The Settlement of Ireland, 1652-60

In the wake of the Irish Uprising of 1641, an act of Parliament was passed in March 1642 promising land to "Adventurers" who advanced money to finance the reconquest of Ireland. The Uprising escalated into the Confederate War (1641-52) and it was ten years before the English government was in a position to consider the claims of the Adventurers.

In February 1652, with the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland virtually complete, Parliament instructed its commissioners in Ireland—Edmund Ludlow, Miles Corbet, John Jones and John Weaver—to begin planning the settlement of Irish land. As well as the claims of the Adventurers, the commissioners were also to grant land to disbanded Parliamentarian soldiers who had been promised Irish land in lieu of arrears of pay. The Commonwealth government envisaged a large-scale redistribution of land in Ireland, with Catholics and native Irish making way for Protestant settlers and landlords.

The Act of Settlement

No formal Act of Union between England and Ireland was passed, as was attempted with Scotland. Ireland was simply declared to be part of the Commonwealth. Legislative power was transferred to the Westminster Parliament and executive power was divided between the Council of State in London and its appointed lord-deputy in Ireland.

In August 1652, the Westminster Parliament passed the Act for the Settlement of Ireland, which classified the Irish population into one of several categories according to their degree of involvement in the Irish Uprising and subsequent war. Those who had participated in the uprising or assisted the rebels in any way were sentenced to be hanged and to have their property confiscated. Although an exemption was made for those who had legitimately served in the Confederate army, many thousands of Irishmen were summarily condemned to death under the Act. This grouping included Catholic clergymen who had aided the rebels and 106 named individuals who had led the Confederates and Royalists in Ireland. In practice, the sweeping death sentence authorised under the Act of Settlement was not carried out. A special High Court of Justice sat from December 1652 to June 1654 and many participants in the 1641 uprising were brought to trial, but only those proved guilty of murder were executed.

Other categories of the Irish population were sentenced to banishment with whole or partial confiscation of their estates. Thousands of Catholics were transported to the West Indies as indentured labourers. Under the policy of "transplantation", even those who remained in possession of their lands were expected to exchange them for property elsewhere in Ireland in order to make way for Protestant settlers. In July 1653, the Council of State decreed that the province of Connacht, west of the River Shannon, was to be set aside for the transplanted Irish.

To facilitate the re-distribution, William Petty, physician-general to the army in Ireland, made a detailed land survey. Petty's pioneering "Down Survey" of 1656-8 was the first to be underaken on a national scale. It provided accurate maps and information on the type, value and former ownership of confiscated Irish lands for re-allocation to speculators and disbanded soldiers.

Protestant Ascendancy

Charles Fleetwood, lord-deputy of Ireland from August 1654, was zealous in his efforts to enforce the transplantations of the native Irish, but the policy was impractical and foundered because the expected mass migration of Protestant settlers into Ireland did not take place. The wars had left large areas of the country desolate and would-be colonists were further discouraged by reports of marauding "Tories"—former Confederate soldiers who had refused to submit to the Commonwealth and lived as outlaws. Fleetwood's successor Henry Cromwell adopted a more moderate approach to the native Irish. He also set about reconciling the main Protestant groupings in Ireland and stabilising the administration. The four courts of law were revived in September 1654 and arbitrary military rule was steadily replaced by civilian government. The size of the army in Ireland was gradually reduced from around 32,000 men in 1652 to 16,000 by 1658.

No large-scale attempt was made to convert Irish Catholics to Protestantism but the religion itself was outlawed in the hope that it would eventually disappear. Under statutes dating back to Elizabethan times, Catholics were forbidden from taking part in public life and priests were imprisoned, exiled or executed. The use of Irish Gaelic was banned and the ancient bardic schools were shut down. However, the bardic tradition was carried on informally and a new genre of Gaelic poetry arose: the aisling, in which Ireland appears to the poet in a vision in the form of a woman who laments the fate of the Irish people and predicts the revival of their fortunes.

The Cromwellian settlement of Ireland laid the foundations of the "Protestant Ascendancy", in which a dominant Protestant land-owning class ruled over Irish Catholic tenants. After the Restoration, another Act of Settlement was passed in 1662 under which a percentage of the land taken by Cromwellian settlers was restored to Old English noblemen who had remained loyal to the King during the Confederate War.


C.H. Firth, The Last Years of the Protectorate 1656-58 vol. ii (London 1909)

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. iv (London 1903)

Ronald Hutton, The British Republic 1649-60 (Basingstoke 2000)


The Down Survey of Ireland: Trinity College, Dublin