United Irishmen logo


 Penal Laws 
 Catholic Relief Acts 
 Insurrection Acts 
 United Irishmen
plan 1794
 United Irishmen organization 1797 
 Defenders & United Irishmen
in early NSW
 Email Peter 

Penal Laws

For most of the 17th century the continuing political influence of Irish Catholics, and the desire of successive monarchs to retain a free hand, had been sufficient to block attempts to pass anti-Catholic legislation similar to that in operation in England. Periodic repression of Catholic worship, and the increasing exclusion of Catholics from political and administrative office, had been implemented on an ad hoc basis (or, in the case of the Cromwellian regime, by the de facto application in Ireland of English law). The enactment from the 1690s of a series of discriminatory measures directed against Catholic clergy and laity reflected the hardening of Irish Protestant attitudes following their experiences under James II, the enhanced importance of the Irish parliament as a forum for their demands, and the new primacy, following the revolution of 1688, of statute over prerogative.

The first Irish penal laws were two statutes in 1695, both part of the bargain that ended the sole right controversy, and both reflecting Protestant fears that lenient treatment of the defeated Jacobites had left Protestants dangerously open to renewed attack. One forbade Catholics not covered by the treaty of Limerick to keep weapons. The second, concerned mainly to sever links between Irish Catholics and their continental allies, forbade Catholics to go overseas for purposes of education, but also banned Catholics from teaching or running schools within Ireland. The Bishops' Banishment Act (1697) required all regular clergy, and all bishops, vicars-general, and others exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction, to leave the kingdom by 1 May 1698. Other clergy were permitted to remain, but an act of 1704 required them to register with the authorities, limited their number to one per parish, and forbade the entry of further priests into the kingdom. The Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704), the most important single penal statute, prohibited Catholics from buying land, inheriting land from Protestants, or taking leases for a period of longer than 31 years. (Protestant heiresses marrying Catholics had already been disinherited under an act of 1699.) The act also required that the estates of a deceased Catholic landowner should be divided equally among the male heirs. An act of 1709 strengthened these provisions, particularly by the introduction of the discoverer. Other legislation prohibited Catholics from practising law, from holding office in central or local government, membership of grand juries and municipal corporations, and from service in the army or navy. Catholics were excluded from parliament (under an English act) from 1691, but did not completely lose the right to vote until 1728.

The penal laws were traditionally seen as victimizing the entire Catholic population. More recent work emphasizes the selective nature of their operation. The Catholic aristocracy and gentry, who in 1703 still owned 14 per cent of the profitable land of Ireland, were both the main targets of the legislation and its main victims. Over the next few decades most of these surviving Catholic landowners, deprived of the opportunity to extend their estates by marriage or purchase, excluded from local and national politics, and threatened with the progressive fragmentation of their properties, conformed to the Church of Ireland. By contrast the laws did not seriously affect the wealth of the Catholic mercantile and manufacturing classes. Catholic tenants suffered some disadvantage, but the laws did not prevent the emergence during the 18th century of a Catholic leasehold interest among large farmers and middlemen, or the growth of a Catholic tenant farmer class. Strictly enforced, the banishment of Catholic bishops, combined with the ban on ordained priests entering the kingdom, should have caused the Irish clergy to die out in a generation. In practice, despite the efforts of individuals like John Richardson, there was no sustained attempt either to enforce the laws or to promote the conversion of the Catholic masses to Protestantism. By the 1720s priests and bishops operated freely, if discreetly, in most areas.

Agitation for the repeal of the penal laws, commenced with the foundation of the Catholic Committee in 1760. Catholic Relief Acts were passed in 1778, 1782, and 1792-3, with the remaining formal disabilities being repealed, ('Catholic emancipation') in 1829.

Power, T. P., and Whelan, Kevin (eds.), Endurance and Emergence: Catholics in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (1990).

The above article was extracted from page 438 of the Oxford Companion to Irish History (1998) which was edited by S J Connolly.

View 1704 Act