Irish Penal Laws (‘Popery Code’)

The Irish Penal Code

by Paul Stenhouse, M.S.C., Ph.D

Most of us know there had been a period often known as the Dark Days of the Penal Code in Ireland. Years back, we may recall the occasional nun or brother mentioning one or other feature of those days, but the full details were not easily found, nor the exact duration of the Dark Days.

May we try here to fill in some of this missing detail?

No attempt will be made to examine tediously the exact dates of each item, but rather it might be said that most of the enactments were in force for most of the time.

The period itself covers, in its worst features, the years of Elizabeth I, James I and Cromwell, that is, roughly 1560 to 1660, though the laws were in force for a further hundred and fifty years.

Their chief provisions were:

  • A Catholic was forbidden to vote or to hold public office.
  • He could not enter any profession.
  • He was forbidden to engage in trade or commerce.
  • He was forbidden to live within a walled town or within five miles of a walled town.
  • If a child turned Protestant, he automatically inherited his father’s property and at once.
  • If a wife turned Protestant, she became the sole heir to her husband’s property.
  • No Catholic could inherit the land of a Protestant.
  • No Catholic could purchase any land.
  • No Catholic could own a horse valued at more than £5. If he owned a horse of greater value, he was compelled by law to inform on himself to the nearest Protestant.
  • No Catholic could hold land valued at more than thirty shillings a year.
  • If a Catholic sent his child abroad to be educated, all his property was thereby forfeited and he himself outlawed.
  • By law, all Irish people were obliged, under penalty of fine or imprisonment, to attend Protestant worship.
  • If anyone refused to disclose a priest’s hiding place, he was to be publicly whipped and have both ears cut off.
  • It was a capital offence to be a priest. Any priest captured was liable to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
  • A price of £5 was placed on the head of a priest, and £20 for a bishop, as an encouragement to informers.
  • In theory, the Penal Code came to an end with Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

But in practice? Consider the artificially-fostered Great-Famine of the 1840s…

“In the early years of the 18th century the ruling Protestants in Ireland passed these laws designed to strip the “backwards” Catholic population of remaining land, positions of influence and civil rights.

By 1778 Irish Catholics would own a meager 5% of Irish land.

The Catholic educational system was outlawed and priests who did not conform to the laws could be branded on the face or castrated.

As a result, much of Catholic church services and education and record keeping was forced underground, to operate only under extreme secrecy.

The religion and culture were kept alive by secret open-air masses and illegal outdoor schools, known as ‘hedge’ schools.

All Irish culture, music and education was banned.

By the time of the census of 1841 the Irish were impoverished, landless and leaderless by the eve of the famine.

Professor Lecky a British Protestant and ardent British sympathizer, said in his “History of Ireland in the 18th Century” that the object of the Penal Laws was threefold:

  • To deprive Catholics of all civil life;
  • to reduce them to a condition of extreme, brutal ignorance;
  • and, to disassociate them from the soil.
  • Lecky said, “He might with absolute justice, substitute Irish for Catholic, “and added a fourth objective: “To expatriate the race.””

Lecky’s book online:

One can see little change in the underlying message in the objectives listed above – just keep the peasants dependent and helpless – better yet starve them out of the land. Millions of Irish were eventually forced to starve or emigrate (both manufactured) – not unlike the millions of Christians who have being forced to leave their homeland in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iran…who gets their land and property?

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