inland Ulster which had little other outlet for trading. Indeed, in the late eighteenth century, after the construction of the Newry Canal, control of the access to Lough Neagh would be the main source of Portadown's prosperity.
The position of the estate in the centre of the Lagan Valley probably accounts for the growth of the population of the estate and its surrounding area. The main entry ports to east Ulster were Carrickfergus, Belfast and Donaghadee and for these people the Lagan Valley represented a natural route way into the interior of Ulster, resulting in this area being heavily settled23. On the Portadown lands the number of British adult male settlers rose quickly from none in 1611 to forty-eight in 1613 and remained about this level in 1619. By 1622 the commissioners charged with reporting on the condition of the plantation noted that there were about forty English settlers, divided, as the plantation scheme required, between freeholders, leaseholders and tenants at will24. About 1630 the list of those mustered with their arms records that Obbyns's estate mustered twenty-four men, which was low by the standards of other undertakers in north Armagh with similar-sized holdings. His neighbour William Brownlow, for instance, mustered forty-two men, Sachaveral 104 and John Dillon thirty-four men25. However it may be that there are problems with this material since in 1622 the commissioners had noted that Obbyns's proportion could 'furnish sixty armed men with pike, musket caliver' although a third of those listed in c.1630 were unarmed and another third had only a sword26.
By 1641 the parish of Drumcree, in which Portadown lay, although the parish was larger than the estate, was said to have 300 communicants27. What is striking is how few Irish appear on the plantation surveys as living on Obbyns's lands. Many settler landlords kept significant numbers of Irish on their lands since they were often prepared to pay higher rents than settlers and in some areas were easier to acquire than settler tenants. Figures given to the plantation commissioners and to a later enquiry of 1624 for Obbyns's estate vary between eighteen and forty but by the standards of other plantation estates this was small, indicating a ready supply of English tenants.28
Reconstructing the landscape that these people inhabited is difficult. The centre of the estate was clearly the house built by 1619 of brick with a thatched roof and surrounded with a bawn wall of sods. Perhaps significantly this house had a garden, probably to produce fresh vegetables but equally to demonstrate how the new planters were taming the landscape. Around this grew up a very small settlement of four houses in 1619. This had not grown much by 1622 when the population was described as 'scattered English families'29. However by the late 1630s the village had begun to develop and in an inquisition of 1635 the manor is described as 'Ballywarren al[ias] Portadowne' hinting that the town was substantial enough to be seen as the centre of the manor and a market was certainly held there by that date30. This growth should not be exaggerated and certainly as late as 1682 the town was described as 'inconsiderable'31.
In comparison to early seventeenth-century Lurgan with its paved street and forty-two houses this was an insignificant settlement, but it did have important functions. The market grant of 1631 was clearly important for the shaping of the settlement and some functions were carried on in the town that were linked to the wider agricultural community. There was a tanner in the village of Portadown in 1641 and cattle were certainly raised on the estate by some of the Irish who lived there32. The 1682 description of the barony of Oneilland stressed the importance of grain growing in the region and this may have had an earlier history, to judge from the windmill recorded on the estate in 1613 which was, presumably, for turning wheat into flour. However, this may have been a temporary structure since it is not mentioned in later surveys. What else might have been in the village is unclear but a smith is a distinct possibility since smiths and tanners tended to be complementary occupations and both could service a small rural community. Undoubtedly the village was dominated by the parish church at Drumcree. By 1622 the medieval building was said to be in repair 'but not very sufficiently' and the incumbent Mr Matcheson preached every Sunday33. By the 1650s there was even a school associated with the church34.
By the outbreak of the rising of 1641 the village of Portadown was still in its infancy. The initial surge of activity in the early years of the plantation under Richard Roulston petered out and the village and estate stagnated, being overtaken by nearby Lurgan. It had many advantages, not least its site and the ready supply of settler tenants, but these were never capitalised on. The reasons for this are clearly complex and in the absence of estate papers impossible to ascertain with certainty. Michael Obbyns's shortage of money to invest in his estates is one reason why Portadown never developed in the way that surrounding towns did. Again the easy availability of land on the Obbyns estate may have meant that, as elsewhere in the plantation, tenants were unwilling to congregate in villages when land on low rents was obtainable in the surrounding countryside. In this sense the early history of Portadown is probably typical of many plantation settlements that had to reinvent themselves in succeeding centuries to become the settlements we know today. It was left to the coming of the canal, and later the railway, to allow Portadown and its surrounding estate to develop its much greater commercial potential.