The penallaws against Irish Catholics:
were they too good for them?
The question is not entirely facetious. At one time, the penal era of Irish
history – roughly 1690 to 1770 – was denounced as a period during
which, as an early twentieth-century Irish schoolbook had it, ‘Ireland
lay in helpless misery, ground down by an inhuman tyranny – the
blackest known to history’.1 During these decades, it was claimed that
the Catholic religion was in effect proscribed while Catholic priests
were ordered into exile or ruthlessly pursued by ‘priest
This book examines the activities of William Blundell, a seventeenth-century Catholic gentleman, and using the approaches of the history of reading provides a detailed analysis of his mindset. Blundell was neither the passive victim nor the entirely loyal subject that he and others have claimed. He actively defended his family from the penal laws and used the relative freedom that this gave him to patronise other Catholics. In his locality, Blundell ensured that the township of Little Crosby was populated almost entirely by his co-religionists, on a national level he constructed and circulated arguments supporting the removal of the penal laws, and on an international level he worked as an agent for the Poor Clares of Rouen. That he cannot be defined solely by his victimhood is further supported by his commonplace notes. Not only did Blundell rewrite the histories of recent civil conflicts to show that Protestants were prone to rebellion and Catholics to loyalty, but we also find a different perspective on his religious beliefs. His commonplaces suggest an underlying tension with aspects of Catholicism that is manifest throughout his notes on his practical engagement with the world, in which it is clear that he was wrestling with the various aspects of his identity. This examination of Blundell's political and cultural worlds complicates generalisations about early modern religious identities.
William Blundell’s family and friends
ith the exception of letters to close friends, the material that Blundell
released into the public domain concentrated on his manifold suﬀerings under a Protestant state. However, these claims should not necessarily be
taken at face value. Blundell developed defences that helped him to navigate
the extremes of the penallaws, the most signiﬁcant of which was the creation
of Catholic and Protestant networks of friends and family who oﬀered him
protection. These networks had their limits, the most obvious
he seek to alleviate
the suﬀerings of English Catholics by oﬀering both religious and practical
support, but at risk to himself and his family he also provided charity for Irish
Catholics. Furthermore, Blundell was a zealous supporter of English religious
houses on the continent and by 1660 he was entrusted with vast sums of
money to farm out on behalf of the Poor Clares of Rouen and became one of
their foremost ﬁnancial agents in England. Finally, in his writings he provided
arguments for the removal of the penallaws and the admission of Catholics
into every area
financial burden on their congregations.
Therefore, until made Protestant, Ireland would remain economically
backward and underdeveloped.1
Early modern Irish Protestants took one of two approaches to the
problem of conversion. The first mooted that Catholics would convert
in large numbers if their religion was suppressed by penal legislation.2
By the time Hutchinson reached Ireland in January 1721, Catholics were
able to practise their religion, primarily because those PenalLaws
(passed piecemeal by the Irish Parliament between 1695 and 1750) that
related specifically to
Religion and nationality became synonymous after the
introduction of the PenalLaws. 21 Furthermore religious and national identity became much more
than cultural issues. Religion provided the pretext needed for a
Protestant minority to ensure that it maintained its superior position
in politics, society and land-ownership. The leniency with which William
H. MacMahon and P. J. Flanagan, ‘The diocese of
Clogher in 1714 (continued)’, Clogher Record , 1 (1955), pp.
125–30; MacMahon and Flanagan, ‘The diocese of Clogher in 1714’, pp.
39–42. This resulted from the PenalLaws, which aimed to make it
difficult for Catholics to practice.
MacMahon and Flanagan, ‘The diocese of Clogher in
1714’, p. 41.
MacMahon and Flanagan, ‘The diocese of Clogher in
1714 (continued)’, pp. 129
Power’s competence to amend either the local civil or the penallaw is not unlimited, and it should not introduce any regulation that
suspends, extinguishes or renders unenforceable the legal rights of
Where the local system does not measure up to current
standards of the rule of law the Occupying Power may make the amendments
necessary to remedy this. It
close relationship between Irish Jacobite poets and the Catholic
clergy has obvious implications for the links between Jacobitism,
Catholicism and the penallaws.62 Priest-poets such as Liam Inglis, Seán
Ó Briain, Conchubhar Ó Briain, Domhnall Ó Colmáin and Uilliam Mac
Néill Bhacaigh Ó hIarlaithe promoted the Stuart cause, which remained
an intrinsic feature of Irish Catholic nationalist identity until at least
1760. The Catholic Church stepped into the breach created by the effective destruction of the Catholic aristocracy to patronise the Jacobite
Order, as the Institution which claims to be the last real guardian of King Billy’s Glorious Revolution.
The birth of Orangeism: warring peasants and the revival of the Williamite tradition
Following William’s victory at the Boyne, a series of Irish PenalLaws, or ‘popery laws’ (O’Loughlin in Connolly 2007 : 462), were introduced in an attempt to cement Protestant gains – gains which later became known as the Protestant ascendancy. More specifically, this involved ‘the enactment from the 1690s of a series of discriminatory measures directed against Catholic