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Penal Laws

Penal Laws Before Relief Act of 1792 [1793?]



1. If a Catholic kept a school, or taught any person, Protestant or Catholic, any species of literature or science, he was punishable by banishment, and if he returned, he was subject to be hanged as a felon.

2. If a Catholic, child or adult, attended a school kept by a Catholic, or was privately instructed by a Catholic, although a child in earliest infancy, incurred forfeiture of all its property, present or future.

3. If a Catholic child, however young, was sent to a foreign country for education, he incurred a similar penalty.

4. If any person in Ireland made any remittance of money or goods for the maintenance of an Irish child educated in a foreign land - a similar penalty.



1. To teach the Catholic religion was a transportable1 felony; to convert a Protestant was a capital offense, punishable as treason.

2. To be a Catholic Archbishop or Bishop, or t[o] exercise any ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the Cath. Church in Ireland, punishable by transportation. To return from such transportation - punishable by being hanged, disemboweled alive, & quartered.



Any Protestant could take away from any Catholic - without any payment:

1. Any estate purchased

2. Any estate acquired by marriage, or by the will of a relative or friend

3. Any estate leased as a tenant for [a] longer term than 31 years

4. Any estate leased for less than 31 years, if by his labor & industry he raised the value

of the land so as to yield a profit of 1/3 of the rent


- Sherlock, The Case for Ireland, p. 130-32



Penal Laws:

- Commentary on

Edmund Burke:2 "The wit of man never devised a machine to disgrace a realm or destroy a kingdom so perfect as this."

Montesquieu (French jurist-philosopher, author of the epoch-making Spirit of the Laws): It must have been contrived by devils; it ought to have been written in blood; the only place to register it is in Hell."

- Joseph Dunn & P. J. Lennox, The Glories of Ireland (1914), p. 147 (Wab. Lib.)3



Penal Laws Instituted by William After 1691

1. Changed inheritance laws - forbad primogeniture unless a son would turn apostate, in

which case he got the whole property & maintenance suitable to his rank.

2. Forbade Papists to purchase or lease land, except for short tenancies.

3. Forbade Papists to teach.

4. Forbade Papists to have arms.

5. Forbade Papists to have a horse worth more than 5 pounds.

6. An act of 1704 permitted Catholic clergy their freedom if they registered.

7. All Catholic prelates ordered into exile (hoping ordination of new priests would cease).

- Inglis, Story of Ire., p. 175-76


Penal laws relaxed in 1774, modified still further in 1778, and abandoned in 1782 (Ibid., p. 182).

1. Catholics barred from Army, Navy, law, commerce, & every civic activity.

2. No Catholic could vote or hold office.

3. Primogeniture outlawed unless eldest son became Protestant.

4. Catholics could not attend or keep schools, nor send their children to be educated abroad.

5. The practice of the Catholic faith proscribed; informing was "an honorable service," &

priest-hunting a sport.

The material damage suffered through the Penal Laws was great; ruin was widespread, old families disappeared, old estates were broken up; but the most disastrous effects were moral. The upper classes were able to leave the country & the middle classes contrived with guile, to survive, but the Catholic peasant bore the full hardship. His religion made him an outlaw; in the Irish House of Commons he was called "the common enemy." Whatever was inflicted on him he must bear, for where could he look for redress? To his landlord? Almost invariably an alien conqueror. To the Law? Not when every person connected with the law from the jailer to the judge was a Protestant who regarded him as the common enemy. Under these conditions suspicion of the law & of all established authority worked into the very nerves & blood of the Irish peasant. He set up his own law - Oak Boys, White Boys, Ribbon men dispensed a people's justice in the terrible form of revenge.

Nor were lawlessness, cruelty, & revenge the only consequences. During the long Penal period, dissimulation became a moral necessity & evasion of the law the duty of every god-fearing Catholic. To worship according to his faith the Catholic must attend illegal meetings; to protect his priest he must be secret, cunning, & a concealer of the truth.

- C. Woodham-Smith, Hunger, p. 27-284

"Whosoever person of the Popish religion shall publicly teach at a school, or shall instruct youth in learning in any private house within this realm, or shall be entertained to instruct youth in learning, as usher or assistant by any Protestant master, be esteemed or taken to be a Popish regular clergyman, and shall be prosecuted as such, and incur such pains, penalties, & forfeitures, as any Popish convict is liable to by the laws & statutes of this realm." A reward of 10 pounds was given to any person "discovering a Popish schoolmaster."

- The Halls, Vol. II, p. 359



Relief Act of 1792

Passed by Irish Parl[iament] - admitted Catholics to the professions & to the army & navy; gave legal recognition to Catholic worship; & legal sanction, with some limitations, to mix[ed] marriages. The franchise was withheld.



Repeal of

Because the Catholic Irish were (at long last) completely indifferent to the fate of the Pretender Stuart's uprising in Scotland in 1745, the Lord Lieutenant, Chesterfield, of the famous letters, relaxed the enforcement of the religious clauses (of the Penal Laws) and, as a concession (the English needed manpower), the Catholics were allowed to join the English army... The independent Irish Legislature, established in 1782, repealed the remnants of the Penal Laws - with one major exception: Catholics could not hold seats in Parliament, though they could vote, hold land, sit on the grand jury, and enjoy other civil rights.

- Geo. Potter, To the Golden Door, p. 31 & 32


In 1823 O'Connell established the Catholic Association, pledged to work for Catholic Emancipation. O'Connell formed an alliance with the Catholic Church in an organization that, for practical & political skill and efficiency, stands even today as a masterpiece in party management. The surest way to reach the last peasant in the most remote parts of Ireland was through the Catholic parishes. O'Connell's organization was based on the parish, with the priests & local worthies as its agents. The messages, speeches, & propaganda of the Catholic Association reached the people from the priests on the altar or in the gatherings outside the church after mass.

The people were asked to finance the Association; membership was taken by the better circumstanced at an annual fee of 2 guineas; the peasants at 1 penny each month, collected by the local priest or workers. The inclusion of the peasant's penny was a touch of political genius; it gave him a personal interest, often at a sacrifice, which he would not have had were he but a spectator; he felt that he was a part of a great national movement & that he was important to it...

In 1829 the Catholic Irish were freed of the last shackles of the Penal Laws. (Ibid., p. 108-09)



1 Punishment by "transportation" to the British penal colony in Australia.

2 Edmund Burke ( 1729- 1797), Anglo-Irish statesman and political philosopher.

3 Joseph Dunn and P. J. Lennox, eds., The Glories of Ireland. Washington , DC : Phoenix, Limited, 1914.

4 Cecil Blanche Fitz Gerald Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 . New York: Harper & Row, 1962.