Report by Sandra Millsopp
Bangor Historical Society continued its series “Bangor 400” with a joint talk in association with the Friends of Bangor Abbey on 14 February. The Rector, Canon R. Nesbitt welcomed us to the Abbey. The speaker was Mark Thompson. He had researched the Ards and produced a booklet on “Sir Thomas Smith’s Forgotten English Colony of the Ards and North Down in 1572.” This was the subject of his talk.
The O’Neills had dominated the area of South Clandeboye for several centuries. In 1567 Brian McPhelim O’Neill, the head of the clan, was knighted for services to Queen Elizabeth I. Yet there were those at court who felt that it would be better to expel the O’Neills and send settlers over from England. The result was that on 5 October 1571 Sir Thomas Smith received a grant of 360,000 acres in eastern Ulster.
Sir Thomas Smith had been Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and then Ambassador to France. A booklet was produced to entice settlers to go to Ulster. It portrayed North Down and the Ards as a land flowing with “milk and honey”. Meanwhile Sir Thomas had been sent back to France by the Queen because of trouble there. His son, a young man in his twenties, was left in charge of the scheme. The plan had created uproar in Ireland and a party of 800 wealthy young men who had gathered in Liverpool to embark for Ireland had to wait. By the time Sir Thomas had persuaded the Queen to allow the men to go, there were only 100 left.
The party sailed for Ulster on 31 August 1572, led by Sir Thomas’ son. They landed at Newcastle, near Portaferry. Talks with Sir Brian O’Neill failed and he then burnt various stone buildings, including Bangor Abbey, in order to deny them to the English. Sir Thomas’ efforts to recruit more men failed.
Meanwhile Thomas Smith, junior, was murdered by Irishmen in his employ and his body fed to wild dogs. His father tried to sell his County Down land to the Earl of Essex, but the Queen would not permit this. He claimed he had lost £10,000 over the scheme. He died in 1577 and was buried in his home county of Essex. His nephew and heir Sir William Smith made an unsuccessful attempt to revive the scheme, but then the Queen regranted the lands to Con O’Neill, grandson of Sir Brian.
Mr Thompson ended by comparing the failure of Smith’s scheme with the success of the Hamilton and Montgomery Plantation under James I. One reason was that the latter brought experienced tenant farmers to settle the land, not younger sons of the nobility in search of a fortune.
Paul McKay, a committee member of both Bangor Historical Society and the Friends of Bangor Abbey thanked Mr Thompson for a most interesting talk.