Penal Laws: “full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts”

And nice piece on that greatest of Irish parliamentarian, Edmund Burke:

For all his rise to political fame, and nearly to power, in the greatest imperial corridors of his time, he never forgot that his native land was essentially enslaved by the very government for which he labored with such skill and flair.

On the January day he was born Éamon de Búrca, in the old tongue, in 1729, on Arran Quay on the River Liffey in Dublin, the English penal laws forbade Catholics from holding public office, marrying Protestants, owning weapons, serving in the military or as a lawyer or judge, voting, receiving public education of any sort or redress from arrest without cause by a representative of the king, purchasing land, inheriting land from Protestants, leasing land for more than 31 years, owning a horse worth more than five pounds, speaking their native Irish language, and building churches.

(In the few cases where churches were allowed to be built, imperial law forbade the use of stone.) The subtlety of such laws, the devious genius! If you set out to destroy a culture, could you do better than that? A system of “vicious perfection,” wrote Burke many years later; “I must do it justice: it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts” for the purpose, as he elsewhere wrote, of making “three millions of people … enslaved, beggard, insulted, degraded.”

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  • PaulT

    Not to mention that a fathers land had to be evenly divided between all the sons upon his death, thus ensuring holdings got increasingly smaller until they starved, or left the scrap of land (and starved).

  • tacapall

    Add in carting men women and children off to Britain’s American colonies as slaves for the tobacco plantations where the laws were more brutal than above, in those days black slave were worth more money although they called it deportation in those days.

  • Mister_Joe

    Many, if not most, people are not aware of the extent to which Irish folk were sold as slaves, mainly to the West Indies. It was Ireland’s main export for close to 200 years starting in the early 1600s. It is well documented. For those interested, simply google Irish slaves.

  • Mick Fealty

    Not another #mopefest, Noooooaaaahhhhhh!!!!!!

    Read the whole thing people!!!

  • tacapall

    Or Joe, read White Cargo The forgotten history of Britain’s white slaves in America carried out and enacted by the same people who financed the plantation of Ulster and rubber stamped by the king of England.

  • Mister_Joe

    C’mon, Mick. You started it with your extracts.

  • Mick Fealty

    Then I stand guilty as charged. But it wasn’t intended as an invitation for what remains of 19th century peasant Ireland to come out and wave their 170 year old grievances around.

    If you read on you discover that for all the perfections of its drafting, it did not entirely work… and further still you see what Burke did with that burning conviction:

    Some 12,000 British Army soldiers were called in, perhaps 500 people died, and the houses of leading Whig politicians were threatened; Jane spent the week with a friend, while Ned spent several nights standing guard at his friends’ houses, and then, after having their books and possessions moved from their own house, set forth “in the street amidst this wild assembly, into whose hands I deliverd myself, informing them who I was. Some of them were malignant and fanatical, but I think the far greater part … were rather dissolute and unruly than very illdisposd. I even found friends and well wishers amongst [them]. … [F]or one, I was neither to be forced nor intimidated from the strait line of what was right; and I returned, on foot, quite through the multitude to the House [where] I spoke my sentiments in such a way that I do not think I have ever on any occasion seemd to affect the house more forcibly.”

    This was no mere chaotic street protest—people were roasted to death, beaten to death, shot to death, for being Catholic, or sympathetic to Catholics—and no more identifiable pro-Catholic figure existed in the epicenter of the riot than Mr. Edmund Burke. He was 51 years old that year, portly, bespectacled, unarmed, and infamous, the very man the mob wanted to injure or worse, the very man you would think would convey himself and his gentle bride to a town far away and there await the return of law, or hide somewhere safe, or don disguise, or at least sensibly take refuge in a carriage escorted by His Majesty’s soldiers to Parliament, if he was so intent on executing his sworn duty as a minister. But no—he waded grimly into the murderous crowd, incredibly identifying himself to all he encountered, and made his way, on foot, quite through the multitude, to the very building first attacked by a mob responsible for hundreds of deaths. The brass of the man, the confidence that his voice and his courage, his belief in the strait line of what was right, would see him through!

  • Mister_Joe

    It’s a pity that Hansard didn’t start until the 19th century. The debates around the Penal laws would make interesting reading. Although various printers did publish accounts of debates (illegally – some went to jail) as early as the English Civil war, I haven’t been able to unearth anything about the Penal Law debates. Can anyone provide a link?

  • antamadan

    Still Mick. Maybe a ‘mopefest’ is needed in some ways. After all you can’t walk up a street in the summer without being told William was for ‘civil and religous liberties’ , yet after he won, the penal laws against catholics were the result. (James was for catholic and protestant free profession).

  • This really is a dreadfully ignorant piece, summed up in the phrase “English penal laws”. The Penal Laws were passed by an Irish Parliament in the control of Irish landlords. In fact, one of the main complaints of Catholics in the eighteenth century was that King Billy’s promises of toleration in the Treaty of Limerick had been broken by the locals, not by London. I’m also amused at the thought that people were banned from speaking Irish.

    As for Burke, it’s far from clear that he ever actually was in a hedge school. There were no penal laws against Protestants with a Catholic parent or parents. The ease with which one could switch your status by attending the Church of Ireland is one of the things that marks Ireland off from some of the sillier claims about it being somehow the equivalent of imperial ventures in Africa and Asia, where colour marked your status in society. The description of the British empire is utterly contemptible, never mind incredibly historically inaccurate.

    “Elected” is an interesting way of describing how Burke entered parliament – he did so via a pocket borough, and was not in any meaningful sense elected, even by the standards of the eighteenth century.

    The Gordon riots had nothing to do with opposing any measures that would bring relief to Catholic Ireland.

    If you read Burke’s letters, you will see that he refers to himself not as Irish, but as English, something that seems fairly important. As for his interest in Ireland, it was sporadic at best, certainly when set against the energy he put into the likes of the Hastings impeachment.

    The idea that Burke was uninterested in theory is hilarious. His provision of a theoretical justification of party in politics, his discussion of the nature of an MP as a representative versus a delegate etc would suggest otherwise.

    And I’d like to see the left-winger who thinks Burke – the most vociferous opponent of democracy in the age of the French Revolution, who believed in a conspiracy theory to explain how it came about – is someone to claim.

    So apart from an ignorance of Irish history, of Burke’s self-image, of the nature of English politics, etc, it does remind me of Burke. Lots of rhetorical flourishes but not really saying that much to do with the situation as it was.