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Article: 18th Century Ireland
I. The Period of the Penal Laws

by Dr. Sam Couch, Ph. D.
Owner, Rising Road Tours

After 1695, crushing enactments against Catholics dominated the relationship between the British crown and the Irish people. Many Catholics saved settlers during 1641, now Protestants returned the favor. By the end of the 18th century, the Penal Laws gradually were repealed, but some provisions remained in effect until the early 19th century.

To recap, provisions of the Penal Laws are listed below:

  • Religion. All Catholic parishes were left intact, but priests had to be registered. All other clergy were forced to leave the country on pain of death. No Catholic chapel could have a steeple or a bell.
  • Education. No Catholic could teach school or send their children abroad for education. This led to the formation of illegal "hedge schools" which continued into the twentieth century.
  • Social Position. All government officials, lawyers, doctors were forced to swear on oath the falsity of the Catholic religion.
  • Arms, Property, Franchise. No Catholic could bear arms or keep a horse worth more than 5 Pounds. If a Protestant saw a Catholic with a valuable horse, he could purchase it for 5 Pounds. Only if he conformed, could the eldest Catholic son inherit his father's property. No catholic could purchase land or hold a lease for more than 31 years. The vote was only allowed to people who would deny the Roman church and take Protestant communion. Later the laws directly disenfranchised all Catholics.
  • Persecution of Presbyterians. The act requiring communion under the Protestant rite was called the Test Act. Under this law Presbyterians also suffered.
  • Trade and Manufacture destroyed. Irish commerce was destroyed so that there would be no trade competition with England. Protestants suffered more than Catholics since the papist majority was hardly involved in commerce.
  • Exports forbidden. Exports to the West Indies were banned as was the export of cattle to England.
  • Wool Trade ruined. A duty imposed on all Irish wool and on all manufactured woolen articles effectively ended the wool trade.
  • Smuggling. Wool was smuggled to France and wine, brandy and silk returned to the country. All classes of people engaged in the smuggling trade.
  • General Ruin of Manufactures. Beer, malt, hats, cotton, silk, gunpowder, ironware manufacture were destroyed by legislation.

Results of the Penal Laws included abject poverty for the rural Irish. Another outcome was the emigration of Ulster Presbyterians (mostly to New England) where they remained embittered against England. The loss of this prosperous business class dealt a heavy blow to the economy of the island. Irish trade did not recover. Until recently, i.e. the last fifteen to twenty years) there has been little manufacture and commerce in the Republic.


This series of articles is based on lectures given by Dr. Samuel Couch to Irish Studies courses at Georgia Southern University and Young Harris College between 1997 and 2004. Documented sources come from Couch's research and studies in American universities and with scholars in Ireland. The articles are in no way intended to be comprehensive.

Background materials come from, but are not limited to, readings in the following books:

Duffy, Sean, ed., Atlas of Irish History. Gill & Macmillan: Dublin. 1997.
Joyce, P.W., Outlines of the History of Ireland from the Earliest Times to 1905. M.H. Gill & Son: Dublin. 1909.
Killeen, Richard, A Short History of Ireland. Gill & Macmillan: Dublin. 1994.
Smyth, Daragh, A Guide to Irish Mythology. 2nd ed. Irish Academic Press: Dublin. 1996.

Any lack of attribution to primary sources is unintentional and the sole responsibility of Dr. Couch.


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