The 17th century was an extremely turbulent time in Ireland. Post the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, resentment festered amongst the Gaelic Irish until a rebellion followed in 1641. The infamous witness statements of the Protestant settlers, the 1641 Depositions, recorded massacres and outrages against them by their native neighbours over the following year. Thousands of deaths were recorded on both sides but it’s now believed that many of the accounts may have been exaggerated.
A Civil War in England delayed retribution, so it was 1649 by the time Oliver Cromwell and his army were sent to Ireland to sort out the situation through brutal force, mass killings and a ‘scorched earth’ policy. In the terrible four years that followed, about a quarter of the population died from war, disease and deliberately-induced Famine. By the final surrender of 1653, Ireland was destroyed, the Gaelic Irish cowed, and the country was considered to be ready for ‘plantation’ by English settlers.
Both the Civil War and the reconquest of Ireland had been paid for with promises of land in Ireland. All Catholics who could not prove their ‘constant good affection’ to the parliamentary cause had their land confiscated and were relocated to ‘hell or to Connaught’. However, before the biggest land-grab of Ireland could take place, the country had to be mapped.
While Catholics owned 60% of the land in Ireland before the 1641 Rebellion, by 1660 their share had fallen to a mere 9%
Sir William Petty arrived in Ireland in 1652 by which time there were said to be 35,000 pending legal claims for land by soldiers waiting for their pay, alongside investors who had ‘adventured’ money for the parliamentary cause. More than half the land of Ireland was forfeited. Petty approached the government with a plan to conduct a study which would ‘admeasure all the forfeited lands within the three provinces, according to the naturall, artificiall, and civill bounds thereoff, and whereby the said land is distinguised into wood, bog, mountaine, arable, meadown and pasture, moreover to and sett out each auxiliary lines and lymits as may facillitate and ascertaine the intended subdivision without any readmeasurement’. He got the job and so the ‘Down Survey’ began, so called because it was put ‘down’ on paper.
Employing over 1000 soldiers, the survey covered an area of nearly 8.5 million acres, extending over the greater part of 29 of Ireland’s 34 counties, including West Cork. The state of Ireland after 10 years of war was a huge obstacle to the work. Throughout the countryside dwellings and fields had been destroyed and bands of rebels still remained to attack the surveyors.
Petty’s parish maps still make for fascinating reading and they can be viewed online here
The subsequent ‘Books of Survey and Distribution’ record the names of the settlers who were granted the lands of the dispossessed Irish of West Cork. Their descendants would become the landlords of Ireland up the Land War of the late nineteenth-century.