Penal Laws (Na Péindlíthe) were a series of laws imposed to force Catholic and Protestant dissenters (Presbyterians) to accept the reformed Christian faith as the official State religion. The main purpose was to reduce the Catholic population to a lowly position in society by depriving them of wealth, education, political power and it was also intended to gradually eliminate the Catholic priesthood. These are some of the Penal Laws:
- All Catholic bishops were to leave the country
- Catholic priests were required to register and take an oath of allegiance
- A ban on intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants.
- A ban on Catholics buying land or inheriting Protestant land.
- The exclusion of Catholics from most public offices.
- The right of Catholics to practise their religion in public was restricted.
Some leaders of the Church of Ireland hoped that the Penal Laws would encourage Catholics to convert to the Protestant faith but that rarely happened in Inishowen, Domhnall Gorm being the exception. Catholic churches were taken over by the Established Church. Catholics were not allowed to have churches and their priests were not allowed to practise save under government permission. The landowning limitations meant that Catholics could not really own land at all. The native Irish were reduced to the position of ignorant serfs used to serve the privileged minority of Protestants who had planted the peninsula.
The loss of the churches meant that the people had no place to say Mass , except at Mass rocks about the hills. To meet in the houses of the people could incur the landlord’s anger and lead to the eviction of the owner. Early on Sunday morning the people gathered in great secrecy at a secluded spot. The time and place were made known to the initiated only. The life of the priest and their own security were at stake. Discretion was needed. On a hill nearby one person stood on guard to give warning of the approach of the priest-hunter and the English soldiers. There are Mass rocks in every part of Clonmany parish – Garraí an tSagairt ( Magheramore), Leac an Aifrinn (Mullagh), Creag na hAltora (Altahall), Altar Rock (Cloghfin) and later when Penal Laws were relaxed at the Scáthlán behind Porter’s of Gaddyduff where Mass was said openly for the whole parish. Fr Corr who came to Clonmany in 1784 said Mass there. Near the Scáthlán is Ard na hEaglaise ( The Chapel height) and a decade later when the 1793 Catholic Relief Act was passes a new Chapel was built along the main Buncrana to Binnion road where the Catholic Church stands today.