The origin and the purpose of the Irish penal laws have always been subjects of contention. These laws have often been viewed as a ‘rag-bag’ of legislation, lacking in government policy, without precedent or forethought, motivated by rapacity, unfavoured in England and yet tolerated in return for concessions by an Irish parliament greedy for Catholic land and wealth. However, in the context of the first two Irish penal laws of 1695, and most specifically the disarming act, this generality does not hold good. It is the aim of this article to show that the two penal laws of 1695, for disarming Catholics and prohibiting foreign education, were the result of a definite policy which existed in Ireland from the time of the Williamite war. This policy was built upon a previous tradition of English statutes and Irish proclamations. The pressure for this policy came not only from Irish Protestants, but also from English ministers and from the crown. And the prime motive was security of the Protestant interest.
Victory at Limerick in October 1691 did not end the threat to the Williamite Protestant interest in Ireland. Fear of Catholic Europe remained constant as long as William III was at war with France, a fear that was heightened by the activities of privateers and rapparees. In the search for greater security, a policy developed for disarming Irish Catholics, which was actively supported by William III and his executive and legislature in England, was implemented by the executive in Ireland, and was encouraged and promoted by the Irish Protestant interest.