Penal Laws

--Most Irish, when they refer to the Penal Laws, are talking about the Laws enacted
--a short time after the end of the Williamite War. There is, however, a long history
--to these laws that bears examining:

--BACKGROUND

--The English Parliament had passed the Act of Supremacy which made Henry head
--of the Church. The Irish Parliament was less compliant and did not pass the bill
--until the legislative powers of the representatives of the clergy had been taken
--away. Though the Act of Supremacy (1536) was accepted by many Irish chiefs,
--they were not followed by the clergy or people in their perceived heresy. The
--suppression of monasteries followed - entailing the loss of property and many lives.
--Yet little progress was made with the new doctrines either in Henry's reign or in
--that of his successor, and Mary's restoration of the Faith led the Protestant
--Elizabeth to again resort to penal laws.

--In 1559 the Irish Parliament passed both the Act of Supremacy and the Act of
--Uniformity, the former prescribing to all officers the Oath of Supremacy, the
--latter prohibiting the Mass and commanding the public use of the Book of
--Common Prayer. Whoever refused the Oath of Supremacy was dismissed from
--office, and whoever refused to attend the Protestant service was fined 12 pence for
--each offence. A subsequent vice regal proclamation ordered all priests to leave
--Dublin and prohibited the use of images, candles, and beads. For some time these
--Acts and proclamations were not rigorously enforced; but after 1570, when
--Elizabeth was excommunicated by the pope, toleration ceased; and the hunting
--down of the Earl of Desmond, the desolation of Munster, the torturing of O'Hurley
--and others, showed how merciless the queen and her ministers could be.

--Elizabeth disliked Parliaments and had but two in her reign in Ireland. She
--governed by proclamation, as did her successor, James, and it was under a
--proclamation (1611) that the blood of O'Devany, Bishop of Down, was shed. In the
--next reign there were periods of toleration followed by the false promises of
--Strafford and the attempted ruination of Connaught, until at last the Catholics
--took up arms.

--Cromwell disliked Parliaments as much as Elizabeth or James, and when he had
--extinguished the Rebellion of 1641, he abolished the Irish Parliament, giving
--Ireland a small representation at Westminster. It was by Acts of this
--Westminster Parliament that the Cromwellian settlement was carried out, and
--that so many Catholics were outlawed. As for ecclesiastics, no mercy was
--shown them under Cromwellian rule. They were ordered to leave Ireland, and put
--to death if they refused, or deported to the Arran Isles or to Barbadoes, and
--and those who sheltered them at home were liable to the penalty of death. To such
--an extent was the persecution carried that the Catholic churches were soon in
--ruins, a thousand priests were driven into exile, and not a single bishop remained
--in Ireland but the old and helpless Bishop of Kilmore. With the accession of
--Charles II the Irish Catholics looked for a restoration of lands and liberties; but
--the hopes raised by the Act of Settlement (1663) were finally dissipated by the
--Act of Explanation (1665), and the Catholics, plundered by the Cromwellians,
--were denied even the justice of a trial.

--The English Parliament at the same time prohibited the importation into England
--of Irish cattle, sheep, or pigs. The king favoured toleration of Catholicity, but was
--overruled by the bigotry of the Parliament in England and of the viceroy,
--Ormond, in Ireland; and if the reign of Charles saw some toleration, it also saw
--the judicial murder of Venerable Oliver Plunkett and a proclamation by Ormond
--in 1678, ordering that all priests should leave the country, and that all Catholic
--churches and convents should be closed.

--THE "NEW" PENAL LAWS

--The triumph of the Catholics under James II was short-lived. But even when
--William of Orange had triumphed, toleration of Catholicity was expected. For the
--Treaty of Limerick (1691) gave the Catholics "such privileges as they enjoyed in
--the reign of Charles II"; and William was to obtain from the Irish Parliament a
--further relaxation of the penal laws in existence. The treaty was soon broken. The
--English Parliament, presuming to legislate for Ireland, enacted that no one
--should sit in the Irish Parliament without taking the Oath of Supremacy and
--subscribing to a declaration against Transubstantiation; and the Irish Parliament,
--filled with slaves and bigots, accepted this legislation: Catholics were thus
--excluded; and in spite of the declared wishes of King William, the Irish Parliament
--not only refused to relax the Penal Laws in existence but embarked on fresh penal
--legislation. Session after session for nearly fifty years, new and more galling fetters
--were forged, until at last the Penal Code was complete, and well merited the
--description of Burke:

"as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of
a feeble people and the debasement in them of human nature itself
as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man".

--1. The Irish Catholic was forbidden the exercise of his religion,
--2. He was forbidden to receive education.
--3. He was forbidden to enter a profession.
--4. He was forbidden to hold public office.
--5. He was forbidden to engage in trade or commerce.
--6. He was forbidden to live in a corporate town or within five miles thereof.
--7. He was forbidden to own a horse of greater value than five pounds.
--8. He was forbidden to purchase land.
--9. He was forbidden to lease land.
--10. He was forbidden to vote.
--11. He was forbidden to keep any arms for his protection.
--12. He was forbidden to hold a life annuity.
--13. He could not be guardian to a child.
--14. He could not attend Catholic worship (and would be fined for missing
--Protestant services).
--15. He could not himself educate his child.
--16. It was against the law to speak or write in the Irish language.

--Sir Edmund Burke summarized these laws this way. "After the suppression of the
--great rebellion of Tyrconnell by William of Orange, nearly the whole of the land
--was confiscated, the peasants were made beggars and outlaws, the Penal laws
--against the Catholics were enacted and enforced, and the grand reign of Protestant
--Ascendancy began in all its vileness and completeness. The Protestants and
--landlords were supreme; the peasants and the Catholics were prostrate in despair.
--The Revolution brought about in Ireland just the reverse of what it effected in
--England. In England, it delivered the body of the (Protestant) nation from the
--attempted ascendancy of a small Catholic sect. In Ireland, it made a small
--(Protestant) sect supreme over the body of the (Catholic) nation.

--In addition to these, there was a despicable law passed which allowed any Irish
--Catholic son who renounced his faith in favor of the Established Church to take
--over the property of his father. Obviously the law was passed to destroy Catholic
--families. Many Catholic families encouraged one of their sons to become a "false
--apostate" to legally acquire the property and hold it against the reaches of the
--unjust law.

--The statute which prohibited Irish Catholics from owning any horse worth more
--than 5 pounds led to more than one death. Protestants would see a Catholic with a
--fine horse which he had probably raised himself. They would promptly approach
--him and offer him 5 pounds when the horse was worth far more than that, but
--since the Catholic had to declare the value to be 5 pounds or less in order to own
--the horse - he would be required by law to give it up. There are stories of English
--soldiers shooting to death any Catholic who refused to sell his horse for 5 pounds.

--The law soon came to recognize an Irishman in Ireland only for the purpose of
--repressing him. All bishops, deans, vicars-general, and friars were to leave the
--country and if they returned, to be put to death. Secular priests at home could
--remain if they were registered; in 1709, however, they were required to take an
--oath of abjuration which no priest could conscientiously take, so that registration
--ceased to be a protection. They could not set up schools at home nor resort to
--Catholic schools abroad, nor could they receive legacies for Catholic charities, nor
--have on their churches steeple, cross, or bell.

--The laity were no better off than the clergy in the matter of civil rights. They could
--not set up Catholic schools, nor teach in such, nor go abroad to Catholic schools.
--They were excluded from Parliament, from the corporations, from the army and
--navy, from the legal profession, and from all civil offices. They could not act as
--sheriffs, or under sheriffs, or as jurors, or even as constables. They could not have
--more than two Catholic apprentices in their trade; they could not carry arms, nor
--own a horse worth more than 5 pounds; they were excluded even from residence in
--the larger corporate towns. To bury their dead in an old ruined abbey or
--monastery involved a penalty of ten pounds. A Catholic workman refusing to work
--on Catholic holy days was to be whipped; and there was the same punishment for
--those who made pilgrimages to holy wells. No Catholic could act as guardian to an
--infant, nor as director of the Bank of Ireland; nor could he marry a Protestant,
--and the priest who performed such a marriage ceremony was to be put to death. A
--Catholic could not acquire land, nor buy it, nor hold a mortgage on it; and the
--Catholic landlord was bound at death to leave his estate to his children in equal
--shares. During life, if the wife or son of such became a Protestant, she or he at once
--obtained separate maintenance.

--The law presumed every Catholic to be faithless, disloyal, and untruthful, assumed
--him to exist only to be punished, and the ingenuity of the Legislature was
--exhausted in discovering new methods of repression. Viceroys were constantly
--appealed to give no countenance to Popery.

--As the only natural leaders of an oppressed people the priests were invariably the
--first to come under close scrutiny whenever the British Crown or nation seemed in
--jeopardy. During the "Young Pretender" scare, 1743/45, the Protestant
--magistrates suspected all Catholic priests of sympathy with the cause of Bonny
--Prince Charlie. To uncover these mythical clerical subversives they forced
--prominent Catholic locals to testify on oath as to the names and offices held by
--priests in this area.

--Irishmen called priest-hunters were rewarded for spying upon their priests, and
--degraded priests who apostatized were rewarded with a government pension. The
--wife was thus encouraged to disobey her husband, the child to flout his parents,
--the friend to turn traitor to his friend. These Protestant legislators in possession
--of Catholic lands wished to make all Catholics helpless and poor. Without
--bishops they must soon be without priests, and without schools they must
--necessarily go to the Protestant schools. These hopes however proved vain.
--Students went to foreign colleges, and bishops came from abroad, facing
--imprisonment and death. The schoolmaster taught under a sheltering hedge, and
--the priest said Mass by stealth watched over by the people and in spite of
--priest-hunter and penal laws. Nor were the Catholics won over by such
--Protestant ministers as they saw, men without zeal and often without faith, not
--unlike those described by Spenser in Elizabeth's day -- "of fleshy incontinency,
--greedy avarice and disordered lives". In other respects the Penal Laws
--succeeded. They made the Catholics helpless, ignorant, and poor, without the
--strength to rebel, the hope of redress, or even the courage to complain.

--At last the tide turned. Too poor to excite the cupidity of their oppressors, too
--feeble to rebel, the Catholics had nevertheless shown that they would not
--become Protestants; and the repression of a feeble people, merely for the sake
--of repression, had tarnished the name of England, and alienated her friends
--among the Catholic nations. In these circumstances the Irish Parliament began
--to retrace its steps, and concessions were made, slowly and grudgingly. At first
--the Penal Laws ceased to be rigorously enforced, and then in 1771, Catholics
--were allowed to take leases of unreclaimed bog for sixty-one years. Three years
--later they were allowed to substitute an Oath of Allegiance for the Oath of
--Supremacy; and in 1778 Gardiner's Act allowed them to take leases of land for
--999 years, and also allowed Catholic landlords to leave their estates to one son,
--instead of having, as hitherto, to divide between all.

--In 1782 a further Act enabled Catholics to set up schools, with the leave of the
--Protestant bishop of the place, enabling them also to own horses in the same way
--as Protestants, and further permitting bishops and priests to reside in Ireland.
--Catholics were also allowed to act as guardians to children.

--Not till 1792 was there a further Act allowing Catholics to marry Protestants, to
--practice at the bar, and to set up Catholic schools without obtaining a licence from
--the Protestant bishop. These concessions were scorned by the Catholic Committee,
--long charged with the care of Catholic interests, and which had lately passed
--from the feeble leadership of Lord Kenmare to the more capable leadership of
--John Keogh. The new French Republic had also become a menace to England,
--and English ministers dreaded having Ireland discontented. For these reasons
--the Catholic Relief Bill of 1793 became law. This gave Catholics the
--parliamentary and municipal franchise, enabled them to become jurors,
--magistrates, sheriffs, and officers in the army and navy. They might carry arms
--under certain conditions, and they were admitted to the degrees of Trinity
--College, though not to its emoluments or higher honours.
--Two years later the advent of Lord Fitzwilliam as viceroy was regarded as the
--herald of complete religious equality. But Pitt suddenly changed his mind, and
--having resolved on a legislative union, it suited his purpose better to stop further
--concession. Then came the recall of Fitzwilliam, the rapid rise of the United Irish
--Society with revolutionary objects, the rebellion of 1798, and the Union of 1800.