Tuesday, 27 September 2022

An Irish Vincentian Martyr in the Seventeenth Century

September 27 is the feast of Saint Vincent de Paul (1581-1660), founder of the Congregation of the Mission. Before starting the research for this blog I was completely unaware that Saint Vincent was informed about the persecution of Catholics in Ireland during his lifetime, much less that a member of his own congregation was numbered among the Irish martyrs. In 1903 a paper on Brother Thaddeus Lye (Thady Lie, Lee) was published in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, which brought this forgotten,  overlooked Vincentian martyr out of obscurity. Using contemporary sources including the letters of the Congregation's founder, Patrick Boyle, C.M., sets out an account of the sufferings of his confrère, making the point that Saint Vincent himself is the main witness to the fact of the martyrdom of Thaddeus Lye. Indeed, it is possible, even probable, that Saint Vincent had met the future martyr in person in the congregation's Paris seminary. Father Boyle suggests that the birthplace of Brother Thaddeus, given in  the sources as 'Toua' was Tuam, but it is perhaps more likely to have been Tuogh, County Limerick. Certainly his martyrdom took place against the backdrop of the Cromwellian siege of Limerick under the command of Cromwell's son-in-law General Henry Ireton in 1651. There was some confusion however, on whether Brother Thaddeus had met his end in the city or whether he had returned to his home, only to be cut to pieces in the sight of his mother:


IN a paper entitled 'Hibernia Vincentiana' the present writer gave an account of the labours of the Vincentians in Ireland during the life time of their founder. In the hour of her deepest affliction, the early Irish Vincentians had the privilege of labouring for Ireland, and of sharing her sufferings; and one of their number, Brother Thaddeus Lye, had the honour of suffering death at the hands of the enemies of the Catholic faith. [1]

The object of the present paper is to collect all that is known of the life and death of this servant of God, in the hope that as he was an associate in suffering of the Irish martyrs of the seventeenth century, he may also be their associate in the honours of which, it is hoped, the Church will at no distant date declare them worthy.


The details which have come down to us of the life and sufferings of Brother Lye (Lee), are scanty; but they are sufficient to show that he lived and died for God. The first mention of him is found in the Register of those who became members of the Congregation of the Mission, which is preserved at the Archives Nationales in Paris, and is quoted M.M. 519A and bears the following title:—

'Catalogue of the priests and clerics who have been received into the Congregation of the Mission since the commencement of its institution, and who lived therein more than two years, or who died in it before the end of the first two years, 1625-1764.' [2]

In this Register we find under the year 1643, the following entry: 'Thady Lie, aged 20 years, a native of Toua (Tuam?) in Ireland, received in Paris, 21st October, 1643, made the vows 7th October, 1645.' [3]

From this entry it is evident that Thady Lye was a cleric, though he is sometimes spoken of as a Brother, according to a usage in religious communities which gives that title even to ecclesiastics who are not in priests' orders.

Moreover, in the same register there is a separate catalogue of all the lay brothers who entered the community for the whole of the same period and the name Lye is not found amongst them. In all probability Brother Lye, like so many others of his countrymen, had come to Paris to study for the priesthood; and had there become acquainted with St. Vincent de Paul, [4] who at this time, in conjunction with Dr. Kirwan, was interesting himself in the welfare of the Irish ecclesiastics resident in the French capital. Anyhow his age, and his oblation of himself to God is evidence that ' his heart was in that which is good in the days of his youth.' [5]

Another reference which can hardly apply to anyone but Brother Lye is found in a letter of St. Vincent de Paul, dated 15th October, 1646, and addressed to the Bishop of Limerick. [6] In that letter the saint announces to the bishop the departure of a body of missioners to Ireland. He writes — 
'My Lord: at last I have the pleasure of sending eight missioners to Ireland, one of them is French, the rest are Irish... [7] and a brother who is English. The first mentioned has been charged with the government of the company, according to the advice of the late Mr.Skyddie, [8] who before his death sent me word that this was the plan to adopt. The cleric will have as his duty to direct the singing.'
From other letters of St. Vincent written at this period, we learn that one of the lay brothers who accompanied the missioners, named Solomon Patriarche, was a native of the island of Jersey, and we may assume that he is the person described as English. This good brother suffered much from the privations and perils he underwent in Ireland, and in 1649 it was found necessary to send him back to France. In a letter dated 10th September, 1649, St. Vincent mentions him, and says: —
M. Duguin (Duggan) who was in Ireland is here for the last few days. He left, at St. Meen, Brother Patriarche who, though much better, is not quite recovered from his mental infirmity, on account of which M. Brin sent them to us. I am told this good brother, such as he is, is a source of great edification to the company, so cordial is he, and so obliging, active, and devoted to God [9].
The cleric, therefore, must have been Brother Lye, who was not in priests' orders, probably because in 1646 he was still under age, and probably also because he had not a patrimonial title, and the community had not yet obtained the privilege of ordaining its subjects titulo Mensae Communis. But whatever be the explanation, the fact that it was his duty to direct the singing is not without interest in these days of musical reform; for it seems to indicate that congregational singing was not unknown in Ireland in the seventeenth century.

The third reference we find to Brother Lye is found in a letter of St. Vincent, dated 22nd March, 1652, and addressed to Mr. Lambert, superior of a house of the Congregation in Warsaw. Having treated of matters personal to M. Lambert the saint continues: —
I add to this the news we have had of our confrères in Ireland, whom we supposed to be amongst those whom the English put to death at the capture of Limerick. But, thanks be to God, he has rescued them from their hands. This is certain as regards M. Barry, who has arrived at Nantes, and whom we are expecting here, and we have reason to hope the same is true of M. Brin, though we are not certain of it. They left Limerick together, along with five or six score priests and religious, all in disguise, and mingled with the soldiers of the city who quitted it on the day the enemy were to enter. Our men spent the night in preparing for death, because there was no quarter for ecclesiastics; but God did not permit them to be recognised as such. On leaving the city they separated not without great sorrow, going one in one direction and one in another. They thought it best to act in this way, so that if one perished the other at least might escape. M. Brin took the road to his native place with their good friend the Vicar-General of Cannes [sic]. [10] M. Barry went towards certain mountains which he names, where he met a charitable lady who received and lodged him for two months; at the end of which a vessel for France chanced to present itself, and he embarked without having had any news of M. Brin since they separated. He thinks, however, that it will be no easy matter for him to cross over to France, both because the English hold the sea, and because they occupy the district of which he is a native; hence he has much need of our prayers.

P.S. — Poor Brother Lye being in his native place fell into the hands of the enemy, who dashed out his brains, and cut off his feet and hands before the eyes of his mother. [11]
The foregoing letter is based no doubt on information forwarded by Father Barry, who had just arrived from Ireland. It does not mention the date nor the precise place where Brother Lye suffered. [12] But from the Register above mentioned we know that his native place was Toua (Tuam ?). It seems probable that he escaped from Limerick when the siege was raised, and took refuge with his parents. There he fell into the hands of the Cromwellians, no doubt before the end of 1651 and like the Machabees of old he was put to death before his mother's eyes. There could be no other motive for treating him with such barbarity but the fact that he was an ecclesiastic. The cruelty with which he was treated bears a certain resemblance to that which was exercised on the saintly Archbishop of Tuam, Malachy Queely, [13] whose body was hacked to pieces by the soldiers. Both suffered in different years, but for the same cause, and in the same manner. Both, we may remark, were students in Paris. Let us hope that both will find a place on the list of the Irish martyrs who laboured and suffered so gloriously for the faith in the seventeenth century.

The fact of the martydrom of Thady Lye comes down to us, then, on the authority of St. Vincent de Paul; and if we do not possess more ample details concerning him, it is probably to be attributed to the humility of St. Vincent. When the mission to Ireland had come to a close the superior of it desired to publish an account of the labours of the missioners and the fruits produced by them; but St. Vincent dissuaded him: 'It is enough,' he said, 'that God knows all that has been done, the humility of our Lord requires of the little company to remain hidden in God with Jesus Christ in honour of His hidden life. The blood of martyrs shall not be forgotten before God; and sooner or later it shall be the seed of new Christians.' [14] But though the humility of St. Vincent shrank from publishing to the world an account of the labours of his children in Ireland, and of the fruits produced by them, the martyrdom of Brother Lye was not forgotten. In the middle of the eighteenth century Father Peter Collet, so widely known for his theological works, published a life of St. Vincent de Paul. He employed great diligence in the preparation of that work.

He consulted not merely the life of the saint by Abelly, Bishop of Rodez, but he also examined all the documents on which Abelly's life was based; the letters of St. Vincent to the number of at least seven thousand, the letters written to the saint, the manuscript lives of the early companions of St. Vincent, and other documents, many of which have since been lost. [15] We may therefore regard Collet as not merely the echo of the testimony of St. Vincent, but also to some extent as an independent witness, since he must have had before him the documents regarding the mission to Ireland on which St. Vincent's own testimony is based. Speaking of the sufferings of the missioners on the occasion of the fall of Limerick, Collet writes as follows : —
Of the three missioners who had remained in Ireland only two returned to Paris, after having passed at Limerick through all the terrors of pestilence and war. The third finished his course there; the others disguised themselves and escaped as they could. One of them retired to his own country with the Grand-Vicar of Cashel. The other found in the mountains a pious woman who concealed him for two months. A brother who waited on them was less fortunate, or rather more so. The heretics having discovered his retreat massacred him under the eyes of his mother. They broke his head, after having cut off his feet and hands, an inhuman and barbarous punishment which served to show the priests what they might expect should they be caught. [16]
The testimony of St. Vincent and of Collet has been handed on by more recent historians. The Abbé Maynard in his life of St. Vincent, published in 1860, relates the martydom of Brother Lye in almost the same words as Collet. Later still, a little work of piety entitled the Petit Pré Spirituel de la Congregation de la Mission was compiled in 1880 by the late Father Chinchon, C.M. In it he recounts the sufferings and death of Brother Lye in almost the same terms as the writers just mentioned. He falls however into the error of regarding him as lay brother (frére coadjuteur), whereas it is clear from the catalogue of the members of the community that he was an ecclesiastic.

There exists, then, a constant and well authenticated tradition that Brother Thady Lye suffered death at the hands of heretics in odium fidei. The details which we possess concerning his life and death are meagre. But they are fuller than what we possess concerning many whom the Church honours as martyrs.

Of the four saints honoured under the title Quatuor Coronaii even the names were long unknown; of the martyr who embraced St. Felix on the way to the place of execution, and who suffered with him, the name has never been known, and the Church calls him Adauctus because he was added to St. Felix in his triumphant profession of the faith.

Nothing is known of St. Philomena but her name, which was inscribed on her sepulchre. The phial of blood, the emblem of martyrdom, discovered in her tomb is the only record of her life. The testimony of a canonized saint repeated by grave authors, and handed down to the present day, can hardly be of less weight in favour of one who may justly be regarded as having suffered for the faith.


Thus far we have endeavoured to collect authentic evidence regarding the life and death of Brother Lye. Let us now endeavour to see what light is thrown upon his career by the circumstances in which he was placed. St. Gregory Nazianzen, [17] in his sermon on the great St. Basil, says of him that such was his gravity, that ' he was a priest even before he was ordained a priest.' In like manner it may be said of Brother Lye that he was a martyr before he suffered martyrdom. He accompanied the missioners to Ireland and shared their privations and dangers. What those privations and dangers were may be gathered from various letters of St. Vincent de Paul. Writing to M. Portail on 14th February, 1647, he says: —
We have no news from Ireland, except old news, which reached us two days ago, and was dated September and November. M. Duchesne is suffering from a flux of blood since a month previous to his last letter, and our Brother Levacher, since his arrival in Ireland. The others, thanks be to God, are in good health. The miseries of the country arc great in every way; and the enemy surround the place where our men reside, so that when they go on missions they are in danger. I recommend them to your prayers.
In another letter dated 10th May, 1647, he again speaks of Ireland.
We have also [he writes] news from our gentlemen in Ireland. They tell me that the war and the poverty of the country are great obstacles in their way. Nevertheless, at a mission which they gave the concourse of people was so great that though there were five or six confessors, they were not enough to hear the confessions. For people from the neighbouring localities hastened to hear the Word of God; and some from a distance of nearly ten leagues waited four or five days to get to confession! I recommend them to the prayers of all the company.
In course of time the dangers became yet greater. St. Vincent recalled five of his missioners to France. Three priests remained and with them Brother Lye. At this time the army of Ireton was laying waste the country around Limerick, and the people fled for safety to the city.

At the request of the bishop a mission was given in the city, and about twenty thousand people approached the sacraments. Soon after a plague broke out and carried off about eight thousand persons. [18]
It was marvellous [writes Abelly] to see, not merely with what patience, but also with what peace and tranquillity of mind those poor people endured the pestilence. They declared that they died happy, because they were relieved of the burden of their sins, from which they had been delivered by the sacrament of Penance. Others said they did not regret to die, since God had sent the holy fathers (so they called the priests of the Mission) to cleanse their souls. Others again, in their sickness, asked nothing else but to have a share in the prayers of their confessors, to whom they declared they owed their salvation.
Another and a greater trial soon followed; Ireton laid siege to the city. For five months and fifteen days the city was beleagured. The enemy assaulted without, famine and pestilence raged within. Such at length was the dearth of provisions that, as we learn from a letter of St. Vincent, the head of a horse was sold for a crown. [19] Brother Lye was a spectator and a sharer of all these sufferings. As yet the hour of his martyrdom had not arrived.

But what St. Cyprian says of St. Cornelius, is true also of Brother Lye: 'Quantum ad devotionem ejus pertinet et timorem, passus est, quidquid pati potuit.' [20] In preparation of heart, and the expectation of the sufferings with which he was threatened he suffered a species of martyrdom. May we not say of him, as St. Cyprian also says of St. Cornelius, even before he had suffered martyrdom : —
Nonne hic, fratres charissimi, summo virtutis et fidei testimonio praedicandus est, nonne inter gloriosos confessores et martyres deputandus est, qui tantum temporis sedit expectans corporis sui carnifices et tyranni ferocientes ultores; qui Cornelium adversus edicta feralia resistentem, et minas et cruciatus et tormenta, fidei vigore calcantem, vel gladio invaderent, vel quolibet inaudito genere poenarum viscera ejus et membra laniarent?

Does not he merit the highest eulogium for virtue and faith, does not he merit to be ranked with the confessors and martyrs of renown, who so long held out awaiting the executioners and ministers of the fierce tyrant, who were prepared to slay him with the sword, to crucify him, to burn, or mangle with unheard of torments, the vitals and the members of one who by the strength of his faith despised commands, threats, agonies and torments?
But Brother Lye was not alone in this noble disposition of mind in the midst of dangers. He had glorious examples of fortitude before his eyes. The Bishop of Limerick was within the walls sharing the dangers and sustaining the courage of his flock. When the city capitulated he, too, was doomed to death, but clothed in the disguise of a soldier's servant, bareheaded, his face besmeared and a pack upon his shoulders he made his escape and found refuge in Belgium. [21] Terence Albert O'Brien, the saintly Bishop of Emly, was there encouraging the inhabitants to hold out against the besiegers. He was specially excepted from quarter. Father Denis Hanrechan, O.P., himself present in Limerick at the time, tells with what courage and resignation the Bishop met his death on the eve of All Saints, 1651, and how his lifeless body, as it hung for three hours on the gibbet, was treated with barbarity by the soldiers, who made it swing to and fro, and beat it with their muskets, and then how the head of the Bishop was cut off and fixed on the bridge connecting the city with the suburbs. He tells, too, how Ireton, the chief author of so much cruelty, was stricken with the plague, and how in his sickness he frequently cried out that the Bishop was sentenced to death not by him, but by the Council. "I could have saved him," he repeated, "but this did not please my friends. Would that I had never seen that Papist Bishop." Racked by the reproaches of his conscience Ireton expired on 26th November, 1651. [22] But besides the Bishop of Emly there were others whose courage and whose fate serve to throw clearer light on the surroundings in which Brother Lye was placed. Just as Hanrechan, whose narrative is summarized by Lynch, is a contemporary witness of the sufferings of Bishop Terence Albert O'Brien, so Abelly, in his life of St. Vincent de Paul, is a contemporary witness of the virtues and sufferings of Sir Thomas Strich and his companions, who were put to death on the same occasion. The life of St. Vincent by Abelly, deficient though it is in literary finish and in chronological arrangement, is a work of great value for the documents it contains. [23] It was published in 1664, and is referred to by Lynch in his manuscript lives of the Bishops of Ireland.

When Abelly wrote, the missioners who had been in Ireland were still alive, and we may feel certain that in the account he gives of the events in Ireland, though the hand which writes is French, the voice which speaks is Irish. Abelly writes as follows of the fall of Limerick: —
That poor city was besieged and at length taken by the heretics. They cruelly put to death several of the inhabitants on account of the Catholic faith which they professed. This they did in particular to four of the principal inhabitants of the city, who testified on this occasion by their invincible zeal in defence of the Catholic religion, how much they had profited by the instructions and exhortations of the mission, and by the spiritual retreat they afterwards made in the house of the missionaries. This was the case in particular of Sir Thomas Strich, who at the close of his retreat, was elected mayor of the city. In that office he publicly declared his opposition to the enemies of the Church; and on receiving the keys of the city, he at once, by the advice of his confessor, placed them in the hands of a statue of the Blessed Virgin, begging of her to take the city under her protection. On this occasion he made the corporation of the city walk before him to the church, where that pious action was performed with due ceremony, and at its close the new mayor delivered a most Christian discourse, encouraging the whole assembly to inviolable fidelity to God, to the Church, and to the King; and he offered to sacrifice his own life for so just a cause. This offer was accepted by God, for when the city was taken soon after by the enemy, God gave him the grace to suffer martyrdom with three others of the principal citizens; who, having been the companions of his spiritual retreat, were also his companions in martyrdom. The four came forward to suffer, not only with constancy but also with joy; and in token of it, they dressed in their best clothes, and before their execution they delivered addresses which drew tears from all present, even from the heretics. They declared before heaven and earth that they died for professing and defending the Catholic religion; and their example greatly strengthened the rest of the Catholics to preserve their faith and to suffer all manner of tortures rather than fail in the allegiance they owed to God.
Such were the men whose example Brother Lye had before his eyes. He was the sharer of their perils, probably their attendant in their retreat, and like them he suffered death for the same cause as they.

The eloquent St. Gregory Nazianzen, in an admirable sermon, thus sums up the praise of the Machabees: ' The whole of Judea admired their constancy and rejoiced as though their crown were its own. For this contest was the greatest of any which that city had ever had to endure. Its object was whether the law should be overturned or glorified. Their contest was a crisis for the whole Hebrew race.' [24] So, too, was it in the case of Brother Lye, and the martyrs of Limerick. They were no less glorious than the Machabees. The undaunted Bishop of Emly, firm as Eleazer of old; Brother Lye, the youthful son, martyred under the eyes of his noble-hearted mother; Sir Thomas Strich and others of the laity, true and constant as the clergy, all combatted in the same cause. The faith of the whole Irish race was at stake, the whole Irish race admired their constancy and rejoiced at their victory.

It belongs to the divinely established authority of the Church to pronounce upon the merits of these heroic men. Should that supreme authority decree to them the honours of the altar, the whole Irish race will look on their honour as its own, and with gratitude to God will 'praise the men of renown ' to whose heroic constancy the preservation of the faith in Ireland is due.

Patrick Boyle, C.M.

The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, 4th series, Vol XVI, (1904), 307-319.


[1] I.E.Record, October, 1903

[2] Catalogue des Prestres et clercs qui ont ésté reçeus en la Congregation de la Mission depuis le commencement de son institution, et y ont veçu plus de deux ans, ou bien y sont morts devant la fin des deux premières années 1625 -1764.' Arch. Nationales M.M. 519 A. The continuation of the Catalogue from 1764 to 1790 is quoted M.M. 519 B .

[3] ' Thadée Lie, age de 20 ans, natif de Toua en Hibernie; reçu a Paris le 21 Octobre, 1643, a fait les voeux le 7 Octobre, 1643’. The name is written Lie in the Register. In the printed text of Collet and of St.Vincent's letters we find Lye.

[4] Hib. Vincentiana, I. E. Record, p. 300, October, 1903.

[5] Eccles. xi. 9.

[6] Lettres de St. Vincent de Paul, vol. i., p. 578.

[7] A portion of the original letter has been torn away.

[8] John Skyddie, a native of Cork, received in Paris, 9th October, 1638; ordained priest 1640.

[9] Lettres de St. Vincent de Paul. vol. ii., p. 179

[10] Cashel

[11] 'Le pauvre frère Lye, étant en son pays, est tombe en mains des ennemis, qui lui ont écrasé la tête et coupé les pieds et les mains en la presence de sa mère'.

[12] Lettres de St. Vincent de Paul, vol. ii., pp. 400,401.

[13] Dr. Malachy Queely, to whom reference is made above, and whose name is also on the list of Irish martyrs, made his studies in Paris. Whether during his studies in Philosophy he resided in the Irish College in that city, supported then by the Baron de L'Escalopier, is not clear: but that he was a friend and patron of the College is manifest from a letter addressed on its behalf to the University of Paris, dated 1624, and signed by Dr. Queely and four other Irish Prelates. In 1617, as appears from the MS Register of the German Nation in the University, Queely was Professor of Philosophy in the College of fioncour and Proctor of the German Nation, the latter office be also held in 1620 and in 1622. From the History of the College of Navarre, one of the colleges of the Paris University, by the celebrated Launoi, we learn that Malachy Queely made his theological studies in that famous college. In a list of the students of the College Launoi gives his name as a theologian in 1618, and again as master in Theology in 1622.

The life of Dr. Queely is well known in Ireland; but there is a sketch of his career given by Launoi in the work just mentioned, which is hardly accessible in Ireland, and which may be of interest at the present time, the more so as it is probably the earliest printed record of his career. We translate from the original Latin : —

' Malachy Queely, an Irishman, of respectable and noble family, desiring to obtain the degree of Master of Theology, procured, by a royal licence similar to that granted to Nicholas Maillard, admission to the theological college of Navarre. When he had obtained the object of his desire in 1622, he returned to bis native country, and the following year he was consecrated Archbishop of Tuam, and Metropolitan of the Province of Connaught. His personal merit, his reputation for learning and the nobiity of his family, which was held in high esteem by the Catholics, obtained for him that honour. It is incredible with what care and diligence he practised all the virtues which St. Paul requires in a bishop. Amongst them were pre-eminent his charity and hospitality, so that every one admired the variety of ways in which he practised those two virtues. He visited his diocese attentively and diligently; nor did he ordain anyone a priest until he had made a strict inquiry as to his life, morals, and learning. He could not endure idle priests; and it was his wish that every priest should have an ecclesiastical office. At the period when the Cromwellian party prevailed, the Confederate Catholics desired that he should govern the Province, and he governed it in subjection to the King, mindful of the words of Christ: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars." In the year 1644, as he was going through his diocese, he fell into the hands of a party of Scotch Cromwellians, by whom he was slain in the month of November. The Catholics honour him as a martyr, and flock from all quarters to venerate his tomb. They receive solace and aid, and pay honour to his relics.'

Such is Launoi's account of this great Irish bishop. As it was published in 1667 it is contemporary evidence, and all the more valuable as coming from the pen of one, who, from the severity with which he criticised the legends of saints, was called the denicheur des saints.

Joannis Launoii, Constantiensis, Parisiensis Theologi, Regit Navarrae.

Gymasii Historia. Paris, MDCLXVII. Ch. 89, pp. 1053-54.

[14] Abelly, Vie de St. Vincent de Paul, Book ii., chap. i. f sec. 8.

[15] Collet, Preface to the Life of St. Vincent .

[16] Collet, Vie de St. Vincent de Paul, 1st Edition, 1748, vol. ii, p. 471 (English Edition, Dublin, 1846. p. 311).

[17] St. Greg. Nazian., Sermon on St. Basil.

[18] Abelly, Vie de St. Vincent de Paul.

[19]Letter dated 23rd March, 1652, mentioned by Collet, but now lost.

[20] St. Cyprian, Epistola ad Antonianum de Cornelio, ac Novatiano.

[21] Lynch MS., ' De Praesulibus Hiberniae, Mazarin copy, p. 714

[22] Lynch MS., p. 680

[23] La Vie du Venerable serviteur de Dieu, Vincent de Paul, par Messire Louis Abelly, Eveque de Rodez. Paris, 1664, Book ii., chap, i., sec. 8.

[24] St. Gregory Nazianzen, Homily on the Machabees.

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Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Rome's Tribute to Ireland

On July 27, 1951, an official decree was issued ordering the resumption of the cause for canonisation of Blessed Oliver Plunkett. It is an interesting statement as it begins with a recognition of Ireland as the historic insula sanctorum and pays tribute to the role played by Ireland's early missionary saints in bringing Christianity to other countries of Europe. There is an acknowledgment too of the price paid by Irish Catholics for their fidelity to the faith and a closing summary of the case of Blessed Oliver himself. He was, of course, declared a saint in 1975 by Pope Paul VI and remains the only Irish martyr to have been canonized, although seventeen Irish martyrs were beatified in 1992 and the causes of a further forty-two are currently being prepared for re-submission:
Blessed Oliver Plunkett's Cause

A REMARKABLE official tribute to Ireland as the Isle of Saints is given in a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites. It orders the resumption of the cause for canonisation of Blessed Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, who died a martyr's death in Tyburn, England, in 1681. Following is a translation:

The praises and the glorious merits of the Irish people are more fittingly chanted by angelic voice than by human tongue. Once they became Christians, the Irish people never deflected from their Catholic faith; they even spread that faith throughout all Europe during the Middle Ages, and after the Anglican schism they spread it throughout the rest of the world, while winning the glory of martyrdom in their homeland.

Irish Saints

St. Columba, the father of Irish and Scottish monasticism, founded almost 100 monasteries from his parent foundation on the island called Iona. Many of those monks, famed for their sanctity, travelled through the distant regions preaching the Gospel to pagans and founding monasteries which were seminaries of Christian perfection.

Ireland can also claim as her own Saint Columbanus, who founded monasteries at Luxeuil and especially at Bobbio; St. Gall of Switzerland; Sts. Killian and Colman, Apostles of the Franks; Sts. Cathaldus and Frigidian, who were Bishops in Italy, and many others in various parts of Europe. Deservedly, therefore, was Ireland known to Christian peoples as "the Island of Saints."

Modern Martyrs

In more modern times the same people heroically underwent the most terrible sufferings in order to preserve and defend their Catholic faith against the Anglican schism and against the Protestant heresy. Ireland had to witness very many of her sons being condemned to most cruel deaths, or being punished by exile, or being obliged, in order to escape persecution, to flee to foreign lands. By design of Divine Providence, this contributed in no small way to the propagation of the Catholic faith.

Blessed Oliver Plunkett

Among those condemned to death, Blessed Oliver Plunkett (1629-1681) occupies a foremost place because of the dignity of his office. Of Irish birth and outstanding in piety and learning, he was professor of theology in the College of Propaganda Fide in Rome, and later, as Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, he was exemplary in the discharge of his episcopal duties. Because of his Catholic faith, he was cast into prison and transported to London, where, on July 1, 1681, he bravely faced a most cruel death. He was hanged, his bowels torn out, and his body quartered. He thus won the martyr's crown, which was confirmed on May 23, 1920, when Pope Benedict XV solemnly beatified him.

Since it now appears that certain (supernatural) signs have taken place, and since—through the diligent zeal of the active postulator of the cause, the Rt. Rev. Mgr. McDaid, Canon of the Patriarchal Vatican Basilica— many postulatory letters have been collected requesting Our Holy Father Pope Pius XII to resume the cause, the undersigned Cardinal Pro-Prefect and Ponens of the cause, at the ordinary meeting of the Sacred Congregation of Rites held on the 24th of this month, asked the question: "Whether the commission should be appointed for the resumption of the cause of Blessed Oliver Plunkett for his canonisation," and delivered a report thereon. The Cardinals present unanimously gave an affirmative answer in writing: "The commission should be appointed if our Most Holy Father approves." On the report of the Cardinal Pro-Prefect, His Holiness deigned on this date to sign the rescript appointing the commission for the resumption of the cause of Blessed Oliver Plunkett.

Given at Rome, July 27, 1951. (Signed)

Clemens Cardinal Micara, Bishop of Velletri, Pro-Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites; Alphonsus Carinci, Archbishop of Seleucia, Secretary of the Sacred Congregation of Rites.

ROME'S TRIBUTE TO IRELAND  Southern Cross (1951, October 19).
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Sunday, 17 July 2022

'A Most Meritorious Missioner' : Father Robert Netterville, S.J.

We look today at the case of Father Robert Netterville, a Jesuit martyr, believed for many years to have died on June 15, 1649 as part of the Cromwellian massacre at Drogheda but whom more recent research has suggested actually died five years earlier on July 17, 1644. He was from the Meath branch of an Old English family who had contributed much to civil and religious life in Ireland, as diocesan historian Dean Anthony Cogan noted:

The noble family of Netterville, seated at Dowth Castle, was distinguished for its attachment to the Catholic faith, and for the many eminent ecclesiastics who, in times of greatest peril, devoted their lives to the salvation of the people. In 1217 Dr. Luke Netterville, son of Sir Luke of Dowth, was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh; in 1224 he founded the Magdalen Convent of Drogheda for the Dominican Fathers, and in 1227 he died, and was buried in the monastery which he had erected.
In subsequent years the Nettervilles of Dowth branched into several independent houses viz., of Corballies in County Dublin, of Castletown-Kilpatrick, Crucerath, and Knockcumber, in county Meath; of Miltown in County Tipperary (afterwards transplanted to County Galway), each of which rivalled the parent house in devotion and attachment to religion. When Cromwell and his myrmidons were slaughtering the inhabitants of Drogheda, in 1649, the Rev. Robert Netterville, a Jesuit Father, was then old, infirm, and confined to his bed. The "Relatio rerum" of the Jesuits thus describes his sufferings: "He was forced away by the soldiers and dragged along the ground, being violently knocked against each obstacle that presented itself on the way; then they beat him with clubs, and when many of his bones were broken, they cast him on the highway. On the fourth day, having fought a good fight, he departed this life to receive, as we hope, the martyr's crown."

Nicholas Netterville of Dowth was advanced to the peerage of Ireland on the 3rd of April, 1622, with the title of Viscount Netterville of Dowth. He left issue, eight sons and five daughters, two of whom viz., Christopher and Nicholas became Jesuits...
Rev. A. Cogan, The Diocese of Meath - Ancient and Modern, Vol.II, (Dublin, 1867),  footnote p.305.

Both Fathers Christopher and Nicholas Netterville are also interesting characters, but let us return to their martyred uncle Father Robert and the account of his death given by Denis Murphy S.J. in his 1896 catalogue, Our Martyrs. Father Murphy used the 1675 work Societas Jesu usque ad sanguinis et vitae profusionem of Mathias Tanner, S.J., (1630-1692) as his source:

1649. Robert Netterville, S.J.

(from Tanner's Soc. Jesu, &c., p.137.)

In the year 1649 all the Catholics were banished from Dublin by order of the parliament, and a proclamation was issued at the same time imposing the penalty of death on any of them who should be found to have passed even one night within the walls of the city or in the suburbs. And to prove that they were not more merciful to the pastors, capital punishment and the confiscation of property were the penalty imposed on anyone who would allow a Jesuit or any priest to stay even an hour in his house. The same took place in Cork, which city the heretics had got possession of by a stratagem. After many of the inhabitants had been slaughtered, a proclamation was issued ordering all to leave the city or abandon their religion when the third cannon shot was fired. Before the signal was given, a sad sight, yet worthy of the first age of the Church, might be witnessed. For young and old, even the sick, ladies too of high birth, all went out of their own accord into the open country, in the morning rich and prosperous, in the evening exposed to hardships such as they had never endured before, to pass the rest of their lives in caves and woods, or to beg their bread. The inhabitants of the city of Drogheda and the Fathers of the residence of the Society of Jesus there endured like calamities or even greater, for owing to the bloodthirsty ferocity of the heretics, the bodies of the Catholics were lying about in every street, in the houses, and in the fields; the blood of young and old alike, of women as well as men, was flowing in streams through the streets.

By some means or other the English learned that F. Robert Netterville was a priest and a Jesuit. Wherefore, on the 15th of June, they burst into the house, and  regardless of his advanced age and of his venerable appearance, they seized him by the feet and dragged him out of the bed in which he lay, beat him with sticks, and when they had broken some of his bones, left him half-dead on the highway. Four days after that he gave up his soul to Christ, rejoicing greatly that he suffered such torments for Christ's sake. 

Rev. Denis Murphy, S.J., Our Martyrs, (Dublin, 1896), 310-311.

 Father Murphy's contemporary, the scholarly Father Edmund Hogan S.J. (1831-1917), also included our martyr in a chronological catalogue of Irish Jesuits where he hailed him as 'a most meritorious missioner':

Netterville, Robert (M), born in Meath in 1582; entered the Society in Italy in 1604; was professed of the four vows; and died at Drogheda, June 19, 1649. He was Minister in Naples; came to Ireland from Sicily in 1615; was in Kildare in 1621; beaten to death near Drogheda by the heretical soldiers; was a most meritorious missioner.

 Rev E. Hogan, S.J., Chronological Catalogue of the Irish Members of the Society of Jesus from the year 1550 to 1814, appended to Rev H. Foley, S.J., Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus, Volume VII, part II, (London, 1883), 16.

Although the earlier Jesuit writers placed the execution of Father Robert Netterville within the context of the Cromwellian massacre at Drogheda in 1649, the research of Jesuit archivist Father Francis Finegan (1909-2011), suggests that this was an error. The website of the Irish Jesuit Archives contains his reconstruction of the entire career of Father Netterville starting with his birth on October 23, 1583 in County Meath. He entered the Order in Rome on the same day in 1604 and was ordained at Naples six years later. He spent the years between 1615 and 1623 back in Ireland, where he ministered in the counties of Kildare and Meath before leading a party of seminarians to the Irish Colleges in Spain. There, however, he seems to have had a disagreement with the Archbishop of Cashel/Dublin and as a result found himself recalled to Dublin in 1625, where he stayed until 1641 when he left to escape the Puritan control of the city. He remained in the north Leinster area afterwards. Father Finegan argues that Robert Netterville was taken captive and killed by the Scots Covenanter army under General Robert Munroe (d.1680), who had made raids as far as North Westmeath in June and July 1644. His research suggested that the correct date of Father Netterville's death was July 17, 1644 and that some of the Jesuit writers had given the year 1649 in order to coincide with the massacre of Drogheda, possibly also mistaking him for another Irish Jesuit, Robert Bathe, who died in Kilkenny in 1649.

Father Robert Netterville is number 222 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs (1918) of those whose names were submitted to Rome for official consideration. No further progress has been made to date  with his cause.

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Friday, 1 July 2022

Saint Oliver Plunkett: 'The Only Real Cause of his Suffering was the Propagation of the Faith'


"Many Catholics do not hesitate to call him martyr, being convinced that he suffered for the Catholic faith, and though he was accused on three principal charges, as he himself writes: first of having sought to establish and propagate the Catholic faith; second, of having plotted the death of the King, third, of seeking to bring in the French. The second and third were only as means to obtain the first, as even the adversaries themselves laid down. In truth, they might be termed two chimeras, so that the only real cause of his suffering was the propagation of the faith, and he confessed publicly, in regard of the first accusation, that he had discharged the office of prelate ex aeque et bono without doing or seeking to do any injury to any being in the world.

"But as Boethius finds a place in the Martyrology for having defended the Catholic faith against the Arians, although the pretext of his death was an imaginary conspiracy against King Theodoric, and in like manner St. Hermenegild for having prosessed and sought to advance the true faith, although the pretext of his death was a similar conspiracy against King Leovigildus, and his kingdom, with the aid of the Greek emperor; so too they argue in the present instance. But it is not our province to decide this, Est qui judicet."

Letter of John Brennan (1625-1693), Archbishop of Cashel, in Mrs Thomas Concannon, Blessed Oliver Plunket (1935), 260-261.


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Thursday, 30 June 2022

Venerating the Head of Saint Oliver Plunkett in 1874

Yesterday we looked at the translation on June 29, 1921 of the relic of the head of Saint Oliver Plunkett from the Dominican convent where it had been preserved since the early eighteenth century, to a new shrine in Saint Peter's Church. Today we can look at an earlier account from Dominican priest Father Austin Rooke, who in a letter at the end of 1874 detailed his visit to the reliquary at the Siena convent in Drogheda. He begins with a good summary of Saint Oliver's life and death, but in the third paragraph from the end gives an interesting description of both the reliquary and the head it enshrined:


S. Mary's Priory, Cork.

MY DEAR FATHER, -Having had the opportunity recently of visiting our good Sisters of the Second Order in their Convent of S. Catherine of Siena at Drogheda, I had the great privilege of seeing there and venerating the sacred head of the Most Rev. Oliver Plunket, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, who suffered death for the faith at Tyburn, on July 1st, 1681.

I need not tell you that they guard this holy treasure with great reverence; and by their kind permission many persons are enabled to satisfy their private devotion by kneeling before that precious relic. As the preliminary inquiry has recently taken place in London, with a view of obtaining the canonization of this holy servant of God, which happy issue all are so ardently desiring, it will, I am sure, give satisfaction to the readers of the Rosary Magazine, and more especially to those who live in Ireland, to hear something about the life and death of this saintly Archbishop, and to have a description of his sacred relics.

Oliver Plunket was born at Loughcrew, in the county of Meath, in 1629; and having been educated up to the sixteen by his kinsman, Dr. Patrick Plunket, who successively ruled the dioceses of Ardagh and Meath, he formed one of a small band of youths who accompanied the Rev. father Scarampo, the oratorian, back to Rome after having fulfilled his mission in Ireland, whither he had been sent by Pope Innocent X. There he pursued and completed his studies; and afterwards he became the agent of the Irish Clergy at the Roman Court. Having been appointed to the See of Armagh, he was consecrated Archbishop at Ghent on the 30th, of November 1669, and he arrived in Ireland about the middle of the following March. He at once commenced his pastoral labours, which were rendered much more arduous on account of the evil days in which his lot was cast, and he devoted himself to provide for the necessities, not only of his own diocese and province, but for the spiritual welfare of Ireland generally. During the eleven years of his episcopate, his zeal was conspicuous in reforming abuses, in establishing seminaries and schools, and in administering the Sacraments; and in illustration of the unselfishness of his devotion to the flock committed to his care, tradition still points out the spot that witnessed the following scene. As he was being conducted across the country by a guard of soldiers on his way to prison, he met on the road a company of light-hearted young men and girls, in holiday attire, on their way to a pattern, or village feast; and obtaining leave from his guard to stop and speak to them, he exhorted them so earnestly that they resolved to abandon their intended dangerous pleasure, and at once returned to their homes.

Having been brought to London in the depth of a most rigid winter, and having suffered much on the journey, being of a very delicate constitution, he was cast into Newgate prison, where for six months he had to share the treatment endured by those who were accused of the worst crimes. And yet we read that, in addition to the sufferings of his prison, he added many voluntary penances, and especially a rigorous fast on bread and water three times each week.

At his trial he was refused a few days' respite to enable him to bring over witnesses and documents from Ireland, which would have proved that the accusations brought against him were false; and the same impious judge - Lord Chief Justice Pemberton - after passing the sentence of death upon his victim, refused his request to be allowed to have the spiritual aid of a Catholic priest. "You will have,” he replied, “a minister of the Church of England ;” but the Archbishop answered, “I am obliged for your good intentions, but such a favour would be wholly useless to me.”

A Protestant chronicle of that time says that the Earl of Essex, being convinced of his innocence, applied to Charles II. for a pardon, as he had clearly been condemned upon false evidence; but when the king in a great passion refused to grant it, he concluded by saying to the King, "His blood be upon your head, and not upon mine."

The sentence of death did not affright him; on the contrary, he marvelled that he felt no fear of death; and in a letter he wrote from his prison cell to a relative, he says: “But how am I, a poor creature, so stout, seeing that my Redeemer began to fear, to be weary and sad, and that drops of His blood ran down to the ground? I have considered that Christ, by His fears and passions, merited for me to be without fear."

Nay, so resigned was be to die the death of a Christian martyr, that not only did he exclaim, “Deo gratias," as soon as the judge delivered the sentence, but, on the testimony of a Protestant historian, the keeper of Newgate said that, when he told his prisoner that he was to prepare for his execution, he received the message with all quietness of mind, and went to the sledge as unconcerned as if he had been going to a wedding." And a Catholic eyewitness of his death records, that “on the scaffold, by the singular composure of soul and actions, he seemed like an angel descended from paradise, who was joyously arrived at the moment of once more returning thither.” He was the last of those glorious Confessors of the Faith who, bound down to a hurdle, were thus dragged to Tyburn to undergo their iniquitous sentence of being "hung, drawn, and quartered".

That he might have escaped death, even after his condemnation, he himself asserts in the document he drew up just before his execution, a copy of which is still in the archives of the Propaganda at Rome. Therein he says: “I assure you that a great peer sent me notice that he would save my life, if I would accuse others. This treacherous offer he disdained—indeed, there was no one to be accused. Father Corker, a Benedictine priest, who had been the faithful friend of the holy primate, and his fellow-prisoner for the faith in Newgate, has written a beautiful narrative of the "glorious Archbishop and Martyr,” as he calls him, from which I cannot refrain from quoting the following passages:

“The trial being ended, and he condemned, his man had leave to wait on him alone in his chamber, by whose means we had free intercourse by letters to each other. And now it was I clearly perceived the spirit of God in him, and those lovely fruits of the Holy Ghost, charity, joy, peace, &c., transparent in his soul. None saw or came near him, but received new comfort, now fervour, new desires to please, serve, and suffer for Christ Jesus by his very presence. After he certainly knew that God Almighty bad chosen him to the crown and dignity of martyrdom, he continually studied how to divest himself of himself, and become more and more an entire and perfect holocaust, to which end, as he gave up his soul with all its faculties, to the conduct of God, so for God's sake he resigned the care and disposal of his body to unworthy me. But I neither can nor dare undertake to describe unto you the signal virtues of this blessed martyr. There appeared in him something beyond expression-something more than human; the most savage and hard-hearted people were mollified, and attendered at his sight. Many Protestants, in my hearing, wished their souls in the same state with his. All believed him innocent, and he made Catholics, even the most timorous, in love with death.

When he was carried out of the press-yard to execution, he turned him about to our chamber window, and, with a pleasant aspect and elevated hands, gave us his benediction."

On the scaffold, with an heroic courage, he addressed the crowd of spectators for nearly an hour, disproving the false charges of conspiracy which the three apostate priests and some wicked laymen had sworn against him, confessing the faith, and pardoning his murderers, and then kneeling down prayed fervently, and recommended himself to God through the merits of Christ, and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and all the Angels and Saints; and as he was repeating the words, "Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit," the cart was drawn away, and he hung suspended between heaven and earth, "a spectacle to angels and to men.” Before he was dead, he was cut down, and the inhuman process of dismemberment took place, the bowels being taken out and thrown into a fire which was kindled for that purpose, and the head severed from the body, and the body cut up into four parts. A medical man who was allowed to examine the head not long since, says that it must have been cut off before he was actually dead, for the skin at the back of the neck has shrunk away from the cut, which would not have been the case had life been extinct.

After the butchery was over, permission was obtained to collect the scattered remains, and they were with due solemnity buried in the churchyard of S. Giles-in-the-fields, “under the north wall,” Dodd says in his Church History; and near to the Jesuit Fathers who had suffered in 1679, and for whom the saintly prelate had a great veneration. To the coffin was attached a copper-plate, which I saw at the Convent, and which hears a Latin inscription, of which the following is a translation: “In this tomb rests the body of the most Rev. Lord Oliver Plunket, formerly Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of all Ireland; who, out of hatred of the Faith, having been accused of high treason by false witnesses and on that account condemned to death, underwent martyrdom with all constancy, being hung at Tyburn and his bowels being taken out and cast into a fire. During the reign of Charles II., King of Great Britain, &c., July 1st, 1681."

The English Catholics defrayed the expenses of his funeral, as they had done for his keep during the seven months of his imprisonment in London, and for the bringing over witnesses in his behalf from Ireland. In a letter the Archbishop wrote to his relative, Michael Plunket, after sentence had been passed on him, he says: “The English Catholics were here most charitable to me; they spared neither money nor gold to relieve me, and in my trial did all for me that even my brother would do. They are rare Catholics and most constant sufferers.”

At the time of the interment of the holy body, a surgeon, named John Ridley, cut off the arms at the elbows and placed them in a tin box, and he placed the head in another tin box, as the original written parchment, which is also in the possession of the Nuns at Drogheda, declares. The following is a copy of it:

“The under-written John Ridley, Chirogeon, and Elizabeth Sheldon, doe hereby testifye and declare; That in this Chist are included two tione boxes, whereof the one being round containeth the Head, and the other being long containeth the two Hands armes from the Finger's end to the Elbow, of the Blessed Martyr Oliver Plunkett, Arch-Bishop of Armach, who was hanged, drawne, and quartered at Tyburne on the first Day of July, An: Doi: 1681, for the holy Catholick Religion; under pretence of a Plott wrongfully imposed upon him and others of the same Religion. The said Head was cutt off from the Body at the tyme and Place of execution: and on the same Day the two hands armes aforesaid were disjointed and separated from the rest of the said Body by mee Jobn Ridley in the presence of Elizabeth Sheldon imediatly before the quarters of the said Blessed Body were putt into the Coffin, in order to their Interment which Head, Hands and Armes were reserved by us out of the Coffin and placed in the said two boxes of tinne included in this as above specyfyed.

“In Witnesse whereof wee have hereunto sett our hands seales this 29th day of May, An: Dni: 1682.
“ John RIDLEY.

 On the back of the Parchment is written:

"Signed and sealed in the presence of

Dr. Challoner tells us that in 1684, when the body was disinterred, it was found entire; and Hugh McMahon, Archbishop of Armagh, in a work of his entitled “Jus Primatiale," attests that many miracles were performed by these sacred remains.

Father Corker, after his own release from prison, had the holy relics transferred to a monastery of English Benedictines at Lambspring, in the Duke of Brunswick's territories in Germany, where they were received with great pomp and reverence, and a handsome monument to his memory was afterwards erected in the Church there, bearing a Latin inscription, of which the following is a translation: -“The remains of Oliver Plunkett, of holy memory, Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of Ireland, who being hanged through hatred of the Catholic Faith, and his bowels being taken out and cast into the fire, a glorious martyr, laid down his life in London, the 11th of July, 1681.” The date is according to the old style, which accords with July 1st of present style. The right band he caused to be placed in a rich case, which is still preserved there. The head he placed in a silver reliquary, and petitioned the Holy See to allow a lamp to be always kept burning before it. Subsequently Father Corker gave the head to Cardinal Howard (a member of the Norfolk family), who was residing in Rome; and after the Cardinal's death, it was preserved in a convent of the Dominican Order in that city.

Dr. Hugh McMahon, when a student at the Irish College in Rome, had many opportunities of venerating the sacred head of that prelate, whose virtues, we are told, he had striven to imitate from a child; and later on, after he had been translated to the primatial See from that of Clogher in 1714, he obtained possession of this precious relic; and in 1722 he deposited it in the Dominican Convent at Drogheda, which he had founded there in the previous year by permission of the General of the Order. And most appropriately was that Convent chosen for its resting place: not only because when alive he had been much attached to the friars of that Order, but more especially because the first prioress, who was then presiding over that community, was the venerable mother, Catherine Plunket, the grand niece of the holy martyr.

At present it is enshrined in an ebony reliquary, with silver ornaments. The sisters have a tradition that this shrine passed through the Custom House as a clock-case, and the silver ornaments were placed on it in Ireland. There are two doors, one in front, and one behind, and inside of each there is a glass plate, through which the head is seen. On a silver plate affixed to the front door are the primate's armorial bearings, surmounted by a silver mitre. The head, which still retains some white hairs, is quite perfect with flesh and skin, and is of a brown colour. The nose has evidently been injured by fire, and the tradition is that when the head was cut off and cast aside, it came in contact with the fire in which his entrails were burnt. There is nothing repulsive about it; the eyelids are closed, and there is a calm repose upon the features, proving how placid must have been his death, notwithstanding its terrible violence.

Such is the history of the holy relic I have described. And to-day Ireland awaits with anxious expectancy the fulfilment of her long-cherished hopes--that this glorious prelate, the first and foremost of those heroic souls that she has so lavishly sent to join "the noble army of martyrs” in heaven, may be inscribed in the Calendar of the Church, by the authority of God's Vicar upon earth. And at this very moment England, through her Catholic hierarchy is petitioning for this boon in the same breath that she asks for a like favour for some of her own heroic martyred children; thereby trying to atone for the crime that has stained her annals in the unjust condemnation and barbarous execution of the noble-souled and gentle-hearted prelate, the worthy son and saintly successor of S. Patrick in his own See of Armagh.

When that solemn act shall have taken place, and the devotion of the Irish nation shall have raised a special sanctuary to his memory, attached to the Conventual Church of the Siena Convent at Drogheda, we may hope that a great pilgrimage will be organised in England to cross the channel and assist at the solemn translation of this Sacred Relic. And a touching sight will it be, and consoling to the faithful Catholics of Ireland, to see that English pilgrim band, with Cross and banner and holy chant, winding its way up that steep street in Drogheda, down which ran streams of the blood of its massacred citizens after the fatal battle of the Boyne, on its way to venerate that head which uttered such loving words of forgiveness for his murderers from the scaffold at Tyburn; and in return, humbly to ask his forgiveness on behalf of their nation, which so unjustly deprived him of his life; and at an earlier period so ruthlessly slew the innocent inhabitants of that town, who had taken refuge in their parish church. May you and I live to see, and, if it please God, to share in it!

Your affectionate Brother, December 1st, 1874.

F. AUSTIN M. Rooke, O.P.

The Monthly Magazine of the Holy Rosary, Volume 3, (February 1875), 185-193.

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Wednesday, 29 June 2022

The Oliver Plunket Relic


On June 29, 1921, the head of Saint Oliver Plunkett was translated from the Dominican Convent at Drogheda to its new home in Saint Peter's Church in the town. The report below from the Irish Rosary magazine gives a brief history of this famous relic and witnesses to the miracles attributed to other relics of Saint Oliver in England and France. The final paragraph reflects what is a very modern understanding of Saint Oliver as a peacemaker who testifies to 'the futility of un-Christian violence'. The head of Saint Oliver rested in this shrine until a new one was dedicated by Cardinal Daly on May 7, 1995. Professional examination of the relic in 1990 had shown that it was beginning to be negatively affected by high levels of humidity.  The head now sits within the 1921 brass and glass reliquary in a new inner capsule which allows better environmental control. Both are encased in a pedestal shrine made of steel and stone from which a gothic-style spire ascends to the ceiling of the Saint Oliver Plunkett chapel:  



THE greatest Catholic event of the year in Ireland was the translation of the relic of Blessed Oliver Plunket from the Dominican Convent at Drogheda to the Plunket Church. The relic itself is one of the most remarkable in existence. Torturers and executioners did what was in their power to destroy the intellectual organiser of the Catholic revival that began in Ireland at a moment when the nation's Faith seemed on the point of being overthrown. Today the torturers and executioners are scattered in dust, but the head of the martyr beholds the triumph of the cause which his wisdom rescued.

After the martyrdom, Oliver Plunket' s body was cut down and disembowelled. The heart and other organs - such is the ferocity of persecutors in every age - were cast into the fire. The head was cut off. The arms were broken. The trunk was cut in quarters which four horses dragged asunder.

The history of the head is complete and incontestable. It was obtained by John Ridley, a surgeon, and a lady named Elizabeth Sheldon. When less violent years arrived Father Corker, who was imprisoned for the Faith, was granted freedom. And to him the head was given by those who had so reverently kept it. He had it enshrined in an ebony case with silver mountings, and took it with him to Rome.

In the year 1714 the head was brought to Ireland. Dr. Hugh McMahon, the martyr's second successor in the Primacy, carried it hither from Rome and commended it to the care of the nuns at the Sienna Convent, Drogheda, of which Mother Catherine Plunket, grandniece of Oliver, was then in charge. There it remained, covered by the simple ebony in which Father Corker first enclosed it. On the 29th of June last it was borne with ceremonial pomp to the Church which bears the great Archbishop's name and enshrined in a reliquary of noble workmanship, studded with precious stones.


Well-attested miracles were wrought by the remains of Blessed Oliver. Authentic portions of his remains were objects of veneration at different places. An arm bone was preserved at the Franciscan Convent at Taunton, where sickly children were made strong by its touch. Cases of goitre were also cured miraculously. In Paris the martyr's left arm attracted Catholic devotion, and fifteen years after his death it was observed that "the flesh, skin, hand, fingers, and nails were all as perfect and fresh as though still living."

Archbishop McMahon, writing in 1728, bore witness to other supernatural evidences. "The memory is quite fresh" he said "of those things which the most illustrious Oliver performed after his glorious martyrdom, resplendent with such wonders and miracles that his head and members, having been carried into different lands, remain whole and incorrupt, and breathe forth a fragrant odour."


Oliver Plunket, coming to Ireland to be its Primate, beheld a stricken country. The Irish Hierarchy was all but extinct. Anti-Catholic persecution was in the high tide of its rigour. He himself passed through the country under assumed names ordaining priests, confirming thousands of laity, organising schools, and consecrating chapels. The Government had its vast machinery of oppression. This man steadily, patiently founded a network of Catholic activity secret but virile that was to wear that machinery out. The persecutors caught him in the end. They dragged him to Tyburn and they killed him there. But he had lighted a torch which can never be extinguished.

Very opportunely the mind of Ireland is being directed towards the patriot martyr at this juncture. His Beatification and the honours paid to his holy head are symbols that prove the futility of un-Christian violence. Reflecting on them, the Irish people realise that oppression cannot thrive. They see in his spiritual victory an earnest that injustice shall not prevail against them. And they will hasten the coming peace by the invocation of his potent aid.

The Irish Rosary, Vol XXV. No 8. (August, 1921), 561-562.

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Tuesday, 28 June 2022

The Body of Oliver Plunket

Yesterday we looked at The Trial of Oliver Plunket by Sir Shane Leslie, the first of two papers published in the Dublin Review in the summer of 1920. Today we can turn to the second paper, The Body of Oliver Plunket,  by English Benedictine Ethelbert Horne, O.S.B. (1858-1952). Dom Ethelbert, like Sir Shane, was also a convert to Catholicism and prolific author. His paper below explains how the English Benedictines came to be in possession of the earthly remains of the Irish martyr, their sojourn at the German foundation of Lambspring and the process by which the head of Saint Oliver came to be in Drogheda. There is reference to other, now lost, relics and testimony to the care taken with the documentation of those which survive. I found myself particularly interested in the role played by English laywoman, Mrs Elizabeth Sheldon, and would like to know more of this lady who appears to have been of a practical nature and undaunted by the bloodier aspects of her task:

II—THE BODY OF OLIVER PLUNKET In a letter of about June 20th, 1681, Blessed Oliver Plunket writes to Dom Maurus Corker: 
“I see your great charity that you are desireous to be carefull of my unworthy carcas after my death wch being opus misericordiae in high degree I ought not to deprive you of it it’s reward being most precious Vidz everlasting glory.” 

On the morning of the martyrdom, just before he was led out to die, he wrote, in his usual firm, bold hand: “My body and clothes etc. is at Mr. Korkers will and pleasure to be disposed of the first July 8i      Oliver Plunkett.”

The quartered body of the martyr was given to his friends for burial and it was spared the further ignominy of being nailed up at four of the city gates. The same favour had been extended to the five Jesuit fathers who had suffered for the pretended plot, two years previously, and it was at Blessed Oliver’s own request that he was buried beside them in the old churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-Fields. We can gather some details of this burial from the following document which is kept in the reliquary containing the head of the martyr:

“The under written John Ridley Chirurgeon and Elisabeth Sheldon, doe heareby testifye and declare; That in this chest are included two tinne Boxes wherof the one being Round containeth the Head, And the other being long containeth the two Hands armes * from the Fingers End to the Elbow of the Blessed Martyr Oliver Plunkett Arch-Bishop of Armach who was hanged drawne and Quartered at Tyburne on the first Day of July An. Dni 1681 for the holy Catholick Religion under pretence of a Plott wrongfully imposed upon him and others of the same Religion. The said Head was cutt off from the Body at the tyme and Place of execution: And on the same Day the two hands armes aforesaid were disjointed and seperated from the rest of the said Body by mee John Ridley in the presence of Elizabeth Sheldon imediately before the Quarters of the said Blessed Body were putt into the Coffin in order to their Intermerment which Head, Hands, and armes were reserved by us out of the Coffin and Placed in the said two Boxes of Tinne included in this, as is above specifyed in wittness whereof wee have heareunto sett our hands and seales this 29 Day of May Ann: D™ 1682 John Ridley Elizabeth Sheldon.

[Endorsed on the back] Signed and sealed in the presence of 

Edward Sheldon. Ralphe Sheldon. 

[* Hands armes. The hand arm is the forearm. The expression is still used in Somerset.]

Although this document is not dated until eleven months after the event it records, the care with which it is drawn up is evident. It is engrossed on parchment and  folded along its lower edge to receive the inserted slips bearing the seals referred to, and it appears to be the work of a professional lawyer. ‘There is no hesitation, at this early date, about anticipating the judgment of the Church, and speaking plainly of “the Blessed Martyr Oliver Plunkett.” We can gather that Mrs. Elizabeth Sheldon, who had done so much for the Archbishop all through his imprisonment, saw his quartered body into its coffin, and was probably present at its interment. It was she who employed the surgeon Ridley to preserve the martyr’s head and arms out of the coffin, perhaps thinking that there would never be any chance of securing the rest of the body. In a postscript to a letter written the day before the martyrdom to Father Corker, the Archbishop writes, “Mr. Marshall [Dom Cuthbert Marshall or Wall] sent me a shift wh[ich] now, and alsoe tomorrow I weare. I pray you to restore it to him for the gentlewoman who gave it did desire it should accompany me to the place of execution.” This, too, was another of Mrs. Sheldon’s preparations for that final scene.

The exact length of time that Blessed Oliver’s body lay in its first grave is difficult to determine. An account is thus given by Weldon in his Collections, a manuscript work, of which there is a copy at Downside: “.. . This martyr’s body, by the means of ours was taken up out of the grave, in the heat of the day, about two years after its burial, . . . Fr. Bernard Lowick, . . . chief actor in so dangerous an adventure, after which Fr. Corker found means to get it conveyed to Lambspring. . . .” On the other hand Challoner says: “Four years after, his body was taken up and found entire,” and Wood (Athen. Oxon.) has it that the body remained here, until the Crop-eared Plot broke out. This was in 1683, which would make the two years mentioned above, and hence Challoner is probably wrong. Fr. Maurus Corker, having taken the body to his monastery at Lambspring, in Hildesheim, built over it in the crypt, a tomb where it rested for the next 190 years. In 1684 he petitioned the Holy See for permission to keep a lamp perpetually burning before the shrine, but he does not seem to have succeeded in his endeavour, but the relics of the martyr were ever held in the greatest veneration by the community and the people of the place.

In 1883, the then Prior of Downside, now Cardinal Gasquet, accompanied by the late Dom Gilbert Dolan, went to Lambspring with a view of once more resuming possession of the martyr’s body. ‘The monks had been expelled from Lambspring Abbey by the Prussian Government in 1803, and so for eighty years the guardianship of the body by Benedictines had ceased, and hence they were anxious to take it up again. On January 10th, 1883, the permission of the Bishop of Hildesheim and of the Prussian Government having first been obtained, the grave in the crypt was opened in the presence of the two Benedictines and the parish priest, the Rev. Ferdinand Stammel. The tomb was on the south side of the crypt, in a recess formed in the thickness of the wall by the arch of a window, which had been filled in. In this opening, on the old window-ledge, had been placed a coffer made of one piece of red sandstone, and covered with a slab of the same, merely lying on it and not cemented down. The whole window recess had been walled in, and a huge stone, with the inscription and date, occupied the greater part of the opening. When the stone coffer was taken out, it was reverently carried to the sacristy and the lid removed. The four quarters of the martyr, each wrapped separately in linen clothes, were then exposed, and some relics being removed for keeping in the church, as directed by the Bishop of Hildesheim, the coffer was closed down again, and sealed by the parish priest.

It was then packed in a wooden case and forwarded to London. Through the kind influence of the late Sir Stuart Knill the box was passed through the Custom House unopened, and it reached Downside on January 31st, with the seals unbroken. A small relic* was given to Sir Stuart Knill, a part of which was exposed with lights in St. Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, at the hour of the Martyr’s Beatification. On the feast of St. Gregory the Great, March 12th, 1883, the late Bishop Clifford opened the box in the presence of the community. At his direction a medical examination of the relics was made by Dr. Francis Lee, and a list was drawn up of all that the coffer contained. The relics were then placed in a specially made chest, which was afterwards enclosed in another and soldered down. ‘This chest was sealed by the bishop, and full acta were drawn up of all that had taken place during the translation, which he signed.

[* “I hereby certify that on the 12th of March, 1883, a small portion of the remains of Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, consisting of a piece of one of the left ribs slightly marked with blood, was enclosed in a glass bottle and sealed with my episcopal seal. William Clifford Bishop of Clifton.”]

At the end of the north aisle of the Abbey church, a plain stone tomb was prepared, and within it for the next thirty-five years the body of Blessed Oliver Plunket rested. On March 11th, 1919, this tomb was opened, and the body taken out. The Bishop of Clifton examined the seals placed by his predecessor and found them intact. He then resealed the case, which was at once enclosed in lead and soldered down so that it may last indefinitely. On Whit-Sunday last, the day of the Beatification of the Martyr, the leaden chest having been enclosed in a massive one made of oak, the body was raised on a temporary shrine, and adorned with lights and hangings. It will remain in this position until the solemn translation to its place above, and at the back of the high altar, takes place in the autumn.

Chief of the other relics of Blessed Oliver is his head. We have seen above that it was not buried with the body, but enclosed by Mrs. Elizabeth Sheldon in a round box of tin. Dom Maurus Corker is said to have taken it to Rome in 1685, and to have presented it to Cardinal Howard. On the Cardinal’s death in 1694 it was kept in the English Dominican Convent of SS. John and Paul, and later again, in the Irish College. In 1721, it was given by Dr. Hugh McMahon, Archbishop of Armagh, into the care of Mother Catherine Plunkett, the first Prioress of the Dominican nuns at Drogheda, and it is still in the possession of this venerable community. The following is an extract from a letter, dated July 27th, 1874: “Probably you have learned from persons who have seen the relic, what appearance it presents. The flesh and skin are still upon the face,—the skin a dark brown colour. Part of the left cheek and a little of the upper lip are burnt quite black. . . . There is a little hair on the back of the head, and there is the mark of a deep cut across the top as if an attempt had been made to split the skull.”

The other relics of the martyr were the two forearms, which, as we have seen, were not buried with the body. In Weldon’s Collections, a MS. before referred to, occurs the following: “The English Benedictine nuns in Lark Fields [Champ de l’Alouette] at Paris have one of his arms, which I saw here on the day of his martyrdom, which then made up exactly eleven years since it had happened. It was all whole and entire, with all the flesh on, and even the nails, without the least offensive smell. . . The arm was given to the nuns by Fr. Corker.”

This relic is now lost, having disappeared during the French Revolution. There is, at present, no trace of the other forearm and hand. At the Franciscan Convent at Taunton, is kept the left humerus—the bone from the shoulder to the elbow. ‘This was given to the community in 1857 by Mrs. Monnington, of Sarnesfield, Herefordshire, and it appears to have a fairly continuous authentication.

Perhaps of few relics does so large an amount of documentary history exist, as that concerning the body of Blessed Oliver Plunket. From first to last, everyone who had to deal with the relics of the martyr seems to have been anxious to make their authenticity sure against the time of his Beatification, which has been expected from the day of his martyrdom.


'The Blessed Oliver Plunkett: II. The Body of Oliver Plunkett', The Dublin Review, Vol 167, (July, 1920), pp.19-25.

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