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Definition: penal code from Collins English Dictionary


1 the codified body of the laws in any legal system that relate to crime and its punishment

Summary Article: penal code
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Series of anti-Catholic laws introduced by the Dublin Parliament 1695–1727 in defiance of the Treaty of Limerick. Catholics were disenfranchised (no longer allowed to vote), banned from becoming members of Parliament or holding office, prevented from buying land from Protestants, and excluded from entry to higher education and the professions, such as medicine and law. Catholics were not allowed to join the British Army or Navy, were banned from owning a horse worth more than £5, and could be whipped if found with a gun. The measures were gradually repealed in the late 18th century, although the penal laws were not completely removed until the Catholic emancipation of 1829.

The purpose of these laws was partly punishment for the support given by Irish Catholics to King James II between 1688 and 1690, and partly to ensure the domination of Ireland by the Protestant settlers. After the Protestant king William (III) of Orange defeated the combined forces of the Catholic kings James II and Louis XIV of France at the Battle of the Boyne (1690) and his Williamite forces achieved final victory at the subsequent Battle of Aughrim (1691), the Catholics in Ireland had no military backing to oppose the power of the Protestants and Britain.

By allowing only Protestants to vote or become members of Parliament, Protestants guaranteed that all laws and government decisions would favour them. The penal code ensured the final takeover of virtually all Ireland's land by Protestants. When these laws were introduced in 1695 Catholics still owned 20% of Ireland's lands, but by 1780 they owned just 5%. The Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704) forced Catholic landowners to divide up what little land they had between all their sons when they died. This meant that the size of farms held by Catholics fell, and they were forced to rent more land off the Protestants, increasing the control of Protestant landowners over the Catholics and crippling them economically.

The penal laws made protest by Catholics much more difficult. Denied access to the Dublin or London parliaments, they could not use peaceful or legal protests. The government hoped that Catholics would also be less likely to protest violently, as they were allowed only weak horses, had no guns, and were denied military training. As no Catholics were allowed a university education or access to the professions, it was hoped that no potential leaders would emerge for a rebellion.

The Protestants were able to assert total control over Ireland's Catholics. They had the money, land, armed forces, and political power. In the long term, however, the penal laws had the opposite effect to subduing the Irish, as they fuelled resentment to British rule and encouraged thoughts of future rebellion.

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