Imperial Landscapes: Ireland and the Penal Laws

The landscape of Dublin does not necessarily reveal on the surface the political turmoil and resistance that shaped the seventeenth and eighteenth century of Ireland. However, as the above maps of Catholic land ownership in Ireland (via Open Learn), British colonization and the anti-Catholic policies that accompanied it had a profound effect on the landscape of the country, and who had power via the land. Increasing and increasingly intrusive British settler colonialism in the seventeenth century, leading up to the passing of the Penal Laws in the 1690s, saw more Protestant English immigrating into Ireland. Anti-Catholic discrimination provided a justification for these colonists to marginalize Catholics from power and possess their land, illustrating “the extent to which England regarded Ireland as an imperial possession during the seventeenth century, fit for colonisation and exploitation” (Open Learn). Highlighting the religious difference between Irish Catholics and English Protestants seemed to function in similar ways Britain exploited racial and religious differences in other colonial possessions, justifying this exploitation.

While Kilfeather discusses the Penal Laws passed in the 1690s, which worked to further disenfranchise and discriminate against Irish Catholics, these maps indicate that the process of disempowerment and colonization was already entrenched. Despite Jacobite resistance, by the Williamite victory, or the Glorious Revolution, Catholics were the minority of landowners across Ireland, and thus lacked the power base to resist the passage of the discriminatory Penal Laws by the Irish Parliament. Colonization — and the further disempowerment of Irish Catholics via breaking apart their land holdings — was further encouraged by the Penal Laws, which “encouraged Protestant settlement in Ireland,” “prohibited Catholics from buying land..and decreed that Catholic estates be divided among all sons, unless the eldest joined the Established Church” (Kilfeather 45). The Penal Laws further prevented Catholics from taking public office and pressured the priesthood, but the emphasis on landholding in these laws underscores both the imperial ambitions of Ireland’s English overlords, and the importance of land in determining power. 

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin via Wikipedia. A manifestation of the impact of religion on the cityscape

1 Comment

  1. I liked your caption on the second photo, when you said, “A manifestation of the impact of religion on the cityscape”–I thought that was very well-put. I think it’s significant that the Cathedral is a Catholic feature, considering how you discussed the Penal Laws and how they were created to put Irish Catholics at a disadvantage. St. Patrick’s Cathedral occupying this part of the city, then, almost seems to stand in defiance of that.

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