Penal Laws are passed on September 7, 1695 which restrict the rights of Irish Catholics to have an education, to bear arms, or to possess a horse worth more than five pounds. This is the price the Irish have to pay for their support of King James II in his war against William of Orange.
The Catholic James flees to Ireland and raises an army after he is deposed during England’s Glorious Revolution. His successor, William of Orange, wages war in Ireland from 1689 to 1691, eventually defeating James’s armies and causing the ex-monarch to flee to France. It is Ireland’s last great episode of resistance to British rule until the Society of United Irishmen emerges in the 1790s.
Originally it looks as though the terms will be rather lenient. The draft of the Treaty of Limerick, which ends the war between William and James, contains generous terms for the latter’s defeated supporters in Ireland. Soldiers who fought in James’s army are offered free passage to France to join James in exile. James’s supporters in Ireland are to be allowed to keep their lands and to practice their trades and professions. Finally, Catholics are promised freedom of religion.
William supports these lenient terms because he wants to end the struggle in Ireland. It is costing a great deal of money and diverting military resources he wants to use in his ongoing war against France. Irish Protestants, however, bitterly oppose the treaty’s concessions to Catholics, and successfully water down or remove key provisions from the final draft of the Treaty. They also successfully push for a series of anti-Catholic measures known as the Penal Laws.
The first of the Penal Laws are passed on September 7, 1695. Many more follow over the next 30 years. These “popery laws,” as they are popularly known, sharply curtail the civil, religious, and economic rights of Catholics in Ireland. The most important ones make it illegal for Catholics to marry Protestants, inherit land from Protestants, buy land, carry weapons, teach school, practice law, vote in parliamentary elections, hold public office, practice their religion, own a horse worth more than 5 pounds, and hold a commission in the army or navy.
One particularly devastating law forces Catholic land owners to divide their estates among all their sons, in contrast to the preferred practice of handing most or all of the land to the eldest, unless they convert to the Church of Ireland. This leaves them with a choice between two evils: abandon their Catholic faith in order to save their holdings or allow them to be successively subdivided into oblivion.
It is this law, along with continued land forfeitures, that over the next century and a half push Ireland’s people onto smaller and smaller plots of land. Smaller holdings force Irish peasants to turn to the potato, a high yield crop, for the bulk of their daily diet. By the eve of the Great Famine, more than 60 percent of the Irish people depend on the potato for the main source of food. Thus the Penal Laws create the conditions that turn an accident of nature — the fungus that ravages Ireland’s potato crop between 1845 and 1850 — into a monumental human tragedy.
Some Penal Laws are either repealed or simply ignored in the course of the eighteenth century. By the late-1700s, for example, Catholics are allowed to buy land and practice their religion. But the most debilitating laws, those that deny Irish Catholics basic political, economic, and civil rights, are kept in full force until Daniel O’Connell launches his successful campaign for Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s.
(Source: The Irish Echo, oldest Irish American newspaper in the United States, February 16, 2011)