Penal Times and the Protestant Ascendancy

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


IT was now there fell upon Ireland that night of deepest horror—that agony the most awful, the most prolonged, of any recorded on the blotted page of human suffering.

It would be little creditable to an Irish Catholic to own himself capable of narrating this chapter of Irish history with calmness and without all-conquering emotion. For my part I content myself with citing the descriptions of it supplied by Protestant and English writers.

"The eighteenth century," says one of these, writing on the penal laws in Ireland, "was the era of persecution, in which the law did the work of the sword more effectually and more safely. Then was established a code framed with almost diabolical ingenuity to extinguish natural affection—to foster perfidy and hypocrisy—to petrify conscience—to perpetuate brutal ignorance—to facilitate the work of tyranny—by rendering the vices of slavery inherent and natural in the Irish character, and to make Protestantism almost irredeemably odious as the monstrous incarnation of all moral perversions.

"Too well," he continues, "did it accomplish its deadly work of debasement on the intellects, morals, and physical condition of a people sinking in degeneracy from age to age, till all manly spirit, all virtuous sense of personal independence and responsibility was nearly extinct, and the very features—vacant, timid, cunning, and unre-flective—betrayed the crouching slave within!"[1]

In the presence of the terrible facts he is called upon to chronicle, the generous nature of the Protestant historian whom I am quoting warms into indignation. Unable to endure the reflection that they who thus labored to deform and brutify the Irish people are forever reproaching them before the world for bearing traces of the infamous effort, he bursts forth into the following noble vindication of the calumniated victims of oppression:

"Having no rights or franchises—no legal protection of life or property—disqualified to handle a gun, even as a common soldier or a gamekeeper—forbidden to acquire the elements of knowledge at home or abroad—forbidden even to render to God what conscience dictated as His due—what could the Irish be but abject serfs? What nation in their circumstances could have been otherwise? Is it not amazing that any social virtue could have survived such an ordeal?—that any seeds of good, any roots of national greatness, could have outlived such a long, tempestuous winter?

"These laws," he continues, "were aimed not only at the religion of the Catholic, but still more at his liberty and his property. He could enjoy no freehold property, nor was he allowed to have a lease for a longer term than thirty-one years; but as even this term was long enough to encourage an industrious man to reclaim waste lands and improve his worldly circumstances, it was enacted that if a Papist should have a farm producing a profit greater than one-third of the rent, his right to such should immediately cease, and pass over to the first Protestant who should discover the rate of profit!"[2]

This was the age that gave to Irish topography the "Corrig-an-Affrion," found so thickly marked on every barony map in Ireland. "The Mass Rock!" "What memories cling around each hallowed moss-clad stone or rocky ledge on the mountain side, or in the deep recess of. some desolate glen, whereon, for years and years, the Holy Sacrifice was offered up in stealth and secrecy, the death-penalty hanging over priest and worshipper! Not unfrequently mass was interrupted by the approach of the bandogs of the law; for, quickened by the rewards to be earned, there sprang up in those days the infamous trade of priest-hunting, "five pounds" being equally the government price for the head of a priest as for the head of a wolf. The utmost care was necessary in divulging intelligence of the night on which mass would next be celebrated; and when the congregation had furtively stolen to the spot, sentries were posted all around before the mass began. Yet in instances not a few, the worshippers were taken by surprise, and the blood of the murdered priest wetted the altar stone.

Well might our Protestant national poet, Davis, exclaim, contemplating this deep nighttime of suffering and sorrow:

"Oh! weep those days—the penal days,
When Ireland hopelessly complained:
Oh! weep those days—-the penal days,
When godless persecution reigned.


"They bribed the flock, they bribed the son,
To sell the priest and rob the sire;
Their dogs were taught alike to run
Upon the scent of wolf and friar.
Among the poor,
Or on the moor,
Were hid the pious and the true—
While traitor knave
And recreant slave
Had riches, rank, and retinue;
And, exiled in those penal days,
Our banners over Europe blaze."

Portrait of Thomas Osborne Davis

A hundred years of such a code in active operation, ought, according to all human calculations, to have succeeded in accomplishing its malefic purpose. But again, all human calculations, all natural consequences and probabilities, were set aside, and God, as if by a miracle, preserved the faith, the virtue, the vitality, and power of the Irish race. He decreed that they should win a victory more glorious than a hundred gained on the battlefield—more momentous in its future results—in their triumph over the penal code. After three half-centuries of seeming death, Irish Catholicity has rolled away the stone from its guarded sepulcher, and walked forth full of life! It could be no human faith that, after such a crucifixion and burial, could thus arise glorious and immortal! This triumph, the greatest, has, been Ireland's; and God, in His own good time, will assuredly give her the fullness of victory.


[1] Cassell's (Godkin's) "History of Ireland," vol. ii., page 116.

[2] Cassell's (Godkin's) "History of Ireland," vol. ii., page 119.