The Irish statesman, Edmund Burke, described the Penal Laws thus: ‘a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people… as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man’. The Laws were promulgated piecemeal from the Tudor Reformation onwards, then intensified after the Irish Rebellion (1641) and the Williamite Rebellion (1690). Provisions ranged from draconian to pettifogging. Conversion to Catholicism was treasonous, and Catholics were forbidden to own a horse valued at over £5. A Catholic could not hold civil office, hold land or possess arms. It was illegal for a Protestant man to marry a Catholic woman, and teaching Catholicism was a felony. Lawmakers defended the Penal Laws on the grounds that the ‘Old Pretender’, son of the ousted King James II, still claimed the English throne, with papal support for his exiled ‘court’ in Rome until the 1760s. But Protestant landowners nonetheless exploited the Laws to mulct their Catholic counterparts.
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