Irish Penal Law - Introduction
In Ireland, the “Penal Laws” is the name given to the code of laws passed by the Protestant Parliament of Ireland which regulated the status of Roman Catholics through most of the eighteenth century. These laws are key to understanding the history of the period as well as the sectarian conflicts that still plague Northern Ireland.
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.
The purpose of this site is not to discuss the historical context of the Penal Laws or their enforcement, or their effect, but simply to make the raw material accessible to historians, legal scholars, students, and other interested people.
On this site you will find the text of those Penal Laws which were passed in Ireland during the reigns of William and Mary, William III, Anne, and George I and II, that is to say, from 1691 to 1760. In addition, the site contains certain English statutes relating to the status of Irish Catholics. Until the union of the two countries at the beginning of the nineteenth century, England and Ireland had separate parliaments, although the English parliament had the power to pass laws applying to Ireland. Unless otherwise noted, the statutes in this site are acts of the Irish parliament.
The collection consists of a handful of lengthy statutes passed specifically for the purpose of addressing the “popish problem”, plus sections from statutes dealing with extraneous issues, such as taxes, urban safety, or the jury system, which created different standards for Catholics and Protestants. We have no certainty that all of these laws have been found, and any researcher who discovers another one is invited to contact us. See To Contact Us below.
A substantial body of case law interpreted the Penal Laws, particularly as they affected land transactions, but such material is beyond the scope of this site. A beginning may be made by consulting G.E. Howard, Several Special Cases on the Laws against the Further Growth of Popery in Ireland. (Dublin, 1775).
The Penal System started well before 1691. From the beginning of the English Reformation, laws establishing a particular religion and punishing those who did not conform were passed in England and in Ireland. In addition to laws against Catholics, there were statutes relating to Jews, Protestant Dissenters(non-Anglicans), and Quakers. In addition, many of the Irish and Irish-related laws from the second half of the seventeenth century were bound up in the settlement of the estates forfeited after the various wars of that period. All of these issues are beyond the scope of this project, although clearly related to it. Some of the English statutes are included here because they seemed helpful for understanding the overall context of the popery laws, but no attempt has been made to ensure completeness.
Similarly, the gradual dismantling of the Penal System in Ireland, which began timidly in the reign of George III and continued into the nineteenth century with the Catholic Emancipation Act, is not covered in this site. The reason is lack of energy on the part of the researcher, rather than because this process was not important. No attempt is made here to note when each of these statutes was repealed or allowed finally to expire.
The primary contents of this site are detailed summaries in html format of each of the Penal Laws. The summaries consist largely of extracts from the actual language of the statutes, simplified to clarify the meaning. From the Home Page, the user may choose to review the summaries by subject, or in chronological order. In addition, most browsers will be able to search the summaries for specific words.
The Chronology page contains an index of each statute by citation. The user may click on the desired statute, or click on one at random and then scroll through the summaries in chronological order. Each summary is followed by the word “Source”, which is a link to source references and occasional historical notes. Internal links allow the user to jump to the summary of any of the other penal statutes referred to in a section. Occasionally a reference in a section may be ambiguous, particularly when referring to particular oaths, of which there are many. We have done our best to link to the proper section, but we may well be wrong. Where the name of the statute is highlighted, a click will take you to the full text of the section, as described below.
The Subject page allows a choice from 12 subject headings. Under each heading we have gathered summaries of the applicable sections from various statutes. Some sections appear in more than one subject heading. From the Subject presentation there are no links to the full text and no source references.
B. Full Text
From the chronological collection, access may be had to the corresponding full text of each statute. Where a statute concerns many subjects, or a subject with only a tangential reference to religion, (as, for example, maintaining a militia, or establishing charter schools,) only the full text of the section which relates to religion is included. This part of the site is still in process, so not all texts may be available at this time. Because the statutes are verbose and repetitious in the extreme, and because the JPEG format used for some texts is not searchable, most users will find the summaries more accessible than the full text.
Despite our care and proofreading, some errors will no doubt creep into the transcriptions. We would appreciate hearing about any that you may find.
C. Print Text
A few of the statutes (mostly the shorter ones) are also in JPEG format, a non-searchable image of the law as printed in the physical volume. These files are pictures, and are not searchable. You may also have difficulty printing them, depending on your browser. These JPEG files are accessed, where available, from the full text version. Click on the highlighted words “An Act” in the title, or, for particular sections in some of the longer statutes, the highlighted words that begin the section. To shorten the download time, which may be extensive, particularly for slow modems, some of these “print” statutes are divided into parts. You may scroll from one part to the other by clicking the appropriate terms at the start and finish of each file.
The full citations to the books scanned and consulted for the summaries:
I. Irish Statutes. 1. The Statutes at Large passed in the Parliaments held in Ireland. Dublin: George Grierson, 1786-1801.Vols. III - VII
2. Bullingbrooke, Edward. An Abridgement of the Publick Statutes of Ireland now in force and of general use. Dublin: Boulter Grierson, 1768. (Citations to this secondary source are given for the convenience of those who might have easier access to this source than to the complete statutes.)
II. English Statutes:
Pickering’s Statutes at Large. Cambridge : 1726-1807.
The picture on the home page shows the front and back of a wooden crucifix carved in 1748 from Roscrea, County Tipperary and now in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
The cottage on the subject pages is a sketch by Arthur Young,the agriculturist, during his tour of Ireland in 1776.
The ruin on the chronological pages is a drawing of what remains of the Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul in Newtown Trim, County Meath. The church served as cathedral for the diocese of Meath from the founding of the abbey in 1206 until its confiscation in 1536, when it was allowed to fall into ruin. The drawing appears in Ziegler, Wolfgang, Dumont Guide to Ireland (1984) at 164.
THE RESEARCHERS The legal research and summaries were done by Patricia Schaffer, JD Columbia University Law School, as background research for her forthcoming novel. The work was done without pay, as a labor of love, and she accepts total responsibility for any errors it may contain.
The full texts were scanned and digitized under the supervision of Katherine Hedin, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Law Library of the University of Minnesota. Appreciation is extended to Joan S. Howland, Roger F. Noreen Professor of Law and Director of the Law Library, for her enthusiastic support of this project. Appreciation is also extended to Timothy Fay, Information Technology Professional, Law Library, and to both Miranda Beaven Remnek, Director of the Electronic Text Research Center, and Charles Thomas, Coordinator for Digital Projects, University Libraries, for their encouragement of this project and continued advice and guidance.
The full texts which appear on this site are in the public domain, both because of the centuries which have elapsed since they were first published, and because the nature of statutes, which presumes promulgation to every inhabitant subject to them, logically precludes any claim of ownership or right to limit distribution.
The copyright in the summaries, notes, and organization of the site belongs to M. Patricia Schaffer, who invites free copying and use for scholarship and educational purposes. The Web and Internet were established for the broad dissemination of human knowledge and access should not be restricted to particular students or paying customers. She does request acknowledgement for any published use of her work.
We hope you will find the site useful. Please feel free to forward this message to others who may be interested. We would be pleased to receive your feedback and suggestions. For comments on the site, to report errors or technical difficulties,or to suggest additions, please contact the law library at firstname.lastname@example.org
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