The celebration of the Irish Martyrs includes hundreds who are remembered for giving their lives for the Catholic faith in Ireland between the years 1537 and 1714. A huge number of priests and lay people suffered much in Ireland during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and that of her immediate successors, as well as during the era of Oliver Cromwell. However, the details of their endurance in most cases have been lost. Religious persecution of Catholics in Ireland began under Henry VIII, when the English Parliament adopted the Acts of Supremacy, which established the king’s supremacy over the Church, independent of the Pope. In England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland bishops, priests and lay people who continued to recognise the pope were tortured and killed. Further legislation laid down that any act of allegiance to the pope was to be considered treason. Many Catholics were imprisoned on this basis.
The list of Irish martyrs alone is very long and happened over several reigns. They began, as mentioned, under King Henry VIII (died in 1547) but continued under Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), James I (1603-25) and Charles I (1625-49). Then under Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth (1649-59) and followed by the Restoration (Charles II, William of Orange, Queen Anne, 1660-1714). In 1714, King George I came to the throne.
There was a long delay in starting the investigations into the causes of the Irish martrys for fear of reprisals. In addition, investigation was hampered by a lack of records which were either destroyed or not drawn up, because of the danger of keeping such evidence.
Following Catholic Emancipation in Ireland in 1829 when the Catholic religion could again be freely practised, the cause of Oliver Plunket was taken up. This resulted in a whole series of writings covering the period of persecution. The first to complete the process was Oliver Plunket, Archbishop of Armagh, who was beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975 by Pope Paul VI.
On 27 September 1992, the 17 martyrs we commemorate today were beatified by Pope John Paul II. They include:
Dermot O’Hurley was Archbishop of Cashel during the reign of Elizabeth I. He was born in Emly, Co Tipperary about 1530. He went to study at the University of Leuven and became professor of philosophy and Canon Law at the University of Rheims, moving to Rome about 1570. In 1581 O’Hurley was appointed Archbishop of Cashel by Pope Gregory XIII. Two years later he was smuggled into Ireland but was soon arrested and imprisoned in Dublin Castle. With the Queen’s approval he was tried in one day and sentenced to death. He was hanged outside the city walls. He was almost immediately revered as a martyr throughout Europe.
Margaret Ball was born Margaret Birmingham near Skryne in Co. Meath in 1515. Her father, Nicholas, had left England because, with other members of his family, he did not accept the religious reforms of Henry VII and set up a farm in Corballis, Co. Meath. At the age of 15, Margaret married Alderman Bartholomew Ball of Balrothery, who operated the bridge over the Dodder which still carries his name. Margaret had 10 children, though only five survived to adulthood. Her husband was elected Mayor of Dublin in 1553, making Margaret the Mayoress.
With the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, her son Walter became a Protestant. He arrived one day at his mother’s house and found Archbishop Dermot O’Hurley, celebrating Mass with the family. He had his mother arrested and thrown into Dublin Castle. She could have secured her freedom if she made the Oath of Supremacy but she refused. She died in 1584 aged 69, crippled with arthritis after three years in the wet dungeons. She left her property to the Protestant son who had put her in prison.
Two generations later this pattern was repeated by Francis Taylor, a relative of Margaret, who was born about 1550 in Swords, Co. Dublin. He was elected Mayor of Dublin 1595. He was later condemned to the dungeons of Dublin Castle after exposing fraud in the parliamentary elections to the Irish House of Commons. For seven years he refused to deny his Catholic faith by taking the Oath of Supremacy which could have gained his release. He died in Dublin Castle on 29 January 1621.
A statue of Francis Taylor and his grandmother-in-law, Margaret Ball, who had also died for her faith, now stands outside St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin.
Patrick O’Hely was born in Dromahair, Co. Leitrim and joined the Franciscans as a young man. After studies in Spain, he was made Bishop of Mayo (later incorporated into Tuam) in 1576. Soon after arriving in Ireland in 1579, he was betrayed, arrested, tried, tortured and then executed outside one of the gates of Kilmallock in Co. Limerick on 31 August 1579.
The Wexford Martyrs were Patrick Cavanagh, Matthew Lambert, Edward Cheevers, Robert Tyler and two others whose names are not known. In 1581 they were found guilty of treason for aiding in the escape of James Eustace, Viscount Baltinglass. James Eustace, whose family had links with Clongowes Wood Castle, now a Jesuit boarding school near Dublin, joined the Earl of Desmond in the hope of putting Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne. The attempt failed and Baltinglass had to escape to Spain in 1583, where he died. One of his brothers was executed in Dublin, two others fled the country and the Kilcullen family lost its lands and titles. Cavanagh and his companions refused to take the Oath of Supremacy and declare Elizabeth I of England to be the head of the Church. They were later hanged, drawn and quartered in Wexford, Ireland.
Conor O’Devany was born in 1532. He became a Franciscan in Donegal and, while in Rome in 1582, was named Bishop of Down and Conor by Pope Gregory XIII and consecrated on 2 February 1583. In 1588 he was imprisoned in Dublin Castle but could not be convicted of a capital offence. Two years later he was released and came under the protection of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, until 1607. In 1611, when almost 80 years old, he was re-arrested and again put in Dublin Castle. On 28 January 1612 he was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to die on 11 February. On his way to the gallows, Catholics lined the way, as well as Protestant ministers urging him to confess his crime. On the gallows, while urging Catholics to remain faithful, he was hanged, cut down still alive and quartered. Also executed with him was a Catholic priest, Patrick O’Loughran, who had been arrested in Cork. In spite of the guards, the people seized part of the martyrs’ body, clothes, and even chips of the gallows as relics. They prayed all night by the remains, a miraculous cure was reported and Masses were said all through the night. The viceroy ordered the remains to be buried immediately but, on the following night, they were exhumed and interred in St James’ churchyard.
Terence Albert O’Brien was born in Cappamore, County Limerick. He joined the Dominicans and studied in Limerick and Toledo, Spain. He was ordained Bishop of Emly by Archbishop Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, who was Papal Nuncio to Ireland during the Irish Confederate Wars (1645-49). Like most Irish Catholics, Terence sided with Confederate Ireland. During the war, he took care of the wounded and supported Confederate soldiers. He was a signatory of the declaration against Inchiquin’s truce in 1648 and the declaration against Ormond in 1650. In 1651 Limerick was invaded and O’Brien urged resistance. This infuriated the Ormondists and Parliamentarians. After the surrender, he was denied quarter and protection. Bishop O’Brien, Major General and Fr Wolf were brought before a court martial and ordered to be executed, by General Henry Ireton. The bishop died on 31 October 1651.
William Tirry, an Augustinian priest, is one of the best documented of the seventeen martyrs. His cause for canonisation is being pursued because there still exists the evidence of witnesses to his endurance for the Christian Faith.
William Tirry was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1608. He was a member of a family which had been loyal to both the English king and the Catholic Church for over 200 years. The Tirry family was prominent in the life of the city of Cork, where his paternal uncle was bishop of Cork and Cloyne. William was said to have been a studious, if somewhat reserved, young man who lived the life of a well-off family of his time. He joined the Augustinians and studied philosophy at the Augustinian house of studies in Valladolid, in central Spain, and later moved to the Grand Convent of the Augustinians in Paris for his theological studies. Ordained to the priesthood in Europe about 1638, he returned to Ireland in the same year. He was a member of the Augustinian community at their Red Abbey in Cork a few years before the northern rebellion of 1641. Between 1638 and 1641 he was secretary to his uncle, the Bishop of Cork, and chaplain to his first cousin as well as tutor to the man’s sons. He is thought to have been based at different times in the Augustinian communities in Cork and Fethard, Co. Tipperary. In 1646 he was made secretary to the Augustinian provincial.
On 15 August 1649 Oliver Cromwell landed in Ireland. In the same year, Tirry was named prior of the friary in Skreen, Co. Meath, but could not live there because of the presence of Cromwellian soldiers. From 1650 to 1654, Tirry was, like other priests, in hiding and exercising his priestly ministry in secret. As a pastor he remained at his post, aware of the many dangers, when he could easily have gone to a safer place. By virtue of a law enacted on 6 January 1653, to be a priest on Irish soil constituted a crime of treason punishable by death. It is believed that he stayed in the Fethard area, using various ‘safe houses’ and other hiding places, and much admired by the Catholics of the area.
However, it was three local people who betrayed his presence to the Cromwellians. There was a reward of £5 sterling for reporting the presence of a priest. He was arrested while actually wearing his Mass vestments and sent to the jail at Clonmel. In addition, a search of his room uncovered writings of his, one in Latin which specifically refuted some Puritan declarations and another which was a lengthy open profession of his Catholic faith.
On 26 April 1654 he was tried for treason. During his trial he said he recognised the authority of the civil authorities but in matters of religion and conscience could only obey the Pope and his superiors. In spite of a jury leaning in his favour, he was found guilty and condemned to death by hanging. He spent the whole night prior to his execution in prayer. Other priests jailed with him witnessed his final days and hours and wrote about his readiness to die for his faith after they themselves had been sent into exile. Tirry was executed on 12 May 1654 on a high scaffold in Clonmel market square, wearing his Augustinian habit. He was allowed to make a final speech in which he spoke vigorously in defence of the Catholic Church’s beliefs. He publicly forgave the three people who had betrayed him for money. It was said that even Protestants were deeply moved at the manner of his death. His body was taken for burial in the grounds of the Augustinian Abbey in Fethard but the exact location of the grave is not now known.
Churches dedicated to these martyrs include the Church of the Irish Martyrs at Ballyraine, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal and Church of the Irish Martyrs, Ballycane near Naas, Co. Kildare.
Francis Pacheco, a Portuguese (1565-1626), was a missionary to China and Japan. On his third entrance into Japan made in disguise, Francis was captured by the Shogun’s many spies and put in a prison with other Jesuits, catechists, and lay people. Among them were some young men preparing to enter the Jesuits. With martyrdom imminent, Pacheco allowed them to make their vows. In 1626 they all suffered martyrdom at Nagasaki. Francis was the most experienced of all the 33 Jesuits martyred in Japan during the great persecution between 1617 and 1626 when thousands of Japanese both denied their faith while others gave their lives for it. The laymen were executed last in the hopes that they would change their minds, but it only strengthened their resolve.