Catholics in Ireland

A short description of old injustices to Irish Catholics

Ireland has been a nation that experienced attack over many centuries, from English, Roman, Norman and Viking armies. A concise summary can be found in many places, for example this History of Ireland.

Henry VIII decided to take Ireland in 1536, but it was not until the Nine Years War of 1594-1603, under Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, that English rule was complete. At the same time, English and Scottish protestants were transplanted into several provinces as a way of trying to convert the catholic majority. However, during the reign of William III the passage of the Penal Laws stripped Catholics of their civil rights, and ushered in an era of economic, religious and political discrimination and persecution. The Penal Laws made it so advantageous to be Protestant (and so life-threatening to be Catholic) that the British Crown assumed all Irish would convert and Catholicism would be driven out of Ireland for good. (See Penal Laws in New Advert.)

Patricia Schaffer writes as follows:

The declared purpose of the Irish Penal Laws, like that of the apartheid laws of recent South African history, was to disenfranchise the native majority from all power, both political and economic. Unlike apartheid, the disabilities created by the Penal Laws were aimed not at a particular race or ethnic group, but at the adherents of a particular religion. The ideal was to entice the colonised Irish into wholesale conversion to Protestantism. A Catholic could avoid the oppressive effects of these laws by conversion, although the statutes went to great lengths to ferret out insincere conversions and backsliders. By deliberately defining the haves and the have-nots, the politically powerful and the oppressed, on the basis of religion, these statutes had a profound effect, not only on the eighteenth century, but on the subsequent history of Ireland to the present day.

[Source: Penal Laws – Introduction, stored on-line in the Law Library of the University of Minnesota]

Martin McMahon, an Irishman who emigrated to Queensland in 1969, wrote a wonderful book I Cry for My People. In Chapter 9, Martin writes as follows:


The famine genocide was probably the single most devastating event in Irish history and some would say it was also the most critical, in that it changed the Irish psyche for-ever. The people became sadder, they lost confidence in the land to sustain them, they married later, and emigration became an accepted part of the culture down to the present day.

The Penal Laws, which preceded the famine, however, stand alone as the most damning evidence of the barbarous callous nature of the British Government towards the people of Ireland. When fire and sword had failed to eradicate the Irish race, new means to that end must be found. So the fruitful mind of the conqueror invented the Penal Laws. No other name could possibly better describe the difference between Law and Justice.

The most evil thing that a man can do is to legislate so that his fellow-men are born inferior. The law soon came to recognise an Irishman in Ireland only to repress him. In the reign of George 1, Lord Chancellor Bowes and Chief Justice Robinson, in their official capacity, pronounced: ‘The law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic’.

There was many a Mass Rock massacre, when the priest-hunters and soldiers surprised the congregation in their crime.

The British traveller, Arthur Young, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century found ‘an Anglo-Irish aristocracy of half a million joying in the triumph of having two million slaves’.

Arthur Young, a noted authority on Irish affairs, who travelled extensively throughout Ireland, tells how he found the gentry for little or no cause lash with horsewhip or cane, or break the bones of the people, ‘and kill, without apprehension of judge or jury’. ‘The Punishment Laws’, says Young, ‘are calculated for the meridian of Barbary’.

Professor Lecky, a Protestant of British blood and ardent British sympathy, says (in his History of Ireland in the 18th Century) that the object of the Penal Laws was threefold:

(1) To deprive the Catholics of all civil life

(2) To reduce them to a condition of most extreme and brutal ignorance

(3) To dissociate them from the soil.

Lecky’s words concerning the Penal Code are: ‘It was intended to make them poor and to keep them poor, to crush in them every germ of enterprise and degrade them into a servile race who could never hope to rise to the level of their oppressor’.

Lecky, whom nobody could accuse of being pro-Irish, also had this to say of the Latter Penal Code:

It was not the persecution of a sect, but the degradation of a nation. It was the instrument supplied by a conquering race [the Anglo-Irish] supported by a neighbouring Power [Britain], to crush to the dust the people among whom they were planted. And indeed when we remember that the greater part of it was in force for nearly a century, that its victims formed at least three-fourths of the nation, that its degrading and dividing influence extended to every field of social, political, professional, intellectual, and even domestic life, and that it was enacted without the provocation of any rebellion, in defiance of a treaty which distinctly guaranteed the Irish Catholics from any further oppression on account of their religion, it may be justly regarded as one of the blackest pages in the history of persecution.

The following is a summary of the ‘Laws’.

The Irish Catholics were forbidden to exercise their religion.

They were forbidden to receive education.

They were forbidden to enter a profession.

They were forbidden to hold public office.

They were forbidden to be night-watchmen or gamekeepers.

They were forbidden to engage in trade or commerce.

They were forbidden to live in a corporate town or within five miles of one.

They were forbidden to own a horse of greater value than five pounds.

They were forbidden to purchase land.

They were forbidden to lease land.

They were forbidden to accept a mortgage on land in security for a loan.

They were forbidden to vote.

They were forbidden to travel five miles from their houses.

They were forbidden to sit on a jury.

They were forbidden to keep any arms for their protection.

They were forbidden to hold a life annuity.

They were forbidden to buy land from a Protestant.

They were forbidden to receive a gift of land from a Protestant.

They were forbidden to inherit land from a Protestant.

They were forbidden to inherit anything from a Protestant.

They were forbidden to rent any land worth more than thirty shillings a year.

They were forbidden to reap from their land any profit exceeding a third of the rent.

They could not be guardians to a child.

They could not, when dying, leave their children under Catholic guardianship.

They could not attend Catholic worship.

They were compelled by law to attend Protestant worship.

Any four justices of the peace could banish any person for life if they refused to attend Protestant worship.

They could not themselves educate their children.

They could not send their children to a Catholic teacher.

They could not employ a Catholic teacher to come to their children.

They could not send their children abroad to receive education.

Marriage between a Catholic and a Protestant was illegal.

To convert a Protestant to Catholicism was a capital offence.

The priest was banned and hunted with bloodhounds.

Any Catholic priest who came to the country should be hanged.

The schoolmaster was banned and hunted with bloodhounds.

A Bill drawn up in 1719 provided that priests should be castrated rather than branded on the cheek with a red-hot iron.

Horses and wagons belonging to Catholics, were in all cases to be seized for the use of the militia.

Any Catholic gentleman’s child who became a Protestant, could at once take possession of their father’s property.

If they were discovered in the act of having their child educated at home, a ruinous fine and a dungeon awaited them. If they sent their children to be educated abroad, all their property was confiscated — and the child so educated was thereby prohibited from all rights and properties in the country, and debarred from inheriting anything.

Any Protestant suspecting any other Protestant of holding property in trust for any Catholic, might file a bill against the suspected trustee, and take the estate or property from that person.

Lecky says: ‘The influence of the code appeared indeed, omnipresent. It blasted the prospects of the Catholic in all struggles of active life. It cast its shadows over the innermost recesses of his home. It darkened the very last hour of his existence. No Catholic, as I have said, could be guardian to a child; so the dying person knew that his children must pass under the tutelage of Protestants.’

Penal Laws were in force, in one form or another, for around five hundred years, right down to 1830. The hardships they caused, and-the burden they placed upon day-to-day living is beyond the scope of this historical narrative. It would be presumptuous to attempt to chronicle five hundred years of suffering, torment, and misery in a single chapter. Read again the restriction placed on the people of Ireland by the Government of ‘Great’ Britain and imagine them placed on yourself and your family today. That is perhaps as close as you will come to understanding and empathising with those poor, impoverished people. Then it is necessary to imagine these restrictions having applied to your parents and your parent’s parents, and applying in the future to your children and your children’s children.

The history of the persecution which Irish Catholics have endured at the hands of non-Catholics of every denomination is certainly one of the most curious phases of human perversity which is to be found anywhere in the world.

It is no wonder that the catholic majority of Ireland resented and resisted the treatment they received at the hands of the English. It was not until 1829 that the Catholic Emancipation Act finally rescinded the penal measures against them. Coincidentally, it was 1829 when William O’Neill gained his freedom in NSW, never to return to Ireland. Unfortunately, more than 200 years of subjugation left the catholic people largely with no property, no jobs, no prospects. Peace in Ireland has come slowly and at great cost.

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