Legal History Group Conference on Law and Religion in Ireland 1530-1970

The UCD Legal History group, a  research cluster based in the Sutherland School of Law, held a day-long round table conference on the theme of religion in Irish Law from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. The event was funded with the assistance of a grant from the UCD Seed Funding Scheme.    

The Penal Laws against Catholics provided the principal area of intersection between law and religion in the eighteenth century. A paper by Charles McGrath of the School of History at UCD provided a survey of the wider Penal Legal framework enacted between 1695 and 1750. One of the objects of the Penal Laws was to reduce the threat of Catholic insurrection by preventing Catholic landowners accumulating large estates. Lawyers advising Catholic landowners developed ingenious legal techniques for retaining and acquiring land in ways which avoided the Penal Laws. Papers by Philip Walsh (School of History, UCD) and Emma Lyons (School of History, UCD) provided two case studies, based on the estate papers of two Catholic landowning families,  describing how Catholic landowners managed to evade the Penal Laws. 

By the mid-eighteenth century, the Irish Parliament had begun to relax the Penal Laws. A paper read by Professor James Kelly of DCU described the measures taken by the Irish Parliament to gradually reform the Penal Laws, and to enable Catholics to hold land and the Catholic Church to organise more openly. 

Nial Osborough, who taught for many years at Trinity College Dublin and UCD, is acknowledged as the doyenne of Irish legal historical study. His paper  ‘Church Briefs and Charitable Relief: Reparation  for Two Early Eighteenth Century Fire-Damaged Ulster Towns’ investigated the obscure topic of church briefs: a form of state-sponsored charity collection administered by the church.

Leanne Calvert (Hertford University) discussed the type of civil work processed by local Presbyterian church courts in Ulster 1700-1839, and the role of these private courts within the Presbyterian community.   

The Catholic Emancipation Act 1829 is usually considered to have brought a final end to the Penal Laws. This assumption was contested in a paper by Kevin Costello (UCD) which demonstrated ways in which direct legal disabilities continued to be imposed -  particularly on the Catholic religious orders – between 1829 and 1920. A paper by Professor Oliver Rafferty (Boston College, USA) entitled the ‘Legal and constitutional organisation of the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century’ discussed the original topic of the internal legal organisational framework of the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century, its relationship with the Vatican, and the wider state. 

Two papers dealt with the Church of Ireland between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: an essay by Paul Colton (the Church of Ireland, Bishop of Cork) dealt with the dis-establishment of the Church of Ireland, through the enactment of Church Act 1869. A paper by Robert Marshall (independent scholar) described the legal fallout- prosecutions, trials for heresy and judicial review- of bitter the disputes between the evangelical and the ritualist or ‘high church’ wings of the Church of Ireland in the early twentieth century. 

Thomas Mohr (UCD) provided an original survey of the role of religion in the Constitution of the Irish Free State. The 1922 Constitution made little mention of religion; Dr Mohr’s paper described how this came about, and the way in which the drafters resisted pressures to include greater provision for religion.  

The final paper of the day was delivered by Donal Coffey  (Manx Plank Institute, Germany) and  Niamh Ni Leathlobhair (independent). ‘A Legal and Political History of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland’ dealt with the political and legal history of the decision to remove, by referendum in 1972, the provision in Article 44 which had recognized the special position of the Roman Catholic church.

The next stage in this project will be a publication on the topic of law and religion in Ireland. This will be mainly based on the papers delivered at the conference. 

‘Law and Religion in Ireland 1530-1970’ is the second major research project undertaken by the UCD Legal History Group. A previous project, on the interaction between the law and family life 1800-1950, is the basis of the book, Niamh Howlin and Kevin Costello, Law and the Family in Ireland 1800-1950 (Palgrave 2017).