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The Penal Laws in Clare
by Pat O'Brien

The enactment from the 1690s of a series of discriminatory measures directed against Catholic clergy and laity had an immediate and distressing effect on County Clare. The first two decades of the 18th Century were particularly difficult. Restrictions on the practise of Catholic worship placed the vast majority of the population outside the protection of the law. For almost a century Catholics in Clare ceased to matter in the public or commercial life of the country. Among other restrictions, Catholics were forbidden to buy land, to inherit it from Protestants or lease it for more than 31 years. Other legislation prohibited Catholics from practising law, from teaching or running schools and from holding office in government. They were also excluded from parliament, the army and the navy. By 1728 they had completely lost the right to vote.

In response to the 1704 Registration Act, which required Catholic priests to register with the authorities, 45 Clare priests registered in Ennis on July 11th, 1704, each having 2 securicors of £50 each. Many priests refused to register however and went into hiding. The wooded countryside and a sympathetic peasantry afforded them a safe refuge. By 1710 all but two priests in the county were deemed outlawed as the rest refused to take the Oath of Abjuration introduced in 1709. The Oath denied the rights of the Stuarts to the throne of England and affirmed that the succession belonged to the Protestant line.

Alarmed at an outbreak of agrarian violence in 1711 Dublin Castle ordered William Butler, Clare High Sheriff to arrest all priests in the county. 24 priests obeyed Butler's summons and were imprisoned in Ennis jail. Their voluntary surrender impressed Dublin Castle and they were permitted to leave the overcrowded and unhygienic jail and lodge in nearby houses. The search for those who failed to surrender intensified. Despite having the assistance of some of the prominent gentry the Sheriff captured only two priests, John Moylan, P.P., Ogonneloe and William Connellann, P.P., Tulla. Edmund Gleeson, P.P., Clonlara, though discovered was not arrested, being in very poor health. Butler’s difficulty was increased by the refusal of his gaoler and many other Protestant gentlemen to assist in the search. In a letter to Dublin Castle Butler remarked that it was 'easier to catch wolves or foxes than priests'. The native forests which still abounded made detection of these priests extremely difficult. In 1714 the Protestant Bishop of Limerick complained to Dublin Castle that one 'David Fitzgerald a friar' had escaped from his pursuers into the refuge of the woods of County Clare. Nor was it easy to keep captured priests in custody. In 1712 an elusive priest Flan Brodye escaped from a Sixmilebridge constable. Recaptured in 1717 he was placed on board a ship awaiting transportation when he again escaped. The £20 reward offered for his recapture named him as Brodye, alias Brown, alias Culligan. One of the greatest threats to the freedom of the priest lay with the ‘priest catcher’. The infamous Edward Tyrrell, of Galway a professional priest catcher, included in a 1712 report that Counsellor McNamara, of Killaloe had 2 sons studying for the priesthood on the continent, Florence McNamara at Louvain College, his brother at St. Germains. A warrant for the arrest of Florence was later issued when he returned to serve in Clare.

As the policy of extinguishing Catholicism was gradually abandoned the position of the church improved. By 1731, there were 52 'Mass Houses' in the county, 55 priests plus a number of 'strolling priests'. At intervals however, persecution still occurred. With the threat of a Stuart invasion High Sheriff Westropp in 1745 ordered searches in Ennis and West Clare towns 'for priests or arms' and closed up the Mass Houses. These Mass houses were simple thatched structures erected by impoverished communities. As the fortunes of the Catholic Church improved those of the Protestant Church deteriorated rapidly. In 1763, 62 out of 76 parishes had no Protestant Church and most rectors were non-resident in their parishes. The collection of tithes from an alienated people, to support the established church, resulted in a great feeling of injustice and intermittent outbreaks of agrarian violence during the 18th century. Pasture land was free of tithes but the humble potato plot of the cottier was not.

With the partial dismantling of the Penal Code, in the late 18th century Catholics achieved further progress. More substantial and ornate churches were constructed. Progress was slow however. Dutton’s Statistical Survey of Clare in 1808 remarks on Corofin market house also being used as the Catholic chapel.

Sporadic efforts at proselytising in Clare came to nought despite some initial successes. John Wesley visited Clare 6 times between 1756 and 1776 and met strenuous opposition from the Catholic clergy. The Moravian settlement founded in Corofin in 1788 at the invitation of landlord Edward Burton lasted only eight years.

By 1800 despite the ‘Penal Law’ enactments Catholicism remained the religion of almost the entire Clare population. The governing and propertied class however had become solidly Protestant. Provisions relating to property had prevented any increase in the holdings of Catholic landlords. These provisions were effectively enforced and almost completed the destruction of the Catholic gentry in the county. Also many substantial Catholic landowners converted to the established religion to ensure retention of their estates. Thomas Arthur of Broadford, a descendant of an illustrious Limerick Catholic family, who had an estate of over 3,000 acres in South East Clare converted in 1750. Patrick Moloney of Tulla, Christopher O’Brien Ennistymon, James Lysaght, Ballykeal, the Stacpools of Edenvale, O’Callaghan-Westropps of Tulla were among many other Clare Catholic landowners who found it advantageous to conform.

After 1760 the threat of a Catholic Stuart dynasty was ended with the death of Cardinal Henry Stuart the last surviving son of James III, "the old Pretender". Thereafter, the Penal laws were gradually relaxed. By the 1770’s Catholic priests and chapels were openly tolerated (but still illegal). The first major relief came in 1771 with the Gardiner Relief Act, which allowed Catholics to lease land. More favourable reliefs for Catholics came under Grattan’s Parliament in 1782 and 1793. The threat of a French invasion was a factor in granting further relief to Catholics, and Maynooth Seminary was founded and grant-aided by the government in 1795 to ensure a loyal priesthood. By 1800 the Penal laws against the practice of religion, ownership of property and voting had been removed. However, Catholics were still debarred from becoming M.P.s or holding commissions in the army, while other restrictions precluded more than one bell and also steeples on Catholic chapels. These last vestiges of the Penal laws were not removed until after the historic victory of Daniel O’Connell in the Clare election of 1828. However relicts of the Penal times may still be seen in such features as Mass rocks in the countryside, and in such practices as "station masses" which are still held in some parishes.

The Ballykeel Hand, Kilfenora
The Ballykeel Hand, Kilfenora. Thought to be carved in penal times. When the sun shone on the thumb it indicated where the Mass vessels were hidden

The Mass Rock at Salach Buaile, Kilmaley

The Mass Rock at
Salach Buaile, Kilmaley

Further Reading:
Burke, William P., The Irish priests in the Penal times. Irish University Press, 1969
Conlan, Patrick, Franciscan Ennis. 1984
Corish, Patrick J., The Church under the Penal code. Gill & Macmillan, 1971
Murphy, Ignatius, 'Building a church in 19th century Ireland.' The Other Clare, vol. 2
Murphy, Ignatius, 'The Penal laws in Clare in the 18th century.' The Other Clare, vol. 7
Wall, Maureen, The Penal laws. Dundalgan Press, 1961

Clare County Library wishes to thank Clare Local Studies Project
for preparation of raw text for this publication.


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