Politics, Religion and the Penal Laws in 19th Century Ireland

In the beginning of Consequences, Lord Montgomery and Daniel O’Connell (a historical person) discuss politics over dinner. Here’s a little more information on what was going on at the time in case their conversation left you a little confused.

Today we think of Ireland as primarily a Catholic country – except for Northern Ireland which is mostly Protestant. The roots of this division, which is both religious and political, began in the 16th century. You may recall that Henry VIII of England broke from the Catholic Church in 1533, effectively creating the Church of England, which is one of many Protestant sects to arise around the same time. (Many say that Lutheranism was the very first.)

The history of English rule in Ireland is very complex dating back to the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169. For purposes of this article, suffice it to say the Irish were never thrilled to have the English on their soil and always had an active resistance to them. By the 16th and 17th centuries as the Protestant Reformation grew in power and scope, most of the English gentry were Protestant and in 1695 passed a series of laws aimed at penalizing anyone who practiced the Catholic faith (hence the name, penal laws). These effectively kept Catholics out of power by imposing severe penalties upon Catholics:

  • Education of or by a Catholic was punishable by banishment, forfeiture of property or even death, depending on the nature of the crime.
  • Teaching of the Catholic faith or being a Catholic bishop or archbishop was punishable by transportation to a colony (usually here in America or Australia); converting a Protestant or returning from transportation was punishable by death.
  • A Protestant could take away a Catholic’s land pretty much at any time unless the Catholic had been a tenant who leased the land for at least 31 years.
  • Catholics could not buy or lease land for long periods of time, own firearms, own a horse worth more than five pounds, serve in the military, law, commerce, or any profession.
  • No Catholic could vote or hold office.
  • The eldest son could only inherit land if he became Protestant.

(See this page for a full list of the laws.)

The Penal laws were relaxed in 1774, modified again in 1778, and repealed in 1782. In 1792-1793 a relief act was passed that allowed Catholics to serve in the military and in professional positions and made the Catholic faith legal once again. They could now vote, serve on juries and had regained most of their civil rights. However, Catholics could not hold seats in Parliament.

In 1823, a Catholic man named Daniel O’Connell, Lord Montague’s dinner guest at the beginning of the novella and later a dear friend of Catherine McAuley, established the Catholic Association, which worked for Catholic Emancipation. They achieved their goal in 1829, just two years after Catherine opened the House of Mercy.

An Irish Penal Rosary. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This prejudice is why Lord Montague specifies he doesn’t want Catholics to apply for the open maid position that Margaret takes. It is also why he freaks out when he finds the Penal Rosary tied to the stays of her dress. Penal Rosaries are smaller versions of the traditional Catholic rosary that could be prayed with less chance of detection while the Penal Laws were in effect.

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