Saturday 20 June 2020

The Feast of the Irish Martyrs

Ireland is separated from England by icy foaming waters and the sea washes between their severed shores. But as she is so close to Britain in region and wildness, the same savagery ravages her borders. The same impiety walks abroad against men who are so holy with piety, it exerts the same madness. [1]

Thus did the Anglo-Dutch martyrologist Richard Verstegan describe the illustration above of 'The persecution of Catholics by Calvinist Protestants in Ireland' in his work of the 1580s, The Theatre of the Heretics' Cruelties of our Times. Today is the Feast of the Irish Martyrs who suffered under that persecution and it will be the aim of this blog to uncover their stories, including the ongoing story of the long drawn-out process to have them officially canonised as saints. For the past number of years I have been researching and writing a blog on the early Irish saints, Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae. There I am looking at the hundreds of holy men and women whose names fill the pages of our native calendars, all of whom were accepted as saints by local churches without being subjected to a formal canonisation process. In the twelfth century, however, Pope Alexander III restricted the process of declaring sainthood to the Papacy with two twelfth-century Irishmen, Saints Malachy and Lorcan O'Toole, the first to achieve official recognition of their sanctity. Further developments in the process took place in the Counter-Reformation period with a more stringent investigation into the potential candidate's life and the proof of miracles through his or her intercession being required. So in dealing with the lives of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Irish Martyrs I find myself in a different world to that of the earlier saints. For one thing, martyrs are strikingly absent from the catalogues of earlier medieval Irish saints. The introduction of Christianity to Ireland appears to have been a peaceful affair and early medieval Irish martyrs, such as Saint Kilian, made their sacrifices on the mission fields of continental Europe and not at home. The same was largely true of the early church in England. A modern scholar explains how this peaceful picture changed in the sixteenth century and provides some interesting statistics to ponder:
It was not till the 16th-Century Reformation, and the fatal competition between Protestant and Catholic, that the martyr-count rose dramatically in the two countries. In England, Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth between them executed around 300 Catholics; Queen Mary put to death over 250 Protestants between 1553 and 1558. In Ireland lists of martyrs began to be compiled from the 1590s, as the toll of Catholic deaths at the hand of the English government rose during the sixteenth century’s rising tide of violence and persecution: in all, between 1529 and 1691 well over 260 martyrs are recorded. [2]
Ireland was, of course, the classic exception to the rule cuius regio, eius religio, where the ruler of a territory establishes the religion his subjects follow. The reasons why Ireland did not embrace the Reformation are complex, still contested by historians and not yet fully explained. Some modern scholars would even contend that the very term 'The Reformation' is a misnomer as it implies a one-time clearly-defined event rather than a process which unfolded over the reigns of successive Tudor and Stuart monarchs. Debate continues too on when exactly the Reformation may be said to have failed in Ireland, if its failure was inevitable or whether it might have succeeded had sufficient coercion been applied. There is consensus though around some of the factors which led to Ireland remaining Catholic, central to which are the different political and cultural realities in this country which hamstrung the attempted extension of the English reformation. Politically, although the English monarchs had claimed 'lordship' over Ireland since the twelfth century, Ireland was not fully under English royal control when Henry VIII proclaimed his supremacy over the Church in 1534.  The introduction of the new state religion took place against a backdrop of ongoing military conquest and native uprising. Culturally, the Irish population was divided between a native Gaelic majority living under the leadership of autonomous Irish lords and an 'Old English' elite, mostly descendants of the Normans, who lived in anglicized urban areas and who acknowledged the lordship of the English King. Crucially though, despite their political loyalties this elite refused to accept the religious changes. Their rejection is reflected in the fact that among the martyrs we find more than a few Old English surnames such as Plunkett and Taylor alongside Gaelic ones such as O'Devany and O'Hurley.

The complicated historical situation in which the Irish martyrs met their deaths is only one part of their story. There is also the ongoing process of canonisation to consider. Although there were catalogues of martyrs drawn up from the 1580s until the 1660s and preserved in Irish Colleges, royal courts and religious houses in continental Europe, it was nevertheless difficult to initiate a formal process of canonisation. The active persecution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries gave way to a system of Penal Laws under which Catholics were subject to a variety of legal disabilities. It was felt, understandably, that it was better not to risk provoking the English authorities by having the Pope declare as saints Irishmen the state had killed as traitors. Early attempts to open the cause of martyred Primate Oliver Plunkett foundered on this basis, he was, after all, the victim of a 'Popish plot' manufactured in England. That this was no idle fear is perhaps demonstrated by the resurfacing of anti-Catholic sentiment following the restoration of the English hierarchy in 1850, when various British cities were convulsed by riots against this 'act of Papal aggression'. 

Yet in Ireland itself the nineteenth century was to see the Catholic Church recover its self-confidence in the decades following Catholic Emancipation in 1829. The growth of nationalism led to a renewed interest in Irish culture and history, including religious history and to the rediscovery of Ireland's saints. Fortunately there was a generation of gifted writers who were able to take on the challenge of reopening historical sources and bringing them to public attention. It was at this period that the Irish calendars of the saints were translated and works such as the writings of Saint Patrick and the voyages of Saint Brendan made available to a mass audience. Inevitably though, having laid out this glorious vision of the insula sanctorum, the question arose: why had there been no new Irish saint in the last seven hundred years? The time was therefore ripe for a reexamination of the Irish martyrs, and the able scholar Patrick Francis, Cardinal Moran started the ball rolling in 1861 with his book Memoir of the Most Rev. Oliver Plunkett. Seven years later Myles O'Reilly published the collection Memorials of those who suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries, which was based on the accounts of contemporary martyrologists. At the end of the century Irish Jesuit Denis Murphy published an account of over two hundred martyrs in his 1896 book Our Martyrs. The Irish writers were doubtless spurred on by the relative success of the Cause of the English Martyrs which had introduced 316 cases in the early 1880s and saw 54 beatified in 1885 and a further 8 in 1895. They included our own Oliver Plunkett who was beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975. As is often pointed out, the English martyrs had the advantage of having been tried in regular courts which documented their cases, plus their country was united under the Crown. In Ireland, apart from the fact that there were areas of the country where the king's writ did not run, many of our martyrs were condemned under martial law amid ongoing military conquest and its accompanying chaos.

But despite coming from behind the Irish cause was now underway and at the start of the twentieth century another champion emerged in the person of William Walsh, Archbishop of Dublin. It was customary for the death of a martyr to be investigated in the diocese where he had suffered, but Archbishop Walsh decided that instead of each Irish diocese holding its own inquiry he would convene a single national court in Dublin at which witnesses from all over the country would testify. The initial session opened on February 15, 1904 and eventually heard testimony about roughly 340 people. In 1907 a further inquiry into the writings attributed to some of the martyrs added extra names to the list. I have reprinted these official catalogues at a separate page here. Ten years later Rome approved the introduction of the causes of 260 Irish martyrs, but the demands for full documentation and translation meant the process dragged on for the next six decades. Monsignor Patrick Corish, who was actively involved with the cause of the Irish martyrs from the 1970s onwards, reflected:
In retrospect, it was a mistake to have attempted to proceed with all these causes simultaneously: the task was simply too big. In 1975 Archbishop Dermot Ryan set up a diocesan Commission for Causes. Acting under advice from the authorities in Rome, it was decided to proceed with a small group carefully selected to be as representative as possible, geographically and socially, in all twelve causes, seventeen persons. The extent of the research even for this limited number may be gauged from the fact that the documentation sent to Rome in 1988 ran to more than 800 pages. But it passed all the tests, and seventeen Irish martyrs were declared Blessed by Pope John Paul II on 27 September 1992. [3]
The story does not end there as a further forty two cases have been prepared since 1992, which according to an interview Archbishop Eamon Martin gave to The Irish Catholic last year are at an 'advanced stage'.

So, the Feast of the Irish Martyrs has been a long time in the making. As Pope John Paul II said in his homily on the occasion of the 1992 beatifications:
We admire them for their personal courage. We thank them for the example of their fidelity in difficult circumstances, a fidelity which is more than an example: it is a heritage of the Irish people and a responsibility to be lived up to in every age. [4]
I look forward to exploring this heritage and to remembering not only the seventeen Beati but also those whom they represent - the much larger body of Irish martyrs, the majority of whom will probably never be formally canonised, the unknown and the forgotten.


[1] Anne Dillon, The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Catholic Community, 1535-1603 (Routledge, 2003), 270.

[2] Alan Ford, "Remembering the Irish Martyrs", The Irish Catholic, October 26, 2017.

[3]  Patrick J. Corish, "The Irish Martyrs and Irish History",  Archivium Hibernicum Vol. 47 (1993), 89.

[4] Mairéad Ní hAirbeith, “Beatification of the Irish Martyrs.” Seanchas Ardmhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, vol. 15, no. 1, 1992,  274.

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James Literary Services said...

Is there a listing somewhere of the names of these Irish martyr beati? I have ancestors in northern Ireland who were Catholics killed by Cromwell and his minions. Just wondering if there are any who might be on this list.

Marcella said...

Thanks, providing these names was next on my to-do list! They can be found using the tab at at the home page or this link
Eventually I will hyperlink to posts about the individuals, the site has only just launched but hopefully in the not too distant future...