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The Penal Laws

Consolidating the Protestant Ascendancy
Upon the turn of the century victory for the English Protestant Ascendancy had been secured following the Williamite/Jacobite conflict. The previous century had been one of bloodshed, rebellion and revolution which changed the face of early modern Ireland, England, Scotland and Europe. This new period of Protestant victory was earmarked as a revolution of a different kind, one which would secure power for the Protestant minority from that period onwards and for many years beyond.
Indeed fears remained, as they had always done so during the seventeenth century, of Catholics rising up against them, of foreign invasion and a further potential overthrow of the Protestant controlled monarchy and government. These fears also extended to another minority group known as the Dissenters. This Presbyterian community found itself marginalised similar to Catholics because they did not adhere to the mainstream Anglican Church. Although Protestant, their faith was different and this difference meant they were viewed with suspicion in the same way Catholics were.
Penal Laws

In response to these fears further Penal Legislation was introduced at the beginning of the Eighteenth century. Penal laws had been in existence since the sixteenth century and were used with various levels of effectiveness since then. For example, Queen Elizabeth I introduced the Oath of Supremacy in 1558 which required all subjects to recognise her as Head of the Government and of the Church – ‘the Queen’s highness is the only supreme governor of this realm’. This followed on from her father, Henry VIII introducing this initially in 1534. However, at the turn of this new century the extent and scope of the laws were widened which revealed how damaging the events of the seventeenth century had been and how the divisions drawn between Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter were now more visible than ever. The laws targeted political, religious and economic aspects of life.

What were the Penal Laws?
The laws passed primarily penalised or targeted Roman Catholics and Dissenters for practicing their religion. They also imposed civil restrictions on activities in public life including holding a public office, owning land, voting, teaching and publishing and/or selling Catholic newspapers. The laws meant that if Catholicism was practiced in many cases the person or persons involved would be either, fined and imprisoned or in some cases face execution. This was often the penalty for Priests who were caught saying mass. To try and avoid this terrible fate many priests travelled through Irish towns and villages hiding in secret rooms and compartments in houses of those who sympathised with them. When the opportunity presented itself, they would say mass, often at a location known as the mass rock where Catholic worshippers could meet and practice their religion in secret.


Sandhill Mass Rock

Travel the Trail – Living history: Father Hegarty’s Mass Rock, Buncrana:

What areas of life did the Penal Laws affect?

• Offices and Employment
• Education
• Religious Practices
• Intermarriage
• Family relations
• Oaths
• Weapons
• Immigration
• Criminal Law
• Clergy and Schoolmasters
• Elections and Voting
• Civic life
• Land rights

Source – Penal Law

‘Whereas the superstitions of popery are greatly increased by the pretended sanctity of places, especially of a place called St. Patrick’s Purgatory in the county of Donegal, and of wells to which pilgrimages are made by vast numbers, all such meetings and assembles shall be adjudged riots, and unlawful assemblies, and punishable as such, and all sheriffs, justices of the peace and other magistrates shall be diligent in putting the laws against offenders into due execution.’ (1703)

Daniel_O'Connell2Implementation and effect
Despite the very severe nature of the some of the Penal laws, it is clear that they were only imposed strictly from time to time during from the sixteenth through to the end of the eighteenth century. By the end of the eighteenth century, political and religious opinions had changed somewhat resulting in relief laws which effectively cancelled out the Penal legislation. The main act of this time was the Roman Catholic Relief of 1791. This was followed by more extensive relief acts in the nineteenth century including Catholic Emancipation Act 1829 as the result of a campaign by Irish Nationalist leader, Daniel O’Connell.