State of Ireland during the Eighteenth Century: Irish Penal Laws

Edgar Sanderson
The British Empire in the Nineteenth Century
Chapter V

Penal laws against the Roman Catholics—Restrictions upon Irish industries and trade—The Irish Parliament—Flood and Grattan—Convention of Dungannon—“Whiteboys” and “United Irishmen”—Formation of “Orange” lodges—Cruelties practised on the Roman Catholics—Irish rebellion of 1798—Act for union with Great Britain passed.

For nearly a century after the last conquest of Ireland, under William the Third, that unhappy country was quiescent with the apathy of exhaustion, misery, and despair.

In Elizabeth's reign the native Celts had been hunted like wild beasts: their faith had been proscribed; their lands had been largely confiscated. Great further land robberies were perpetrated in the days of James the First, his son Charles, Cromwell, and William the Third.

In one quarter alone, Ulster, the Protestant “plantation” of Scottish and English settlers, formed by James the First, was there any real prosperity.

After the surrender of Limerick in 1691, the treaty which promised religious freedom to the Catholics was grossly violated, and they were made subject to the action of severe “penal laws”, passed in the Irish parliament, an assembly composed of Protestant lords, and of members returned for boroughs controlled by the crown or by patrons or by close corporations, and for counties dominated in election affairs by great proprietors of land.

Catholics were not permitted to keep school; to go beyond seas, or to send others thither, for education in the Romish religion.

Intermarriage with Protestants was disallowed, in case of the possession of an estate in Ireland. Children of mixed marriages were always to be brought up in the Protestant faith.

A “Papist” could not be guardian to any child, nor hold land, nor possess arms. He could not hold a commission in the army or navy, or be a private soldier.

No Catholic could hold any office of honour or emolument in the state, or be a member of any corporation, or vote for members of the Commons, or, if he were a peer, sit or vote in the Lords.

Almost all these personal disabilities were equally enforced by law against any Protestant who married a Catholic wife.

It was a felony, with transportation, to teach the Catholic religion, and treason, as a capital offence, to convert a Protestant to the Catholic faith.

The legislation devised for the Irish Catholics in that evil time was described by Burke as “a machine 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”.