The Legacy Of The Penal Laws History Essay

2599 words (10 pages) essay in History

5/12/16 History Reference this

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The history of Ireland is most easily read in terms of its relationship with conquering forces and its island neighbour. Each of the civilisations which landed on the island brought positive innovations to the Ireland of their time. For example, the Celts brought political and legal structures while the Vikings created urban centres (most notably Dublin or Dubh Linn). The Normans brought a centralised government and established the Irish parliament. While the Celts and Vikings completely assimilated with the native people, there was more resistance to the Normans, which by the fifteenth century has shrunk to an almost negligible area, within the Pale.

From the Tudor period onwards (i.e. 1485ff) the English monarchy attempted to create political, economic and religious domination over the island of Ireland. Increasing suspicion of the independence of the Irish parliament resulted in the passage of Poyning’s Law in 1494 which declared that the Parliament of Ireland was thereafter to be placed under the authority of the Parliament of England. This was to remain in force until the Constitution of 1782 gave the Irish parliament legislative independence.

The name “Act of Supremacy” is given to two separate acts of the English Parliament, one passed in 1534 and the other in 1559. Both acts had the same purpose; to firmly establish the English monarch as the official head of the Church in England. In 1536, the Irish Parliament passed an associated Act of Supremacy. The Irish act was almost identical to that of England, apart from replacing ‘England’ with ‘Ireland’ and adjusting official titles. This legislation was not unusual as “insistence on the speaking of English, as well as English hairstyle and dress, had been parliamentary business in 1297, 1366 and afterwards” [2] . In 1559 the Irish Parliament passed both the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity, the former prescribing to all officers the Oath of Supremacy, the latter prohibiting the Mass and commanding the public use of the Book of Common Prayer.

In this essay, I propose to review the extent to which the Penal Laws and Establishment have either been a hindrance or a help to the present sense of identity and mission in the Church of Ireland. The first step in this process is to understand some of the history which led to the imposition of the Penal Laws and the Establishment of the State Church.


Following the rebellions in 1574 and 1580 the first significant plantations took place. The Nine Years War (1594-1603), was fought between the forces of Gaelic Irish chieftains Hugh O’Neill of Tír Eoghain, Hugh Roe O’Donnell of Tír Chonaill and their allies, against English rule in Ireland. The war was fought mainly in Ulster. It ended in defeat for the Irish chieftains, which led to their exile in the Flight of the Earls and to the Plantation of Ulster. There was rebellion again in 1641 which was crushed by Oliver Cromwell, following which there was again a round of land settlements. Under Cromwell the Irish Parliament was abolished. Catholic clerics were ordered to leave Ireland or were put to death if they refused. Those who protected them at home were liable to being put to death.

Some of that which was taken by Cromwell was briefly returned with the restoration of Charles II in 1660. In 1688 his Catholic brother James II was overthrown by a union of English Parliamentarians with the Dutch William of Orange, following which the supremacy of Protestantism was re-established via the Penal Laws.

The Treaty of Limerick of 1691 formally ended war between the Jacobites and the Williamites in Ireland. Protestants hoped that the settlement would bring some security. Catholics were allowed freedom “consistent with the laws of Ireland or as they did enjoy in the reign of King Charles II” [3] . Property and commercial rights of the defeated would be restored provided they swore allegiance to William and Mary. It is estimated that thousands left for exile in France (the so-called ‘Wild Geese’). The Treaty was condemned by both sides. The Jacobites considered the terms punitive; the Williamites felt that the terms were too lenient. As a result, the Dublin government set about re-designing the treaty. In 1697 the first of the Penal Laws was introduced with anti-clerical legislation, the first of many, with a view to crushing what remained of Catholic power in the country. As Neil Hegarty points out, this was not unusual, as Catholics, Presbyterians Jews and others had been the subject of similar actions across Europe. [4] The Penal Laws would eventually prohibit Catholics from entering parliament, from voting, from owning firearms, from marrying Protestants, from buying land and from owning a horse greater than £5 in value. Inheritance laws would force Catholics to divide land between all the family’s children. Catholics were forbidden from receiving education leading to the growth of so-called ‘hedge schools’. While the goal of the penal laws was to intimidate, the legislation did not succeed in its aim. This was due in part to a lack of resolve on the part of the Dublin government and a passive resistance on the part of the local communities. One renowned politician of the era, William Burke (1729-1797), noted that the penal code had “the effect of preventing the oppressed Irish from tasting the delicious fruits of British civilisation and orienting them instead towards the siren calls of the French Revolution” [5] .

Due to continued concerns that an invading continental power might invade the island, the Act of Union was imposed in 1801. It was the opinion of the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, that political union combined with Catholic emancipation was the only means by which security could be achieved on the island. Additionally here was a military imperative to get the Catholic majority on the side of the British state in order to ensure support against the possible impact of the French Revolution [6] . Interestingly, Theobald Wolfe Tone who became a leading Irish revolutionary figure and one of the founding members of the United Irishmen and is regarded as the father of Irish Republicanism was born into the Church of Ireland (but a committed atheist). He posited that reform could only be achieved if “it embraced Irishmen of all denominations” [7] .

Soon after, in 1829, came Catholic emancipation. Thereafter the focus of Irish history – punctuated by the tragedy of the Great Famine – changed to embrace the nationalists’ campaign for Home Rule and the unionists’ determination to prevent it.


One consequence of the Act of Union in 1801 was the joining of the Church of Ireland with the Church of England to form the United Church of England and Ireland. Episcopal representatives were given seats in the House of Lords at Westminster. As the official established church, the Church of Ireland was funded partially by tithes imposed on all Irish subjects of the Crown whether those subjects were members or not. In fact the majority of the population remained Roman Catholic. There was of course intense resentment at such payments. Eventually the Irish Church Act 1869 (which took effect in 1871) finally ended the role of the Church of Ireland as the established, state church. This ended both state support and parliament’s role in its governance. The Church of Ireland made provision in 1870 for its own government, led by a General Synod, and with financial management by the Representative Church Body.


In drafting the Irish constitution in 1937, Éamon de Valera and his advisers explicitly recognised religion. This contrasted with the Irish Free State Constitution of 1922, which prohibited any discrimination based on religion or avoided religious issues entirely. Article 44 of the new Constitution gave Catholicism a “special position” (Article 44.1.2) on the basis of being the church of the majority but also made reference to the Church of Ireland, Methodism, Presbyterianism, the Society of Friends and the Jewish faith (Article 44.1.3). In 1972 the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland removed this controversial reference from the constitution and officially, at least, set all churches on an even stance.


The twentieth century brought significant challenges to church and state. There was the War of Independence, the Civil War, two World Wars, the departure of Ireland from the Commonwealth, the birth of the European Union, increased violence, a peace movement in Northern Ireland and, across the millennium, the scandals that were especially to rock the Roman Catholic Church (and the latter has had a profound impact on all churches).

In the 1940s and 50s, the Church of Ireland struggled with Irish independence. Many wished to remain loyal to the British Crown and were proud of their British heritage [8] . Archbishop Gregg, Primate from 1939 to 1959, oversaw the challenges of this period. In 1949, for example, the Church of Ireland Gazette carried correspondence on the pragmatism of retaining the state prayers in their customary form. The connection with the colonial past was therefore still evident. There was a memorial service for George VI in St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1952. In 1953 a pre-coronation service for Queen Elizabeth took place in Christ Church Cathedral [9] .

The seventies saw a movement towards ecumenism. The leaders of the main Irish Christian churches began to meet on a regular basis. Some small actions were indications of a wider openness. In 1973 the chapel in TCD was shared by all churches which had a chaplain affiliated with the college. A Christian Renewal Centre was founded in 1974 at Rostrevor. The Divinity School at TCD was ‘dis-established”. Local communities committed to ecumenical actions [10] . But to a large extent the ecumenical question has disappeared from the consciousness of the majority of Christians. Clerics struggle today to engage their parishioners in the annual week of prayer for Christian Unity but perhaps for different reasons. Has unity become irrelevant as our country becomes more cosmopolitan?

Ken Newell, in his essay “As others see us”, highlights some of the problems facing the Church of Ireland from his point of view as a Presbyterian outsider [11] :

The politicisation of the church.

This was highlighted especially during the Drumcree marches. The Church of Ireland became associated with extreme loyalism, to the embarrassment of the southern church members [12] . Such situations further confuse outsiders as to where the Church stands on faith and politics.

The history of abusive language targeted at the Roman Catholic Church.

Even though the statement of the 1999 Synod formally put a new understanding on historical formularies such as the 39 articles, much more work is needed to ensure that people of other Christian Faiths believe us.

Lack of confidence in church leaders.

While the latest census shows a continued growth in the number of Church of Ireland members, this increase is not uniform across the island. Many traditional Church of Ireland families no longer attend their local parish except at Easter, Christmas or Harvest. Attempts to reach out to the immigrant communities have not been universally successful. The scandals primarily seen in the Roman Catholic Church have affected all the mainline churches.

Sheila Chillingworth described the sectarianism she and her family encountered for they were “southern unionists, ‘planters’ spawn’ whose ancestors had supported the Penal Laws “against Popery” [13] . She also notes that some of that sectarianism was from within the Church of Ireland community because her father held controversial views on the position of the church within the Irish state.


I was brought up part of the majority community in the Republic of Ireland, probably best described as “Gaelic, republican and Roman Catholic” [14] . Stories of colonial occupation were passed through generations. Two particular examples come to mind. On many occasions when I travelled through Stradbally in County Laois, my mother would remind me that the Protestants had taken the land from the Catholics and it should have been returned to them (the story is not quite so straight-forward as I subsequently discovered [15] ) and that the local castle – Dunamaise Castle – had been destroyed by Cromwell’s forces (again the truth is not so clear [16] ). I do not think that I am alone in hearing such stories which are very much part of the folk tradition of that generation of the Roman Catholic rural population. Until they are openly challenged, they will in part undermine any attempts for deep and lasting ecumenism. These are perhaps part of what Michael Jackson observed when he settled in Cork in the late nineties: “Polite sectarianism is still around, alive and smiling through clenched teeth” [17] .

My father was a gentler soul and regretted greatly the actions of the Roman Catholic Church since independence. One particular churchman, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, is recognised to have driven further division between the majority faith and Protestantism in general. He is remembered by many “as a churchman who exercised control over his flock and ruthlessly crushed any effort at reconciliation” [18] . McQuaid’s declaration that it was a mortal sin for Roman Catholics to attend Trinity College deprived many of further education.


The legacy of the Penal Laws and Establishment is one which is deeply entrenched in the memory of the Roman Catholic population of the island of Ireland. In the words of Ken Newell, “the legacy of division, suspicion and… real hatred has left few places and fewer churches untouched” [19] . It must be recognised, however, that the blame is not completely on one side. There has been a willingness on both sides to permit ignorance and mistrust to persist. Part of the challenge in moving forward as a church and to fulfil our mission is lack of education on its traditions, beliefs and practices. The Church of Ireland has a lot to contribute to the Ireland of the third millennium. We need to be bold, to celebrate our identity, ask forgiveness for our failings and pray for our resurrection.

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