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This website is brought to you by Seomra Ranga.com. It can be used as a history resource when teaching about Penal Times in Ireland, or it can be used when dealing with the history of the faith in Ireland. It could also be used as the basis for the study of your own local holy well. Classroom resources can be downloaded from the "Resources" section. I hope this web site will prove to be a valuable resource for teachers.

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The Penal Laws

Near the end of the seventeenth century, very harsh laws were introduced against Catholics which were designed to ensure that Catholics remained poor, ignorant and without spiritual guidance. These laws were known as the "Penal Laws" as they "penalised" or punished Catholics. The Penal Laws (officially termed "Laws in Ireland for the Suppression of Popery") were grouped under four main headings. They were:

 

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Laws about religion

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Laws about education

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Laws about property

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Laws about civil life

 

Some of the Penal Laws were more strictly enforced than others. The Penal Laws were gradually repealed at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century. This process was finalised with the granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, for which Daniel O' Connell has so long campaigned.

 

Religion Under The Penal Laws

Examples of laws about religion under the Penal Laws were:

 

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No priests could be educated or ordained in Ireland

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Only one priest was allowed to remain in each parish

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All Catholic bishops and monks had to leave Ireland

 

Although these laws seemed harsh, the Irish people managed to keep their faith strong during the period of the Penal Laws. Indeed, many Catholic chapels were built in many towns during this time. However, they had to be built in backstreets and laneways and they could not have either a bell or a spire. In this way, authorities kept a blind eye to Catholics practising their religion as long as it was not practised in a very public way.

 

In the countryside, Catholics often came together in the open air to hear mass. In many places, this gathering took place on a hill, from where a lookout could alert the worshipers that soldiers were coming. In many of these places a large rock was used as an altar. Tobernalt is one of these such places as it is set into a hillside and the mass rock used in Penal times can still be seen today.

 

Because of the Penal Laws, priests were hunted and so they travelled in secret from mass rock to mass rock around the country. People gathered at the mass rock from early morning when word spread throughout the area that a priest was going to celebrate mass. The priest would eventually reveal himself at the mass rock and would tend to the spiritual needs of the people performing many of the sacraments including confessions, baptisms, marriages and mass in Latin. Sometimes on the feast of the patron saint, a collection for the priest would be taken up by the pilgrims as the priest was in hiding and had no other way of collecting his parish dues. When his work was done, the priest would divest himself of his priestly garb and mingle with the departing local people.

 

Other Penal Laws

Laws About Education

Examples of laws about education under the Penal Laws were:

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No Catholic could set up a school

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No Catholic could become a teacher

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No Catholic could go to another country to be educated

 

Laws About Property

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No Catholic could buy land or own land worth more than a certain amount

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No Catholic could own a horse worth more than 5

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When a Catholic died, his land was to be divided among his sons

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The son of a Catholic received all of his father's property if he became a Protestant

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Laws About Civil Life

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No Catholic could vote, or become a Member of Parliament (MP)

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No Catholic could become an officer in the army or navy

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No Catholic could become a lawyer or a judge