The Irish Society
The History of The Irish Society
A Plantation is planned
In 1603 the long struggle between the Tudor Monarchs and the Irish chieftains ended, resulting in the English conquest of Ireland, the establishment of English law throughout the land and the collapse of the old Gaelic order. With the flight of the Earls four years later – when Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell, together with their families, sailed into permanent exile – an opportunity arose for King James to stamp his authority once and for all on this most rebellious corner of his realm.
“And now that all Ulster, or the most part, has fallen into His Majesty’s power, he intends to order it so as it may redound to his honour and profit”
James I feared invasion as much as uprising; one was unlikely to succeed without the other. The town of Derry was situated on the easily fortified island hill at the foot of the Inishowen peninsula and commanded the approaches from Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly.
It had long been of strategic interest to English monarchs anxious to stop a second Armada. Here was a back door the rebellious native Irish would gladly hold open to the advances of an invading army.
James I turned not to warriors and soldiers of fortune but to Livery Companies, the traders and manufacturers of the City of London, as the people best equipped in resources and expertise for such an undertaking. This would be no random, buccaneering, short-term incursion, but a thoroughly well-planned, permanent and self-sustaining plantation of people whose ethos and working practices would ensure that:
“Rising generations be trayned up to useful industrie, and civilitie, learning, religion and loyalties”
The merits of the King’s plan were obvious to him but would they be as attractive to those citizens of substance whose co-operation he needed?
The City of London
Under the Tudors the City of London had become the financial agent of the Crown and the Livery Companies, guilds of craftsmen, merchants and artisans – incorporated by Royal Charter and able to regulate their own affairs – effectively controlled the City’s government. Without their active involvement the King’s schemes were doomed to failure.
At that time London businessmen were preoccupied with the new opportunities opening up in North America and, whilst always reluctant to incur the King’s displeasure without good cause, they did not welcome such a hazardous and financially dubious proposition. It needed a potent combination of threat and seduction to persuade them otherwise.
His Majesty’s submission to the City in July 1609, ‘Motives and Reasons to induce the city of London to undertake the Plantation in the North of Ireland’, painted a glowing picture of the lushness and bounty of the “promised land”. What the Crown didn’t mention, but which the Londoners guessed, was the certainty that their alien presence, with its anglicised ways, would be resolutely opposed by the native Irish who had been dispossessed to make room for them.
But the King’s Privy Councillors were insistent and the City found itself with little choice. With considerable forebodings and only after a report from “four wise, grave and discreet citizens” who had been sent to view the proposed site, the City agreed to levy the initial £20,000 required to begin the project.
The plantation area included the whole territory bounded by the Foyle, the sea and the Bann, including the towns of Derry and Coleraine and the fisheries of the two rivers. A Committee established by the City of London to negotiate with the Privy Council recommended that a body be set up in London to govern plantation affairs. The towns of Derry and Coleraine would have their own corporations but they would take advice and direction from London. This recommendation was accepted and in 1613 – through the Royal Charter which established the City and the County of Londonderry – James I established this body, which came to be known as The Honourable The Irish Society.
Although its members were nominated by the City of London, The Irish Society was in effect an autonomous body which had full authority to manage the affairs of the plantation and was legally accountable only to the Crown. Once created, however, The Society adopted a pragmatic approach to its role and developed a robust independence which did not always please its royal masters.
The Plantation begins
The initial investment of £20,000 soon grew to £60,000, contributed roughly equally by the Twelve Great Livery Companies, ten of which were supported by a further 43 associate Companies.
Most of the lands of the County of Londonderry were divided into twelve ‘proportions’ and these were distributed among the companies by the drawing of lots, a deliberate echoing of the biblical story in which the twelve tribes of Israel shared out the Promised Land. The towns of Londonderry and Coleraine could not be sub-divided so these, along with the fisheries, were left under the direct ownership and control of The Irish Society.
It would be many years before the companies would see a return for their money but the tangible effects of this investment were soon evident on the banks of the Foyle and the Bann.
Coleraine, which had amounted to no more than an old church surrounded by a few cabins, became, within ten years, a town of some 200 timber houses fortified with an earthen wall and ditch. At Culmore Point, just at the entrance to Lough Foyle, the old fort was extensively renovated and reinforced, while further upriver Derry was transformed from a collection of ruined forts and church buildings into a substantial town with 240 stone-built houses, a town hall, the Bishop’s House and a free school. It was surrounded by a strong stone wall with four fortified gates. Another enduring achievement of those first builders was the erection of the Church of St Columba, later St Columb’s Cathedral, which was finished in 1633.
The plantation city of Londonderry was the last town in Ireland to be completely encircled by walls and the first to have its street layout planned in every respect. That street pattern is clearly visible today and the walls are doubly intact. The circuit is still complete and in spite of the determined efforts of besieging armies on three different occasions, including those of the Jacobite forces in the great Siege of 1689, they have never been breached in anger: hence the origin of its evocative name, The Maiden City.
There followed a century of relative peace and prosperity during which the Society was able to attend to the serious business of sound management and good governance. Roads, bridges and public buildings were rebuilt or newly erected in an architectural style that expressed permanence and self-confidence.
The work of the Society left a lasting imprint on the landscape and much of the character and appearance of the countryside today is a direct result of those early endeavours to impose order on a largely untamed land. The native Irish had been essentially livestock farmers with nomadic habits, holding large tracts of uncultivated grazing land in common with other clansmen. Now, suddenly, there were neat arrangements of arable fields flanked by hedgerows, and mature trees. Market towns and villages had roads to connect them and stone bridges arched over the fords. The heavily-forested, free-range countryside was gone forever. The introduction of tillage farming meant much more than a new agricultural practice – it meant a whole new way of life.
The 19th century ushered in a new philanthropic age which cast The Irish Society in an increasingly charitable role. It began to channel its funds into the provision of free schools, churches, dispensaries, decent housing for the labouring classes and cash grants for benevolent public schemes.
Small settlements like Moneymore, Draperstown, Kilrea and Eglinton were improved out of all recognition and became model villages, symbols of the stability and order that characterised The Irish Society’s activities. The potato blight and ensuing famine of the 1840s caused devastation throughout Ireland but, due largely to the proper concern and management of The Society and the Livery Companies, its worst effects were kept at bay in the County.
However, land agitation in the latter half of the 19th century and a series of acts of parliament unfavourable to landlords created a new situation throughout Ireland. The tenanted land holdings of the Livery Companies were acquired by compulsory order, re-assigned to the Crown and sold to the existing tenants. By the beginning of the 20th century the majority of the Companies had lost their holdings in the County of Londonderry and, although some minor involvements lingered on right up to the 1960s, most had severed any connection with Ulster by the outbreak of the First World War. It is only recently that some of the Livery Companies have begun to take a renewed interest in the affairs of the County and to re-establish links with communities whose fortunes were once so closely bound to their own.
Continuity and Change
The Irish Society has always maintained its close links with Londonderry and Coleraine and today defines its role as custodian of the special relationship that still exists between the City of London and North West Ulster.
That relationship, in character and purpose, has undergone many changes through the centuries and has had to survive the strains and tensions of a troubled history. It has done so, in the main, for two reasons. Firstly The Irish Society has always taken its own perpetuity, and the responsibilities and duties that go with that, very seriously.
It cannot – and would not – simply will itself out of existence and walk away from a task that it believes so important and relevant. Secondly The Society has always been willing and able to adapt to the shifting circumstance of history, constantly revising its role to suit the requirements of the times whilst remaining mindful and proud of its ancient heritage.
Right up to its 400th anniversary The Honourable The Irish Society was still composed of “six and twenty honest and discreet citizens of London”. Reduced to 15 in April 2013, its current members, officers and representatives are acutely conscious of that heritage. But a body of people such as this is a growing, organic thing. It evolves and changes with the passage of time, each new generation applying the values and judgements that the wisdom of their age dictates.
What began centuries ago, nudged into reluctant action through instincts of survival and profit and serving a sectional interest, has matured into a body whose paramount concern is to serve the community as a whole.
A Special Relationship
In the past The Irish Society kept its own counsel and all decisions relating to its affairs were made in London.
But, since 1974, it has willingly become more open, accessible and democratic. It has actively sought the advice and collaboration of local authorities in the County and has promoted close consultation and the free exchange of information.
The Society’s Secretary meets regularly with an Advisory Committee comprised of the Mayors of Derry City & Strabane District Council and Causeway Coast & Glens Borough Council, together with councillors and officials of both authorities. He also represents The Society’s interests on a number of other important local bodies such as the Foyle Development Organisation and the Lower Bann Advisory Committee. What he is able to offer these bodies besides goodwill and potential financial support is the opportunity to tap into the power and influence of the world’s leading international financial centre, the City of London.
The Governor of The Irish Society is appointed by the Court of Aldermen of the City of London and is, by tradition, a past Lord Mayor of London. The Deputy Governor is appointed from amongst the Common Councilmen on the Court of The Irish Society.
Being so intimately connected to the City of London, The Society enjoys enormous prestige and is able to call upon the good offices of many influential and active supporters of the economic development of North West Ulster. In more recent times the intervention of The Society has been crucial to the success of a number of ventures, a notable example being the bid to secure Londonderry as a port of call for international cruise liners. Not to mention its strong support for Londonderry to become the first UK City of Culture. On other occasions The Society has been instrumental in providing unique educational and career opportunities for talented individuals who would otherwise lack such access.
The Honourable The Irish Society has always sought to promote the healthy co-existence of the two communities whose situation it had a hand in creating. Its ways and means may have altered, but the peaceful prosperity of the people of County Londonderry, their welfare and security, is still and will be for generations to come, its prime concern.