Penal Laws

The penal laws were passed in the years following the victory of the Protestant monarchs William and Mary over Catholic King James II in 1691. The laws were a reflection of the Protestant elite’s insecurity in Ireland and their main objective was to maintain control of wealth and power in the hands of members of the Church of Ireland. One way this was achieved was by restricting Irish Catholics’ access to education. The laws also made it extremely challenging for convents to survive, let alone flourish.

Picture attribution: Penal Crucifix, National Museum of Ireland Collection – F:1932.93

Above: This Penal Crucifix comes from Co. Galway. Penal crosses often had short arms so that they were easily portable and could be hidden if necessary.
Above: The Mass Rock


Nano Nagle defied the penal laws when she opened her first school for poor Catholic girls in Cork during the 1750s. Even in 1775, when the Presentation Order was officially established, these schools remained illegal. However, these obstacles did not hinder the perseverance and dedication of Nano Nagle and her followers.

Penal Chalice

Above: Silver chalice and paten from the period when the penal laws were active.
Above: The chalice can be unscrewed into three individual parts, enabling it to be easily concealed