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   Chapter 45 THE PENAL CODE.

The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 10814

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

We are now upon the brink of a century as full of strange fortunes for Ireland as any that had preceded it, but in which those fortunes were destined to take a widely different turn. In the two preceding ones revolts and risings had, as we have seen, been the rule rather than the exception. In this one from the beginning down to within a couple of years of its close when a rebellion--which, in most impartial historians' opinion, might with a little care have been averted--broke the peace of the century, hardly a symptom of any disposition to appeal to arms is discoverable. Two great Jacobite risings convulsed England; the American revolt, so fraught with momentous consequences, was fought and carried, but Ireland never stirred. The fighting element was gone. It was in France, in Spain, in the Low Countries-scattered over half the battlefields of Europe. The country which gave birth to these fighters was quiet; a graveyard quiet, it may be said, but still significant, if only by contrast with what had gone before.

One advantage which the student of this century has over others is that it has been made the subject of a work which enables us to thread our way through its mazes with what, in comparison to other periods may be called ease. In his "History of the Eighteenth Century" Mr. Lecky has done for the Ireland of one century what it is much to be desired some one would hasten to do for the Ireland of all. He has broken down a barrier of prejudice so solid and of such long standing that it seemed to be invulnerable, and has proved that it is actually possible to be just in two directions at once--a feat no previous historian of Ireland can be said to have even attempted. This work, the final volume of which has not yet appeared, so completely covers the whole ground that it seems to afford an excuse for an even more hasty scamper over the same area than the exigencies of space have elsewhere made inevitable.

The task to which both the English and the Irish Parliaments now energetically addressed themselves was--firstly, the undoing of the Acts passed in the late reign; secondly, the forfeiture of the estates of those who had taken the losing side in the late campaign; thirdly, the passing of a series of Acts the aim of which was as far as possible to stamp out the Roman Catholic religion altogether, and in any case to deprive it of any shadow or semblance of future political importance.

To describe at length the various Acts which make up what is known as the Penal code--"a code impossible," as Mr. Lecky observed in an earlier work, "for any Irish Protestant whose mind is not wholly perverted by religious bigotry, to look back at without shame and indignation," would take too long. It will be enough, therefore, if I describe its general purport, and how it affected the political and social life of that century upon which we are now entering.

In several respects it not a little resembled what is nowadays known as "boycotting," only it was boycotting inflicted by the State itself. As compared with some of the enactments passed against Protestants in Catholic countries, it was not, it must be said, sanguinary, but its aim seemed to be to make life itself intolerable; to reduce the whole Catholic population to the condition of pariahs and outcasts. No Papist might possess a horse of the value of over £5; no Papist might carry arms; no Papist might dispose as he chose of his own property; no Papist might acquire any landed freehold; no Papist might practise in any of the liberal professions; no Papist might educate his sons at home, neither might he send them to be educated abroad. Deeper wrong, more biting and terrible injury even than these, it sowed bitter strife between father and son, and brother and brother. Any member of a family, by simply turning Protestant, could dispossess the rest of that family of the bulk of the estate to his own advantage. Socially, too, a Papist, no matter what his rank, stood below, and at the mercy of, his Protestant neighbours. He was treated by the executive as a being devoid, not merely of all political, but of all social rights, and only the numerical superiority of the members of the persecuted creed can have enabled them to carry on existence under such circumstances at all.

For it must be remembered (and this is one of its worst features) that those placed under this monstrous ban constituted the vast majority of the whole country. In Burke's memorable words, "This system of penalty and incapacity has for its object no small sect or obscure party, but a very numerous body of men, a body which comprehends at least two-thirds of the whole nation; it amounts to two million eight hundred thousand souls--a number sufficient for the constituents of a great people[13]." "The happiness or misery of multitudes," he adds in another place, "can never be a thing indifferent. A law against the majority of the people is in substance a law against the people itself; its extent determines its invalidity; it even changes its character as it enlarges its operation; it is not particular injustice, but general oppression, and can no longer be considered as a private hardship which might be borne, but spreads and grows up into the unfortunate importance of a national calamity."

[13] "Tracts on the Popery Laws."

As was natural under the circumstances, many feigned conver

sions took place, that being the only way to avoid been utterly cut adrift from public life. For by a succession of enactments, not only were the higher offices and the professions debarred to Roman Catholics, but they were even prohibited--to so absurd a length can panic go--from being sheriffs, jurymen, constables, or even gamekeepers. "Every barrister, clerk, attorney, or solicitor," to quote again Burke, "is obliged to take a solemn oath not to employ persons of that persuasion; no, not as hackney clerks, at the miserable salary of seven shillings a week." It was loudly complained of many years later, that men used to qualify for taking the oaths required upon being admitted as barristers or attorneys by attending church and receiving a sacramental certificate on their road to Dublin. Others, to save their property from confiscation, sacrificed their inclinations, often what they held to be their hopes of salvation, to the exigencies of the situation, and nominally embraced Protestantism. Old Lady Thomond, for instance, upon being reproached by some stricter co-religionist for thus imperilling her soul, asked with quick scorn whether it was not better that one old woman should burn than that the Thomonds should lose their own. The head of the house would thus often present himself or herself at the parish church, while the other members of the family kept to the old faith, and the chaplain, under the name of the tutor or secretary, celebrated mass in the harness-room or the servants' hall.

To the credit of Irish Protestants it may be said that, once the first violence of fanaticism had died out, there was little attempt to enforce the legal enactments in all their hideous atrocity. According to the strict letter of the law, no Roman Catholic bishop, archbishop, or other dignitary; no monk, nun, or member of any religious fraternity, could set foot in Ireland; and any one who harboured them was liable at the third offence to confiscation of all his goods. A list of parish priests was also drawn up and certified, and their names entered, and when these had died no others were by law allowed to come, any so doing being liable to the penalties of high treason. As a matter of fact, however, they came with very little hindrance, and the succession was steadily kept up from the Continent. The attempt to stamp out a religion by force proved to be the most absolute of failures, although, as no rule is without its exception, it must be added that in England, where exactly the same penal laws were in force, and where the number of Roman Catholics was at the beginning of the century considerable, they dwindled by the end of it almost to the point of extinction. In Ireland the reverse was the case. The number of Roman Catholics, according to the most trustworthy statistics, increased rather than diminished under the Penal code, and there were many more conversions from Protestantism to Catholicism than there were the other way.

This, no doubt, was in great measure due to the neglect with which the scattered Protestant communities were treated, especially in the south and west. The number of Protestant clergymen was extremely small, as many as six, seven, and even ten livings being frequently held by a single individual, and of these many were absentees, and their place filled by a curate. Thus--isolated in a vast Roman Catholic community, often with no church of their own within reach--the few Protestants drifted by a natural law to the faith of their neighbours. On the emphatic and angry testimony of Archbishop Boulter, we know that conversions from Protestantism to Catholicism were in his time extremely common amongst the lower orders. By law, too, no marriage between a Protestant and Catholic was recognizable, yet there were many such, and the children in most cases seem to have reverted to the elder faith.


The best side of all this for the Catholics showed itself in that feeling of devotion and fealty to their own faith which persecution rarely fails to awaken, and for which the Roman Catholics of Ireland, high and low alike, have always been honourably distinguished. The worst was that this sense of being under an immoveable ban sapped at all the roots of manliness and honourable ambition. Amongst the well-to-do classes the more spirited of the young men went abroad and enlisted under foreign banners. The rest stayed at home, and fell into an idle, aimless, often disreputable, fashion of existence. The sense of being of no account, mere valueless items in the social hive, is no doubt answerable for a good deal of all this. Swift assures us that in his time the Catholic manhood of Ireland were of no more importance than its women and children; of no more importance, he adds in another place, than so many trees. With a patience pathetic in so essentially impatient a race, both priests and people seem to have settled down after awhile into a sort of desperate acceptance of the inevitable. So complete indeed was their submission that towards the close of the century we find the English executive, harassed and set at nought by its own Protestant colonists, turning by a curious nemesis to the members of this persecuted creed, whose patience and loyalty three quarters of a century of unexampled endurance seemed to have gone far to prove.

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