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The Penal Laws In Ireland

The late 1600's saw a huge change occur for the native of Ireland. The introduction of penal laws designed to oppress the Irish to such a huge extent that they would have no choice but to pledge loyalty to the English crown and to extinguish their love for the pope and the Catholic faith. A defiant plan which brought the Irish into disarray. The assault on the Catholics caused mass vexation at home and abroad. It was the beginning of Irelands sorrows and would continue for over 100 years. So what were these oppressive laws and how did the Irish Catholics overcome and bypass them in order to celebrate their faith?

The Penal Laws were as follows:

  • Catholics could not hold a seat in Public office excluding them from having any form of representation in governments, court houses and legal matters.
  • Catholics could not be elected to any public office.
  • Catholics could not own land – a serious burden for old Ireland where most people lived off the land.
  • Furthermore, they could rent land only for a period of 31 years but the rent was extortionate.
  • They could only own a horse if its value was less than 5 pounds.
  • They could not own any arms and could not join any armed forces.
  • Property belonging to a Catholics would be shared between sons, unless one converted to Protestantism and then that brother would receive everything.
  • Catholics could not marry protestants.
  • They could not be guardians to orphans – even if the orphan was a family member.
  • They were barred from living in certain areas.
  • Catholic clergy were to take a oath of loyalty.
  • Catholic clergy that were monks, friars etc were exiled.
  • Celebration of mass was barred completely.
  • Hiding any Clergy was a capital offence – a risk many took.
  • Children could not be educated by Catholic parents or any Catholic.
  • Children could not be sent abroad.
  • Tithe must be paid to the church of England.

In order for a Catholic to enter into a position in parliament, they had to take a oath swearing against the real presence in the Eucharist – to denigh transubstantiation would be to denigh the whole Catholic faith as the Catholic faith is totally centered on the Eucharist which is Jesus Christ. The protestants knew this and used it to fit their agenda.

In 1704, only 14% of the land in Ireland was owned by Catholics. A few Catholics managed to hold onto their land but as time passed, many of them converted to save themselves and were even exploited by those who they had known. Around the same time a Catholic convert became the wealthiest man in Ireland by buying up all confiscated land in Ireland. Bribery and other tactics continued throughout the years to try and get the Irish to renounce their faith. Many faithful protestants were disgusted and appalled at the treatment the Catholics received and spent their time helping them in what ever way they could including feeding and hiding them from authorities.

Priests went into hiding – often disguising themselves in order to help the oppressed and suffering people. Young men studied the priest hood over seas and returned to the country and remained hidden under the protection of their family and friends. Catholics joyfully gathered in the woods and secluded locations to celebrate mass and very often putting their lifes at risk to do so. These out door mass celebrations are still marked in areas all across Ireland. Priests would enter with the faithful and would leave disguised as a lay person. Look out guards watched for danger such as a priest catcher who was a special agent who hunted priests out of hiding in order to bring them to the authorities to collect money. While many people left Ireland to escape the penal laws, the remaining Catholics banded together with a community spirit. The people of Ireland began living in extreme levels of poverty, while the protestants lived securely on the land they confiscated from the people.

A huge influx of protestant settlers caused tension between Catholics and protestants. Thousands of protestant settlers were murdered which gave way to Cromwells attack on Irish Catholics. Cromwell murdered thousands of Irish Catholics and believed that this was Gods judgement of what he called a barbarian nation. The mass slaughter was to show the Irish who was in charge of them and they demonstrated it with absolute force.

The unbroken Irish spirit continued on in poverty and their Catholic faith. Irish viewed the Protestant authorities as been arrogant and full of pride. The stubborn nature of the Irish eventually paid off as Englands reputation began to diminish among the nations for their treatment of the people in Ireland. The decline in their stature became a sore spot for the English and they set about removing the oppressive laws designed to cause suffering. As the years passed by, the Irish could buy land, own horses more than 5 pound, leave their holdings to whom ever they pleased and celebrate mass without anyone bothering them. The perseverance and patience of the Irish at this time was extraordinary as the Catholic faith should have extinguished in one or two generations but it prevailed through it all.

While the battle remained for the English to remove themselves from Ireland, the gradual removal of the penal laws was seen as a battle won through obedience to the Catholic church and perseverance through a horrible oppression. We could be living in a very different Ireland had our ancestors gave in and pledged loyalty to the crown and renouncing their faith – but somehow through their suffering their faith was strengthened and their determination to live how they wanted to live was unstoppable.