Penal Laws in Ireland
Irish history shows that the penal laws passed in Ireland were some of the most severe laws ever passed in the country. The best way to help England secure their policy was to strengthen the position of the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland.
Just before the Battle of the Boyne the Catholic share of the land was around 22 percent and after the Williamite plantation this had dropped to 15 percent. The Williamite settlement had provided an opportunity for Protestants to make things better for themselves, by methods which were not necessary for the preservation of England’s interests. This was a time known as the Protestant Ascendancy.
An example was that Catholics were not allowed to own a horse worth more than five pounds, and if he was offered more than that, he was legally obliged to sell it. These penal laws forced those who were non-conformists to the Anglican Church to become the poorest in society.
In essence these were anti-Catholic laws and not only impacted on their wealth, but also politically as they were excluded from important offices and positions therein. Catholics were strictly forbidden to purchase any land and prohibited from conducting schools, sending their children abroad to be educated and most importanly not allowed to vote.
This discriminatory legislation would continue for the next twenty years. Another example was that if a Catholic landowner died he could not leave it to one son, but was forced under law to divide it among all his sons. If anyone of them turned Protestant then they would automatically inherit the land.
Bishops, Jesuits and monks were ordered to leave the kingdom, Catholics and Protestants were not allowed to marry each other, and Catholics were not allowed to live in Limerick or Galway and on and on these laws continued.
The theory behind this was that without education and no ordination of priests the Roman Catholic clergy would simply die out. Somehow this was averted as many Irish men managed to go abroad and attend semanaries in Europe. They remained to be educated there until Maynooth was set up much later in 1795.
Apart from allowing Sarsfield and his army to leave Ireland, the rest of the Treaty of Limerick was not implemented. The English parliament was not happy with the treaty that had been signed even though William would have delivered on it.
In 1720 an act was passed which gave Westminster the right to legislate directly for Ireland. Sometimes over looked and yet I believe to be important was that it not only opened up a religious divide, but it also created a class divide by making Irish Catholics an inferior race, and in as such, also created a nation united by the characteristic of being poor.
Amidst all of this trade and commerce managed to continue and grow. The traders in England convinced the English parliament and in essence they deliberately ruined any Irish trade by imposing restrictions.
Exports were prohibited and this fell most heavily on the Irish Protestant merchants as by this time and under the Penal laws, Catholics were barely scratching a living. The Irish merchants were not allowed to trade or send their cattle to England and unable to find a market suffered great distress.
They turned to wool as a means of trade but this was once again thwarted by yet another law being passed by placing a huge export tax on any woolen exports. It is estimated that this forced over 40,000 Irish Protestants into poverty and some 20,000 Puritans to leave Ireland forever and return to England. The only inudustry that was encouraged in Ireland was the linen trade and that was because it served as no threat to the English traders.
King William was often at odds with his parliament. He died when he fell from his horse and broke his collar bone on the 8th March 1702 and was replaced by Queen Anne and then by George I.
Protestant AscendancyIn Ulster, the Protestant tenant farmers had a much better security of tenure and they benefited from the growth in the linen industries. The army and many professions were open to them and a Protestant middle class developed that could engage in politics and commerce.
Belfast grew quickly but it truly was a Protestant town. The Catholic tenant farmers struggled to pay their rent and tithes to a church that very few of them belonged to. They lived in abject poverty and in years when crops failed many died as they had nothing else to fall back on. An exodus began to the United States of America from about 1717 onwards.
The letters sent back told stories of dreadful conditions on the ships and tales of sickness and death.
It was however a great time for the Protestant aristocracy as landlords grew rich and built huge farms and homes.
Catholics could not vote and as such played no part in the political history of the country at this time. Any struggles for Irish independence were made by Protestants. The English government remained hostile to any approach from the Irish parliament.
In 1719 the English parliament passed the Act of “Sixth of George I” which determined that they had the right to make laws for Ireland, and these laws could not be changed by the House of Lords in Ireland. There had always been some conflict from within the Irish parliament as they did not like being wholly dictated to by the English parliament.
Meanwhile the Penal laws had been rather ineffective at curtailing the Catholic religion. In 1727 on the accession of George II to the throne the government founded what were known as “charter schools” in which Catholics would be fed, clothed and taught.
They would also be brought up as Protestants but in truth these schools also failed to achieve their objective. In the same year a harsh famine almost completely devastated the south of the country. Fifteen years later that crisis had spread country-wide and many people died from hunger and disease. An economic condition authorised by London discouraged tillage in order to protect the English producers and as a direct result of that, Ireland was actually importing more grain than it exported.
The Irish did however try to remain educated and hedge-schools were used very often. These were unofficial schools visited by travelling school masters, who maintained their own culture, language and traditions. The same applied to poets and those who played music.
During the late eighteenth century agrarian rebels formed themselves into secret societies that all had different names such as Whiteboys, Oak Boys, Ribbonmen and Defenders. Primarily these groups formed due to the continuing misery and discontent among people deprived of any rights, and living under a law that did not recognise them as a people.
It was a classic case of taking the law into their very own hands. These were not political actions in anyway and were almost recations to greedy landlords. These were men who attacked landlords to revenge a grievance, where perhaps a landlord had taken land from someone who could not pay the rent. It involved most often attacks on the landlord’s animals, clubbing dogs to death, and throwing cattle over cliffs.
Repressive measures were then introduced by the government which made membership of such societies a capital offence, and these were actively pursued by local magistrates and landlords.
The attacks slowed down but sporadic actions did continue for a very long time. In Ulster secret societies also flourished among the Protestant peasantry and again these were not political groups but were founded to protest against unfair demands. The groups were known as “Hearts of Oak” and “Hearts of Steel”.
From 1762 to 1772 there was a great struggle for power between the Irish and English parliaments. The main issue that appeared to cause controversy was the length of time a parliament could sit. In England this time could be a maximum of seven years but in Ireland there was no maximum time and served at the king’s pleasure. Under the reign of George II the Irish parliament remained in place for some 33 years.
By its nature it meant that a parliament with this length of term was open to corruption and had the necessary domination to succeed in the delivery of any laws. At a similar time Henry Flood who led the Patriot cause was supported by Henry Grattan and they pursued the unfairness of the pension system. This was a system where thousands of people were given a pension who had never any connection with Ireland.
After some persistence the Irish parliament did get agreement through the English parliament that the maximum term would be eight years. The Irish parliament continued to engage and at times irritate the Lord Governor and the English parliaments with the single purpose of controlling their own destiny.
Known as “Patriots” all of these men were Protestants as Catholics could neither vote or be elected, and many of them wanted the structures in place to pass acts that suited the needs of the land which they occupied and lived on.
The Penal Laws in Ireland were harsh and clearly people suffered greatly to maintain the English and Protestant ascendancy.
The next big step in Irish history would be the arrival of Cromwell. I would now recommend reading about Irish History Oliver Cromwell in Ireland.