The eighteenth century was not a good time to be Catholic in Ireland. Government policies during this time sought to strengthen the position of the Protestant ascendency in Ireland. A Protestant Ireland, according to British thought at the time, would preserve England’s interest in the island.
“Protestant ascendency” is generally used to describe the Protestant landed elite in Ireland. The ascendency is a type of caste system in which English-speaking (and often English-born) Protestants control Ireland’s land, economics, and government.
Beginning in the late seventeenth century, the government passed a series of anti-Catholic laws known as the Penal Laws. The first of these was passed in 1695. This was followed in 1697 by the Bishops’ Banishment Act, and in 1704 by the Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery. The Penal Laws were designed to force Catholics to the lowest socioeconomic status. For example, under the Penal Laws, Catholics were not allowed to own a horse worth more than five pounds. Furthermore, any Catholic who was offered five pounds for a horse was required to sell it.
Catholics were also prohibited from possessing arms.
Only Protestants were allowed to hold political positions or allowed to practice law. Catholics were excluded from political power and they were not allowed to be members of a grand jury. Catholics were not allowed to vote in parliamentary elections.
With regard to land ownership, the laws required that Catholic estates were to be equally divided among the male heirs. In addition, Catholics were not allowed to purchase more land. The law prohibited Catholics from inheriting land from Protestants and from taking leases longer than 31 years. Protestant heiresses who married Catholics were disinherited. This ensured that the size of the Catholic estates would be reduced within just a few generations.
The land laws also served to divide the Catholics by conferring extraordinary privileges on any member of a Catholic family who became a Protestant. For example, an eldest son could deprive his father of the management and disposal of his property by becoming a Protestant.
With regard to education, Catholics were prohibited from having their own schools and from sending their children abroad to be educated. Irish education, particularly for those who wanted to retain their Gaelic heritage, went underground. Unofficial schools—commonly called hedge schools—and traveling schoolmasters helped the Irish maintain their language, culture, and traditions. The Irish poets and harpers, while deprived of the patronage which they had once enjoyed, continued to have an audience among the common people. Gaelic stories and poetry continued to be created, but since they could not be formally published, they were transmitted orally. Those which were written down were transmitted in carefully guarded, hand-written manuscripts.
On the religious front, bishops and members of Catholic religious orders were banished from the island. Ordinary priests had to register their names and parishes and were required to promise that they would uphold the law. Only one priest was allowed per parish. No new Catholic clergy were allowed to enter the country. Since bishops were required for ordination and with no Catholic education allowed, it was assumed that the Catholic clergy would die out within a generation. However, the laws were not rigidly enforced nor was there any attempt to promote the conversion of the Catholic masses to Protestantism. By the 1720s, Catholic priests and bishops operated fairly freely, but discreetly, in much of Ireland.
The Protestant landlords grew rich and built palatial residences on their large estates. On the other hand, the tenant farmers struggled to pay their rents. In addition, they were required to pay tithes to a church to which very few belonged. For tenant farmers, the eighteenth century was a time of great poverty. When their crops failed, many died of starvation.
As a result of the oppression against the Catholics and against the poor Irish tenant farmers, many Irish began to leave the island. The first recorded exodus was in 1717 when the Friends’ Goodwill set sail from Larme for Boston, Massachusetts carrying Irish refugees. During that year, about 5,000 Irish left their homelands seeking a new life in the Americas. Their letters home made it clear that the journey across the sea was difficult—often lasting up to three months in cramped and unhygienic conditions—but it was worth enduring.
In 1740-1741, the crops failed and many Irish died of starvation and disease. To protect the Protestant producers, tillage was discouraged and many tenant farmers were displaced. During the next several decades, Ireland imported more grain than it produced.
In 1759, the ban on importing cattle from Ireland to England was lifted. The Protestant land owners shifted to producing cattle rather than grain. This type of agriculture was less labor-intensive and thus many Irish tenant farmers were cleared from the land and left destitute. In the 1760s, entire villages were cleared in Tipperary and land which had once been considered common was enclosed for the exclusive use of the Protestant land owners.
In response, Irish agrarian rebels formed themselves into secret societies. One of these was the Whiteboys—so called because they wore white smocks over their clothes as a form of disguise. The Whiteboys waged a campaign of violence and intimidation against the landlords’ agents. The landlords themselves generally did not live on their estates or even in Ireland and were thus isolated from the Irish people.
The agrarian protest of the Whiteboys began in County Tipperary in 1761 and spread to counties Limerick, Waterford, Cork, and Killkenny. The main grievances included the enclosure of common land, the encroachment of livestock on tillage, and tithes, especially on potatoes. The government, acting on behalf of the landlords, instituted repressive measures against the Whiteboys and made involvement in their activities a capital offense.
By 1778, the Irish Catholics only controlled five percent the land and yet they made up 75% of the population. By the end of the century, there was open rebellion.
In their book Ireland: A Concise History, Máire and Conor Cruise O’Brien summarize the penal code this way:
“The native Irish were not to be altogether exterminated, for their labour was needed. At the same time, the vital interests of the settlers required that the natives should be allowed neither to repossess their lands, nor to put themselves in a position—through education, political activity, arms or alliance—where they might effectively threaten the land settlement.”