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Travellers to and from Ireland in Seventeenth-Century Yorkshire

Murray Seccombe | Lancaster University

The frequency of references to the ‘Irish’ in the accounts of English local constables in the troubled mid-seventeenth century is remarkable, given the pressures of civil war, high taxation, and the constant traffic of soldiers and ordnance. An example, taken from constables’ accounts from Upton, near Newark (Notts) apparently refers to the aftermath of the 1641 Irish rebellion:

Item given to thre Irish people which were striped and had lost all their goods which had a passe 4d (1642)

Another from Sowerby (West Riding), coincides with Cromwellian land grants to English settlers during the Protectorate (1653-9):

To 3 persons which had a passe from my Lord protector to goe into Ireland 9d (1656)

In both cases, state policy was implemented by English communities obliged, under a system of travel passes to support those travelling to and from Ireland. Payments for food and lodging were also made to those without passes - lone individuals, families and groups of ten or even twenty ‘Irish’. Who these travellers are, why they were on the move and what this tells us about the impacts of conflict in Ireland on the English provinces are intriguing questions.

First, we should start with the frequency of such payments. The number of separate payments can be tabulated for the period in which two sets of accounts are available (Table 1). They are, of course, an unknowable fraction of the total number travelling, missing those who had no reason to claim relief.

Table 1 describes payments made from travellers to and from Ireland.

Upton is situated about 7km west of the Great North Road, while the York to Chester road, a major westward route towards the Irish sea ports, passed through Sowerby township. Indeed, the need to cross over Blackstone Edge across the Pennines would often mean a one-night stay in Sowerby. There are statistical parallels between the two accounts, especially in the years between the First Civil War and Cromwell’s expedition in 1649 and again in the mid-1650s. The Sowerby accounts suggest steady traffic during Thomas Wentworth’s term as Lord Deputy of Ireland (1633-41), while the Upton records are particularly revealing for 1642 (the first year of the Confederacy) and the early 1650s. The picture changes when the count is limited to those recorded as going out of, or into, Ireland (Tables 2 & 3).

Outward travellers are recorded more evenly in Upton, but spike more obviously in Sowerby in 1648-9 and occur regularly in the 1630s when Wentworth (whose power base was in the West Riding) was Lord Deputy. The numbers recorded for inward travellers (Table 3) are lower, but show a similar shape, reflecting, perhaps, the dangers for travellers in northern England at the time of the First Civil War and in Ireland during the Confederacy and the Cromwellian conquest. It seems that, for some travellers, competing factors of danger and opportunity governed a decision to travel.

Table 2 shows travellers out of Ireland between 1633 and 1660.

Table 3 shows travellers into Ireland, 1633-1660

The rather greater detail of the Sowerby entries helps in understanding who these people might be. In the 1630s just over half the payments were made to families, three of which were going into Ireland, nine coming out and fifteen where the direction is uncertain. Two of these appear to be victims of violence, Robert Wilkinson, a malster (?maltster) from Knockford (unidentified), ‘had his house & all his good burnd to the vallow £200 & uperds’; the families of Derbye Carlitt (£500) and James Butler (£700) suffered similar losses. The next most numerous are men travelling singly or in groups, while eight women or female groups were recorded, including ‘one Margaret Woode a great bellied woman wch had a to Travell from Leedes towards Ireland’. Only two were clearly military, one of whom was ‘an Ireishman who had served under the Kinge of Sweden’, presumably a protestant. Most of the twenty-five surnames recorded are English, such as Shaw, Lockwood, Wood, and Power; only two names, Makenam and Galloway are of Celtic origin, but are as likely to be Scottish as Irish. Although some names may conceivably denote the Catholic ‘Old English’ an interpretation that these were ‘New English’ protestants moving between England and colonial plantations in Ireland is hard to resist. While there is little sense of a significant refugee flow in these years, there is enough to lend some support to David Edwards’ argument that violence against Strafford’s rule was developing even before the major uprising of 1641.

While the data from this earlier period indicates predominantly civilian travellers, the picture for the Interregnum (1649-60) is more complex. The most numerous category for Sowerby in this period is for groups of unnamed Irish men and women. They comprised 177 people in 19 groups, of which 10 groups (103 people) passed through in 1654 alone, though the direction of travel is not stated. In Upton in the same year, 5 groups passed through (41 people), only one of which had a pass. The largest party consisted of ‘seaventeene Irish people being women & children all att one time’. In Upton, entries sometimes dispensed with counting the number of travellers: in August 1653, 8d was given to a ‘Cumpanie of Ireish peopple .. that had great losses in Ireland as apeared by their satificat’. Fewer family groups passed through Sowerby, nine payments, while the military is more visible: in 1653, two wounded soldiers were quartered in the township with ‘a pass from the governor in Ireland’, while four more travelled in the opposite direction. The pass system apparently provided women travellers with considerable security: an ‘Irysh Gentlewoman with child’ was carried on horseback ‘to the next Constable’ in November 1652, and in 1655 another woman was travelling solo with a pass from Ireland to Scotland.

Aside from military passes, the Sowerby records mention the ‘the kings brode sele’ for ‘5 Irish women’ and for ‘3 Irish man (sic) taken by the Turkes & turning whome [home] againe’ (both 1635) and in 1652 an ‘Irish gentleman having a wife and 2 children with ‘a breefe for a collection’ received 1s 4d. In Upton, a party of ‘eight Criples men women and children’ received the same sum in 1654 for a journey from St Thomas’ hospital in London to Whitby, ‘under the Lord Protectors hand for their Releefe in their travill formerly being Souldiers’. The proportion of recipients with passes was high in Sowerby – 83.3% in 1633-41 and 78.1% in 1653-60. This leaves a minority of cases where constables from both places seem to have made discretionary payments. In Sowerby, five such grants in 1628-9 were not repeated until two in 1636 and a further cluster of five in 1640. Those before the First Civil War were mostly payments benefitting women with children. Those during the Protectorate were given to groups of Irish travellers, raising the possibility that they were incentives to leave the township and prevent further expense, a tactic employed on unwanted poor people, especially ‘Egyptians’ (gypsies) and vagrants.

This discussion is necessarily hedged with supposition and uncertainty, which would benefit from research into Irish records of the many names that appear. Indeed, this might be particularly productive in respect of 1689-91, when another wave of travellers to and from Ireland coincided with William III’s expedition to Ireland. 110 names are recorded including gentlemen such as Sir Thomas Kenian (Kenyon). A scattering of placenames in Ireland also appear: Dublin; Cork; Cowlrang (?Coleraine); Draugherday (Drogheda); Lisne Gaire (?Lisnagar, Co. Cork).

Conclusions are necessarily provisional. Contact at the level of parish or township between English officeholders and travellers to and from Ireland was episodic, but could be substantial on main routes, such as the York-Chester and Great North Roads. Journeys were made for a variety of family, economic and military reasons; an assumption that those travelling to England were mainly refugees is possible but needs further research. It is likely that contact was predominantly with English, especially new English, or Scottish protestants; there is little to suggest the emigration of Old English Catholics, let alone Catholic Gaels. The travel pass system was an instrument of state control that obliged local officeholders to provide support for approved, mainly Protestant, travellers. Those passing through brought stories of political and sectarian violence in Ireland that struck a chord with the puritan and Cromwellian sympathies of Sowerby, in particular. These perspectives encouraged Sowerby’s constables – at least in some years – to extend discretionary relief. Sadly, encounters between Yorkshire and Irish Protestants probably deepened one-sided views of Ireland and the Catholic Irish that fed into later episodes of anti-Catholic hysteria, notably the Popish Plot scare of 1678-81, which culminated in the execution in London of the Irish Catholic Archbishop Oliver Plunkett.


Further reading:

  • Bennett, M. (ed.), A Nottinghamshire Village in War and Peace: The Accounts of he Constables of Upton 1640-1666 (Thoroton Society, Nottingham, 1995)

  • Brayshay, M., Land Travel and Communication in Tudor and Stuart England: Achieving a Joined-up Realm (Liverpool, 2015)

  • Edwards, D., ‘Out of the blue? Provincial unrest in Ireland before 1641’ in Ó Siochrú, M. & Ohlmeyer, J. (eds.), Ireland 1641: Contexts and Reactions (Manchester, 2015).

  • Foster, R.F., Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (London, 1988), esp. Chs. 3-7.

  • Kearney, H., Strafford in Ireland 1633-41: A Study in Absolutism (2nd ed., Cambridge, 1989)

  • Kent, J.R., The English Village Constable 1580-1642: A Social and Administrative Study (Oxford, 1986)

Murray Seccombe completed a doctorate at Lancaster University in September 2022, using manorial and other local sources to reassess the governance of highways in the parish of Halifax, c.1550-1700. He is currently engaged on a project to publish a transcription of constables’ accounts from Sowerby (1629-94).


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