Summary: The Irish Martyrs of the (16th and 17th centuries) The canonisation of Oliver Plunkett in 1975 brought an awareness of the other men and women who died for the Catholic faith in the 16th and 17th centuries. On 22nd September 1992 Pope John Paul II proclaimed a representative group from Ireland as martyrs and beatified them.
What is a martyr?
Originally, it’s a Greek word meaning “witness”. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter, speaking to those in Jerusalem at Pentecost, claimed he and all the apostles were “martyrs” i.e. witnesses, in this case to Jesus’s resurrection. Later the word came to mean a person who followed the example of Christ and gave up their lives rather than deny their faith.
The canonisation of English and Irish Martyrs
Henry VIII’s rejection of the Pope’s authority in 1534 led to the setting up of a State Church in England and in Ireland. In 1560 the Act of Supremacy made Queen Elizabeth the supreme head of the Church in England and Ireland. So it became a treasonable offence to refuse to acknowledge the English monarch as head of the Church and many Catholics were put to death for their faith in both countries.
Forty English martyrs were canonised in 1970 and Oliver Plunkett was canonised in 1975. In 1992 a representative seventeen Irish martyrs, chosen from a list of almost three hundred who died for their faith in the 16th and 17th centuries, were beatified by Pope John Paul II. The amount of information we know about these seventeen varies. About some, such as Archbishop Dermot O’Hurley of Cashel, we know quite a lot; about others, such as the Wexford sailors, we know little more than their names and the fact of their death.
THE IRISH MARTYRS OF THE 16TH AND 17TH CENTURIES
Here are their names in the chronological order of their deaths:
1. Bishop Patrick O’Healy and Father Cornelius O’Rourke, Franciscans: tortured and hanged at Kilmallock 22nd August 1579
2. The Wexford Martyrs: Matthew Lambert and sailors – Robert Tyler, Edward Cheevers and Patrick Cavanagh: died in Wexford 1581
3. Bishop Dermot O’Hurley: tortured and hanged at Hoggen Green (now College Green), Dublin, 20th June 1584
4. Margaret Ball: lay woman, died in prison 1584
5. Maurice Kenraghty (or MacEnraghty): secular priest, hanged at Clonmel on 20th April 1585
6. Dominic Collins: Jesuit brother, hanged in Youghal 1602
7. Bishop Conor O’Devany and Father Patrick O’Loughran: Franciscans, hanged 6th February 1612
8. Francis Taylor of Swords, lay man, Lord Mayor of Dublin: died in prison 1621
9. Father Peter Higgins, Dominican, Prior of Naas: hanged at Hoggen Green, Dublin 23rd March 1642
10. Bishop Terence Albert O’Brien, Dominican: hanged and beheaded at Gallow’s Green, Limerick 30th October 1651
11. John Kearney, Franciscan, hanged 11th March 1653
12. William Tirry, Augustinian, hanged 2nd May 1654
1. Patrick O’Healy was born about 1545 in Co Leitrim and became a Franciscan. He was educated at the University of Alcalá in Spain. He seems to have spent some time in Rome – perhaps sent there with letters from King Philip II of Spain requesting help from Pope Gregory XIII for an invasion of Ireland. It may have been while he was there that he was made bishop of Mayo in 1576. He spent some time in Paris where he took part in public disputations at the university, amazing his hearers by his mastery of patristic and controversial theology, as well as of Scotist philosophy.
After Pope St Pius V (1566-72: Antonio Ghislieri OP) excommunicated Queen Elizabeth in 1571, the Earl of Desmond spent some time on the continent negotiating with King Philip II of Spain and Pope Gregory XIII (Ugo Buoncompagni: 1572-85) to make Ireland a kingdom allied under Spain with the Pope’s illegitimate son, Giacomo, a possible candidate for King. Patrick O’Hely was certainly involved in these negotiations at the start, but after an abortive attempt to sail to Ireland from Ferrol in north-west Spain went to France.
In autumn, 1579, he and fellow Franciscan Father Conn O’Rourke from the ruling house of Breifne sailed from Brittany and arrived off the coast of Kerry. Whether aware of it or not, they were seen as part of the invasion force of Spaniards and Italians with James Fitzmaurice Earl of Desmond which had landed at Smerwick harbour.
2. O’Healy and O’Rourke landed at Askeaton, were captured and brought to Limerick. Sir William Drury, Elizabethan President of Munster and the Chief Justice offered to promote O’Healy if he would take the Oath of Supremacy. Both refused, were tried and found guilty of treason.
The sentence of death was carried out at Kilmallock in 1579. Before their execution they imparted absolution to each other and recited litanies together. In the Church of SS. Peter and Paul, Kilmallock, there is a stained glass window of three martyrs – Bishop Patrick O’Healy and Father Conn O’Rourke, and Father Maurice MacEnraghty, a secular priest and native of Kilmallock, who was martyred in Clonmel in 1585 (see 5. below).
3. The Wexford Martyrs: Matthew Lambert and sailors – Robert Tyler, Edward Cheevers and Patrick Cavanagh: died in Wexford 1581
Matthew Lambert was a Wexford baker who had arranged with five sailor acquaintances to provide safe passage by ship out of Wexford for Viscount Baltinglass and his Jesuit chaplain Robert Rochford when English troops were pursuing them after the fall of the Second Desmond Rebellion (1579-83). The authorities heard of the plan beforehand and Matthew was arrested together with his five sailor friends. Thrown into prison, they were questioned about politics and religion. Lambert’s reply was: “I am not a learned man. I am unable to debate with you, but I can tell you this, ‘I am a Catholic and I believe whatever our Holy Mother the Catholic Church believes.’”
They were all found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Only three of the names of the five sailors are known – Robert Tyler, Edward Cheevers and Patrick Cavanagh. Their execution took place in Wexford in 1581.
4. Bishop Dermot O’Hurley: tortured and hanged at Hoggen Green, Dublin, 20th June 1584
Dermot O’Hurley was born near Emly, Co. Tipperary, about 1530. His family were well off and as a young man Dermot went to study law at Louvain. In 1581 Pope Gregory XIII asked Dermot, still a layman, to become Archbishop of Cashel and he accepted, knowing that this appointment would make him a fugitive working in dangerous conditions. He reached Ireland in 1583, but while he was sheltering at Slane Castle he was recognised, arrested, imprisoned in Dublin Castle. Accused of plotting to overthrow the Queen’s government in Ireland, he was repeatedly questioned and tortured. He persistently protested that his mission was one of peace and he had no information to give his captors.
On 20th June 1584 he was taken to Hoggen Green, near St Stephen’s Green, to be hanged. Before his death he said: I am a priest anointed and also a bishop, although unworthy of so sacred dignities, and no cause could they find against me that might in the least degree deserve the pains of death, but only my function of priesthood wherein they have proceeded against me in all points contrary to their own laws. When the report of his execution spread in the city, some devout women carried his body with great respect to the Church of St Kevin (near Kevin St) where he was buried. A monument to his memory was erected there in 1992.
5. Margaret Ball: died in prison in Dublin 1584
Born Margaret Bermingham about 1515 in Skreen, Co Meath, she married Bartholomew Ball, a prosperous merchant in Dublin. Her eldest son, Walter, however, became a Protestant and an opponent of the Catholic faith. Margaret provided ‘safe houses’ for bishops and priests passing through Dublin and would invite Walter to dine with them, hoping for his re-conversion.
Walter was elected Mayor of Dublin. He had his mother arrested and drawn through the streets on a wooden hurdle, as she could no longer walk, to Dublin Castle. Here she remained imprisoned for the rest of her life. If she had renounced her faith she could have returned home, but she refused and died in prison aged 70 in 1584. The chapel-of-ease at Santry in Larkhill parish was named in her honour.
6. Maurice Kenraghty (or MacEnraghty): secular priest, hanged at Clonmel on 20th April 1585
Maurice was born the son of a silversmith at Kilmallock He enjoyed the patronage of the Earl of Desmond and became his chaplain and confessor. In September, 1583, a fugitive with the earl, he was surprised on Sliabh Luachra by Lord Roche’s gallowglasses, and handed over to the Earl of Ormond. By Ormond’s command he was chained to one Patrick Grant, and sent to prison at Clonmel. Here he lay in irons, exhorting, instructing, and hearing confessions at his prison grate until April, 1585. His jailer was then bribed by Victor White, a leading townsman, to release the priest for one night to say Mass and administer the Paschal Communion in White’s house. The jailer secretly warned the President of Munster to take this opportunity to capture most of the neighbouring recusants (those refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy) at Mass. In the morning an armed force surrounded the house, arrested White and others, seized the sacred vessels, and looked for the priest everywhere. He had hidden under straw at the first alarm, and, though wounded when the heap was probed, ultimately escaped to the woods. Learning, however, that White’s life could only be saved by his (Kenraghty’s) surrender, he gave himself up, and was at once tried by martial law. Pardon and preferment were offered him if he agreed to conform, but he resolutely maintained the Catholic faith and the pope’s authorlty, and was executed as a traitor. His head was set up in the market-place, and his body, purchased from the soldiers, was buried behind the high altar of the Franciscan convent.
7. Dominic Collins: Jesuit brother, hanged in Youghal 1602
Dominic was born into a leading Catholic family in Youghal in 1566, both his father and brother serving as mayor in the town. He was well educated and even learned some Latin as a boy perhaps by the Jesuits who had a school in Youghal at that time. After the failure of the Desmond Rebellion he went to France and served with honour in both the French and Spanish armies. He entered the Jesuits in Spain as a late vocation in 1589 and in 1601 came back to Ireland as a professed Jesuit brother with the Spanish fleet sent by King Philip III to assist the O’Neills and the O’Donnells.
After the Battle of Kinsale he retreated with O’Sullivan Beare to Dunboy Castle in west Cork, where after a siege he was captured, bribed to change his religion and tortured. Eventually he was hanged in his own town of Youghal. Before his execution he spoke to the crowd saying he longed for a martyr’s death. The hangman refused to execute him and the soldiers forced a passerby, a poor fisherman, to do the work. He died with the words of the psalm on his lips: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” His fame quickly spread in Ireland and through Europe. In the Irish colleges of Douai and Salamanca the Jesuits showed his portrait.
8. Bishop Conor O’Devany and Father Patrick O’Loughran: hanged 6th February 1612
Conor O’Devany came from Raphoe in Co Donegal and entered the Franciscans in Donegal town as a young man around 1550. He was appointed bishop of Down and Connor by Pope Gregory XIII while he was in Rome in 1582. He was one of six bishops who attended a synod in Clogher which promulgated the decrees of the Council of Trent in 1587. After the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588 he was captured, but was released and went back to his diocese, but in the years after the flight of the Earls he was again taken prisoner to Dublin Castle in 1611. He was accused of colluding with Hugh O’Neill in treason. He admitted being in the O’Neill territory as bishop during the Nine Years’ War, but he protested that he was being charged because of his religion.
Another priest, Father Patrick O’Loughran from Co Tyrone, had been in Rome as chaplain with Hugh O’Neill and later studied at the Irish College in Douai. Returning to Ireland, he was arrested on landing in Cork. He admitted he had been chaplain to Hugh O’Neill and had gone with him overseas and had visited the Pope. He refused to be tried by jury as this would mean certain conviction. Read more
Both Father Patrick and Bishop Conor were executed at George’s hill in Dublin on 6th February 1612. The executions, planned to frighten Catholics, only stiffened the resolve not only of the Irish but also of the Old English to remain faithful to their Catholic faith.
9. Francis Taylor of Swords, layman, Lord Mayor of Dublin: died in prison 1621
Francis Taylor was born into a wealthy family in Swords about 1550. In 1595 he was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin. A convinced Catholic, he refused to accept the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity and was put in prison where he remained until he died seven years later. He is said to be buried in the family grave in St Audeon’s Church. A bronze sculpture of him along with Margaret Ball stand to the left of the main entrance to the Pro-Cathedral in Marlborough St, Dublin (image).
10. Father Peter Higgins, Dominican, Prior of Naas: hanged at Hoggen Green, Dublin 23rd March 1642
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 tried to intervene on Higgins’s behalf presenting petitions from at least twenty Protestants who had known Higgins urging that the priest’s life be spared. But Ormond was amazed when on the morning of 23rd March 1642 he heard that Higgins’s body was hanging from a gallows; 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 Newbridge. Read more.
11. Bishop Terence Albert O’Brien, Dominican: hanged and beheaded at Gallow’s Green, Limerick 30th October 1651
Terence O’Brien was born into a well-off farming family near Cappamore in east Limerick in 1601. He became a Dominican in 1621 taking the name Albert. He studied in Toledo, Spain, where he was ordained in 1627. Returning to Ireland, he served as prior in Limerick and Lorrha near Portumna before becoming Provincial of the Irish province in 1643. He attended the general chapter of his order in Rome in 1644 where he made known the martyrdom of Father Peter Higgins mentioned above.
On his way home he visited two Irish Dominican foundations in Portugal and it was while he was there that he learned of his appointment as co-adjutor to the ailing bishop of Emly. This was the time of the Catholic confederation of Kilkenny. The Confederation was divided between the Old English, generally of Norman families who were prepared to agree on moderate terms with King Charles and the Irish, led by returned exiles and supported by the papal nuncio Rinuccini. In 1649 the parliamentarians under Cromwell abolished the monarchy and Cromwell wreaked havoc in Ireland.
After the siege of Limerick in 1651, O’Brien, who had encouraged citizens to resist, was captured as he tended the sick in the plague house. Tried by court-martial, he was condemned to death. As he went to the gallows, he spoke to the people: “Do not weep for me, but pray that being firm and unbroken in this torment of death, I may happily finish my course.” After his death by strangulation his body was left hanging for three hours and treated with indignity by the soldiers. They cut off his head and spiked it on the river gate where it remained fresh and incorrupt, because, people said, he had preserved his virginity throughout his life. His headless body was buried near the old Dominican priory of Limerick, a wall of which still stands in the grounds of St Mary’s Convent of Mercy.
A small silver pectoral cross of Terence Albert was given to the Irish Dominicans by the last surviving member of the O’Briens of Tuogh. According to family tradition, the bishop gave the cross to his mother shortly before his execution, and it had been passed on as a family heirloom from generation to generation. The image accompanying this article is a detail from a stained glass window (by Murphy and Devitt) in the Terence Albert O’Brien Chapel in St Saviour’s Church, Glentworth, Street, Limerick.
11. John Kearney, Franciscan, hanged 11th March 1653
John Kearney was born in Cashel in 1619 of a prominent Catholic family. Ordained a priest in 1642 after his studies in Louvain, he was captured on his return to Ireland, but managed to escape. He ministered as a priest first in Cashel and later in Waterford. In 1653 he was captured again, taken to Clonmel and charged with functioning as a priest in defiance of the law. Witnesses testified that he had celebrated and administered the sacraments. He was hanged on 11th March 1653.
12. William Tirry, Augustinian, hanged 2nd May 1654
William Tirry was born in Cork in 1608 into a well-to-do Catholic Anglo-Irish family. In the 200 years from 1505 no fewer than twenty members of the family held the office of Mayor of Cork. He joined the Augustinians and studied in Vallodalid where he was ordained priest and did further studies in Paris and Brussels.
Returning to Ireland, he ministered with the local Augustinian community in Cork and became secretary to his his uncle, William, then bishop of Cork and Cloyne. He was appointed as prior to Skryne in Co Meath, but by that time Cromwell had come, so he lived the life of a fugitive for three years.
In the end he was taken captive from the house of a relative, Mrs Amy Everard, in Fethard, Co Tipperary. He had just vested for the Easter Mass when soldiers entered the house and took him to Clonmel where he was executed on 2nd May 1654. From the scaffold he spoke to the people who listened with rapt attention. Many miracles were reported after this death.
Six Catholics of Irish birth or connection executed for the faith in England had already been beatified in 1929 and 1987: They are: John Roche (alias Neale), John (Terence) Carey, Patrick Salmon, John Cornelius (alias John Conor O’Mahoney), Charles Meehan, Ralph Corby (Corbington).
A further list of 42 other Irish martyrs was submitted to Rome for beatification in 1998. It includes Richard Creagh (1523-86), Archbishop of Armagh.
One extraordinary omission, due it seems to an editorial error in the early days of the process, was Archbishop Patrick Russell of Dublin (1629-92), who after harrassment and arrest following the defeat of the Jacobite army at the Boyne, died in a filthy underground prison in Dublin.