penal laws

Topics: Anglicanism, Ireland, Republic of Ireland Pages: 7 (2485 words) Published: March 14, 2014
What was the purpose of the Penal Laws? Answer with reference to the various identity groups in Early Modern Ireland.

This essay shall explore the purpose and origins of the Irish penal laws which has always been the subjects of contention amongst historians. These laws have been viewed as ruthless in their primary purpose of the suppression of Catholics. William Lecky claimed the Penal Laws were “not directed at Religion, but were spurred on by the greed for land.” This is a view held by the majority of historians who have dedicated their time to focus and dissect 18th Century Ireland. Many years later, while reviewing the impact of the penal laws Mitchell stated “it was plain to see that it was not about the religious conversion of Catholics to Protestantism, but what was important was the conversion of the lands.” The penal laws affected many sectors of the Irish population. Not only was it aimed at Catholics and the Old English, but also at the Presbyterians in Ireland, whom the Anglican’s viewed as a threat and an unnecessary part of society.

W.P. Burke believed the real purpose of the penal laws was “not to benefit Ireland in anyway but to pauperise, degrade and enfeeble it.” He felt that William didn’t really care about Ireland but instead wanted to focus on the broader picture and his sole aim was to conquer Europe. Charles Ivar McGrath (Irish historical studies, May 1996) states that “victory in Limerick in October 1691 did not end the threat to the Williamite Protestant interest in Ireland”. The fear of Catholic Europe remained constant as long as William the 3rd was at war with Louis the 18th who ruled Catholic France. This paved the way for the penal laws to be written up and sent to the Protestant Lords in Ireland. Oliver MacDonagh states they were designed to “disfranchise and disadvantage Roman Catholics.”

The Penal Laws were not repealed in their entirety until Catholic emancipation in 1829. Burke claims they were “aimed at the destruction of Catholicism in Ireland by a series of ferocious enactments, provoked by Irish support of the Stuarts after the Protestant William of Orange was invited to ascend the English throne in 1688, and England faced the greatest Catholic power in Europe – France”. The threat to England had been alarming, and vengeance followed. Irish intervention on behalf of the Stuarts was to be made impossible forever by reducing the Catholic Irish to helpless impotence. They were, in the words of a contemporary, to become 'insignificant slaves, fit for nothing but to hew wood and draw water', and to achieve this object the Penal Laws were devised.

David Dickson states the first piece of government business in the lords was the banishment act to rid Ireland of its Catholic clergy. This was a real blow to the Catholics of Ireland as they were very devoted to their religion having rejected Protestantism previously for many years. W.P. Burke claims the purpose of the penal laws was to impose a “national change of religion against the wishes of the overwhelming mass of the people.” If fully implemented, it would have eliminated the Catholic clergy in Ireland in one or two generations. This was made perfectly clear when England attempted to order out of Ireland “all bishops and all others exercising any ecclesiastical jurisdiction.” (T, Bartlett)

Eighty per cent of the population of Ireland, owning one third of the land, were Roman Catholics. All suffered from the Penal laws of 1695-1727. Since the reign of Elizabeth I when the Church of England became the established church, there had been attempts made to eradicate Catholicism from the British Isles. Under William III this was enshrined in a series of laws that Edmund Burke described as "well-fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man". Priests did not officially exist since Anglicanism was the established Church. Priests relied on their...
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