The Penal Laws

The civil and ecclesiastical supremacy of members of the Church of Ireland was secured by the penal laws. These laws were not a code in the strict sense of the word; rather they were an accumulation of laws dating from the Reformation to the reign of George II. Laws with similar intent also existed in England, but there both Catholics and Dissenters were minority groups.

In Ireland, in three of the four provinces – Leinster, Munster and Connacht – Catholics formed an overwhelming majority of the population. No definite figures exist for religious affiliation, but probably between three-quarters and four-fifths of the population were Catholic; of the remainder about half were Presbyterians, who were concentrated in the remaining province of Ulster.

After the defeat of James II, frequent and systematic additions were made to the penal laws until after the Hanoverian succession. The first of these new discriminatory laws was passed by the English parliament in 1692, 3 Will. & Mary, c. 2. Catholics, already excluded from the English parliament by the 1678 Parliamentary Test Act, were now also excluded from the Irish parliament and from holding public office. This was ensured by requiring an oath of allegiance denying inter alia the doctrine of transubstantiation.

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Subsequent laws usually derived their momentum from the Irish parliament and reflected its insecurity. Additions were made during the reign of William III, and the severity of the ‘code’ reached its zenith during the reign of Queen Anne. Then it gradually tapered off as the Hanoverian dynasty became more secure and many laws fell into disuse.

The penal laws can be broadly classified into three types: firstly, acts that affected the clergy and the church hierarchy; secondly, acts that affected the family through restrictions imposed on education, marriage and inheritance; and thirdly, acts that prevented Catholics, and to a lesser extent other Nonconformists, from participating in public life or professional activity, such as sitting in parliament, grand juries and municipal corporations or embarking on a career in the legal profession or the armed forces.

Being debarred from the armed forces persuaded many to seek a career in the armies of the Catholic sovereigns of Europe, particularly in France. Enlistment in these regiments was sometimes surreptitious and illegal, but it could also be sanctioned by government granting the enlistment officer a licence. Officially government took a strict line on illegal enlistment, but it was almost impossible to stop, although a number of statutes attempted to plug this loophole.

Professionally Catholics were debarred from the law (10 Will. III, c. 13; 6 Anne, c. 6; 7 Geo. II, c. 5 & c. 6), which in the eighteenth century was the traditional method of advancement both socially and economically, and again many statutes were aimed at prohibiting this avenue from them. However, many got round this difficulty by conforming - doubtless with varying degrees of sincerity - to the Established Church. In March 1726/7 Primate Boulter complained that:

The practice of the law from the top to the bottom is at present mostly in the hands of new converts … producing a certificate of their having received the sacrament in the Church of England or Ireland, which several of them who were papists at London obtained on the road hither … Things are at present so bad with us, that if about six should be removed from the bar to the bench here, there will not be a barrister of note left that is not a convert.