Penal Laws and Catholic/Protestant Conflict (History of Cavan)

The rebellion of 1641 and the Williamite war of 1689 taught the Protestant minority that they could not count on the native Irish majority remaining docile. Despite their weakened economic power, throughout consecutive generations, the Irish had mustered the resources and leadership to carry on a rebellion. The Protestant government needed a way to further weaken this Irish majority to ensure their Protestant survival. Thus the infamous penal laws were imposed in the early 1700s.


The Protestants, both in Dublin and in London, resolved therefore, to destroy Roman Catholicism in Ireland if they could; and to the extent they could not, to reduce Irish Roman Catholics to a state of such total impotence that they could never again rise above a status hardly better than that of ignorant, ragged, poverty-stricken serfdom.

William Magan, Umma-More

Although now part of the English Kingdom, Irish Catholics were forbidden to hold office in the Irish parliament. Irish Catholics were deprived of the right to vote or to serve in the armed forces. Except for medicine, Catholics were not allowed to work in any learned profession such as a lawyer or teacher. Catholics could not be guardians of minor children. Catholics were not allowed to attend school except for those set up after 1733 intended to convert Catholic children to Protestant. Restrictions were placed on Catholic worship and the movement of clergy and masses were often held in secret.

Although most Irish lands had been confiscated over the previous 200 years, what little land that was held by Catholics was further diminished through the penal laws. Upon death, an Irish Catholic land-owner could not bequeath land to his heir unless the heir was Protestant. Catholics could not buy, inherit or receive property as a gift from a Protestant (many of whom were relatives, previously Catholic themselves). The Penal laws further reduced the Irish Catholic population to no more than tenant and peasant in their own country with little means or spirit to fight further.

Although one purpose of the penal laws was to weaken the Catholic faith in Ireland, it had a completely unintended effect. Some did convert to Protestantism in order to save their property; some left Ireland altogether; but most Irish Catholics along with the Catholic clergy simply became resourceful, organizing underground resistence to the penal laws. The church was still vibrant, but only not in the open.

Harsh as they were, the years passed and the penal laws were less strictly enforced. Many enlightened Protestants, in the spirit of community supported the rights of their Catholic neighbors. In 1793 most of the penal laws were removed although the laws were not completely abolished until 1829.

The hundred years of subterfuge, holding covert midnight masses and harboring outlawed priests, would serve as a training of sorts for yet another rebellion in the latter part of the century. Inspired by the revolutions in American and France, Irish Catholics and other Irishmen seeking independence from England attempted a poorly organized and failed rebellion in 1798.

In response to this rebellion, local Protestants in Ireland began forming "Orange Lodges", grass roots political units to assert their identity over the Catholics. Catholics continued in their independence movement calling themselves "United Irishmen". They organized "local defender movements" or agrarian secret societies such as the Molly McGuire's. Despite the 1829 Emancipation Act which abolished the penal laws, the desire for a free Ireland and the animosity between Catholic and Protestant remained. Several other uprisings of the United Irishmen followed.

The conflict between Protestant and Catholic was as violent in County Cavan as in any other areas of Ireland. In 1845 George Bell Booth, a Cavan County Magistrate (and master of the Orange Lodge in Cavan) was shot dead by Pat Dolan, a member of the local Molly Maguire's. Dolan stayed in County Cavan for a few months living as a fugitive in the Knockbride, Larah area before he was smuggled to freedom in the US. He went on to be a founder of the Fenian movement and the Irish Republican Brotherhood in America.



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