Penal Laws Against Irish Catholics

British Rule in Ireland

British rule in Ireland began when the Anglo-Normans invaded Ireland in the late 12th century. From the beginning, the British had two main goals: 1) strip the Irish of their identity and culture and 2) assimilate them into an Anglicized Great Britain (The Penal Laws). By doing so, the British would have complete control over Ireland. Having Ireland under control was of vital importance for Great Britain given the close proximity between the two countries. Great Britain’s biggest fear was that Catholic enemies – such as Spain and France – would use Ireland to invade Great Britain, which was predominantly Protestant at the time. Additionally, Great Britain was interested in expanding its empire; by having Ireland as an “ally” Great Britain would be able to control all trade ports/routes throughout Ireland (The Penal Laws). Great Britain began their efforts to “anglicize” Ireland through the Penal Laws.

Irish Penal Laws

The Penal Laws were “a series of discriminatory laws passed by the Protestant Irish Parliament in 1961” (Kilfeather 44). These oppressive laws were aimed at the adherents of Catholicism and the declared purpose was to deprive the native majority from all economic and political power (Irish Penal Law – Background of the Penal Laws). The British hoped that, with time, the colonized Irish Catholics would grow tired from the oppressive effects of the law and convert to Protestantism. For Great Britain, the ideal was to have wholesale conversion to Protestantism in Ireland (Irish Penal Law – Background of the Penal Laws). It is important to note that these laws and the struggle between the powerful English and oppressed Irish had a profound effect on Ireland’s past, present, and future.

Kilfeather’s chapter “From the Glorious Revolution to the Act of the Union” introduces some of the principal Penal Laws and their effects:

  • Act of 1692: Encouraged Protestant settlement.
  • Act of 1695: Prevented Catholics from sending their children abroad to be educated.
  • Act of 1697: Banished all Catholic clergy. In this same year, marriages between Protestants and Catholics were outlawed.
  • Act of 1704 “The Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery”: prohibited Irish Catholics from buying land or obtaining a lease for longer than 31 years. (Kilfeather 44-45).

Further research conducted by the University of Minnesota Law School illustrated the restrictive nature of these laws in almost all aspect of life. Education, family relations, voting rights, immigration, and language are just some of the areas that were also impacted by the penal laws. For example, Catholics were barred from all political activity such as voting (Irish Penal Law – Elections and Voting). In other cases, Catholics who owned a good horse could lose it at any time because the law allowed Protestants to purchase their horses at any given moment for 5 pounds (The Penal Laws). The British hoped that by controlling all aspects of Irish life, they would break the Irish spirit for good.

From Oppression to Nationalism: Rise of the Irish Spirit

As mentioned before, the Penal Laws reduced many Irish rights, outlawed any practice of Catholicism, and prohibited communication in the Gaelic language. By restricting the religious and linguistic practices of the Irish, the British were slowly destroying Irish culture and identity (From Oppression to Nationalism: The Irish Penal Laws of 1695). With the passage of time, Ireland began to decline in terms of spirit, population, and power. Unfortunately, Britain successfully weakened Ireland as a whole. One of the many authors who noticed Ireland’s declined state was Jonathan Swift. In his famous work “A Modest Proposal” Swift emphasizes the severity of Ireland’s depression and the injustice that resulted from the Penal Laws (Kilfeather 46-47). The Penal Laws drained many Irish Catholics – both physically and emotionally – and many of them decided to leave their native land. Although the majority of the Irish population left, the ones who stayed gained a new sense of unity and a new sense of Irish nationalism emerged (From Oppression to Nationalism: The Irish Penal Laws of 1695).

In “The Necessity for de-Anglicising Ireland” Douglas Hyde acknowledges the emerging Irish nationalism. In this work, he emphasizes the discontent many Irishmen feel toward the British occupation of Ireland. But he urges his fellow Irishmen to avoid becoming like the British. Hyde argues that Ireland should refrain from adopting English dress and literature. According to Hyde, Ireland should never become a country of imitators. Instead, Hyde encourages the Irish people to take pride in their nation by speaking and writing in their native language and by cherishing their stories and culture (The Necessity for de-Anglicising Ireland). Soon enough the Irish stood tall and their sense of unity increased as they remembered the pain they had experienced at the hands of the British. Together, the Irish felt powerful and soon they began to fight back against British rule. Despite the difficulties and the failures along the way, Ireland’s national pride carried forward and the Irish continued their fight for independence throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (From Oppression to Nationalism: The Irish Penal Laws of 1695). Although the Penal Laws crushed individual spirits, they were unable to break the nation’s newfound Irish nationalism.

Till this day, the impacts of the Irish Penal Laws are a topic of importance for Ireland’s history. From the oppression, a new sense of Irish nationalism emerged that encouraged Ireland to fight back and urged the Irish to not give up nor give in.

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