The Penal Laws In Ireland

The penal laws were the laws passed in the period after 1691, mainly by the Irish Parliament; Ireland had its own Government for some years. (All its members were of the Angelo/Irish aristocracy landlord class. The ordinary people were not allowed to vote). The purpose of the laws were, firstly, to convert as many of the Irish Catholics as possible, particularly those of the upper and landlord class, to the Protestant religion, and secondly, of excluding those who remained Catholics from the right to carry arms: from all the professions except the medical; from political power at local and national level; from the possession of landed property except on a short term lease-hold basis; and from all education, either at home or abroad, except such as was avowedly proselytising (convert to other faith) in aim. The laws were designed, not to make the Catholics good subjects, but to deprive them of the power to be bad subjects. The century between 1691 and 1793 can be regarded as the penal era although the laws were slackly enforced in some areas for much of that time and relaxed by a series of relief measures from 1778 onwards.

     After 1793 the Catholics were still subject to disabilities, the most important of which was that they could not sit in parliament; but the disabilities affected only the tiny minority of educated, wealthy or aristocratic Catholics. As far as the overwhelming mass of the Catholic population was concerned, the penal laws, the penal era came to an end in 1793. It was not until the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1828 that the penal laws were fully repealed. The small number of Catholic families who could afford to do would send their children to Europe to be educated mainly for the priesthood hence the ban on being educated abroad.


                                                THE PENAL LAWS


The Irish Catholic was forbidden the exercise their religion.

Forbidden to receive education or enter a profession except the medical profession.

Forbidden to hold public office, or to engage in trade or commerce.

Forbidden to live in a corporate town or within five miles thereof.

Forbidden to own a horse of greater value than five pounds.

Forbidden to purchase or lease land, or to accept a mortgage on land in security of a loan.

Forbidden to vote or to keep arms for his protection or to hold a life annuity.

Forbidden to buy land from a Protestant or to receive a gift of land or inherit land or anything else from a Protestant.

Forbidden to rent land that was worth more than thirty shilling a year.

Forbidden to be a guardian to a child, or when dying leave infant children under Catholic guardianship.

Forbidden to attend Catholic worship, but they were compelled by law to attend Protestant worship.

Forbidden to send a child to Catholic teachers or to employ a catholic teacher to come to the children. A child could not be sent abroad to receive education.

Priests and school teachers were banned and hunted down with bloodhounds.

All Catholic Arch-Bishops, Bishops, Deacons and Vicar- Generals were ordered by a certain day to leave the country. If after that date they were found to be in it, they were first imprisoned and then banished, and it they returned they were pronounced guilty of high treason and were liable to be hanged, disembowelled and quartered. Nor were these idle words. The law of 1709 offered a reward of fifty pounds to any one who secured the conviction of any Catholic Archbishop, Bishop, deacon or Vicar General.


Throughout these dreadful centuries the hunted priest – who in his youth had been smuggled to the Continent of Europe to receive his training – tended the flame of faith. He lurked like a thief among the hills. On Sundays and Feast days he celebrated Mass at a rock, on a remote mountain side, while the congregation knelt on the heather of the hillside, under the open heavens. While he said the Mass, faithful sentry’s watched from all the nearby hilltops, to give timely warning of the approaching priest hunter and his guard of Redcoats.

It is good to record that many and many a time during the centuries of Ireland’s agony, decent God-fearing, truly Christian Protestants hid the hunted priest when the bloodhounds, and human hounds, were close upon him, saving the hunted ones life at the risk of their own. And many a time, too, the decent Protestant-sometimes a poor man, accepted legal transfers of the lands of his Catholic neighbour and held then for his Catholic neighbours benefit – thus saving them from being forfeited to a ‘Discoverer’. There was a poor Protestant blacksmith in Penal times, who, to save their property to his Catholic neighbours, was in possession of thousands of acres of land. Yet the brave man, with all those broad acres at his mercy, lived and died in poverty. In some remote areas a structure called a Scalan was erected, this was a three sided thatched Mass shed which sheltered the Altar and the officiating priest. In front of the open end, every Sunday morning, the congregation, gathered hither from miles of moor and mountain, knelt on the bare hillside under the open heavens – often with miry slush soaking their knees, and pelting rain or driving hail mercilessly lashing their bodies, and whipping their upturned faces. Whether blowing or snowing, shining or showering, every Sabbath saw there, the crowd of devotees from remote homes – man and woman, boy and girl, barefooted child and crawling old.



                              THE HEDGE SCHOOLMASTER.


When the night shall lift from Erin’s hills, ‘twere shame if we forget

One band of unsung heroes, whom Freedom owes a debt.

When we brim high cups to brave ones then, their memory let us pledge

Who gathered their ragged classes behind a friendly hedge.


By stealth they met their pupils in the glen’s deep – hidden nook,

And taught them many a lesson was never in English book;

There was more than wordy logic shown to use in wise debate;

Nor amo was the only verb they gave to conjugate.



When hunted on the heathery hill and through the shadowy wood,

They climbed the cliff, they dared the marsh; they stemmed the tumbling flood;

Their blanket was the clammy mist, their bed the wind swept bent;

In fitful sleep they dreamt the bay of blood-hounds on their scent.


Their lore was not the brightest, nor their store, perhaps, the best,

But they fostered love, undying, in each young Irish breast;

And through the dread, dread night, and long, that steeped our island then,

The lamps of hope and fires of faith were fed by these brave men.


The grass waves green above them; soft sleep is theirs for aye;

The hunt is over, and the cold; the hunger passed away.

O Hold them high and holy! And their memory proudly pledge,

Who gathered their ragged classes behind a friendly hedge.