I woke up this morning at my home in Ireland and cooked myself a big bowl of oatmeal.
I then went outside and shouted at the top of my voice, “Anne Boleyn is a whore and King Henry is a scurvy knave for marrying her!”
I am planning to have potatoes for my dinner.
And just look at me—still a free man.
The reason for my lack of internment by the authorities can be attributed to the fact that 6,000 obsolete laws—including prohibitions on criticizing Henry VIII’s second marriage and eating oatmeal and spuds—have been cleared from the Irish statute book.
Although Ireland’s repeal of 6,000 laws (historico-legal nerds can check out the full list here) has generated laughs on reddit, the truth is that many of the obsolete laws are a testament to the brutal repression of Catholics in Ireland when it was a British colony.
They might seem funny now, but these pieces of legislation were deadly serious at the time—tools fashioned specifically for the intimidation and coercion of a populace.
For instance, a proclamation of 1712 (now repealed) allowed for the apprehension and arrest of nuns settled in Dublin.
There is a proclamation “requiring innocent Catholics to put in their claims to be restored to their lands” (1661) and there are also many proclamations offering rewards for the arrest of “a Catholic priest”.
The list of toxic legislation goes on and on—the full list of 6,000 items comes in at 310 pages—and makes for a dark testament of the appalling discrimination to which Irish Catholics were routinely subject for half a millennium, as the Protestant British authorities sought to enforce obedience to their rule by crushing the religious heritage of the natives.
There are proclamations banning assemblies of Catholics, proclamations expelling Catholic priests, proclamations restricting the freedom of movement of Catholics and numerous proclamations offering rewards for information on specific members of the clergy.
Other laws hint at governmental response to economic crises—for example, the oatmeal and potatoes order—mandating the consumption of both for the lower orders—dates from 1817, during the economic depression that followed the Napoleonic wars.
To counteract soaring prices, the Lord Lieutenant proclaimed than anyone “not in the lower classes of life” should desist from eating them or feeding them to horses, “especially horses for pleasure.”
There are also laws that testify to the superstition of the age, such as a 1665 order appointing the first Wednesday of every month as a day of fasting and penance for the relief of Bubonic plague in London.
And then there are simple matters of town planning—such as the 1764 order “prohibiting persons causing pavements in Dublin to be raised higher than their neighbours.”
Many ancient European states have numerous obsolete laws on the statute book—indeed, in the UK, it is still technically illegal to eat traditional mince pies on Christmas Day (a law imposed by the puritan Oliver Cromwell) and conversely it is permitted to shoot a Welshman, on a Sunday, with a longbow in the Cathedral Close, Hereford.
Many of the old Irish laws now swept aside—such as the bans on dueling in the army (1691), or the order prohibiting trade with Genoa (1796)—date back hundreds of years.
The threat to anyone criticizing the marriage of King Henry to Anne Boleyn has been lingering on since 1533 (although one can probably assume that by cutting off her head in 1536, the King was implicitly giving permission for mere verbal criticism to resume).
The simple reason these old laws remain on the books is that parliaments tend to be better at passing new laws than repealing old ones.
The spring clean of the statute book was particularly necessary in Ireland’s case, the government said, because the colonial history has left the country with a complex stock of legislation, with enactments from Parliaments of Ireland, England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
This is undoubtedly true, but to the pragmatic necessity of the technical process should be added the heartfelt observation that sweeping aside five hundred years of highly discriminatory legislation is also deeply symbolic, and simply the right thing to do.