to the Williamite Wars, the Catholics of Ireland had retained
ownership of a mere 22% of the land, despite the fact that
they formed 75% of the population. Following the shameful
breaking of the Treaty of Limerick, even that small percentage
of ownership was reduced to 14%, and would be reduced even
further as the Penal Laws would be more rigidly enforced.
Arthur Young, an agricultural improver employed
by the government, estimated in 1776 that they owned a meagre
5% at that stage. This shocking decline in land ownership
could be attributed entirely to the enforcement of those
same Penal Laws, which was entirely contrary to the terms
of the Treaty of Limerick.
The war had left the Protestants in complete control, as
they now dominated the political, economical and social
spheres to such an extent that life for the Catholic population
was reduced to untold misery. Yet, despite their overall
supremacy, the Protestant Ascendancy lived in continual
fear of a revival of Catholic claims and a restoration of
the Stuart Dynasty. And so, to prevent either of these happening
they resorted to the Penal Code which had such a crippling
effect on the majority population.
These shameful restrictions could be divided into four or
five main categories, principally the laws against religion,
education, property and social activities. Under the heading
Religion the Catholic bishops were banished
completely from the country, while Parish Priests had to
be registered and also take the Oath of Abjuration.
In education, Catholics were forbidden to have
schools of their own or to have their children educated
by Catholic teachers, while under the heading property,
no Catholic could own a horse worth more than £5.
They were also forbidden to buy land, and they could not
lease property for more than 31 years, while at the same
time having to pay a rent that was to be at least-two birds
of the annual value of the land. Neither could a Catholic
become a guardian, nor could they carry arms, while the
Laws of Inheritance were also altered so that
a son or daughter who adopted the Protestant Religion would
become the sole heir/heiress to the property.
The first of these laws had been introduced by the Irish
Parliament in 1695 when they brought in the regulations
against educating children, bearing arms and owning a horse
worth more than £5. In 1704 many of the harsher restrictions
were imposed, while in 1719 came the most disgusted of all
the Penal Laws - the castration of unregistered priests.
And, as if all that wasnt enough, Catholics were denied
the vote (1727) and were not allowed to enter the army,
the civil service or the legal profession.
The Penal Code reduced the Catholic population to dire poverty,
but it also had the effect of strengthening their will to
survive, while their steadfast holding on to the old
religion never faltered. If anything, their Faith became
even stronger, and only a mere handful of their priests
deserted them by conforming. Some 400 priests,
however, had been deported by 1698, while there was no archbishop
in the country from 1692 to 1714. Despite the fact that
there was £5 reward for a priests head, the clergy
survived, while the infamous priest hunters
frequently became the victims of revenge by the many Irish
rapparees, who now roamed the countryside. Mass was still
celebrated at mass-rocks in the glens and woodlands, while
fourteen bishops also managed to survive in disguise, the
principal of these being Patrick Donnelly, the archbishop
of Armagh. Visiting his flock in the guise of a harper,
he was later immortalised in the lovely ballad The
Bard of Armagh.
The laws against education were also overcome at practically
all levels. Young men intended for the priesthood now went
abroad to the Irish colleges on the continent and returned
as priests to their home parishes where they were sheltered
by their families and friends. The children received their
education from a new race of educators known as hedge
schoolmasters usually classical scholars who had at
one time been intended for holy orders but who had dropped
out somewhere along the way. The hedge-schools
as their name implies, were originally held at the backs
of hedges, but in harsher weather were held indoors in a
barn or out-house, while the many friendly Protestants frequently
gave them accommodation.
The Penal Laws had been aimed mainly at Catholics, but Presbyterians
also suffered, principally in the matter of paying tithes.
These had to be paid to the Clergy of the Established Church
and both Catholic and Presbyterians were affected, naturally
resenting the fact that they had to pay towards the upkeep
of the clergy of a church to which they did not belong.
Those who collected the tithes were called tithe-proctors
and there were many instances all over the country where
they were attacked, stoned, and sometimes even killed, by
an angry native population refusing to pay the hated tithes.
The sufferings of the people were compounded even further
by the outbreak of several minor famines during the eighteenth
century, while an exceptionally severe and lengthy frost
also hit the country in late 1739. An even more disastrous
famine, accompanied by fever, struck the country again in
1741, even afterwards called Bliain an Air in
Irish history, as over 300,000 perished in that year, while
emigration figures during the same period also rose alarmingly.
A slight ray of hope was appearing on the horizon, however,
as there was a relaxation in some of the Penal Laws, notably
during 1778 and 1782, when laws affecting the exercise of
religion and the possession of land and property were abolished.
Parliament was obviously finding it difficult, even impossible
to fully enforce some of the more obnoxious regulations,
but pressure was also being brought to bear on them by a
number of liberal protestants, who now formed what would
become known as The Patriot Party in the Parliament.
News of the outbreak of the American War of Independence
of 1776 was not long in reaching Irish shores and the sympathy
of the Ulster Presbyterians was with the colonists across
the Atlantic in their struggle, as they too had been hampered
by trade restrictions from London. However, when France
joined forces with the revolutionaries, their attitude changed
somewhat, particularly when most of the army stationed in
the country was sent to America, leaving the country practically
defenceless. Fears of an invasion by their traditional enemy
inspired the Protestant classes to form companies of Volunteers
for defence purposes, not just in Ulster but all over Ireland,
who would defend the country against any such invasion.
The very liberally-minded Henry Grattan now came to the
fore as leader of The Patriot Party in Parliament
and also of the Volunteers, and he, along with fellow liberal
Henry Flood, soon began to demand parliamentary reform and
an end of the restraints on Irish trade, as well as an easing
of the Penal Code against the Catholics. They received major
support in Dublin where there was a huge demonstration of
Volunteer power in 1779. Massing their forces in full uniform
in College Green, they placed several cannons in front of
the House of Parliament (now the Bank of Ireland building),
having adorned them with placards demanding Free Trade
or This. The message was not lost on the British government
and the demands were met in December 1779.
A hugely attended Convention of Volunteers (from here on
known as Grattans Volunteers) was also
held in Dungannon in February 1782, when several more demands
were made and where the Volunteers also passed a very significant
resolution welcoming the relaxation in the enforcement of
the Penal Laws against our Roman Catholic fellow subjects.
In addition to all this, the Volunteer movement had created
for the first time ever the idea of nationhood
even among the Protestant population, something which had
never before been experienced in Irish history.
Following the passing of a Relief Act, Catholics were finally
given the right to vote in 1793 and could now also enter
the University of Dublin and the junior branches of the
civil service, but they were still debarred from taking
a seat in parliament and from obtaining any of the higher
positions in the public service, nor could they become judges.
A further attempt at conciliation was made in 1795 with
the founding of Maynooth College for the education of Catholic
Other events were now unravelling on the world scene which
would again have a major effect on Irish history. This time
it was in Europe, and the French Revolution of 1789 was
proving highly successful in spreading the doctrines of
Liberty, Equality and Fraternity throughout
the continent. Just as the American War of Independence
had given rise to the formation of the Volunteers, the example
of the French people would soon inspire a new movement which
would have a lasting effect on the future path of Irish