One of the most persistent myths in this country is that 17th and 18th century legislation collectively known as the Penal Laws was specifically anti-Irish. This was not the case. A similar series of laws was also passed by the Parliament in London and with the same aim: to place at disadvantage anyone, regardless of nationality, not a member of the Established (that is Anglican) Church. From the second half of the 17th century onwards in England, Wales and Scotland, as in Ireland, all non-conformists were excluded from civil and military office, and were not permitted to receive a degree from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. England’s Corporation Act of 1661, for example, obliged all municipal officials to take Anglican communion thereby ensuring non-conformists were unable to hold public office. The Act of Uniformity introduced the following year made the Anglican Book of Common Prayer compulsory at religious services (over 2,000 clergy found it impossible to comply with this obligation and accordingly resigned their positions). The Penal Laws were harsh towards denominations other than Roman Catholic. Presbyterians for example found it just as challenging to practice their faith and this explains why so many members of the sect (estimated to have been more than 400,000) having moved to Ulster in order to escape persecution, during the 18th century emigrated to colonial America where they were able to enjoy greater religious liberties.
It is true that for a long time Roman Catholics were looked upon with particular suspicion by successive British governments. This was at least in part because the Papacy forbade Catholics from taking the Oath of Supremacy which declared the English monarch to be rightful head of that country’s church; even without state legislation Catholics thus debarred themselves from holding public office since swearing the oath was a legal requirement for anyone wishing to do so. The Act of Settlement passed in 1701 by the English parliament remains in force to the present day, and continues to prevent a member of that country’s royal family from becoming or marrying a Catholic and still retaining rights of succession. The English, like the Irish, can have long memories: until the 19th century they would recall Regnans in Excelsis, the bull issued by Pius V in 1570 which declared Elizabeth I to be a heretic and released her subjects from allegiance to the queen, as well as summarily excommunicating anyone who had obeyed her orders. And even today they remember the Gunpowder Plot, the 410th anniversary of which falls in a few weeks’ time: that occasion in November 1605 when a group of Roman Catholics planned to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament by James I. Even though anti-Catholic legislation was gradually repealed or allowed to fall into abeyance, as late as 1780 hostility against Catholics was virulent in some quarters. In that year and in reaction to the Papists Act of 1778 the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots broke out in London; the resultant looting and destruction was more serious than any civil disturbance since seen in the English capital.
Despite the many disadvantages under which they suffered, not least grave financial penalties, some Roman Catholic families in England, Wales and Scotland continued to practise their faith and to hold onto their property. Known as Recusants owing to their refusal to attend Anglican services, the story of their survival was told by Mark Bence-Jones in his 1992 book The Catholic Families. This is by way of a preamble to noting that likewise in Ireland even in the face of the Penal legislation a number of old Gaelic and Hiberno-Norman families somehow managed to hold onto both their religion and their land. The history of some of them can in turn be read in the 1997 book Grace’s Card: Irish Catholic Landlords 1690-1800 by Charles Chenevix Trench (whose great-grandfather had been Anglican Archbishop of Dublin from 1863-1886). The Prestons, who as Lords Gormanston were bearers of the oldest vicomital title in Britain and Ireland retained their estate in County Meath, as did the Plunketts who as Earls of Fingall held the premier earldom in this country. Other untitled families likewise kept some, if not all of their former lands. The Hiberno-Norse Deases are known to have settled in what is now Westmeath in the second half of the 13th century. There they remained until the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries during which they were dispossessed on several occasions, yet kept returning to their ancestral estate. Throughout this and subsequent eras, and regardless of the rigour of the Penal Laws to which they like everyone else was subject, they also remained true to the Roman Catholic faith of their forebears. Among their number, Thomas Dease served as Catholic Bishop of Meath from 1622-51 having previously acted as rector of the Irish seminary in Paris.
In the first years of the 19th century the Deases built a new house on the site of an earlier property. Called Turbotstown this Greek-revival building’s design has long been attributed to the prolific Francis Johnston and indeed aspects of Turbotstown bear similarities to other examples of his work. The cut-limestone exterior is severe, of three bays and two storeys with a central Ionic columned porch marking the entrance: a first floor Wyatt window is of the same width as the half-glazed double doors beneath. To one side is a lower two-storey wing which then wraps around to incorporate a service yard: in part of this can be found the Deases’ former private chapel where presumably they worshipped prior to providing the land for the construction of a Roman Catholic church nearby. The main block has a dignified simplicity which emphasises the generous proportions of the high-ceilinged rooms. The house’s most striking feature is its inner hall, the centre of its ceiling opening to a first-floor circular gallery above which in turn rises an octagonal lantern which provides light for otherwise windowless areas. In an adjoining double-height space the cantilevered staircase lit by a large arched window on the return has decorative wrought-iron balusters supporting a mahogany handrail. Indeed space and grace are the two distinguishing features of Turbotstown. Although the Deases ceased to occupy the house in the last century and it passed for a period into other hands, eleven years ago it was bought back by descendants of the family. Since then the present owners have been engaged in the restoration of Turbotstown, a fitting tribute to an old Irish Roman Catholic family which remained in possession of its property throughout the dark days of the Penal Laws and beyond.