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Fr Peter Higgins: the Naas martyr

30 November, 1999

Henry Peel OP traces the life of Fr Peter Higgins, a Dominican priest who was martyred in Dublin in 1642, during the days of the penal laws.

On March 23, 1642, a Dominican priest, Father Peter Higgins, was brutally executed in the neighbourhood of what is now St. Stephen’s Green in the city of Dublin. With his fellow Dominican and bishop of Emly, Terence Albert O’Brien, he was among a group of seventeen Irish martyrs beatified by Pope John Paul II in September 1992. Bishop Terence Albert O’Brien was hanged on October 30, 1651 on Gallows Green in Limerick city. As Provincial of the Irish Dominican Province, Father Terence Albert O’Brien attended the General Chapter of the Order in May 1644, just two years after the martyrdom of Father Peter Higgins. At this international assembly he spoke about the suffering of the Church and the Order in Ireland and specifically about the martyrdom of Father Peter Higgins. Evidently this was a subject about which he would have been very well informed.

Ordained a priest
The first recorded reference to Father Peter Higgins is on a list of Irish Dominicans living in Spain in 1627. He was then an ordained priest but he may well have been ordained before completing his studies. It was fairly common practice to ordain candidates for the priesthood before completing their studies so that they could contribute towards their maintenance abroad.

In the report to the General Chapter of 1644 Peter Higgins is described as a member of the Dominican Priory in Dublin. This means that he was received into the Dominican Order for the Priory of St Saviour’s Dublin. In 1622, the Irish Provincial, Father Ross MacGeoghan and eight Dominicans were living in a house in Cook Street, this being the successor to the Priory which once stood where the Four Courts stands today. Cook Street and its neighbourhood was then and long remained a kind of Catholic ghetto in the city. In 1626 there were four priests, one lay brother, and three novices living in the Dominican house in Cook Street. This is where Peter Higgins received the Dominican habit and, presumably completed his novitiate before travelling to Spain for his studies. He would have returned to Dublin in the early 1630s.

Revival of Naas priory
It was the policy of the restored Irish Province that re-established priories should resume contact with neighbouring localities where there had been a Dominican priory before the suppression and, if possible, to re-establish a Dominican community. This explains how Father Peter Higgins was Prior of Naas when he was martyred.

Naas in County Kildare is about twenty miles from Dublin on the old road to Kildare. A Dominican Priory had been founded there in 1356 under the patronage of the Eustace family and dedicated to St Eustace. Suppressed in 1540 during the reign of Henry VIII, its revival in the 1630s was part of the reorganisation of the Irish Dominican Province during the period when Father Ross MacGeoghan was either Vicar or Provincial (1617 – 1627).

An interesting sidelight on the revival of the Naas priory is thrown by a reference to the Lord Deputy Wentworth by a seventeenth century historian: “Wentworth was exposed to the hatred of the Presbyterians … by suffering public Mass-houses at Naas so near his own house and by permitting friars to dwell in a house of his own which he had built for other purposes, but notwithstanding all this he was no friend of popery.” Wentworth had close connections with Naas, owning houses and gardens and living there occasionally during his seven years as Lord Deputy. In 1640 he became Earl of Strafford.

The choice of Father Peter Higgins as Prior of the restored Naas priory may be an indication that he or his family were from that neighbourhood. A family of that name lived in the town land of Tipper in the parish of Naas. A Father Anthony Higgins died in 1831 after being parish priest of Caragh and Downings for forty years or more. The Naas priory during the penal day period was at Yeomanstown in the parish of Caragh on the land of a Captain Eustace. It was from Yeomanstown that the Dominicans migrated to Newbridge, continuing the dedication of the Naas priory to St. Eustace.

The martyrdom of Father Peter Higgins occurred in the confused aftermath of the Rising of the native Irish in Ulster in 1641. On January 21 an army commanded by James Butler, Marquis of Ormond, set out from Dublin for Naas, which, in the words of the Lord’s Justices, “was become a noted receptacle of the rebels of those parts”. There were no armed rebels there when the army arrived. Father Peter Higgins surrendered himself to Ormond, who took him under his protection for transportation to Dublin. Despite an attempt by Sir Charles Coote to seize him, he was brought safely to Dublin and imprisoned. Coote was governor of Dublin and he had been authorised by the Chief Justices summarily to execute Catholic Priests.

Early in the morning of March 23, 1642 Father Peter Higgins was taken from prison and hanged seemingly without even the semblance of a trial and probably at the instigation of Coote. He had saved the lives of several Protestants, and these vainly sought his release. From the scaffold he said that he died loyal to the king, to the Catholic faith, and to his profession as a Dominican. The soldiers hacked his body to pieces so that it could not be given an honourable burial.

The martyred Naas Dominican is represented today in the stained glass window by George Walsh in the Church of the Irish Martyrs in Naas. Dominican College, Newbridge has a sculpture of the martyr by Henry Flanagan OP.

This article first appeared in the St Martin de Porres magazine, a publication of the Irish Dominicans.


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