Prior to embarkation for America, the Reverend James McGregor delivered a sermon in which he declared that he and his congregants were leaving Ulster ‘to avoid oppression and cruel bondage, to shun persecution and designed ruin ... and to have an opportunity of worshipping God according to the dictates of conscience and the rules of His Inspired Word.’ The historian Kerby Miller has noted that McGregor’s sermon ‘set the tone for all subsequent popular, and some scholarly interpretations of Ulster emigration as a communal exodus from 'Egyptian bondage’.12 It is certainly true that the Sacramental Test Act of 1704 excluded Presbyterians from public office and deprived the church’s clergy of legal standing, compounding existing difficulties regarding marriage and the law. In 1719 the act was suspended and toleration was extended to dissenters. However, it has been argued that ‘toleration was as wide in Aghadowey when McGregor left in 1718 as it was after the toleration act reached the Statute book in the following year.’13 Some senior members of the Church of Ireland (a protestant episcopal church - part of the Anglican church which, prior to 1870, it was referred to as the state church) believed that dissenting ministers used the threat of migration simply as a lever to have the Test Act repealed. Indeed, the Anglican Archbishop King (who strongly defended the continuing imposition of religious disabilities) argued that dissenters in Ulster ‘were never more easy as to that matter … they never thought of leaving the kingdom, till oppressed by excessive [rents].’14
The late 1710s witnessed a confluence of economic factors that contributed significantly to the migration of 1718. Between 1714 and 1719 Ulster suffered a succession of bad harvests and by 1718 the linen industry was also in recession. Simultaneously, between 1717 and 1718, 31-year leases on land, which had been let on favourable terms in the wake of the Williamite campaign, expired and higher rents were demanded. One agent, Henry Maxwell of Carrickfergus, informed his undertenants that ‘there leases is now not good, and that they must pay more rent from this Alsants (All Saints Day] or leave the land.’15 The rent-roll of Captain Jackson, a middleman for the Merchant Taylors Company near Coleraine, increased from £310 to £582. As one correspondent informed the Clothworkers and Merchant Taylors’ Companies: ‘one reason they give for their going is the raising of the rent of the land to such a high rate that they cannot support their families thereon with the greatest industry.’16
Some landlords appreciated that raising rents sharply might be counter-productive. An agent of the Vintners’ Proportion argued in 1718 that while on the lands ‘now out of lease the Proportion might be Raised about £100 per Anno. at the Rack Rent as the Times have been for some few years past’, markets were ‘uncertain in this Kingdom [which] makes it very Doubtfull whether it may be raised so much as the Expiration of the recent lease, and most Thinking Intelligent People are of Opinion that Lands here must fall soon.’17 Even in areas where rents were raised, the amount was sometimes not as much as first proposed. Rents from the land surveyed by Captain Jackson only increased by £1 in 1717 and for houses and tenements valued at £5 or over £10 rents remained at their pre-1717 rate.18 Some landlords were frustrated by the departure of their tenants and the financial consequences that resulted. One northern landlord complained that ‘if they were hindered to goe [to America] … it wod make them the louder to goe’. He asked his correspondent to ‘oblige these Rogues who goes of to pay their Just Debts before they Goe and then Let all goe with their pledge.’19 On the Grocers’ Manor in co. Londonderry in 1718 the agent reported that 20 families had left or were planning to leave.20
The extent to which Scots-Irish settlers fled Ulster as a result of hardship and religious persecution to better their conditions (rather than of their own volition) in 1718 is a difficult question to answer. According to the New England divine, Cotton Mather, there were ‘many and wondrous objects for compassion among ye families arriving from Ireland’ at the port of Boston in 1718.21 Yet, this conflicts with other contemporary evidence. The Boston customs official, Thomas Lechmere, for instance, informed his brother-in-law in July 1718 that the Scots-Irish colonists he had seen ‘have all paid their passages sterlg. in Ireland’, and the following month he declared that it ‘is much out of the way to think that these Irish are servants’.22 Indeed, while a proportion of the 1718 group may well have been indentured, it seems unlikely this accounted for many of them (not least because of the inability of New England to accommodate so many). Instead, the evidence suggests that the majority were farmers and farmer weavers, who made up the migrant company, and were probably able to pay the fare of £6 by realising the capital from unexpired leases or selling possessions. As has recently been observed: ‘No doubt, most [Scots-Irish migrants] had suffered during the periods of dearth, but few from starvation. Food had become dearer, the returns from linen declined, and in some cases rents had risen, if not to unbearable levels, at least to uncomfortable ones, but a stake in the land in market-oriented regions allowed most to pay for passage to the colonies.’23
The evidence suggests that economic and political circumstances certainly exercised considerable influence on Ulster Presbyterians, and that their migration was voluntary and organised; it was not a precipitate flight. Indeed, before their departure many of them prepared carefully and methodically for their new lives. Many of the colonists, for instance, secured testimonials to assist them on arrival in America. These were probably similar to one secured by James and Mary Ralston, who upon leaving the Ballymoney Congregation in 1736 received a certificate which attested that they had ‘lived within the bounds of this Con[gregation] on from their infancies and behaved themselves Christianly, honestly, soberly, inoffensively and free of Scandal known to us now at their removal … to Pennsilvania [sic] in America.’24
Finally, in any assessment of why Scots-Irish migrants left Ulster in 1718, the outlook and beliefs of the migrants themselves must be considered. Patrick Griffin has noted that the Scots-Irish themselves did not ‘compartmentalize political and economic concerns, but viewed them as one and the same.’25 In the providential mindset of the day, the root cause of both the religious and economic problems confronting Presbyterians was the spiritual condition of the community, and the solution in the opinion of some congregations was removal and the creation of a ‘New Ulster’ elsewhere.
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12 Miller (2003), p. 436.
13 Dickson (1988), p. 27.
14 Griffin (2001), p. 81.
15 Maxwell to A. Vesey, 18 Nov. 1721, T2524/9, P[ublic] R[ecord] O[ffice] N[orthern] I[reland], qu. in Ibid, p. 68.
16 Jos. Marriott, 12.8.1718, MTC, P. Box 126, Bundle 16, qu. in Dickson (1988), p. 29.
17 Account of the Lands and Rent Rolls on Vintners’ Proportion, D 2094/21, PRONI, qu. in Griffin (2001), p. 76.
18 Jackson as they are now Raised, T656/44, PRONI, qu. in Ibid, p. 68.
19 Letter to Lord Connolly, 13 Nov. 1718, T2825/C/27/2, PRONI, qu. in Ibid, p. 77.
20 Emigrants to New England from County Londonderry, Manor of Grocers, William Connolly Estate, 1718, T 2825/c/11/1, PRONI, qu. Ibid, pp. 77–8.
21 Bolton (1967), p. 136.
22 McCourt (1999), p. 307.
23 Griffin (2001), p. 79.
24 Certificate of James Ralston, 30.5.1736, T 1177/1, PRONI, qu. in Griffin (2001), p. 92.
25 Ibid, p. 82.