Background to Rebellion

Penal Laws

The Irish parliament in the 1790s was exclusively Protestant despite the fact that Catholics formed the vast majority of the population. For most of the 18th century a comprehensive penal system existed, which discriminated against Catholics and served to secure the political, economic and social ascendancy of Protestants in Ireland.

The 1703 Act for registering clergy was ratified with the purpose of depriving Catholics of ecclesiastical leadership and of hunting the number of clergy in the country. Further acts were to follow and restrictions were imposed on the freedom of Catholics to educate their children, to carry arms, inherit, own, lease and work land, to trade and employ, to enter the major professions and to vote. An Act of 1704, which remained in force until 1778 forbade Roman Catholics to hold a lease of more than thirty one years. It has been estimated that by the end of the 1770s Catholics held just 5% of the land in Ireland. Although not all of the penal laws were enforced rigorously, some of them did serve to exclude Catholics in areas of social, economic and political advancement. With regard to religion the penal laws were less effective and the people continued to worship despite the restrictions. From the 1720s on the Catholic church had sufficient priests to operate.

Between 1778 and 1792 most of the penal laws had been repealed and in 1793 Catholic 40 shilling freeholders were enfranchised.

The Catholic committee which had been founded to forward Roman Catholic interests regularly petitioned the King through the Lord Lieutenant. On the 2nd of January 1793, five members of the committee presented a petition to George III in person. The five were Edward Byrne, John Keogh, James Edward Devereux, Christopher Bellew and Sir Thomas French.

The chief secretary introduced a bill for the further relief of Catholics, which passed through the Parliament with little difficulty. It gave them the Parliamentary and municipal franchise on roughly equivalent terms with Protestants, but they were still excluded from Parliament and the higher offices of state.