The Penal Code

Patrick Weston Joyce

683. The Irish Catholics were now crushed and dispirited; they were quite helpless, for their best men had gone to France; and all hope of resistance was at an end. They had however obtained tolerable conditions in the Treaty of Limerick; but here they were doomed to a bitter disappointment. The English parliament were not satisfied with the treaty, and in its most important provisions refused to carry it out. This greatly displeased king William, who would have faithfully adhered to the pledges, on the faith of which the Irish had surrendered Limerick.

684. The government of Ireland was now completely in the hands of the small Protestant minority, who also possessed almost the whole of the land of the country; and they held nearly all the offices of trust or emolument. This "Protestant Ascendancy," as it is called, was confirmed by the penal legislation, now to be described.

685. It will be convenient to bring the leading enactments of the whole penal code into this chapter, though it will oblige us to run in advance a little in point of time.

In 1695 the English parliament, going over the head of the Irish parliament, passed an act setting aside the oath of supremacy, but substituting something much worse:—Every member of parliament, bishop, holder of any government office, lawyer, and doctor, had to take an oath of allegiance (which was unobjectionable) and also an oath of "Abjuration"—abjuring the Catholic religion: which of course would exclude Catholics from all these positions.

686. In the same year lord Capel was appointed lord deputy; he summoned a parliament which met in Dublin on the 27th August. This parliament completed what the English parliament had begun. In violation of the Treaty of Limerick, they passed a series of penal acts in the two sessions of 1695 and 1697. The principal items of this code are the following:—

687. Education. No Catholic was to teach school or teach scholars in private houses; no Catholic to send his child abroad to be educated. Penalty: forfeiture of all goods, and ineligibility to fill any office, such as guardian or executor, or to accept any legacy. These measures altogether deprived Catholics—as such—of education.

688. Arms and property. All Catholics were to deliver up their arms: magistrates might break open the houses of Catholics and search for arms. But gentlemen having the benefit of the Treaty of Limerick might keep a sword, a case of pistols, and a fowling-piece. No maker of arms could take a Catholic apprentice.

689. No Catholic to keep a horse worth more than £5 (equal about £30 of our money): if a Catholic had a valuable horse, any Protestant might take it by tendering £5.

690. Religion. The Catholic parish clergy, i.e. the existing parish priests, were not disturbed; but all had to be registered, and should give security for good behaviour. All bishops, Jesuits, friars, and monks were ordered to quit the kingdom by the 1st of May 1698. Any who returned were guilty of high treason: punishment death. For any priest landing in Ireland, imprisonment, after which transportation to the Continent. No person to harbour or relieve any such clergy. Any priest who turned Protestant to get a pension of £30. No burials in churchyards of suppressed monasteries. No Catholic chapel to have steeple or bells.

691. Social position. Catholics and Protestants were not to intermarry. If a Protestant woman married a Catholic, her property was forfeited to the next Protestant heir. A Protestant man who married a Catholic was to be treated as if he were himself a Catholic.

A Catholic could not servo on a grand jury, and an attorney could not take a Catholic clerk.

This was the first instalment of the penal code; but it was followed by much worse.

692. In 1708 the duke of Ormond came to Ireland as lord lieutenant. The house of commons petitioned him for a further extension of the penal laws, which were brought to their extreme limit of severity, chiefly in the first years of the reign of queen Anne, and partly in the reign of George II. There was no reason for this additional legislation, for the Catholic people had been as a body quiet and submissive. The most important provisions of this "Popery act" as it was called, which became law in 1704, were these.

693. If the eldest son of a Roman Catholic father turned Protestant, he became the owner of his father's land, and the father became merely life tenant. If any other child became Protestant, a Protestant guardian was appointed, and the father had to pay for separate maintenance and education.

694. If the sons were all Catholics, the land was equally divided among them when the father died: this was for the purpose of gradually impoverishing and weakening the old Catholic families.

695. The previous codes contained provisions to prevent Catholics practising as lawyers (685). The present act increased the penalty; and a subsequent act in the reign of George II. prohibited anyone from practising as a solicitor who had not been a Protestant since fourteen years of age.

696. No Catholic could purchase land, or take a lease longer than 81 years. If land came by descent to a Catholic, or was given to him, or was left him by will, he could not accept it.

697. No person could vote at an election, or could hold any office civil or military, without taking the oaths of allegiance and abjuration (685), and receiving the sacrament according to the English rite on Sunday. This last applied to the Presbyterians and other dissenters as well as to Catholics: but they were induced to withdraw their opposition to it by a promise that it would never be turned against them: a promise which was soon broken. The act requiring the reception of the sacrament according to the English rite is called the "Test act."

698. No Catholic in future to come to live in Limerick or Galway: those at present living in those cities were permitted to remain, but had to give security for good behaviour.

699. Rewards were offered for the discovery of Catholic bishops, Jesuits, unregistered priests or schoolmasters: the amount to be levied off the Catholics.

700. In the last year of queen Anne's reign the English parliament passed the Schism act, drawn up by St. John lord Bolingbroke: it provided that no person could teach school without a license from the Protestant bishop, which could not be granted unless the applicant received the sacrament according to the rite of the established church; and this act was made to apply to Ireland.

701. In the reign of George II. (in 1727) an act was passed directly disfranchising all Roman Catholics—depriving them of votes at elections of every kind.

702. The Test and Schism acts were brought to bear against the Presbyterians of Ulster, who were now subjected to bitter persecution. They were expelled from Belfast and Derry, they were dismissed from the magistracy, prohibited from teaching school, their marriages were declared void, and the Regium Donum, an annual grant given by king William to their clergy, was stopped for the time. But these sturdy people never in the least yielded.

There were many other similar provisions in the "Popery act" and in the others.

703. The earl of Wharton, who came over as lord lieutenant in 1709, attempted to have the Test act repealed —the great grievance of the Presbyterians—so as to unite all denominations of Protestants against the Catholics; but he was not able to have this done.

704. Ever since the conclusion of the war the country swarmed with bands of young men belonging to the dispossessed families, who lived among the mountains and bogs and made plundering raids on the settlers at every opportunity. These were called rapparees and tories. Numerous privateers, manned by the same classes, also hovered round the coasts with commissions from James II. and committed great havoc.

The rapparees and tories were outlawed; and in 1697 the Rapparee act was passed for their suppression. But it had little effect, and for many years the country continued to be unsettled and disturbed.