In 1685 England had a Catholic king called James 11. His mainly Protestant subjects were willing to accept James as their king as long as he had no Catholic heir. The Protestant parliament wished to be ruled by a Protestant so they invited a prince from Holland who was called William of Orange to marry James’s daughter and become King of England.
Most of the Irish Chieftains and leaders had left Ireland many years beforehand. Of those who had remained they now fled the country with James. Their land was given to English people who settled in Ireland. English settlers now owned much of the land in Ireland. The parliament they elected in Dublin was known as the Ascendancy. Most of the Ascendancy were members of the Church of Ireland which was also known as the Established Church. The King of England was recognised as the head of their church. However, there were many Protestants who were not members of the Established Church because they would not conform or share the beliefs of the Established Church. They were called Nonconformist. The main Nonconformist groups were the Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists and Baptists. The Ascendancy leaders disliked the Catholics, who made up most of the population. The Ascendancy wanted to be sure that people of other religions would never become more powerfull than themselves so they introduced laws which became known as Penal Laws, aimed at keeping the Catholic population in subjection, ignorance and poverty. Here are some of the Penal Laws:
• All Catholic bishops and monks must leave the country before May 1, 1698.
• No Catholic or Nonconformist may vote for or be elected a member of parliament.
• No Catholic may set up a school.
• No Catholic or Nonconformist may be a lawyer, a judge, an army officer, a naval officer or hold a government job.
• No priest may be educated or ordained in Ireland.
• No Catholic may buy or inherit the land of a Protestant.
• Catholics may not carry weapons.
• No Catholic may own a horse worth more than £5.
• One priest may remain in each parish if he promises to be loyal to the government.
• When a Catholic father dies, his land must be divided among all his sons.
• The son of a Catholic will receive all his father’s property if he becomes a Protestant.
• No priest may enter Ireland from other countries.
The penal cross that was found in Carnaun dated back to 1781. It was probably brought back from a pilgrimage to Lough Derg as a souvenir inscribed with the date of their visit. Pilgrimages were forbidden by law but indeed the chief opposition to them came from some of the Catholic bishops and clergy who had been educated in the university cities of Europe and who viewed some of these native manifestations of piety with considerable disapproval and were for instance severe in the condemnation of festivities on May Day and of levity at wakes and patterns.
The penal laws were not really intended to destroy the Catholic religion but rather to keep Catholics powerless and uneducated. Very little effort was made to try to convert Catholics to the Protestant religion. The Ascendancy realised that their power would be in danger if huge numbers of Catholics did change religion.
Feature image: Claire Browne, 6th Class, Carnaun School
Written by Claire Browne
Published here 05 Feb 2021
Page 241 of The Carnaun Centenary Book
Presentation College Athenry – April 1996
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