Friday 11 May 2012

A History of Modern Ireland: The coming of the Penal Laws

A Note

The history of Ireland is a complex and controversial subject. The relationship between the past and prejudice is symbiotic. The fury, passion and venom that it is still capable of provoking in people - many of whom have never set foot in Ireland - is a testament to the enduring power of the island's story. This post and those that follow it serve no political agenda; they are simply a result of my historical curiosity in Ireland's political history from the 1600s until the present day. This is not an attempt to justify or demonise what happened in Irish history. It is simply an attempt to present the story of Irish politics - from the birth of the "Ascendancy parliament" in the 1690s -  until Partition, as fairly and rationally as I can. Some of the phrases used have been simplified so that those unfamiliar with Irish history might be able to follow it. Any offensive republican or unionist comments left - particularly any implying that a particular group does not "belong" in Ireland - will not be approved for publication. Discussion is encouraged; manners are demanded.

The events which were to define Ireland in the eighteenth century actually began in England in the seventeenth century, with a crisis inside the Royal Family. In 1660, Charles II became king and throughout the twenty-five years he sat on the throne, more and more people became concerned about his Portuguese wife’s failure to have any children (right). The next in line to the throne was Charles’s younger brother, Prince James, Duke of York. James - a tall, blond and handsome war hero - had once been very popular, before he took the decision to convert to Catholicism in 1669. James’s first wife had been a Protestant and the couple had two daughters together, Mary and Anne, who were born before their father became a Catholic; they remained Protestant. After their mother’s death, James re-married to Princess Maria-Beatrice of Modena, an exceptionally beautiful Italian princess, who was also a Catholic. James became King James II in 1685 and there were many people who were extremely unhappy at the idea of a Catholic king. However, Queen Maria-Beatrice still had no children and the general consensus was that James II should be allowed to stay on the throne until he died, when the throne would pass to his eldest daughter from his first marriage, Mary, a Protestant who had recently married her cousin, Prince William of Orange, one of the most powerful Protestant princes in Europe. 

Then, in 1688, the Queen gave birth to a healthy baby boy and Protestant politicians began to fear that this would mean a line of Catholic kings stretching far into the future. Determined to bring down James II and prevent his son from inheriting the throne, Protestant members of the royal family, parliament and the army began to spread a false rumour that the new baby prince was not in fact the king’s son. They claimed that Maria-Beatrice had really given birth to a dead child; the dead child had been smuggled out of the palace by her Catholic advisers and then one of her priests had brought in a healthy male child who was passed off as her son. This vile scandal, known as “the Warming Pan Scandal,” resulted in a series of riots and unrest. Terrified, Queen Maria-Beatrice fled under the cover of night to nearby France, taking her baby with her. King James, too, was forced to flee, when William of Orange invaded with an army. In 1689, Parliament declared that James II was no longer legally king and that William of Orange was now King William III. He would share the throne with his wife, Queen Mary II. It was the only time in British history, so far, the monarchy operated under something called “shared sovereignty.”

None of this might have mattered too much to Ireland (apart from the fact that if James II had managed to stay on his throne, it is very likely that the government would have treated Irish Catholics much more kindly than it did under William), except that the final drama of the contest between James and William actually took place on Irish soil. The armies of those who wished to see William III stay on the throne and the army who wanted to put James II back where he belonged met at the River Boyne on 12th July 1690, a date forever immortalised in Irish-Protestant culture, with William becoming the eternal hero of the community (below). William’s army was triumphant and James narrowly escaped with his life, returning to France, where he spent the rest of his life as a guest of his cousin, King Louis XIV.

King William’s victory in Ireland was very popular with Irish Protestants. When he arrived in Ireland for the first time, in the northern port of Carrickfergus, one of William’s advisers wrote that the new king was greeted with 'a shore all crowded with Protestants – men, women, and children – old and young, who fell to their knees before him, with tears in their eyes thanking God and the English for saving them.' When news of William’s victory reached Ulster, which had a majority Protestant population, Ulster Protestants lit bonfires in celebration, which is still commemorated today in Ulster Protestant circles with the bonfires of the so-called “Eleventh Night.” In the aftermath of James’s defeat, Protestant attitudes to Catholics were especially hostile and Irish Protestants, in particular, wanted harsh measures to be taken against them. However, surprisingly, the Protestants did not have the backing of their new King for legal retaliations against the Catholic community.

Contrary to his later reputation as a hard-line Protestant, William of Orange was not an especially religious man. Devoid of any strong fiery Protestant faith, William did not want to punish the Catholics of Ireland for supporting King James; wisely, he realised that more could be gained by conciliation than retribution. Under the new laws announced by William's representatives in the south-western Irish city of Limerick in 1691, all Irish Catholics who had supported King James would be allowed either to sail away to join him in France or, if they swore loyalty to King William and Queen Mary, they would be allowed to keep their lands and estates in Ireland. Nor would they would be forced to pay any punitive fine for supporting King James at the Boyne. There were admittedly some new laws which favoured Protestants - for instance only Protestants were allowed to live in the cities of Limerick and Galway, but William initially refused to introduce any new law which otherwise discriminated against Irish Catholics or which imposed any restrictions on their religious freedoms. The Irish Protestants who had supported William’s victory at the Boyne were livid at the monarch's sense of tolerance. Many of them had looked forward to laws that would establish the supremacy of the Protestant religion in Ireland once and for all and they condemned the new laws of 1691, proclaiming, ‘We fought like heroes for the king, but like fools we are treated.’

In 1692, William’s representative in Ireland, known as the Viceroy, the future Earl of Romney (left), wrote that the Irish Parliament, which was legally allowed to consist only of members of the Church of Ireland, were ‘a company of madmen’, all of them seized with fury that harsher measures had not been taken against the Catholic population. They point-blank refused to support the king’s laws from 1691 and since William’s victory had come through the support of parliament, he was not in a position to ignore the wishes of the Irish parliament. 

Part of the reason for the depth of the Irish parliament’s sectarianism was that in 1692 memories were still alive about the tragedies of 1641, fifty-one years earlier. In that year, many Gaelic Catholics had risen up against their Protestant neighbours and what happened next had been truly horrific. As the historian Jonathan Bardon put it, the events of 1641 were a sign of ‘what a man can do to man when all authority collapses in a climate of fear and want, when people are inflamed by rumour, religious passion and a lust for revenge.’ In the northern county of Cavan, the local Protestants were robbed and stripped naked, then ‘without consideration of their age or sex, and sent into the wild, barren mountains, in the cold air, exposed to all the severity of the winter and left to die.’ Dozens of wealthy Protestant aristocrats who were loyal to the monarchy, like Lord Caulfield, were dragged from their beds and shot; their homes and castles were then burned to the ground. Wealthy Protestant women were often tortured by having their feet dipped in burning oil until they told the rioters where they were hiding their money. In Portadown, nearly one hundred Protestant men, women and children were rounded up by the rebels, taken to a nearby bridge and then hurled ‘off the bridge, into the water and there instantly and most barbarously they were drowned. Those who survived the fall and made it back to the shore were either bludgeoned to death or shot to death in the water...’ Thousands of Irish Protestants died in the autumn and winter of 1641, many more than those who died in the twentieth century's Troubles in Northern Ireland.

It is, of course, important to remember that not all Irish Catholics supported the horrors of 1641 and that by 1642, Protestants were retaliating with sectarian killings of their own, which also included the murder of Catholic children. Perhaps the most chilling line from the entire episode came from the justification for killing Catholic children - "knits breed lice." In August 1642, to distance themselves from the massacres, many wealthy Irish Catholics set up something called ‘the Confederate Catholics of Ireland,’ a group dedicated to supporting the British monarchy in its fight against Oliver Cromwell. (As Cromwell's monstrously horrific actions at Drogheda and Dundalk would show in 1649, anything was preferrable to rule by a Puritan republic.) In 1645, the Confederate Catholics even took up arms to defend the King’s rule in Ireland, marching against his enemies, crying, ‘Let your manhood be seen in your valour this day. Your oath is HAIL MARY and so in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, advance! – And fire against all enemies of our sovereign lord and king!’ 

By 1692, however, the complexities of the situation in 1641 had been forgotten and the children and grandchildren of those Protestants who had been targeted in 1641 chose only to remember those Catholics who had practised violence. Like many of those in the post-Troubles generation today, they had grown up hearing stories of horror, tragedy and the loss of human life; then, spurred on by King William’s victory and, of course, eager too to gain land and money at the expense of their Catholic neighbours, the Protestants of Ireland in the 1690s were determined to score a religious, economic and emotional victory over their Catholic compatriots. The Protestant Bishop of Derry reflected the majority of Irish Protestants’ mindset when he wrote in 1693, ‘it is apparent that the necessity of being so harsh was brought about entirely by them, because we know that either they or we must be ruined.’ In part, the anti-Catholic mood was based on the Protestant community’s memories of the unbelievable horrors and cruelties they had faced at the hands of the rebels of 1641; on the other hand, part of it was also ignorance, bigotry, greed, paranoia and devastating stupidity.

In 1695, having worn the King and the London government down, the Irish Parliament passed into law a series of rules and regulations which would define the entirety of Irish history right the way down to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were called the Penal Laws. The laws began by claiming that the tragedies and traumas of the last fifty years had solely been ‘contrived, promoted and carried on’ by the Catholic church and that as long as the Catholic religion was allowed to have any say in Irish life, it would mean that ‘the peace and public safety of the Kingdom is in danger.’ The laws claimed that anyone practising the Catholic religion could not be a loyal subject of the King and that their very existence would lead to ‘the ruin and desolation of this Kingdom.’ 

The Penal Laws of 1695 were to have tragic consequences that echoed down the centuries of Irish history. In an age when penalising legislation was applied in nearly every country in Europe, Ireland's Penal Laws became the infamous exception because they were applied against a majority of the population. Catholics made up 70% of the population, yet the Penal Laws excluded Irish Catholics from any job in the government, army, navy, legal system, education sector or civil service; it outlawed marriages between Protestants and Catholics; Catholics were banned from owning guns; they were banned from standing for election in either the Dublin or London parliaments; they were banned from voting; they were banned from educating their children in Catholic schools; they were banned from sending their children abroad to be educated in Catholic schools; they were banned from attending Trinity College university in Dublin. If a Catholic died, he was not allowed to leave all his land to his eldest son unless that son converted to Protestantism; if the son did not convert, then the land would be divided amongst all the dead man’s children, thus reducing the size of estates owned by Catholics. If a Protestant converted to Catholicism, they would be arrested, their land and assets would be seized and they would be imprisoned, without trial, for as long as the government liked. Irish Catholics were banned from buying land in Ireland; orphanages were banned from giving children to Catholic families for adoption; no Catholic could inherit land or money from a Protestant; no Catholic could own a horse worth more than £5; Roman Catholic priests had to register with the government and to inform them of their movements; special government permission had to be sought for the Mass to be said and it could not be celebrated for large congregations; only Protestant churches could be built from stone and near main roads, Catholic churches had to be constructed from wood and kept to the back roads or countryside. If a Protestant informed the government of anyone breaking the Penal Laws, then the government would be allowed to reward him by fining the local Catholic population in his home county.

The years immediately after 1695 saw a growing number of Catholics converting to Protestantism, particularly amongst the upper and middle classes. The Earl of Drogheda, a member of the Protestant Ascendancy, was rather alarmed by this and began to panic that if too many Catholics converted, the aristocracy would run out of servants. In 1707, the victorious Ascendancy, all of them members of the Church of Ireland, extended the Penal Laws to apply to Irish Presbyterians, too. There had been a massive influx of Presbyterian immigration into Ulster from Scotland in the 1690s and early 1700s and the Ascendancy were keen to ensure they remained in control, rather than the new immigrants. Some members of the Ascendancy were so suspicious of Presbyterians, who had a reputation for political radicalism, that they claimed ‘they are more to be feared than the Catholics themselves.’ Not all of the Penal Laws’ awful codes were applied to the Presbyterians like they were to the Catholics, but Presbyterians were still banned from voting, sitting in parliament or holding jobs in the government, army, navy, legal system, education sector or civil service. They were also required to pay taxes to support the Church of Ireland, despite the fact they were not members of it. As Professor Jonathan Bardon writes in his History of Ulster, this meant that by 1714, when King George I came to the throne, ‘The majority of Ireland’s inhabitants were, at the very least, second-class citizens.’

As the eighteenth century dawned in Ireland, civil peace had been won at a very high cost and the stage would now be set for a century which many historians would look back upon as a period of growth, prosperity and normalisation, whilst others would look back on it as one in which the festering, cancerous legacy of the Penal Laws had lurked beneath the surface, exploding once the French Revolution lit its fuse.

The next post in this series will be called "The Golden Age of the Ascendancy".


  1. Once again another informative unbiased article. Brilliant!

  2. I just died a little bit. This is fantastic. This is, pardon my language, historical sex!
    I have a fetish for European history and this hit the spot. Thank you. That is all I can say. Thank you.
    Oh lordy. My blog seems like balderdash compared to this!
    Or shall we let you be the judge of that? O.O
    My blogs URL is, ""
    I'd love a quick review or somethingl. :)
    And again, I JUST LOVED LOVED LOVED THIS. I'm done. :p

  3. Thank you so much, everyone! That's really, really kind of you and the historical sex comment pleased me, much. Iddy - your blog is fantastic!

  4. P.S. - I always side with Ravenclaw.

  5. william of orange, aka king billy, is a ancestor of mine, my cousin was the barstard line, of maurice de nassau . lord of the lek, maurice de nassau had a child with barbera de coxs, or cock, my cousin is a direct blood decendent. google ron pistoor, hes been on dutch tv, reguarding his bastard royal blood line, thankyou


Related Posts with Thumbnails