In his Tracts on the Popery Laws, Edmund Burke outlined the reasons why he regarded the Penal Laws as “one leading cause of the imbecility of Ireland.” In his commentary, Burke places particular emphasis on those aspects of the law which subvert the “normal” relations between parents and children. The laws for instance included a provision that a son who converted to Protestantism could “aquire the reversion and inheritance” of his father’s estate even while his father was alive. Noting that no age limit was attached to this provision, Burke writes that “the paternal power is in all such families so enervated that it may well be considered as entirely taken away; even the principle upon which it is founded seems to be directly reversed.” The 1695 Act “to restrain foreign education” is also condemned by Burke on the grounds that it inappropriately assigns the legal status of adult to a child who can be “convicted” of being sent abroad to a Catholic institution and are subsequently condemned to “a kind of unalterable and perpetual outlawry. The tender and incapable age of such a person, his natural subjection to the will of others, his necessary, unavoidable ignorance of the laws, stands for nothing in his favour.”
Burke’s comments alert us to the fact that definitions of the child shift and fluctuate according to a variety of social and political imperatives (the ubiquity of child labour well into the late nineteeenth century offering an obvious example). In this paper, I will consider the provisions of the Penal Laws as a specifically colonial construction of adult/child relations.