Penal law

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In the most general sense, penal is the body of laws that are enforced by the State in its own name and impose penalties for their violation, as opposed to civil law that seeks to redress private wrongs. This usage is synonymous with criminal law and is covered in that article.

More specifically, the Penal laws were a set of laws which punished nonconformism in the United Kingdom.

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English statutes on religious nonconformity

In English history, penal law refers to a specific series of laws that sought to uphold the establishment of the Church of England against Protestant nonconformists and Roman Catholics, by imposing various forfeitures, civil penalties, and civil disabilities upon these dissenters. Some examples of these laws are:

While some of the Penal Laws were much older, they took their most drastic shape during the reign of Charles II, when they became known as the Clarendon Code, after Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, their author.

In Irish history

In Ireland these laws were also in force, where they had a pronounced effect, disenfranchising the majority of the Irish population who were Roman Catholic or Presbyterian in favour of the much smaller established Church of Ireland. Though the laws also affected the other religious faith, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, in the area of the island later to become Northern Ireland, its principal victim was the Roman Catholic Church, which was the religion of over three quarters of the people on the island, and the faith of the overwhelming majority of the mere Irish (in contemporary English, 'mere' meant 'pure' or 'fully').

Among the discriminations faced by victims of the Penal Laws were:

  • Exclusion from membership in either the Parliament of Ireland or the Parliament of Great Britain;
  • Exclusion from voting;
  • Severe property restrictions, notably
    • the ability of any member of the Church of Ireland to seize property from any Catholic, without compensation;
    • the ability of any landlord to raise rents without restriction, and to evict at will.

The Penal Laws were gradually repealed at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century, due in a large part to Daniel O'Connell, after the laws were repealed he became known as 'The Emancipator'.

According to the "Act to prevent the further growth of popery", the Irish were also deprived of:

  • intermarriage
  • converting from Protestantism
  • the custom of going to France (a Catholic country) to be educated
  • giving inheritance to the oldest son if he is Catholic
  • buying their own land
  • custody of orphans
  • inheriting Protestant land

The laws made the Catholics helpless, ignorant, and poor, without strength to rebel, hope of justice, and courage to complain.

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