On January 28, 1613, The Honourable The Irish Society, a consortium of livery companies of the City of London, is created by Royal Charter of James I of England to undertake the Plantation in the North West of Ulster that is then being driven by the English Crown.
Following the Gaelic defeat in the Nine Years’ War in 1603 and the Flight of the Earls in 1607, northwest Ulster is left open to colonisation. James I sets out to defend against a future attack from within or without. He finds that the town of Derry can become either a great asset as a control over the River Foyle and Lough Swilly, or it can become an inviting back door should the people of the area turn against him. He pressures the guilds of the City of London to fund the resettlement of the area, including the building of a new walled city. This results in the creation of the Society.
The city of Derry is renamed Londonderry in recognition of the London origin of the Irish Society. County Coleraine is enlarged and renamed County Londonderry after its new county town. The rural area of the county is subdivided between the Great Twelve livery companies, while the towns and environs of Londonderry and Coleraine are retained by the Irish Society.
In January 1635, the Irish Society, as well as the City of London, are found guilty of mismanagement and neglect of Derry plantation. They are sentenced to a fine of £70,000 and forfeiture of Derry property. The Society is suppressed in 1637 but is revived by Oliver Cromwell in 1650 and again after the Restoration by Londonderry’s 1662 royal charter.
The Society is involved in several controversies over the years including a dispute over fishing rights with the Church of Ireland and Bishop of Derry and a lawsuit brought by The Skinners’ Company in 1832 over the distribution of profits. The Society also has some disputes with the corporations over ownership and development of property. During the 17th and 18th centuries, four of the twelve livery companies sell their estates, with the Irish Society requiring a bond of indemnity in each case. Leases to middlemen granted by the remaining companies expire at various times during the nineteenth century, after which the companies “enormously increased the rental.”
The Society finances the building of the Guildhall in Derry. Construction begins in 1887 and it is opened in July 1890, at a cost of £19,000.
The Society remains in existence today as a relatively small grant-giving charitable body. Its educational grants are funded by its remaining property, including the Walls of Derry, a tourist attraction and heritage site, and fisheries on the River Bann. The Society is based in London, but maintains a “representative” resident in County Londonderry.