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Peter Higgins OP: the martyr of Naas

30 November, 1999

Peter Higgins was a Dominican priest living at Naas, Co Kildare, who tried to protect English Protestants from attacks from Irish Catholics during the Rebellion of 1641. Arrested himself, he was put to death despite the protest of a Protestant minister whom he had saved.

Peter Higgins was born in Dublin about 1600.  He was received into the Domincan order probably at the Priory of St Saviour’s in Dublin (where the Four Courts stands now) and may have been ordained there before going to Spain for further studies.  By 1627 he was a Dominican priest residing in Spain and probably returned to Ireland to become Prior of Naas in the 1630s.

During the Rebellion of 1641 when the Irish Ulstermen came south of the Boyne, the Catholic Lords of the Pale opted to join them while the Governor of Dublin, Sir Charles Coote, opted for a policy of “exterminate all Catholics”.  Law and order collapsed and plunder became a daily occurrence.  Both Protestant landowners and even Catholics known to be government supporters were looted by the rebels.  Peter Higgins as Prior of Naas made efforts to restrain the violent and sheltered the homeless.  He intervened to save the Protestant rector of Donadea, William Pilsworth, who was about to be put to the gallows by Catholics and upbraided the Catholics for their unchristian behaviour.

In January 1642 the Earl of Ormond mobilised a Protestant force in Dublin to strike back at Catholics.  Among those taken into custody was Peter Higgins, who in fact did not resist arrest, knowing he had done so much to save and protect Protestants and that he was innocent of any crime. Ormond intervened on Higgins’s behalf presenting petitions from at least twenty Protestants who had known Higgins urging that the priest’s life be spared.  But he learned to his amazement on the morning of 23rd March 1642 that Higgins’s body was hanging from a gallows at Hoggen Green in the centre of Dublin; Sir Charles Coote had executed him without trial.

At the gallows Higgins was offered a chance to deny his faith, but declined saying: “I die a Catholic and a Dominican priest.  I forgive from my heart all who have conspired to bring about my death. Deo gratias.”  Among the crowd stood William Pillsworth, rector of Donadea.  He cried out: “This man is innocent, this man is innocent.  He saved my life.”  His words fell on deaf ears.  No one knows where he was buried.  His story became known outside Ireland through the martyrologies of the Dominican Order.  A stone statue of him stands outside the Dominican Church in Naas.

He was beatified by Pope John Paul II along with sixteen other Irish martyrs in September 1992.

For more see: http://j2.catholicireland.net/pages/index.php?art=416.