Historiographical Interpretation

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Contesting History: Opposing Voices Department of Modern History, Trinity College Dublin
Module 4 - The Penal Laws: Conversion or Coercion?
Interpretative Materials: Brian Kirby. Course Directors: Patrick Geoghegan and Ciaran Brady

Historiographical Interpretation
Accounts on the legal restrictions imposed upon Catholics in the period after the signing of the *Treaty of Limerick in 1691 have formed a standard part of the historiography of eighteenth century Ireland. Indeed, for many historians the eighteenth century and historographical perspective provided by the phrase ‘penal era’ became synonymous. The laws were traditionally seen as victimising an entire population and attention was frequently drawn to the fact that the legislation was directed at a religious majority and not, as in England, at a religious minority. In view of contemporary concerns about political developments, it was hardly surprising that the first assessments of the impact of the penal laws came at the end of the nineteenth century. Catholic apologists of this era invariably saw the penal laws as a reflection of contemporary politics and focused upon often spurious accounts of the maltreatment of Irish Catholics by Protestants in the eighteenth century.

The nineteenth end early twentieth century tradition of Nationalist historiography took both an uncritical view of the work of eighteenth century Catholic advocates such as *Edmund Burke and gave a distorted insight into the mindset of those Protestants who framed penal legislation. The penal laws were regarded as a systematic attempt to extirpate Catholicism by the wholesale conversion of the natives. Standard accounts of the period such as Cardinal Patrick F. Moran’s The Catholics of Ireland under the penal laws in the eighteenth century (1900), and later the Reverend William P. Burke’s Irish priests in penal times (1914) failed to take into account legitimate Protestant concerns about the threat posed by the Catholic majority and the disagreements within Irish Protestantism on the steps that should be taken to counter it. Titles such as the Persecution of Catholics and Irish martyrs of the penal laws left the reader in little doubt of the historical perspective adopted by the author.

The first attempts to view the experiences of Catholics in the eighteenth century as something more than those of a victimised mass were made by Maureen Wall. She argued in a seminal article, ‘The rise of the Catholic middle class,’ that the restrictions imposed upon Catholics purchasing property had led to the emergence of a distinct business-orientated class in many towns. As dispossessed members of the Catholic gentry moved into urban areas the authorities were either unwilling or unable to enforce punitive economic restrictions against them. Although Wall’s open-minded approach did much to illuminate aspects of the Catholic experience of the penal era, her work was in turn been criticised by revisionists who suggested that she failed to recognise the particular political context in which the laws operated. Recent work by S.J. Connolly, for example, has focused on the motives of Irish Protestants and their immediate fears in the late seventeenth century about a revival of Catholic fortunes.

In general, revisionists have emphasised the ‘selective nature’ of the operation of the penal laws and have argued that their effects have frequently been exaggerated in traditional, Nationalist-inspired accounts. Louis Cullen has, for instance, drawn attention to the emergence of strong Catholic leasehold interest amongst large farmers in eighteenth century Ireland whilst Connolly has convincingly argued that the laws were ‘a rag-bag series of measures enacted piecemeal over almost half a century.’ Assumptions, therefore, based on the supposed injustice of the penal era have to be treated with caution as it has been suggested that any schemes to exile the popish clergy and bring about a mass conversion of Catholics were abandoned once they were found to be utterly unworkable. Of course other aspects of the laws were rather more successfully applied as by the early decades of the eighteenth century many heads of Catholic families who had managed to retain titles to land after earlier confiscations (in actuality they were small in number anyway) duly conformed.

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