The Penal Code, 1691-1795

From The Historic Case for Irish Independence by Darrell Figgis

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25. The Treaty of Limerick was a compact solemnly ratified between victor and vanquished, on the faith of which an admittedly brave and chivalrous foe marched out from a beleaquered city with all the honours of war. Within a few years that Treaty was a worthless scrap of paper, with all its articles deliberately violated. The first article of that Treaty stipulated that Catholics in Ireland "should ever enjoy such privileges, in the exercise of their religion, as they did enjoy in the reign of Charles the Second," and the Crown pledged its word to endeavour to procure them "such further security in that particular as may preserve them from any further disturbance on account of their religion." The ninth article specially stipulated that no oath was to be administered to a Catholic other than the Oath of Allegiance. That is the say, the Oath of Supremacy was especially debarred. Other articles guaranteed that Catholic landowners in arms at the time of the making of the Treaty were not to be molested in their possession. It is but just to say that the Dutch King of England desired to preserve his pledged word of honour; but he reckoned without his new subjects.

For now the Irish nation was finally reduced to bondage; and what may be literally described as a yell of triumph went up from the victor nation. Matters were now so to be ordered that the Irish nation should never again lift its head, and, to effect this, the famous Penal Code was planned. As an instrument of subjection it remains without a rival in history. For cunning and malignancy it cannot be matched in the records of the perverted wit of man. The spirit that inspired it was expressed by the Lord Chancellor from the Bench: "The law," he said, "does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Catholic." Catholic Bishops and members of religious orders were banished, under pain of death. Secular priests were forbidden to exercise their office, under pain of deportation, unless they took certain oaths which their discipline forbad. Every Catholic was ordered, under pain of fines, to inform against his priest; and the price for such informations was £20 for an unregistered priest and £50 for a bishop. Catholics were not permitted to act as teachers, under pain of banishment, or of death if they returned from banishment.

On the other hand, Protestant free schools were established in each parish. Catholics were excluded from all public offices, and from all professions but that of medicine. They were excluded from the franchise as a matter of course. They were not permitted to hold property in land, or to take land on any lease exceeding thirty years. They were forbidden to intermarry with Protestants, and any priest celebrating such a marriage, even though he did so inadvertently, was to suffer the death penalty. Catholics were refused primogeniture--all property being equally divided among their children--the intention being to dissipate any fortune that Catholics might amass to the danger of the Protestant ascendancy. Catholics were forbidden arms; and if a Catholic were possessed of a horse that exceeded the worth of five pounds, a Protestant might take it from him at that price. If a son of Catholic parents foreswore his faith, all his parents' property became vested in him, and those parents could only claim a life estate. However or wherever a Catholic might turn he was gripped in a vice. He was held in what Edmund Burke described as "a complete system full of coherence and consistency, well digested in all its parts .... a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance; and as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man." Yet though this code bore all the outward semblance of religious fanaticism, its intention was far otherwise. At the beginning of the period during which it operated, in 1685, Lord Clarendon, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, wrote: "The contest here is not about religion, but between English and Irish, and that is the truth." At the conclusion of that period, in 1824, Lord Redesdale, sometime Lord Chancellor, wrote: "If a revolution were to happen in Ireland, it would, in the end, be an Irish revolution, and no Catholic of English blood would fare better than a Protestant of English blood."

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