Penal Laws in Ireland

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXIV

In 1695 Lord Capel was appointed Viceroy. He at once summoned a Parliament, which sat for several sessions, and in which some of the penal laws against Catholics were enacted. As I believe the generality even of educated persons, both in England and Ireland, are entirely ignorant of what these laws really were, I shall give a brief account of their enactments, premising first, that seven lay peers and seven Protestant bishops had the honorable humanity to sign a protest against them.

(1) The Catholic peers were deprived of their right to sit in Parliament.

(2) Catholic gentlemen were forbidden to be elected as members of Parliament.

(3) It denied all Catholics the liberty of voting, and it excluded them from all offices of trust, and indeed from all remunerative employment, however insignificant.[8]

(4) They were fined £60 a-month for absence from the Protestant form of worship.

(5) They were forbidden to travel five miles from their houses, to keep arms, to maintain suits at law, or to be guardians or executors.

(6) Any four justices of the peace could, without further trial, banish any man for life if he refused to attend the Protestant service.

(7) Any two justices of the peace could call any man over sixteen before them, and if he refused to abjure the Catholic religion, they could bestow his property on the next of kin.

(8) No Catholic could employ a Catholic schoolmaster to educate his children; and if he sent his child abroad for education, he was subject to a fine of £100, and the child could not inherit any property either in England or Ireland.

(9) Any Catholic priest who came to the country should be hanged.

(10) Any Protestant suspecting any other Protestant of holding property[9] in trust for any Catholic, might file a bill against the suspected trustee, and take the estate or property from him.

(11) Any Protestant seeing a Catholic tenant-at-will on a farm, which, in his opinion, yielded one-third more than the yearly rent, might enter on that farm, and, by simply swearing to the fact, take possession.

(12) Any Protestant might take away the horse of a Catholic, no matter how valuable, by simply paying him £5.

(13) Horses and wagons belonging to Catholics, were in all cases to be seized for the use of the militia.

(14) Any Catholic gentleman's child who became a Protestant, could at once take possession of his father's property.

I have only enumerated some of the enactments of this code, and I believe there are few persons who will not be shocked at their atrocity. Even if the rights of Catholics had not been secured to them by the Treaty of Limerick, they had the rights of men; and whatever excuse, on the ground of hatred of Popery as a religion, may be offered for depriving men of liberty of conscience, and of a share in the government of their country, there can be no excuse for the gross injustice of defrauding them of their property, and placing life and estate at the mercy of every ruffian who had an interest in depriving them of either or of both. Although the seventeenth century has not yet been included in the dark ages, it is possible that posterity, reading these enactments, may reverse present opinion on this subject.

But though the Parliament which sat in Dublin, and was misnamed Irish, was quite willing to put down Popery and to take the property of Catholics, it was not so willing to submit to English rule in other matters.

In 1698 Mr. Molyneux, one of the members for the University of Dublin, published a work, entitled The Case of Ireland's being bound by Acts of Parliament in England, stated. But Mr. Molyneux's book was condemned by the English Parliament; and after a faint show of resistance, the Irish members succumbed.

The next attention which the English Houses paid to this country, was to suppress the woollen trade. In 1698 they passed a law for the prevention of the exportation of wool and of woollen manufactures from Ireland, “under the forfeiture of goods and ship, and a penalty of £500 for every such offence.”

The penal laws had made it “an offence” for a man to practise his religion, or to educate his children either in Ireland or abroad; the trade laws made it “an offence” for a man to earn[1] his bread in an honest calling.

The lower class of Protestants were the principal sufferers by the destruction of the woollen trade; it had been carried on by them almost exclusively; and it is said that 40,000 persons were reduced to utter destitution by this one enactment.

In addition to this, navigation laws were passed, which prohibited Irish merchants from trading beyond seas in any ships except those which were built in England.

The embargo laws followed, of which twenty-two were passed at different periods during forty years. They forbade Irish merchants, whether Protestant or Catholic, to trade with any foreign nation, or with any British colony, direct—to export or import any article, except to or from British merchants resident in England.

Ireland, however, was allowed one consolation, and this was the permission to import rum duty free.

I am certain that none of the honorable members who voted such laws had the deliberate intention of making the Irish a nation of beggars and drunkards; but if the Irish did not become such, it certainly was not the fault of those who legislated for their own benefit, and, as far as they had the power to do so, for her ruin, politically and socially.

William had exercised his royal prerogative by disposing, according to his own inclination, of the estates forfeited by those who had fought for the royal cause. His favourite, Mrs. Villiers, obtained property worth £25,000 per annum.

In 1799 the English Parliament began to inquire into this matter, and the Commons voted that “the advising and passing of the said grants was highly reflecting upon the King's honour.”

William had already began to see on what shifting sands the poor fabric of his popularity was erected. He probably thought of another case in which his honour had been really pledged, and in which he had been obliged to sacrifice it to the clamours of these very men. He had failed in the attempt to keep his Dutch Guards; his last days were embittered; and had not his death occurred soon after, it is just possible that even posterity might have read his life in a different fashion.


[8] Insignificant.—A petition was sent in to Parliament by the Protestant porters of Dublin, complaining of Darby Ryan for employing Catholic porters. The petition was respectfully received, and referred to a “Committee of Grievances.”—Com. Jour. vol. ii. f. 699. Such an instance, and it is only one of many, is the best indication of the motive for enacting the penal laws, and the cruelty of them.

[9] Property.—It will be remembered that at this time Catholics were in a majority of at least five to one over Protestants. Hence intermarriages took place, and circumstances occurred, in which Protestants found it their interest to hold property for Catholics, to prevent it from being seized by others. A gentleman of considerable property in the county Kerry, has informed me that his property was held in this way for several generations.

[1] Earn.—One of the articles of the “violated Treaty” expressly provided that the poor Catholics should be allowed to exercise their trade. An Act to prevent the further growth of Popery was passed afterwards, which made it forfeiture of goods and imprisonment for any Catholic to exercise a trade in Limerick or Galway, except seamen, fishermen, and day labourers, and they were to be licensed by the Governor, and not to exceed twenty.—Com. Jour. vol. iii. f. 133.