Catholicism And Penal Laws (1695)

Penal Laws 1695.

This essay shall explore the purpose and origins of the Irish penal laws which have always been subjects of contention amongst historians. These laws have been viewed as ruthless in their primary purpose of the suppression of Catholics. It has been argued that the penal laws were tolerated by an Irish Parliament greedy for land and wealth. However the first two Irish penal laws of 1695 allegedly aimed at disarming Catholics and prohibiting foreign education were the result of a definite policy which existed in Ireland from the time of the Williamite war. These laws were based on English statutes and Irish proclamations and their primary motive was the security of the Protestant interest.

Fear of Catholic Europe remained constant as long as England was at war with France and in the search for greater security a policy developed for disarming Irish Catholics, which was actively supported by William III and his government. The core of this 1695 security legislation comprised two penal laws, one for disarming and dismounting Catholics, the other for prohibiting foreign education. In order to understand the development and implementation of these first two penal laws, the prevailing attitude among Irish Protestants towards Catholics from the outset of the Williamite war must be explored.

A full body of penal legislation existed in England dating back to the reign of Elizabeth but the Irish experience was very different. In England the penal code covered vast areas relating to Catholic worship, organization and personal rights. The main impetus for the most repressive acts stemmed from fears for state security. These fears were in existence since the gunpowder plot and Parliament wanted to act to prevent and avoid dangers which grow by popish recusants imposing the fullest range of disabilities on Catholics within the entire penal code. These acts were to play an important role in the formulation of the Irish penal laws of 1695. Catholics in Ireland did not escape this anti-papist hysteria.

In general the Irish government tended to follow the English feed in taking repressive action. The influence of the English anti-Catholic tradition and fitful penal repression upon the minds of the Irish government and Irish Protestants during the restoration and, most importantly, after the reign of James II was to be significant. After the Williamite war securing the Protestant interest in Ireland became of paramount concern for the Irish government and Irish Protestants, creating a new dynamic within the Protestant political nation for security-based penal legislation. The Irish government and Protestant nation used past proclamations, existing English penal laws and past experience to create a modus operandi for the first Irish penal laws. Ultimately the two penal laws of 1695 were an integral part of the efforts to secure the Protestant interest against internal discontent and external interference.

From a Protestant perspective Irish Catholics were the enemy while at the same time the war with France kept alive fears of a French invasion and subsequent Catholic insurrection in Ireland. While Irish Protestants were perceived in England as having affection for King William the same could not be said for Irish Catholics who were considered papist Jacobites engaged in the cause of King James and justifying their violent ways by their bigotry to their false religion.

Add to this the fact that there was a close affinity between Irish Catholics and the papist anti-William French revolutionists and it seemed that Protestants beliefs were beyond doubt and fully justified. The Irish Parliament of 1692 would be predominantly anti-Catholic and the threat of Catholic Ireland had have to be combated in order to secure the Protestant interest.

Efforts to secure the English and Protestant interest in Ireland took various forms. The most immediate issue at the end of the war was the safe dispersal of the Jacobite army. Many had gone to France with Sarsfield but there was a fear that the remaining forces would turn their attentions against King William. Attempts to recruit ex-Jacobite soldiers in Ireland were resisted by Irish Protestants and by the Irish and English governments. The plan did not succeed and the outlaws prospered as growing tensions between Catholics and Protestants all over Ireland gave credibility to new fears that a Franco-Jacobite force could invade Ireland at any moment. As long as England remained at war with France, the possibility of such an invasion was widely credited and served far defied the resolution of the English and Irish governments and Irish Protestants to settle the Catholic question permanently. Growing evidence of Irish recruitment to the French and Jacobite forces aligned against William ensured that Irish Protestants were confirmed in the belief that coercive measures were necessary for the security of the English and Protestant interest.

In any assessment of the forced penal laws, it must be remembered that the overriding motivation behind them was fear for the safety of the Protestant interest in Ireland. Irish Protestants viewed the upkeep of their interest based upon hegemony over Catholics, as not just a bid for wealth and power, but primarily as a prerequisite for survival. Hence the urgency for penal legislation can be seen as one of the main reasons, alongside financial concerns, for the calling of Parliament of 1695 and the final formulation of the penal measures of that same year.

The three main aspects of the penal legislation which would eventually be introduced in 1695 were outlined by Lord Capell as being necessary for the final settlement of Ireland; these included disarming Irish papists, prevention of keeping horses above five pounds in value and restraining foreign education. However, it must be said, that these three objectives were by no means new but what was unique here is the fact that Capell gave each of them equal importance and placed them side-by-side in any attempt in the settlement of Ireland. Capell believed it necessary for the settlement of Ireland to pass laws relating to religion, peace and secular interest. In June 1695 an initial 14 bills were transmitted to England by Capell and the Privy Council including a bill for disarming papists. Although there was some debate the bill was accepted in an amended form and passed in September 1695.

The second of the three coercive measures recommended by Capell in July 1694 was that for preventing Catholics from keeping horses above 5 pounds value or 13 hands and a half high. For Capell it was not to know just to dismount the rebels during times of danger they begin to feel the need to make it a permanent arrangement, ensuring security for the future. Furthermore, as with the disarming policy, the dismounting policy was to be directed at the whole Catholic population. The close in the penal law passed in 1695 for restricting Catholics to owning horses work 5 pounds or less adheres to this estimation of the relative values of horses fit for military service, which in turn is a copy of the 5 pounds or less value system used in the English penal laws of 1689.

Capell’s recommendation in July 1694 that a law be introduced in Ireland for preventing Catholics from keeping horses above 5 pounds value reflected the Protestant desire for laws relating to religion, peace and secular interest. The English House of Commons also insisted that the Irish Parliament should be called in order to pass such laws as shall be necessary for the security of Protestant interests. Ultimately Capell’s reference to the need for a law dismounting Catholics, as with that for disarming them, represent the fusion of the will of the Protestant interest and the perceived logical conclusion of previous Irish government policy in the early 1690s. The bill caused little debate in the Irish Parliament and passed without difficulty.

The third and final coercive measure relating to Catholics, which Capell specified was that for restraining foreign education. Capell pointed out that the bill for disarming Catholics would secure the Protestant interest but that the bill for restraining foreign education would secure the Protestant religion. From the outset the motivation for the disarming policy had been specific, tangible threats to the security of the Protestant interest. In the case of the prohibition of foreign education, concern for security against a general threat of European counter-reformation Catholicism was allied with the advent of a longer-term policy for undermining the institution of the Catholic Church in order to secure the Protestant religion. Capell’s proposal of a law specifically restraining foreign education for Irish Catholics was the first definite acknowledgment of such a singular need. The desire for such a measure was motivated not only by an awareness of the fact that Irish Catholics receiving religious education on the continent ensured the survival of the Catholic Church in Ireland, but also by the knowledge that Irish Catholics being educated abroad were in contact with exiled Irish Jacobites, many of whom were fighting in French armies under the nominal leadership of the Stuarts. These exiles kept alive Protestant fears of the Jacobite invasion and represented the spirit of resistance to Protestant rule. Contact with such individuals was detrimental to the security of the Protestant interest, as it encouraged disloyalty to the English Crown, the government and the established church. The prohibition of foreign education, while protecting the Protestant religion, would also help to secure the Protestant interest by encouraging greater loyalty from Irish Catholics and, where possible, their conversion to Protestantism. The prevailing attitude of Protestants was that foreign education for Catholics was a threat to the Protestant interest and should be prevented whenever possible. There was little controversy in relation to the bill which was returned to Ireland and presented to the Irish Parliament, where it was enacted, along with the disarming bill, in September 1695.

These three penal measures specified by Capell as necessary for the settlement of Ireland had passed to the Irish Parliament without great difficulty. They represented the logical, formulated conclusion to an amalgam of Irish Protestant attitudes towards Catholics and developing government policy, both in England and Ireland during the years immediately following the Williamite war. On the matter of security, they were part of the answer to the threat of external invasion and internal turmoil. France and England were at war and the threat of counter Reformation Catholicism and French style absolutism kept alive the constant fear for the security of the Protestant interest in Ireland. The penal laws of 1695 were an attempt to lessen that trait and to secure the benefits of the Glorious Revolution. Ultimately the first penal laws were an integral part of the securing of the Protestant interest in Ireland.


Primary Source:

Securing the Protestant Interest: The Origins and Purpose of the Penal Laws of 1695

Charles Ivar McGrath

Irish Historical Studies , Vol. 30, No. 117 (May, 1996), pp. 25-46

About Gerard Hannan

Media Student at MIC/UL in Limerick, Ireland. Worked as a Broadcaster/Journalist in Limerick for over 25 Years and has also published four local interest books.

Posted on April 14, 2012, in Ireland History and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I could not refrain from commenting. Exceptionally well written!


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