Skip to main content

The Irish Popery Laws: A Study of Eighteenth-Century Legislation and Behavior

  • Robert E. Burns

Unlike the laws enacted against religious and political dissenters in almost every European state since the Reformation, the Popery legislation enacted by the Irish Parliaments of William III, Anne, and the first two Hanoverians was marked by a near absence of sanguinary punishments. The long period of enforcement, one hundred years, and the areas of human activity regulated distinguish the Irish laws from twentieth-century commitments to ideals of ideological uniformity. Not only were the Irish Popery laws unique in these respects, but they comprised one of the most persistent legislative efforts ever undertaken by a western European state to change a people. Although the Popery laws have been discussed and analyzed since their enactment, such discussions have usually been colored by confessional and political partisanship. Neither polemicists nor serious historians have satisfactorily analyzed either the purpose of the laws or the problems and consequences of enforcing them. While these matters are the principal concern of this article, the writer hopes that his necessarily limited investigation of the Irish Popery laws will invite the attention of social scientists to the other complex human problems created by this legislation.

Hide All

1 The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 had no specific effect upon the Williamite Popery legislation. However inaccurate the assumption, the act repealing the great edict assumed that religious dissent no longer existed in France. Although in Ireland laws were enacted against priests, at no time during the entire eighteenth century was Catholic worship as such illegal. Comparison of the situation in France with that in Ireland adds very little to our undersanding of what happened in either country. In Ireland, the Popery laws recognized the existence of religious dissent but were designed to destroy it. King William's Irish ministers need not look to France for legislative models or reasons for proceedings against Catholics. The inspiration and legal precedents for the Popery laws of William III and Anne came from English and Irish statute books. Even Irish Catholics saw no obvious parallel between themselves and French Huguenots. During the debate over the Popery act of 1703–04, Sir Toby Butler, however, contended that enactment of that law would provide the French with an ex post facto justification for having revoked the edict.

See Burns, R. E., “The Irish Penal Code and Some of Its Historians,” The Review of Politics (01, 1959), pp. 284292; Simms, J. G., “The making of a penal law, 1703–4,” Irish Historical Studies (09, 1960), p. 116. Hereafter cited as IHS. For the best and most recent study of the Popery laws, see Wall, Maureen, The Penal Laws, 1691–1760 (Dublin Historical Association, 1961).

2 Calendar of state papers, domestic series, 1691–92, pp. 55–56. Hereafter cited as CSP.

5 Cox was a member of the Privy Council, strong Williamite, and zealous Protestant. He became Chief Justice of Common Pleas in 1701 and Lord Chancellor in 1703.

6 CSP, 1691–92, pp. 67–69.

9 Wetenhall, Edward, Sermon on the Duties of Irish Protestants Arising from the Irish Rebellion in 1641 and the Irish Tyranny in 1688 delivered… in Christ Church, Dublin (Dublin, 1692).

10 Ibid., pp. 20–21.

11 Ibid., p. 19.

12 Ibid., p. 17.

13 Ibid., pp. 20–21.

14 An Account of the Irish Parliament of 1692 (Dublin, 1692), pp. 7ff.

15 The Journal of the House of Lords of Ireland (Dublin, 17831800), I, 465. Hereafter cited as LJ.

16 CSP, 1693, pp. 8–9. Bishop Dopping is best remembered for his sermon on the Articles of Limerick. He contended that with people as faithless as Irish Catholics, no faith need be kept.

18 Ibid., p.51.

19 Laslett, Peter, “John Locke, The Great Re-coinage, and the Origin of the Board of Trade,” The William and Mary Quarterly (07, 1957), pp. 372373.

20 Locke, John, Works (London, 1824), V, 4547. Hereafter cited as Locke, Works.

21 Locke, John, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1875), Bk. II, c. i, 2. Hereafter cited as Locke, Essay.

22 Ibid., Bk. I, c. iii, 3.

23 For Locke “innate practical principles” had two distinct meanings. One referred to a moral rule of universal reception and the other to inclinations of the human appetite. He denied the existence of the former and affirmed the operation of the latter. Ibid., Bk. I, c. iii, 1; Bk. I, c. iii, 3.

24 For a more sanguinary approach to the Popery problem, seeBlackerly, Samuel, The History of the Penal Laws (London, 1689), p. 136. Blackerly urged upon King William III only one law for securing the Protestant religion — “that is castration of all Priests and Jesuits whenever they are found here and breeding up the children of Papists in the Protestant Religion, which I humbly offer to the consideration of Parliament, for I believe this will terrify them more than the Gallows or the Gally's. And how necessary it is for this Kingdom to rid themselves of this Vermin everyone sees but that they are either Papists or so blinded with hopes or expectations of the late King's return, that they neither can nor will see.”

26 Cranston, Maurice, John Locke (New York, 1957), pp. 359, 369; Locke, Essay, Bk. II, c. ix, 8.

26 Locke, , Works, IX, 291.

27 King, William, De Origine Mali (Dublin, 1702); Divine Foreknowledge consistent with Freedom of Man's Will (Dublin, 1709).

28 Molyneux, William, The Case of Ireland's Being Bound by Acts of Parliament in England, Stated (Dublin, 1698).

29 Locke, , Works, IX, 450451.

30 LJ, I, 482.

31 Ibid., p. 484.

32 Selected samples of King's voluminous correspondence have been used by Mant, Richard, History of the Church of Ireland (London, 1840) and Murray, R. H., Revolutionary Ireland and Its Settlement (London, 1911) as evidence for the contention that the Popery laws were never sufficiently enforced to obtain many converts to the Established Church. Because the succession of priests had not been broken in every parish during King's lifetime and because Protestant tenants were driven from the land by the “covetousness” of Irish landlords, King assumed that the laws were dead letters. Although King would admit no success but total success, he never doubted that properly enforced laws could transform Ireland into a Protestant and loyal country. King, however, had great reservations about the injustice of some of the laws enacted against Catholic laymen. Together with other Protestant bishops, King voted against the act confirming the articles of Limerick and the Popery acts of 1703–04 and 1709. A scholarly biography of this important man is long overdue. See Graham, Walter, The Letters of Joseph Addison (Oxford, 1941), pp. 183ff; King, C. S., A Great Archbishop of Dublin: William King DD, 1650–1729 (London, 1918); Burns, , op. cit., pp. 289–92; Simms, , op. cit., pp. 114–15.

33 7 William III c. 4.

34 9 William III c. 1.

35 Most of the hierarchy had left the country during the war years of 1689–91. While the exact number of bishops remaining in the country after May 1, 1698, is difficult to estimate, no more than eight disobeyed the law and only two, Jean Baptiste Sleyne, bishop of Cork, and Maurice Donnellan, bishop of Clonfert, actively performed their functions in the years immediately following the banishment.

Under this act, the government paid the costs for transporting 424 regular clergy from the ports of Ireland. Because many regulars registered themselves as parish priests the exact number of regulars who defied the banishment is almost impossible to determine. However, the government reported 495 regulars in the country in 1697 and the Irish Provincial of the Dominicans reported to Rome that there were approximately ninety-five Dominicans in Ireland in 1704.

Wall, , op. cit., pp. 1516, 51–52; Walsh, Reginald, “Glimpses of the Penal Times,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record, XX (1906), 265, 269, 270. Hereafter cited as IER.

36 In 1709, nature was prodded by 8 Anne c. iii. This act required all registered secular clergy to take the oath of abjuration or suffer outlawry. Mass refusal by the clergy made this act unenforceable.

37 See the following: 7 William III c. iv, v, viii, xiv, xvii, and xxi; 9 William III c. i, ii, iii, v, and ix; 10 William III c. xiii and xvii; 2 Anne c. iii, vi, vii, and xiii; 4 Anne c. ii, xi, and xvi; 8 Anne c. iii, viii, and xi.

38 Graham, , op. cit., p. 162.

39 Ibid., pp. 162–163.

40 Ibid., p. 164.

43 Ibid., p. 163.

44 For the years 1703–1720, only 247 names appear on the convert rolls in Dublin. MacCaffrey, P., “The Irish Priest in the Penal Times,” Irish Theological Quarterly, IX (1914), 148; Begley, John Archdeacon, The Diocese of Limerick from 1691 to the Present Time (Dublin, 1938), p. 64.

45 Finnegan, Francis, “The Irish Catholic Convert Rolls,” Studies (03, 1949), pp. 7382; Begley, , op. cit., pp. 6471.

46 Graham, , op. cit., p. 151.

47 Ibid., p. 148.

48 Nicholson, Edward, A Conference between Two Friends, A Calvinist and A Church of England Man Concerning Predestination (Dublin, 1711), p. 160.

49 British Museum, Add. Mss. 6117, 11.

52 Dublin Intelligencer, June 17, 1714.

53 Similarly, British ministers did not view the comprehensive Popery Act of 1703–04 as an instrument whereby Irish Protestants could expropriate more Catholic property. Nottingham described that measure as “a bill for preventing the growth of Popery of which the greater part consisting of clauses to educate the children of Papists in the Protestant Religion & for giving the estates of such as at eighteen do not become Protestants.” He assumed that most Catholic minors thus circumstanced would conform to the Established Church.

Nottingham to Southwell, October 19, 1703, PRO, SP 67/2 fol. 158. See also, Swift, Jonathan, The Dispute Adjusted (Dublin, 1733), pp. 3334; Lecky, W. E. H., The History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1913), I, 304.

54 See the preamble to 7 George II c. v. The litigation of the early penal days created the heroic and later patriotic image of the Irish barrister. The courts replaced the hustings as an arena for Catholic champions. With public life closed to them, Irish Catholics sought the psychological and material rewards of politics in litigation.

55 Parliament recognized in law that Protestantism was something more than a religious persuasion; Protestants were members of a privileged elite. Not only did all lawyers have to be Protestants, but after 1733 all lawyers' wives and all lawyers' children had to be Protestant as well. All barristers, solicitors, attorneys, and six-clerks, save those comprehended under the articles of Limerick, who married a Catholic woman in Ireland or elsewhere or who educated any child born after enactment of 7 George II c. v in the Catholic religion would be deemed a Papist in law and disbarred. An exception was made if a Catholic wife of any barrister, solicitor, attorney, or six-clerk conformed to the Established Church within one year of marriage. The eighteen comprehensive clauses of 7 George II c. v outlawed the practice whereby Irish Catholics affected prudential conformities in order to pursue careers at the Bar. The following year another act completed the proscription of Irish Catholics from legal and judicial functions — converts from Catholicism married to Catholic women or who educated their children in the Catholic religion were disqualified from serving as Justices of the Peace.

56 Howard, Gorges Edmund, Several Special Cases on the Law against the further growth of Popery in Ireland 1720–1733 (Dublin, 1775), p. 204.

58 Stokes, G. T., Pococke's Tour in Ireland in 1752 (Dublin, 1891), p. 119.

59 Butler, I., “Journey to Lough Derg, 1749,” Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland (1892), p. 152.

60 Day, R., “Cooke's Memoirs of Youghal, 1744,” Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society (1903), p. 107. Hereafter cited as JCHAS.

61 The long but unsuccessful campaign to obtain statutory sanction for discriminatory taxes imposed on Catholic merchants and businessmen is described in Maureen MacGeehin, ”The Catholics of the Towns and the Quarterage Dispute in Eighteenth-Century Ireland,” IHS (September, 1952).

62 In 1789, Lord Chancellor Fitzgibbon — by no stretch of anyone's imagination, a Catholic fellow traveller — declared from the Bench that neither the law nor estates of Catholics existed for the benefit of Protestant informers. Archivium Hibernicum, XIX (1956), Appendix, 272; XX (1957), Appendix, 273. Hereafter cited as AH.

63 Burke, William P., The Irish Priests in the Penal Times 1660–1760 (Waterford, 1914), p. vi; Begley, , op. cit., pp. 178181.

63 Renehan, L., Collections on Irish Church History (Dublin, 1861), II, 9395; Begley, , op. cit., p. 190.

66 The nature of Father Geeran's transgression is unknown. Father James White's unpublished manuscript, “Annals of the City and Diocese of Limerick to 1768” (transcribed by Father M. Lenihan), British Museum, Add. Mss. 31886 is the source for Renehan's and Begley's account of the Geeran affair, but in transcribing the manuscript Father Lenihan has left a discreet blank where Geeran's offense was specified.

67 For example, James Butler coadjutor of Cashel charged the clergy of the archdiocese to end the “mercenary practice” whereby priests said two Masses on one day. “Visitations by the Roman Catholic Archbishops of Cashel, 1752–64,” British Museum, Add. Mss. 31884, 4. See also AH, II (1913), 101.

68 Registration records show that there were more parish priests in Ireland in 1704 than in the mid-nineteenth century. Renehan, , op. cit., I, 92.

68 MacGrath, Kevin, “John Garzia, a noted Priest-Catcher and his activities, 1717–1723,” IER, LXXII (1949), 503; Moran, Francis, Spicilegium Ossoriense (Dublin, 1884), II, 404.

70 MacGrath, , op. cit., p. 513.

71 Ibid. pp. 501, 502–503.

72 Renehan, , op. cit., I, 304.

73 British Museum, Add. Mss. 6117, 11.

74 Renehan, , op. cit., II, 93; Begley, , op. cit., p. 184.

76 AH, III (1914), 215.

77 Ibid., II (1913), 117.

78 Renehan, , op. cit., I, 107108.

81 Ibid., I, 103–104.

82 Moran, op. cit., III, 162–164.

83 Boyle, P., The Irish College in Paris from 1578 to 1901 (Dublin, 1901), pp. 3031.

84 Moran, , op. cit., III, 162164.

85 Walsh, T. J., “Compulsory Irish in France,” JCHAS (1953).

86 Newenham, Thomas, A View of the Natural, Political, and Commercial Circumstances of Ireland (London, 1809), Appendix xxix, 41.

87 In both law and fact the Popery laws prevented endowment of Catholic churches and schools; all Catholic institutions had to be supported by voluntary contributions. While such a system of church support in an affluent society has some obvious advantages over state subsidization, in a society where the voluntary contributors live at subsistence level and have inescapable demands upon their meager economic resources, the voluntary system has some obvious disadvantages. Although the Catholic Church in Ireland was spared the particular kind of state control that afflicted the Established Church, the ever-present prospect of rigorous enforcement of the Popery laws made the Irish Catholic hierarchy and clergy no less attentive to the desires of constituted authority than bishops and parsons of the Established religion.

88 Newenham, op. cit., Appendix xxix, 41; for those disturbances see Burns, R. E., “Parsons, Priests, and the People: The Rise of Irish Anti-clericalism 1785–89,” Church History, 06, 1962.

89 Finnegan, , op. cit., pp. 7382.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Review of Politics
  • ISSN: 0034-6705
  • EISSN: 1748-6858
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-politics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed