Irish History Live

The Williamite Wars

I James II and Ireland


When James II succeeded to the throne in 1685, as the first Catholic monarch to reign in England since Mary Tudor, he did not at first do anything to confirm the dark suspicions that his enemies had harboured.  Indeed, he went out of his way to conciliate those Protestants who had been loyal to his brother and himself during the Exclusion Crisis of 1678–81, the church-and-crown loyalists, or ‘Tories’ as they had become known.   In Ireland he retained in office the Tory lord lieutenant, Clarendon (who happened to be his own brother-in-law), and no moves were made to change the direction of policy. 


Within a year, however, things had begun to change.  Perhaps James was over-confident, having seen off the feeble challenge of the Monmouth rebellion soon after his accession, and having enjoyed a relatively peaceful session of parliament at Westminster.  Perhaps he was, as some historians have argued, ‘an old man in a hurry’, anxious to improve the lot of his co-religionists while he still had the opportunity.   But for whatever reason he shifted his ground and embarked upon a radical reversal of his previous political strategy. 


In England he took steps to suspend the operation of the penal laws against Catholics and in 1687 introduced a Declaration of Indulgence to offer religious toleration to those — Protestant Dissenters as well as Catholics — who were outside the established church.  Catholics were given offices in government, in the universities, and most controversially in the army, and preparations were made for a new parliament which, the king hoped, would reform the religious basis of the state and institutionalise religious toleration by statute.


It was against this background of a fundamental change in the direction of royal policy — from endorsing a Tory programme of Anglican supremacy in church and state to seeking to construct an alliance of Catholics and Protestant Dissenters that would create a more pluralist society — that James removed Clarendon from office in 1687 and installed in his place, as lord deputy, the Irish Catholic Richard Talbot, earl of Tyrconnel.


Richard Talbot had been a close friend of the king since before the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and had served in James’s household when he was duke of York.  He came from Old English landowning stock, and combined a strong attachment to his religion and his class, with a consuming ambition for himself and his family. The Talbot brothers (who included Peter, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin) had acquired in the 1660s and 1670s a reputation for unprincipled ambition as they sought to make the most of their court connexions.  Even before James II had parted company with his Tory ministers he had given Tyrconnel a peerage and a regiment, and permitted him considerable influence over appointments to the army in Ireland.  This backstairs influence first unsettled and then undermined Clarendon in advance of his dismissal.


 With Clarendon out of the way Tyrconnel could embark upon something approaching a political revolution in Ireland, taking office and power away from Protestants to give instead to loyal Catholics.   He had begun by transforming the officer corps of the regiments stationed on the Irish military establishment, until Catholics predominated and he had in fact created an Irish Catholic army, indisputably loyal to James.  Then he turned his attention to the civil government:  Catholics were intruded into the Dublin castle bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the revenue commission.   And finally, he began to remodel local government, focusing on the corporations in town which served as parliamentary constituencies, with an eye on the possibility of a new election, and the ‘packing’ of a parliament in the king’s interest.


The Catholics who came to the fore under Tyrconnel’s regime were predominantly, though not exclusively, the ‘Old English’ Catholics.


Historians have pointed out that this was very much Tyrconnel’s policy rather than the king’s. James wished to do what he could for his Irish Catholic subjects — whom he regarded as among his most loyal supporters — but he did not consciously set out to subvert or replace existing institutions or power-structures in Ireland.  What took precedence for him was the maintenance of control over his English kingdom. He was anxious that the Protestant establishment in Ireland not be threatened openly, in case his English Protestant subjects should take fright.  And for similar reasons — the conciliation of English opinion —  he did not welcome any moves that would have weakened Ireland’s constitutional or economic dependence on England. 


Even so, Tyrconnel was a powerful advocate, who seems to have established a personal ascendancy over the king and to have been able to persuade him at critical points of the necessity of carrying through a radical reform programme that would strengthen the monarchy in the event of any resistance to his tolerationist policies in England.  There remained, however, a tension between Tyrconnel’s ambition of establishing what would have been in effect a separate Catholic state, united to James’s other kingdoms only in the person of the ruler, and the king’s own determination that Irish interests should continue to be subordinated to those of England.


After James had lost his English and Scottish thrones in 1688–9, he initially took refuge in France, but Tyrconnel remained in control of the machinery of government in Ireland and offered him the opportunity to rebuild his fortunes. James came to Ireland,  established his court in Dublin castle, and turned the Protestant cathedral of Christ Church into a centre for Catholic worship.  And to complete the reconstruction of government, and to vote the taxation he needed to  maintain his army, he called a parliament —  known to later Irish nationalists as ‘the patriot parliament’ — which unsurprisingly was dominated by Catholic landed and military interests. 


This assembly embarked on a programme of reform which went beyond anything that either James or Tyrconnel had previously envisaged:  the repeal of the post-Cromwellian land settlement, which would have restored a majority of Irish land to Catholic ownership; the repeal of the 1641 Elizabethan Act of Uniformity, on which the Protestant church establishment depended; the repeal of Poynings’ Law, to grant Ireland constitutional independence, and the opening up of Irish trade to the continent, away from the stifling effects of English legal inhibitions.


James was deeply offended by the extent of these proposals, and worked hard to mitigate their effects, fearing the impact they would have on English political opinion.  Although anxious to ensure toleration for his Irish Catholic subjects, full civil rights, and fair access to government office, he was not willing to consent to the replacement of the Protestant establishment by a Catholic establishment. He was also concerned to limit the changes to landownership, having himself been a beneficiary of the earlier land settlements, gaining a large private estate in County Cork, and was supported in this stand by those Catholic merchants and professional men (mostly lawyers) who had purchased lands since the Restoration.  But it was probably the idea of constitutional and economic independence from England that angered him the most.  The French envoy wrote:  ‘he has a heart too English to take any step that could vex the English’. 


The outcome was a set of  statutes that were not as far-reaching as many Catholic members of parliament wanted but were still sufficiently radical to dismay — and alienate — Protestant opinion on both sides of the Irish Sea.   The Act of Uniformity was not repealed, but Catholics were given complete freedom of worship, and relief from the requirement of paying tithes (a tax on agricultural income) to the Protestant clergy.   Poynings’ Law remained but a Declaratory Act gave the Irish parliament greater independence.  And most important, the land settelement was modified to restore former Catholic proprietors, with financial compensation to Catholic ‘new purchasers’.   In addition, a sweeping act of attainder was passed to confiscate lands from all those Protestants who had fled to England or were in Ireland and in arms against King James.


For James this was a public relations disaster, since it gave the impression of a regime that was vindictive and deeply sectarian. There was certainly no room for compromise with Irish Protestants, and the impact on opinion in England was, if anything worse, since, however hard the king might try to present himself as tolerant and pluralist, his rule in Ireland had resulted in the expropriation of Protestant lands, and with that, inevitably, the loss of political power;  the removal of the privileged position of the Protestant church;  and in practical terms a semi-independent Catholic state.  It was not the outcome he wanted, and in working against it he had probably weakened his own popularity among the Catholic political classes in Ireland.


II  The siege of Derry


Although Tyrconnel’s government controlled most of the country in the winter of 1688–9, there were still parts of Ireland which held out for the Prince of Orange.  Loyal associations of Protestant gentlemen had come together in the north-west (around Sligo) and the north-east to organise volunteer militia companies to resist Catholic rule.  In 1689 William sent supplies and a small number of troops under thed veteran Marshal Schomberg to support the north-eastern volunteer corps and to establish a bridgehead for the large-scale invasion that he intended in due course.   But at this stage the focus of attention for the Jacobite forces was not Antrim and Down., but the port of Derry.


James II’s troops had been thwarted in their attempt to seize control of the city of Derry on 7 December by the prompt action of the Protestant inhabitants, led (according to tradition) by a group of thirteen apprentices, who rushed to lock the main gates in the city wall with the Catholic force commanded by the earl of Antrim approaching. Thereafter the city provided a refuge for Protestants across the north-west, and its population swelled.  Eventually besieged by James’s army from April onwards, the citizens and the garrison remained defiant, despite near-starvation conditions, until July 1689, when English ships broke the boom which had been placed across the river Foyle to prevent naval access, and brought a much-needed relief.

The importance of the successful defence of Derry was not in its strategic or military value, but in terms of morale and the encouragement given to Williamite forces elsewhere in Ireland to stand firm.  At one point King James himself had appeared at the siege, and been defied in person.  Within the city, various political dramas were played out which were to feature subsequently in the narrative of the siege and its popular commemoration, notably the debate at the outset between those who despaired of success and those determined to stand firm for their religion and liberty. 

The most notorious defeatist was the governor, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Lundy, a professional soldier and a Scot, who became governor of the city In December 1688.  Lundy, whose original commission had been issued to him by King James, had scruples about betraying his oath of loyalty to James and transferring allegiance to William.  He was also much less confident than some of his military colleagues, and the leading citizens, about the capacity of the city to resist for any length of time, especially following his outlying forces had been routed by the advancing Jacobite army.  So when two regiments arrived from England he advised them to go back, arguing that provisions were insufficient to withstand a siege, and announced his intention to seek terms of surrender.

However, Lundy soon faced a mutiny from officers of his own garrison, led by Colonel Adam Murray, who denounced him, and fled the city disguised as a private soldier.  This action was enough to ensure his vilification in popular history and Williamite mythology as a traitor to the Protestant cause.  It left the defences of the city under the joint command of Colonel Henry Baker and George Walker, an Anglican clergyman.  Walker’s published history, A true account of the siege of Londonderry made memorable for an English audience the story of the siege and the sufferings of the inhabitants, including their resort to a diet of rats, mice and dogs.   His deputy, and eventual successor as governor, John Michelburne, also published an account of the siege and his experiences, and even a play, Ireland preserv’d, which put a version of these events on to the London stage.

Presented to the public as a kind of morality play, the narrative of the siege became a kind of parable of Protestant resistance to tyranny, and an emblem of the self-reliance of the Irish Protestant community.   In the aftermath of the war, Williamite rhetoric in Ireland, expressed in pamphlets, sermons, ballads, and popular verse, as well as the histories of Walker and Michelburne, emphasised the part that Irish Protestants themselves had played in their own salvation. English attitudes, and especially the interpretation of events articulated by English M.P.s, was very different, concentrating instead on the financial contribution made by the English taxpayer to the defence of the Protestant establishment in Ireland.   This became a real political issue in the late 1690s, when the Westminster parliament passed a series of measures designed to reinforce Ireland’s constitutional and economic subordination, and Anglo-Irish relations deteriorated badly.   In justifying themselves, Irish Protestants ascribed their survival in 1688–91 to divine providence — acting through King William as God’s instrument — and to their own efforts, rather than to the ‘blood and treasure’ expended by the English on their behalf.  The courage of the defenders of Derry thus became a potent symbol of their virtue and independence.


III  The dynastic and European context


The war fought in Ireland between the armies of James II and William III was not simply an Irish, nor even a British, event, but part of a more general European conflict.   While the war obviously had a major impact on the history of Ireland, its causes and consequences have to be considered in a much broader context.

In the first place, despite the engagement of the Protestant and Catholic communities in Ireland, this was not simply a civil war, or a war of colonial conquest.   The two armies that met at the Boyne and Aughrim were professional armies, each containing contingents of troops supplied by their allies (Catholic French soldiers on James’s side, Protestant Danish soldiers on William’s). Their respective commanders were rival claimants to the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland.  As such, this was a dynastic struggle.  But it was also much more than that.


William had brought an invasion force into England in November 1688 partly in order to safeguard his wife’s interest in the royal succession, following the birth of a male heir to James II in June 1688.  Until then, Mary, as the elder of James’s two daughters by his first, Protestant, wife, Anne Hyde, had been heir presumptive to her father’s throne, that is to say she stood to succeed her father provided that he did not produce a son (and heir apparent) by his second, Catholic, wife, the Italian princess Mary of Modena.  When this unlooked-for event occurred, William seemed to have lost his long-term ambition of combining the Stuart crowns with quasi-monarchical role of stadholder of  the United Provinces (modern-day Holland) — a kind of princely regency over what was technically a republic — which was the hereditary privilege of the princes of Orange.  King James’s enemies in England had spread the false rumour that the new prince of Wales, named James Francis Edward, was a suppositious child. According to this version, Mary of Modena had only pretended to be pregnant, and a baby had been smuggled into the royal bedchamber in a warming pan. Whether or not William believed this unlikely story — and it seems fairly certain that he did not — it was useful propaganda and provided a cover for his interference in English affairs, on behalf of his wife, and perhaps also himself, for as James’s nephew, as well as son-in-law, he could muster a claim of his own to the succession.

But William had other pressing concerns besides the wish that one day he and his wife would rule England, Scotland and Ireland, as well as Holland.  As a Dutch patriot, he was obsessed — and with good reason — by the threat posed to his country by the expansionist aims of the French king, Louis XIV.  A French invasion of Holland in1672 had only been stopped when the Dutch had deliberately flooded huge tracts of their territory, and in the ensuing war, despite being faced by an alliance comprising Holland, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Spain and Brandenburg-Prussia, Louis had been able to extort significant concessions, and showed no sign of being satisfied.  In 1688 his armies crossed the Rhine to attack Austrian possessions, and the previous anti-French coalition was revived, in the form of the Grand Alliance (also known as  the League of Augsburg).  William was desperate to bring England into the alliance, but James II, like his brother before him, was more sympathetic to the French, and determined at least to remain neutral.

The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 (as William’s supporters called it), whereby James II left England for exile in France, and the Convention Parliament offered the ‘vacant’ crown to William and Mary, to rule jointly, changed the balance of power in Europe.  England was now brought into the Grand Alliance, and her military and economic resources were William’s to command.  Most important, the combined naval forces of the  English and Dutch could blockade Louis XIV’s ships and threaten France with attack from the sea, potentially opening up a second front in the European war.  In response, Louis sought to tie up William’s armies by supporting those in James’s own dominions who remained loyal to their anointed king:  the Jacobites in Scotland and Ireland (so called after the Latin for James, ‘Jacobus’). It was Louis who urged James to go to Ireland in 1689, where the Jacobite lord deputy, Tyrconnel, was still in control of the apparatus of government, and of a substantial army.  James himself was less enthusiastic:  his foremost wish was to be king of England again, and the best way to achieve this ambition was to invade England.   But he needed a French army to do that, and was thus dependent on Louis and effectively at his disposal. His appearance in Ireland in 1689 was as much as anything else a French diversionary tactic, designed to preoccupy William in his own back yard.

The broader, European context of the war of the two kings accounts for some of its stranger aspects, most particularly the role of the papacy, which supported William’s invasion of England in 1688. Ordinary Protestants in England, Scotland and Ireland assumed that they were fighting a war for religion and liberty. This was the version presented in Williamite propaganda:  James represented popery and absolute monarchy; William represented Protestantism and parliamentary government.  And standing behind James, it was assumed, were the combined armies of the Catholic powers of Europe, headed by France and fighting at the pope’s bidding, in a murderous international campaign to extirpate the reformed religion from its tenuous foothold in north-western Europe.  However, this was a fundamental misreading of the continental political scene.  European Catholicism was by no means monolithic, and the papacy had other, more urgent, concerns than the persistence of Protestant establishments in north Germany, the Netherlands, the Baltic states, and the British isles.  


France was indeed the most formidable military power in Europe in the late seventeenth century, following the decline of Spain, but it was not the only great power.  The Habsburg ruler of Austria headed a vast dynastic empire that included Hungary, Bohemia (the modern-day Czech republic), Croatia and the southern Netherlands (now Belgium), as well as parts of northern Italy.  He was also Holy Roman Emperor, the elected head of what was in effect a loose association of German states, which gave him influence though not command, over many of the smaller principalities, including the various small states in the Rhineland.  Another branch of the Habsburg family ruled in Spain, which meant that France was in effect surrounded by Habsburg dominions.  Thus the real dynamic of French foreign policy was not the desire to wipe out Protestantism from Europe, but to make inroads into the Habsburg encirclement of France.  For his part, the Austrian emperor was even less concerned with supporting his Catholic co-religionists in England, Scotland and Ireland.   He was intent on settling affairs in western Europe in order to concentrate on his prime interest, the defence of his own lands against the Ottoman Turkish empire, which already controlled much of the Balkans and in 1683 had mounted an invasion of Habsburg territory, reaching the gates of Vienna.  Although on that occasion the Austrian capital was saved by a  military victory the Turks remained on the offensive, taking Budapest in 1686.


The papacy was therefore faced with a choice between the interests of the French and the interests of the Austrians. Relations between Louis XIV and Pope Innocent XI were soured by the Louis’ pursuit of an ecclesiastical policy known as ‘Gallicanism’, which emphasised the independent authority of the French monarchy over the Catholic Church in France, and culminated in the so-called ‘Gallican articles’ promulgated in 1682, arrogating to the king the right to nominate to Catholic bishoprics in France. The result was open conflict, with Innocent withholding papal approval for royal nominees to the episcopate. Despite Louis’s attempts to improve relations, by revoking the toleration of French Protestants (Huguenots) guaranteed by the Edict of Nantes, Innocent was not convinced and in 1688 backed William III’s invasion of England despite the implications for the future of English Catholicism (though he probably did not, as some historians have alleged, secretly advance money to assist William’s preparations).  His priority was to support the Austrian defence of the southern frontier of western Christendom against Turkish aggression, which he saw as a modern-day crusade.  After Innocent’s death in 1689, French influence was brought to bear on electing a successor who would be more sympathetic to their cause. The new pope, Alexander VIII, an elderly and altogether less energetic individual than his predecessor, proved to be friendlier to Louis, but publicly was neither pro-French nor pro-Austrian, and remained neutral during the Irish campaigns of 1690–91.


IV  The Boyne and its aftermath


Military historians argue about the precise strategic importance of the battle of the Boyne in July 1690.   With hindsight it appears decisive. After the Boyne William’s cause was in the ascendant and his father-in-law’s forces were driven on to the defensive.  And most important perhaps, following his defeat in 1690 James left Ireland, never to return. But at the time observers would not have been so sure of the ultimate outcome of the war. Defeat at the Boyne did not result in the immediate collapse of the King James’s cause and the complete victory of the Williamite forces.  If one is looking for a moment that would have appeared to contemporaries as genuinely decisive, the battle of Aughrim, a year later, seems a much better candidate. The two sides at Aughrim were evenly matched and for some time the outcome of the battle hung in the balance.  Defeat there ended all Jacobite hopes.


There were two reasons why the Boyne was not immediately decisive.  First, Ireland was not William’s priority, and instead of completing the destruction of the Jacobite forces himself he took the first opportunity to returning to England, and thence to what was for him the prime theatre of the land war, on the continent of Europe.   Thus he did not himself press home his advantage in Ireland, but left the mopping-up operations to his generals, with a reduced military force.   This decision undoubtedly helped to encourage resistance and enabled the leaders of James’s defeated army to regroup.  The second, and equally important, reason was the naval victory secured by the French navy in August over the English and Dutch at the battle of Beachy Head, in the English Channel, which robbed William of command of the sea and resulted in the disgrace of the English commander, Arthur Herbert, earl of Torrington. The engagement off Beachy Head effectively turned the tables militarily after the Boyne, and put William back on the defensive.  The morale of Jacobite loyalists in Ireland was immediately given a fillip.   More to the point, the French were now able to reinforce their own military commitment in Ireland, hoping to tie down a substantial portion of William’s forces.  Even if they did not see the Irish war as ultimately winnable, they could envisage a long campaign which would enable them to recover ground in Europe.


The war entered a new phase. James’s army, without its king, retreated to a line west of the Shannon, and began what was essentially a defensive campaign, playing for time in the hope that William might be defeated on the continent and brought to terms.  Command of the Jacobite forces was shared between the French general St Ruth and a group of Irish Catholic officers, prominent among whom was the dashing young cavalry commander Patrick Sarsfield, fast making a reputation for himself that would outlive the war. 


Not all of James’s supporters found continued military resistance an attractive prospect, and divisions began to appear in the Catholic community:  some favoured an immediate peace deal with William which might preserve some of their property and influence; others, including Sarsfield, determined to fight to the end.   A number of contemporary commentators interpreted this split between the ‘peace party’ and the ‘war party’ as another manifestation of the ongoing divergence of interests between the ‘Old English’ Catholics (the descendants of the pre-Reformation, Anglo-Norman settlers) and ‘Old Irish’ (or native, Gaelic Irish).  But these former ethnic differences had been clouded by the events of the seventeenth century, and by intermarriage. Sarsfield, for example, could claim both Old English and Old Irish descent.  The real difference seems to have been between those — swordsmen and returning exiles — who had nothing to lose from a war to the death, and the merchants and lawyers who had profited under Charles II and acquired property since the restoration land settlement, the so-called ‘new purchasers’.


The influence of the French — the paymasters of the Jacobite army who were able to call the tune — determined that the counsels of the ‘war party’ would prevail.   Had Tyrconnel been more influential, it is possible that he might have directed events differently:  a more experienced and subtler politician than the swordsmen who now exercised political as well as military leadership on the Catholic side, it is by no means clear that he was opposed to a negotiated peace.  But he was gradually being sidelined, and he was to die of a stroke before the final dénouement.


After Aughrim, the disastrous defeat in July 1691 which really did see the extinction of Jacobite hopes, James’s forces were besieged in the fortified cities of Galway and Limerick, with no realistic chance of doing any more than holding out for as long as possible.  The turning point of the battle had been the death of St Ruth, decapitated by a cannon shot, and with his death perished the possibility of continuing French military aid.   For his part, William was more anxious than ever to see hostilities concluded.  Apart from his own victory at the Boyne, 1690 had been a bad year:  there had been the naval loss at Beachy Head, the French had made gains on their south-eastern border, and William’s ally the Austrian Emperor had suffered a serious military defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.  His Grand Alliance spent 1691 playing for time, while the French continued to advance in the south.  And so William’s military commanders in Ireland, the Dutchman Ginkel, and his civil government in Dublin Castle, were instructed to conclude a peace treaty in Ireland as soon as possible.


V. The Treaty of Limerick and the consequences of the war:  Ireland after 1691


There were in fact two peace treaties concluded between Jacobites and Williamites in 1691:  the articles of Galway, signed in July 1691, within a fortnight of the battle of Aughrim, which marked the end of the brief Williamite siege of that city, and the civil and military articles of Limerick, agreed in the following October, which extinguished the last flicker of Jacobite resistance.   The two peace treaties were almost identical, except for the fact that that the Limerick treaty required Catholics remaining in Ireland to take an oath of allegiance to William and Mary in order to benefit from its provisions.   These harsher terms reflected the weaker position of the Limerick garrison, and also the fact that it contained the bulk of the remaining regular Jacobite forces, while the Galway garrison, who had capitulated much earlier,  had been led by members of the local Catholic landowning class — primarily of Old English extraction — men who were sympathetic to the aims of the ‘peace party’ and not committed to last-ditch resistance.


Both treaties included both military and civil articles.  The military articles dealt with the disbandment of the Jacobite troops who were offered the alternatives of going over to William’s army or leaving Ireland to join the forces of the French king.  A minority — no more than a thousand — chose the first option;  the vast majority, over fourteen thousand, preferred exile, their departure going down in history as the ‘flight of the wild geese’.  The civil articles provided for those Catholics remaining in Ireland, who were to retain their property, the right to practise their trades or professions, and the right to bear arms, an important mark of high social status in the seventeenth century .  They were also guaranteed such religious freedoms as were ‘consistent with the laws of Ireland’, or as they had enjoyed under Charles II.


There were loopholes in the treaties from the beginning, and the way in which they were interpreted gave rise to controversy and a sense on the Catholic side of having been cheated.  In the first place the scope of the civil articles was obscure:  as well as the garrisons, the original agreement had stipulated that the articles were to apply to all those currently under the protection of the Jacobite armies outside the besieged cities.  This clause was left out of the fair copy of the articles drawn up by Williamite officials — it became notorious as ‘the missing clause’ — and although subsequently acknowledged by King William was omitted again in the act of the Irish parliament in 1697 that eventually ratified the treaties. Second, the statements about religious liberty in the treaties were so vague that they did not in practice mean anything at all:  the condition of Irish Catholics under Charles II’s reign had varied from time to time and that particular phrase could be interpreted positively or negatively.  In any case it too was omitted from the act of ratification.


The aftermath of the war witnessed a complete betrayal of the spirit of the treaties. This was not William’s own doing:  he was not a religious bigot.  Although a Dutch Calvinist by upbringing he was prepared when king of England and Ireland to support an episcopalian church establishment, and he did not countenance the persecution of minorities, though whether from a genuine commitment to the ideals of toleration or a pragmatic indifference to religious distinctions is unclear.  He did not, however, enjoy a free hand over Irish policy.  His English supporters were intolerant of Catholicism — ‘popery’ was their preferred term — in all the king’s dominions.  Moreover, the fragility of government finances  in Ireland required William to call an Irish parliament, and it was that parliament, from which Catholics were excluded, which from 1695 devised and enacted a series of penal laws restricting Catholic political and civil rights, including the right to hold government office and carry arms, and limiting the opportunities for Catholics to practise their religion, through the deportation of bishops and members of religious orders.  From the first these restrictions applied to Catholics outside the terms of the articles of Galway and Limerick, and following the ratification of a watered down version of the articles, they applied to Catholics throughout the kingdom.


The ‘penal laws’ were extended by further statutes passed in the next reign.   Catholics were gradually denied access to all professions except medicine, and restrictions were introduced on the rights of Catholics to inherit or purchase landed property.   Towards the end of the eighteenth century liberal reformers would argue that this legislation constituted a ‘penal code’, a misleading description since the various bills were introduced separately and over a period of time rather than as a single body of laws, and some by English ministers rather than Irish M.P.s.   Nonetheless, taken together the laws do amount to a comprehensive destruction of Catholic political and civil liberties.  In contemporary Europe discrimination of this kind against those who did not belong to the established church was commonplace:  most European states were ‘confessional states’  rather than pluralist states where toleration allowed different religious groups to flourish.  And even the fact that Catholics in Ireland were a majority, rather than a minority, did not make the Irish penal laws unique.  Later critics argued that these laws were created by a victorious Protestant propertied elite to maintain their grip on land and power:  it is more likely that they were seen as a means of defending Protestantism in Ireland from a repeat of the events of 1687–90. For example, laws against Catholics practising as barristers, and buying land, prevented the reappearance of the sort of new Catholic landed interest which had formed the backbone of the Jacobite bureaucracy and parliament in the 1680s. 


The defeat of James II therefore, introduced a long period of Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland.   The restoration land settlements were re-established, following the failure of the Jacobite attempt to turn back the clock, and Catholic landownership was reduced still further by another round of confiscations, underpinned by the penal laws.   Moreover the emergence of the Irish parliament after 1691 gave the Protestant landowning class a means by which they could influence government and determine social and economic policy in Ireland through legislation.   In constitutional terms the Irish parliament was not the equal of the English.  Those who headed the government in Dublin were appointed from England and did not depend for their authority on the enjoyment of majority support in the Irish parliament. Moreover Poynings Law — passed in 1494 —  invested the Irish and English privy councils with  the power to vet Irish legislation, to amend and even suppress bills they did not like, and the English parliament retained the right to legislate for Ireland if need be.  But in practice M.P.s in Dublin were allowed a great deal of initiative. Thus, as the eighteenth century opened, the Protestant ruling class that had been established by the Cromwellian conquest and land settlement could see itself as secure in its near monopoly of landed property, and had acquired an unprecedented influence over the way in which the country was governed.

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