Monday 31 May 2021

Inspired by Saint Dymphna: John Meagh, S.J.

On May 31, 1639, Irish Jesuit John Meagh was murdered at Kuttenburg (Kutná Hora), near Prague. This Cork native had left for exile in Europe only to encounter the strife unleashed by the Reformation in a place far from home. The case of Father Meagh provides us with a rare opportunity to read an account of an Irish martyr by John, Canon O'Hanlon (1821-1905), author of the Lives of the Irish Saints whose work provided the original inspiration behind my blog Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae. He researched those medieval Irish saints who were active in Europe but did not explore the cases of the later Irish martyrs. It appears to be the part played by Saint Dymphna in the story of this particular martyr which made him the exception. Father John Meagh's devotion to Saint Dymphna is recorded by Jesuit historian Matthew Tanner (1630-1692) in his 1675 work Societas militans on which O'Hanlon based his own account below:

Article IX.—The Blessed John Meagh, S.J., Martyr, near Prague, Bohemia. *

[Seventeenth Century].

A peculiarly religious interest connected with the Life of a holy servant of Christ, and as serving to illustrate the devotion of an Irish martyr towards St. Dympna, Virgin and Martyr, deserves to be recorded. His career closed, also, with the victorious laurel of martyrdom.

John Meagh, a native of Cork, in Ireland, having voluntarily exiled himself from a country, then suffering from dire calamities, travelled through France, Spain and Italy. While this pious man lived at Naples, he happened to meet a book, which contained an account of the lives and acts of various saints. Touched with a sudden inspiration, he besought the Almighty to guide him, whilst casually opening this book, to the life of some saint, whose example might become the model by which his own future course should be guided. On opening the leaves, he first met with the Life of St. Dympna, the Martyr. Thinking, however, that the biography of this youthful virgin was somewhat inapplicable to the purpose had in view, he was about to try again, if a more suitable subject for reading should be presented. Yet, on considering for a moment, the pious man resolved—still with some degree of reluctance—on studying the lessons to be derived from a perusal of St. Dympna's acts. While passing over the pages, his interest in the subject gradually increased; especially when he found, that this noble virgin, when persecuted by the dreaded and unnatural solicitations of her father, fled as an exile from her friends and country, to avoid idolatry, and as a consequence of her heroic resolutions, she obtained the crown of martyrdom, in reward for her virtues of faith and holy purity. The following train of reflections then took possession of his mind: "How, if God should desire me, flying from the heresy now introduced into Ireland, to resolve on a farther flight from sinful occasions, by embracing a religious state? And, afterwards, when I am ordered to return, might I not obtain a share in St. Dympna's crown of martyrdom?"

We are next informed, that this good Irishman was induced to join the Society of Jesus, in which he was advanced to the sacred order of priesthood. While preparing himself for a return to Ireland, being destined by the Superior-General to labour on that mission, he was sent to Bohemia. In the year 1639, the Jesuit College of Guttenberg, near Prague, having been destroyed by the Swedes, Father John Meagh was obliged with his companions to fly elsewhere for safety, on the 31st of May. They had hardly proceeded one mile from this place, however, when they were suddenly attacked by some Protestant peasants, who issued from a wood. All the fugitives escaped, excepting Meagh, who, while reciting the Litany of Loretto with another companion, fell, having been pierced through the breast with a leaden bullet. At the same time, two Jesuit lay brothers shared this crown of martyrdom, which their Reverend Father had expected to meet in Ireland. They carried many sacred relics with them at the time, intending to remove these precious treasures to a place of greater security. Thus, in another respect, also, the devoted priest resembled his patroness, St, Dympna, who shed her blood for the faith, in a country far distant from the land of her nativity.

[*This narrative taken from a work written by the Jesuit Father Matthias Tanner, entituled : "Societas Jesu usque ad sanguinis et vitae profusionem militans in Europa, Africa, et America, contra Gentiles, Mahometanos, Judaeos, Haereticos, Impios, pro Deo, Fide, Ecclesia, Pietate."—Prague, A.D. 1675.]

Rev. John O'Hanlon, Lives of the Irish Saints, Volume V, ( Dublin, 1875), 622-623.

Father Meagh was one of the martyrs included by Irish Jesuit Denis Murphy, in his 1896 catalogue Our Martyrs.  He drew on the 1657 work the Mortes Illustres by another Jesuit historian, Philip Alegambe (1592-1652).  Alegambe confirms that Saint Dymphna was instrumental in encouraging the vocation of John Meagh even though initially he 'thought the history of a woman unsuited to him for imitation'. He brings in another, decidedly masculine, intercessor in the person of the founder of the Society of Jesus, Saint Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556). Saint Ignatius suffered a severe leg injury in battle on May 20, 1521 and it was during his recovery that he reassessed his life's direction. Father Meagh also suffered a leg injury en route to Rome and this enabled his own decision to enter the Order, having earlier been inspired by the example of Saint Ignatius whilst in prison. It is noteworthy too that Father Alegambe's account concludes by laying out two reasons why Father Meagh and his companions were martyrs, killed out of hatred of the faith. This reminds us that martyrdom is judged according to the principle 'causa non poena' - the reason for the suffering, not the suffering itself. Had these Jesuits simply been the target of robbers or fallen while defending themselves they would certainly be tragic victims of violence but could not be said to have been killed in odium fidei. Thus Alegambe argues that they were singled out for attack because they were Jesuits, the Order's very name inspiring hatred amongst their Protestant assailants:

1639. John Meagh, S.J.

(From Alegambe's Mortes Illustres, p.538)

John Meagh was a native of Cork, in the province of Munster. To remove him from the persecution of the heretics, he was taken by his father first to France, and then to Naples. After his father's death, he entered the service of the Duke of Ossuna, the Viceroy. But disliking the frivolous amusements of the Court, he began to think of leaving it; and he would have done so if the Viceroy had not been recalled just then to Spain. In this way John found the means of going there, and asking for some favours from the King. He was received in so kindly a way that he obtained very soon an annual pension; with this he returned to Naples. 

But mark by what wonderful ways God draws men to Him. They young man prayed to God to make known to him, when he opened a book, the manner of life which he should enter on. He opened it, and found there the Life of St. Dympna, a maiden of royal birth, who fled from Ireland to avoid her father's fury, and was afterwards slain by him. John thought the history of a woman unsuited to him for imitation, and was thinking of looking for some other; but in the mean time he went on reading it; again and again he deliberated about turning over the leaves, and searching for another , and yet he hesitated to turn them. 'What if God wishes me to leave the world' said he, 'and to flee from all occasions of sin, as that royal maiden did when she left her native country'. Wherefore, he determined to  enter the religious state without further delay; and whilst he was yet hesitating somewhat, he was wrongfully accused of a grievous crime, and taken into custody. Seeing in the prison a statue of St. Ignatius, he consoled himself with the thought that he, too, was thrown into prison though free from all guilt. Wherefore, he placed himself under this Saint's protection, and asked his aid. Soon after he was released.

This occurred during the year of the Jubilee. Through devotion he set off for Rome. On the way his leg was hurt somehow, and he was hospitably entertained by our Fathers, and nursed until he recovered. Full of gratitude for their kindness, and remembering that St. Ignatius too had broken his leg, he determined to enter the Society. He was ordained a priest, and sent back to Naples with letters from the General to the Provincial. There he entered the noviciate, and having gone through it in a blameless manner, he was sent to Bohemia for a short time, in order to acquire some experience before he returned to Ireland to be employed in the saving of souls. His zeal and earnestness were specially remarked, his great piety while offering the sacrifice of the Mass, which was often witnessed by those who assisted thereat, and his great eagerness to divert the conversation to divine things. He was about to depart for Ireland, and he had prepared himself for the journey by making the spiritual exercises.  Indeed, he had a sort of presentiment, that he should be called on to offer up his life for the faith.

John Pauer, who after the death of Gustavus Adolphus commanded the Swedish army that harassed Germany so long, made an incursion into Bohemia in 1639 and laid siege to Prague, its capital city. The Fathers who were then in the College of Catternberg, terrified at the approach of such a powerful enemy, looked for some safe place where they might take refuge. The College of Neuhaus seemed better suited to their wants than any other place. Several were told to go there by different roads; these were beset with robbers, whom the hardship of the times or the hope of booty induced to arm themselves, to the ruin of travellers. Moreover, many of the people were still infected with wicked doctrine, and though it had been preached against some years before throughout the whole of Bohemia, yet the consequences of that evil teaching remained deeply fixed in the minds of many, and induced these rude men to assail those who strove to root out such principles by their preaching. Many of these were robbed and forced to fly. Three of them were slain, namely, John Meagh, Martin Ignatius and Wenceslaus Trnoska. There are two reason for asserting that they were put to death through hatred of the Catholic faith. One is the hatred which the heretics have for the very name of Jesuit, because they find them to be among the most active and zealous defenders and teachers of the faith. The second is, that they did no harm whatever to the other persons who were travelling with ours, nay, even thy bade them put away all fear and take courage; this is a certain fact. John received one wound in the breast from a small leaden bullet. Martin was wounded in the breast, and received a deadly blow on the head from an axe. Wenceslaus was shot through the temples. The place where they were murdered is one mile from Guttenberg, on the road to Neuhaus. The date was May 31st, 1639. Their bodies were taken away by the nobleman Bernard De Gerschoff, and buried in the Church of the Holy Trinity, in the village of Litz. On June 3rd following they were transferred to the church of St Barbara, at the Rector's request. F. John Meagh was put to death in his 39th year, thirteen of which he had passed in the Society of Jesus.

Rev. Denis Murphy, S.J., Our Martyrs,  (Dublin, 1896), pp. 268-271.
Although Father Murphy, the then Postulator,  devoted over three pages of his book to the case of Father John Meagh, his name does not appear on the Official List of Irish Martyrs (1918).  It is of course customary for the cause of a martyr to come under the jurisdiction of the Bishop in whose diocese the martyrdom took place. I have been unable to find out, however, if the cause of John Meagh S.J. and his companions has ever been promoted by the relevant authorities in the Czech Republic or where it currently stands.

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