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The fact that our Irish ancestors survived at all, is testament to their ingenuity, resilience and perseverance

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

They were uneducated, illiterate, unskilled and impoverished – not because they were incapable of learning, not because they didn’t work hard and not because they were lazy.  It was the direct result of harsh penal laws introduced to Ireland by the ruling British government in 1698 known as the ‘Popery Act’

Professor Lecky a British Protestant and ardent British sympathiser, said in his History of Ireland in the 18th Century that the object of the Penal Laws was threefold:

1) To deprive Catholics of all civil life
2) To reduce them to a condition of extreme, brutal ignorance
3) To disassociate them from the soil

Such were the main provisions of the Penal Code, described by Edmund Burke as ‘a machine as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man’.

The Penal Laws

  • The Catholic Church was forbidden to keep church registers
  • The Irish Catholic was forbidden the exercise of his religion
  • He was forbidden to receive education
  • He was forbidden to enter a profession
  • He was forbidden to hold public office
  • He was forbidden to engage in trade or commerce
  • He was forbidden to live in a corporate town or within five miles thereof
  • He was forbidden to own a horse of greater value than five pounds
  • He was forbidden to own land
  • He was forbidden to lease land
  • He was forbidden to accept a mortgage on land in security for a loan
  • He was forbidden to vote
  • He was forbidden to keep any arms for his protection
  • He was forbidden to hold a life annuity
  • He was forbidden to buy land from a Protestant
  • He was forbidden to receive a gift of land from a Protestant
  • He was forbidden to inherit land from a Protestant
  • He was forbidden to inherit anything from a Protestant
  • He was forbidden to rent any land that was worth more than 30 shillings a year
  • He was forbidden to reap from his land any profit exceeding a third of the rent
  • He could not be guardian to a child
  • He could not, when dying, leave his infant children under Catholic guardianship
  • He could not attend Catholic worship
  • He was compelled by law to attend Protestant worship
  • He could not himself educate his child
  • He could not send his child to a Catholic teacher
  • He could not employ a Catholic teacher to come to his child
  • He could not send his child abroad to receive education

The Story of the Irish Race – A Popular History of Ireland by Seumas MacManus 1921

Many scholars of Irish history consider these laws laid the foundation for An Górta Mor.  The effects of the Great Hunger were the result of British policy implemented in Ireland

University of Minnesota Law School – Laws in Ireland for the Suppression of Popery, commonly known as the Penal Laws

From the consolidation of English power in 1691 until well into the nineteenth century, religion was the gulf which divided the colonial rulers of Ireland from the native majority. This sectarian division resulted from deliberate government policy. It reached into political, economic, and personal life, through a series of statutes known as the Penal Laws. This site contains the texts of these laws.