Irish Penal Laws


To understand the penal laws implemented against Irish Catholics in Ireland, including why they were implemented, how they were discriminatory, and why they were repealed.

Early Findings

Overview and Background

  • "Penal laws" refers to those laws implemented by the Protestant Parliament of Ireland and which "regulated the status of Roman Catholics" from the 16th through the 18th centuries.
  • The penal laws went into effect in Ireland in the 16th century, and were strictly enforced through the 17th. The laws are officially dated to 1695.
  • While the laws still existed in the 18th century, they were "largely ignored" by that time, and had been completed invalidated by the early 19th century.
  • The first two penal laws were passed in 1695, and concerned "disarming Catholics and prohibiting foreign education".


  • "The declared purpose of the Irish penal laws...was to disenfranchise the native majority from all power, both political and economic."
  • Though the primary purpose of the laws was to prevent Irish Catholics from owning land or increasing their economic rank, other acts passed as part of the penal laws restricted various other parts of Catholics' lives.
  • "Various acts passed...prescribed fines and imprisonment for participation in Catholic worship and severe penalties, including death, for Catholic priests who practiced their ministry in Britain or Ireland. Other laws barred Catholics from voting, holding public office, owning land, bringing religious items from Rome into Britain, publishing or selling Catholic primers, or teaching."
  • The goal of the Irish penal laws was to manipulate Irish Catholics into converting to the Protestant religion.
  • Ultimately, "the origin and the purpose of the Irish penal laws have always been subjects of contention," with no firm agreement existing as to why they were implemented in the first place.
  • "These laws have often been viewed as a 'rag-bag' of legislation, lacking in government policy, without precedent or forethought, [and] motivated by rapacity."


  • Various laws and acts passed between 1791 and 1926 nullified the penal laws, including "the Roman Catholic Relief Act (1791), the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829), the Roman Catholic Charities Act (1832), and the Roman Catholic Relief Act (1926)".
  • Primarily, the penal laws were repealed throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries because "Roman Catholics had ceased to be considered the social and political danger that they had represented at the beginning of the Hanoverian succession".
  • While the penal laws have not existed since the 18th century, their impact in terms "defining the haves and the have-nots, the politically powerful and the oppressed, on the basis of religion" has lasted into the present day.

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