The Penal Laws in Ireland


This is the second in a series of seven blog posts highlighting and summarizing important events in Irish history, and Burns Library resources which aid in further study of the topic. Burns Library holds many Irish history resources and is an invaluable resource for scholars in this field.

The Penal Laws were established in Ireland in 1695 to lessen Irish Catholic power, dismantle their culture, and anglicize or ‘civilize’ Ireland.  The Penal Laws were not all created at once in 1695, new Penal Laws were added throughout the 1690s and the early 18th century. Burns Library has many resources for studying the Penal Laws, including 11 original printings of some of the laws.  

Letter From Edmund BUrke

Letter from Edmund Burke which expresses his thoughts about the Penal Laws against Irish Catholics. From A letter from a distinguished English commoner (Rt. Hon. Ed—d B–ke) to a peer of Ireland on the Penal Laws against Irish Catholics, by Edmund Burke, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Public reactions to the Penal Laws and sources relating to the repeal process are also present. Content of note includes a letter from Edmund Burke on the Penal Laws, a Statement of the Penal Laws, and A Refutation of the Statement of the Penal Laws which is a response to the previous material.  Several histories of the Penal Laws and inquiries into how they affected Irish Catholics in practice are also present in Burns Library.

In his book which discusses the experience of Irish Catholics under the Penal Laws, Cardinal Moran wrote “it was not that England had not long before laid aside the delusive hope that Ireland could be driven by the sword to embrace that pretended Reformation; but she continued nevertheless to heap afflictions upon the Irish Catholics, and she ceased not to pursue them with relentless hatred, that thus she might at least impress the stigma of a reproach upon their faith, and degrade the religion of which she had failed to destroy.” (Moran, 1899, 2)

The Catholics of Ireland Under the Penal Laws

A monograph useful in studying the Penal Laws. From The Catholics of Ireland under the Penal Laws in the Eighteenth Century, by Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.


The Penal Laws provided many avenues for persecuting Irish Catholics, but were only selectively enforced to make examples of certain people or to attack Catholics who had power, influence, or money.  Regardless of this lack of uniform enforcement, Catholics in Ireland were treated as second class citizens not to be trusted by either the English or the governing body in Ireland, the Protestant Ascendancy.

One of the first Penal Laws disarmed Irish Catholics.  Many Catholics had supported James II against William III in the Williamite War, so removing access to arms and barring them from military service was a means to mitigate further potential rebellion.  Catholics were not allowed to hold commissions in the army or navy and were prevented from being a soldier in any capacity. They were to present their weapons for confiscation, and local officials were permitted to perform searches of Catholic homes and businesses if they suspected the location held arms, ammunition, or armour. The punishment for resisting this law was based on social class, but generally the first offense required a fine and/or jail time, the second offense a trial for premunire. (An Act Disarming Papists, 1695, 7)

Under this law weaponsmiths could not take Catholic apprentices, and those which already existed were pronounced void unless the Catholic in question took the oath of allegiance to the king, forsaking the legitimacy of all foreign powers (including the pope), and disavowing Catholic practices.  The punishment for breaking this law was a fee of £20 per person, a portion of which would be paid to the king and a portion of which would be paid to the informer. Several of the Penal Laws contain a section in which the informer gets a piece of the fee, encouraging Irish people to inform on each other. (An Act Disarming Papists, 1695, 8)

An Act Disarming Papists

Cover page of the law which disarmed Irish Catholics. From An Act for the Better Securing the Government by Disarming Papists, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Another component of this law allowed Protestants to seize horses worth more than£5 from Catholics (with permission from the local justice of the peace or constable).  Such horses were of sufficient quality to be used for cavalry units, thus this measure served as a way to further disarm Catholics. This measure also served to lessen the social status of the owner in question, as a fine horse would have been a symbol of wealth and good social position.  (An Act Disarming Papists, 1695, 13) After a tip from an informer, the constable could search the property in question and seize any such horse, using force if necessary.  If a horse was found, the informer could buy it for only 5 and 5 shillings (regardless of if it was worth more than that), as though they had bought it at market. If an official refused to carry out these duties, they were  fined 50 per offense.

Several of the Penal Laws also affected Catholics’ ability to own or lease land.  For example, Catholics could not bequeath their entire estate to one child. It was required that Catholic estates be dispersed to all  heirs, causing Catholic estates to shrink over time as they were split into smaller and smaller pieces.

An Act Banishing Popish Clergy

Cover page of the law which banished Catholic clergy from Ireland. From An Act for Banishing All Papists Exercising Any Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction, and All Regulars of the Popish Clergy out of This Kingdom, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

There were also Penal Laws which focused directly on dismantling Catholic governance and religious structures.  A law established in 1697 banished Catholic clergy and prevented them from “exercising any ecclesiastical jurisdiction”. (An Act for Banishing Popish Clergy, 1697, 3) Catholic clergy were blamed for instigating and supporting the Jacobite Rebellion, and some Protestants feared their continued influence would lead to further conflict. The law stated all archbishops, bishops, deans, Jesuits, monks, friars, and all other regular Popish clergy were to leave Ireland before May 1st, 1698, and, if they did not comply, they would be imprisoned without bail and transported outside the British Empire.  If they returned, they would be guilty of high treason, as would anyone that helped them, and would receive punishment as such and if anyone who had been evicted returned to Ireland, they would face further imprisonment and be transported away again. (An Act for Banishing Popish Clergy, 1697, 4) These measures were designed to stamp out Catholic religious infrastructure and authority in Ireland.

An Act Declaring Holy Days

Cover page of the law which banished Catholic clergy from Ireland. From An Act Declaring Which Days in the Year Shall Be Observed as Holy-days, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Another penal law which helped dismantle Catholic practices declared which days were to be observed as holy days. The text of the law claims that Catholics were taking work days off under the guise of holy days devoted to “some saint or imagined saint” (An Act Declaring Holy Days, 1695, 3), and they would spend their time off being lazy or drunk.  If people refused to work on days other than the prescribed holidays listed, they would have to pay two shillings per offense. (An Act Declaring Holy Days, 1695, 5)  This meant that the fine for missing one day of work cost more than the wages normally earned in one day of work. The acceptable holidays included Sundays and only those saint days which were recognized by the Protestant Church. (An Act Declaring Holy Days, 1695, 3-4)  This served to delegitimize Catholic holidays and religious practices, limiting Catholics to function only within the established Protestant framework.

The English and the Protestant Ascendancy used the Penal Laws to control and oppress Irish Catholics throughout the 18th century. Catholic relief efforts in the late 18th century led to the repeal of most of the Penal Laws by 1793.  However, Catholics would continue to be hindered in regards to government service and participation until the passage of Catholic emancipation in 1829.

  • Sadie Sunderland, Reading Room Assistant, MA Candidate in the Department of History


Burns Robert E. “The Catholic Relief Act in Ireland, 1778.” Church History 32 no. 2 (Jun 1963): 181-206.

Donovan, Robert Kent. “The Military Origins of the Roman Catholic Relief Programme of 1778.” The Historical Journal 28 no. 1 (March 1985): 79-102.

Ireland. An Act for Banishing All Papists Exercising Any Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction, and All Regulars of the Popish Clergy out of This KingdomDublin: Printed by Andrew Crook, 1697.

Ireland. An Act for the Better Securing the Government by Disarming Papists. Dublin: Printed by Andrew Crook, 1695.

Ireland. An Act Declaring Which Days in the Year Shall be Observed as Holy-Days. Dublin: Printed by Andrew Crook, 1695.

Moran, Patrick Francis. The Catholics of Ireland under the Penal Laws in the Eighteenth Century. London: Catholic Truth Society, 1899.

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2 Responses to The Penal Laws in Ireland

  1. maryjaffe says:

    I am initiating a blog around the historical fiction book I have published called Mary Quigley’s Da: “A Personal Tragedy of an Irish Immigrant Caught on the Kansas-Missouri Border During the Civil War.” In my second Blog, I am lightly covering reasons why Irish emigration during the later 1600’s and throughout the 1700’s. (Everyone knows the Potato Famine, but few are aware of the miserable history between 1300 – 1847.) For my readers, I list the laws passed between 1695 and 1997 in looking for a good resource citation, I found this wonderful blog. I would like to cite it properly. For example, for the October 20, 2018 posting regarding the Penal Laws, who is the author?

  2. Hello, the author is listed towards the end of the post, it was Sadie Sunderland.

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