The Effects of the Penal Laws Upon Irish Society

The Penal Laws in Irish Society

As the 18th century progressed, the anti-Catholic penal laws were strengthened and had a profound effect upon all aspects of  Irish society.

The great Gaelic lords were gone and the clans beat and subdued. The Catholic Old English were totally excluded from all the upper positions of social and political life. Except for a few Presbyterian members, the Parliament was Church of Ireland (Anglican).

The House of Lords in its entirety was composed of the Anglican hierarchy and nobility. This became known as the Protestant Ascendancy, a name first used in 1782. They were to become an extremely wealthy and elite class of people who owned most of the property of Ireland.

Converting from Catholicism

A few Catholic families had managed to hold onto their lands but as the century progressed many converted to Protestantism to protect their interests. By the time Queen Anne died in 1714, Catholic ownership of land had fallen to 14% of the total. In 1780 that percentage reached as low as 5%. The percentage of Catholic in the population terms was 75%.

It is interesting to note that one Catholic who had turned Protestant was to become the wealthiest man in Ireland. He was William Connelly the son of a Donegal innkeeper and a lawyer who dealt in buying confiscated lands.

As Britain started to expand its empire abroad the Ascendancy class invested heavily in Dublin turning it into the second city of the empire after London. Many new impressive buildings were constructed. Broad thoroughfares were laid down and beautiful parks also established. Large and impressive houses were built on estates throughout the country. Life was extremely good to them.

Victims of the Penal Laws

As for the Catholics, and increasingly, the non-conforming sects such as the Presbyterian’s, life was pleasant. By refusing to take the Eucharist test of 1704, the dissenting Protestants were excluded from any major role in the governance or wealth of the country. Although they had fought in the Cromwellian and Williamite wars against the Catholics they were now cobbled to them in their misfortune as victims of the penal laws.

The Penal Laws were described by Edmund Burke as “a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.

Last updated March 2, 2020.

About the Author

Pádraig Mac Donnchadha
Pádraig is a fluent Irish speaker with a passion for history, traditional music, and story telling.