The Penal Laws

Prior 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 wasn’t 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 ‘Grattan’s 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 clergy.

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 history.