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2. The Religion of the Settlers

It can be reasonably assumed that most of the settlers who came to Ulster in the early seventeenth century were Protestants, even if only nominally so. The Church of Ireland was the established or state church and was organised along episcopalian lines with a hierarchy of clergy. However, several ministers from Scotland came to Ulster in this period who dissented from this view of church government, preferring the more egalitarian presbyterian system. To begin with such men were tolerated within the Church of Ireland and there was no distinct Presbyterian denomination at this time. In the 1630s the government began to clamp down on the activities of ministers with Presbyterian convictions. Those ministers who

were not prepared to renounce their Presbyterianism were excommunicated. In 1636 some of these men, with about 140 followers, set sail in the Eagle Wing for America; they never reached their destination as storms drove the ship back. Many other Presbyterians returned to Scotland. Here Presbyterian opposition to Charles I was also reaching boiling point. In 1638 the National Covenant was drawn up in Scotland which declared Presbyterianism the only true form of church government and bound the nation to the principles of the Reformation. Many in Ulster also signed the Covenant. In response Wentworth insisted that all Scots in Ulster over the age of sixteen take an oath – the infamous ‘Black Oath’ as it became known – abjuring the Covenant. Those who refused to take the oath could be fined and imprisoned. The result was that large numbers of Scottish settlers fled to their homeland; so many left in fact that in some places there were not enough people to bring in the harvest.

Catholic settlers were not entirely unknown in early seventeenth-century Ulster. There was a small, but significant colony of Scottish Catholics at Strabane, under the patronage of Sir George Hamilton of Greenlaw, whose father was Lord Paisley, a prominent supporter of Mary, Queen of Scots. As early as 1614 Sir George’s Catholic sympathies were a source of concern for the government and in 1622 he was described as an ‘Archpapist and a great patron of them’; it was noted that all his servants were Catholics. In the late 1620s the Church of Ireland bishop of Derry became particularly agitated at the large number of Scottish Catholics he believed were living at Strabane under the patronage of Sir George Hamilton and his near relations.

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