Archbishop William Walsh opened the diocesan inquiry into the cause of the Irish martyrs in Dublin in 1904. The following year this article, 'The Irish Martyrs', appeared in The Rosary Magazine. In it the author provides an impressive introduction to the martyrs and the challenges they faced. She ends with a brief selection but with a promise to follow up with more names and also a second piece on Irish Dominican Martyrs which I will reprint next.
The Irish Martyrs
By ROSALEEN O'NEIL
THE hearts of Irish Catholics were filled with joy when a few months ago His Grace, the Archbishop of Dublin, to whom the task of holding the preliminary diocesan Court had been entrusted by his brother Bishops of the Irish Church, announced that the cause of the Irish who suffered for the faith from the time of Henry VIII of England down to 1691, had passed the first stage and was about to be submitted to the Roman tribunal.
It may naturally be asked why there had been such a long delay in taking the necessary steps for the canonization of those servants of God. It was not for want of a just appreciation of their merits. But there were serious difficulties in the way. Few, I dare say, if any, ever seriously doubted that they were put to death for the faith; but that fact could not for a time be so clearly proved as not to leave the shadow of a doubt that they had not suffered for political reasons. The Roman tribunals are very exacting as regards the nature of the evidence submitted to them. It must be proved to their satisfaction that those for whom the Church's highest honor — the palm of martyrdom — is claimed, have suffered for the faith. To suffer death for one's country is a glorious thing. "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" (It is sweet and glorious to die for one's country), says the poet; but it is not martyrdom in the sense understood by the Church. To be such one must undergo death, or sufferings which would naturally result in death, for the faith of Christ or for some virtue which Christ taught. Now the heretics maintained that the martyrs were put to death not because they were Catholics, but because they were rebels to the state. And as, until comparatively recent times, the official documents bearing on their trials were as so many sealed books, it was impossible to conclusively refute their lying statements. Since, however, access has been had to those documents, all doubts however slight as to the cause of martyrdom have vanished. It is quite clear that refusal to deny the spiritual supremacy of the Pope was the cause of the persecution which led to the deprivation of civil rights, imprisonment, transportation across the seas, torture, and in many cases the death of thousands of Irish men and women.
Henry VIII had rejected the Pope's authority and established an independent Church in England for some time before he attempted to do the same in Ireland. In 1537 an act was passed by the Irish Parliament declaring him supreme head of the Church in Ireland; and another act was passed in the same year punishing with the penalties of high treason those who refused to take the oath of supremacy. The following are some of the clauses of those acts:
"The King, his heirs and successors, kings of England and lords of Ireland, shall be accepted and reputed the only supreme head on earth of the whole Church of Ireland.
"Any one who, by writing, preaching, teaching, or by any other act, shall maintain the authority and jurisdiction of the Bishops of Rome, or their aiders, shall for every such offence incur the penalties of praemunire.* [* Praemunire was a writ calling on a person to answer for contempt with which he was charged. If he failed to do so he lost all civil rights, and could be slain by any one with impunity.]
"Any one commanded to take the said oath (the oath of the King's supremacy), obstinately refusing to do so, shall suffer the pains of death and other penalties in cases of high treason."
Henry's agents on the Continent boasted that by these acts the Irish nation had renounced the spiritual supremacy of Rome. How false this statement was will appear from the following facts:
"There were in parliament," writes Cardinal Moran in his "History of the Catholic Archbishops of Dublin Since the Reformation," "two spiritual proctors from every diocese; it was their special province 'upon such things of learning as should happen in controversy,' to declare what was the doctrine agreeable to truth and to the teaching of the Church; and from time immemorial they enjoyed the right that nothing contrary to their decision should be enacted in parliament."
This body had without a dissentient voice opposed the act of supremacy. On account of their opposition an order was made under the great seal of England declaring that they should be allowed no vote in parliament; and that their assent should nowise be requisite for any act of the legislature. To quote again the same writer: "The voice of the spiritual pastors being thus hushed, and many of the Irish chieftains having retired in disgust from the parliament, the act of supremacy was passed... Whatever may be deemed the civil result of the act, surely no impartial observer will affirm that such an enactment of an English parliament in Ireland, carried by despotism, can be in any way referred to the representatives of the Irish nation."
Immediately after the passing of the acts the persecution was begun in right earnest. The King's deputy set out from the capital "on a martial course, a victorious circuit round about the whole kingdom." "At Waterford," he says, "we kept sessions, where were put to execution four felons, accompanied with another thief, a friar, whom we commanded to be hanged in his habit, and so to remain upon the gallows for a mirror to all his brethren to live truly." (State Papers, Henry VIII), It may be said without fear of contradiction that in no other country was ever such a fierce and prolonged persecution waged against the Catholic Church. An elaborate system of legislation, over and above what we have already mentioned, was devised and added to in succeeding reigns, having for its object the total extirpation of the faith in Ireland."
To mention only a few of the penal enactments. It was decreed:
"1. No one henceforth shall send his children or relations beyond the seas for education. Those who are abroad must return within a year, under penalty of the confiscation of their property.
"2. All Papist religious and priests shall forthwith depart from the Kingdom, under penalty of being put to death.
"3. No Papist shall dare to exercise the office of schoolmaster in the Kingdom.
"4. Whosoever shall harbor a priest, in town or country, shall forfeit his property to the Crown.
"5. Every one shall be present at our rites, ceremonies, etc., on Sundays and festivals."
And bravely, thank God, did the people resist all the attempts made to force them to abjure the faith. At the very commencement of the so-called Reformation the renegade Brown, Archbishop of Dublin, who was an Englishman and a creature of the King's, was forced to confess that "the common people of this isle are more zealous in their blindness than the saints and martyrs were in truth at the beginning of the Gospel." Their refusal to obey iniquitous laws brought upon them a persecution unrivalled for its diabolical ferocity.
Writing of it, the Four Masters make the following startling statement: "Although great was the persecution of the Roman Emperors against the Church, it is not so probable that so great a persecution as this ever came upon the world; so that it is impossible to tell or narrate its description unless it should be told by one who saw it."
O'Sullivan Beare gives a vivid description of the state to which the island was reduced in 1589: "All alarm from the Irish chieftains having ceased," he writes, "the persecution was renewed with all its horrors; a royal order was promulgated that all should renounce the Catholic faith, yield up the priests, receive from the heretical ministers the morality and tenets of the Gospel, and assist at their ceremonies on Sundays and holidays; threats and penalties, and force were to be employed to enforce compliance... The natives everywhere refused to be contaminated by the preaching and rites of the heretics... Every effort of the Queen (Elizabeth) and her emissaries was hence directed to despoil the Irish Catholics of their property and exterminate them."
Peter Lombard, Archbishop of Armagh, a contemporary writer, gives a terrible account of the diabolical cruelty exercised by the English soldiery in the province of Munster, of which he was a native: "Unheard of cruelties," he writes, "were committed on the inhabitants of Munster. Great companies of these natives, men, women and children, were often forced into castles and other houses, which were then set on fire; and if any of them attempted to escape from the flames, they were shot or stabbed by the soldiers who guarded them. It was a diversion to these monsters of men to take up infants on the points of their spears and whirl them about in their agony, excusing their cruelty by saying that if they were suffered to live they would become Popish rebels. Many of the women, too, were found hanging on trees with their children at their breasts, strangled with their mothers' hair."
It is sad to think that the poet Spenser, who came to Ireland in the train of Lord Gray, allied himself with the persecutors, so far; at least, as to glory in their deeds of blood and suggest means for the extirpation of the people. In cold blood he suggested, be it recorded to his eternal shame, the employment of numerous bands of troops "to tread down all that standeth before them, and lay on the ground all the stiff-necked people of that land;" and to insure success, he recommended that the war should be carried on in winter, "for then," he says, "the trees are bare and naked, which used to both clothe and house the kerne; the ground is cold and wet, which used to be his bedding; the air is sharp and bitter, to blow through his naked sides and legs; the kine are barren and without milk, which useth to be his only food, neither it they kill them will they yield him flesh, nor if he keep them will they give him food; besides, being all with calf, they will, through much chasing and driving, cast all their calves and lose their milk, which should relieve him next summer." (State of Ireland, page 161, Dublin Edition, 1809). He had already experience of the success of a like plan. He continues: "The end will be very short, although there should none of them fall by the sword... The proof whereof I saw sufficiently exampled in these late wars in Munster... Out of every corner of the woods and glens they (the people) came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them; they looked like anatomies of death; they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves; they did eat the dead carrions, happy where they could find them... and if they found a plot of watercresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able to continue there long withal, so that in a short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country was suddenly left void of man and beast."
An eye-witness (Mooney) of those scenes of misery says that so general was the devastation of the whole island, that "in most parts you would travel forty miles without meeting any human creature or even an animal, except birds and wild beasts." Hallam said that the sufferings of our country "had never been surpassed,"not even by those of the Jews in their destruction by Titus".
Only on the last day shall it be made known how many thousands died for the faith in Ireland between 1539, when the first of the martyrs suffered, down to 1691, when the profession of the Catholic faith was for the last time punished by death in that country.
The acts of three hundred and forty-four have been fully investigated by the Dublin Commission, and sent on, as I have already said, to Rome.
One Irishman, the Venerable Father John Travers, O. S. A., had suffered for the faith in England in 1535. His name and that of the Venerable Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, are not found in the Irish list, as their causes had already been introduced with other martyrs who suffered in England. The names of Archbishop Creagh and James Dowdall, who also died in that country, are likewise omitted, as their cause has been commenced there.
The list of martyrs is, as we have seen, a long one. It comprises Archbishops, Bishops, secular Priests, Augustinians, Carmelites, Cistercians. Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, one Premonstratensian, and fifty-six lay men and women. Readers of The Rosary will be glad to learn that the children of St. Dominic hold an honorable place in this glorious bead-roll. The names of one hundred and thirteen, of whom three were Sisters of the Third Order, are inscribed upon it.
Various were the forms of death inflicted upon the martyrs. That of Dr. Dermod O'Hurley, Archbishop of Cashel, the first on the list, recalls the worst days of Nero and Domitian. The martyr was a distinguished rhetorician and canonist. For four years he taught philosophy in Louvain, and later on canon law in Rheims. In 1580 he was appointed to the metropolitan see of Cashel by Gregory XIII. "He was thrown into a dark and loathsome prison in 1583, and kept there bound in chains till the Holy Thursday of the following year. After spurning the offers of ecclesiastical preferment in case he should subscribe the oath of supremacy, he was bound to the trunk of a large tree, with his hands and body chained; his legs were then forced into long boots (reaching above the knees) which were filled with salt, butter, oil, turpentine and pitch; and thus encased, his limbs were stretched on an iron gate under which a fire was kindled, causing a terrible and cruel agony. For an hour he was subjected to this torture; as the pitch, oil and other materials boiled, not only did the skin fall off, but the flesh itself melted away; the muscles, veins and arteries were gradually contracted, and when the boots were pulled off, particles of the broiled flesh being torn off with them, not a small portion of the bones was left quite bare, presenting a horrid spectacle which no words can describe. Still the holy martyr, having his mind fixed on God and holy things, never uttered a word of complaint.'' (O'Sullivan, page 124). He was again thrown into a dark and loathsome prison, and after an interval of a few days he was, says Stanihurst. a Dublin citizen who was probably an eye-witness, or at least could learn from eye-witnesses, "hurried to a field not far from Dublin Castle at break of day lest the citizens should crowd to witness such cruelty, and there they hanged the innocent man from the gallows with a halter roughly made of twigs that his sufferings might be all the greater." At early dawn on Friday, the sixth of May, 1584, being in the sixty-fifth year of his age, he gave up his soul to God. His mangled remains were buried in the old churchyard of St. Kevin.
Six years earlier, Dr. Patrick O'Hely, O. S. F., Bishop of Mayo, and his chaplain, Father Con. O'Rourke, O. S. F., suffered cruel deaths for the faith. They were arrested soon after landing at Dingle, in the County Kerry, and brought to Kilmallock, County Limerick, where, after a mock trial before Drury, the President of Munster, having refused to take the oath of supremacy, they were subjected to frightful torture. They were first scourged, then placed on the rack; sharp points and needles were thrust between the nails and the flesh, their fingers were cut off, their arms and feet beaten with hammers, and their thigh-bones broken. Drury again offered them rich benefices and positions of honor if they would take the oath of supremacy. But they only spurned his offers. He then ordered them to be put to death. They were hanged with the girdles which they wore as part of their religious habit, on the twenty-second of August, 1578.
It is worthy of note that immediately before he was executed the holy Bishop warned Drury that within a few days he should appear before the judgment seat of God. And so it came to pass. He was seized by a disease which baffled the skill of physicians. He cried aloud in his agony when dying that he was tormented by all the pains of hell. God's justice fell also visibly on some of the other judges who pronounced sentence against the Catholics.
In the following year Ireland gave a witness to the inviolability of the seal of confession. Father John O'Dowd, O. S. F., belonged to the Convent of Elphin, County Sligo. He had heard the confessions of some prisoners who were accused of conspiring against Queen Elizabeth. Being asked by the soldiers to reveal what he had heard in the confessional, he refused. He was then put to a cruel death. The soldiers knotted a cord round his head, and putting a piece of wood through it. slowly twisted it so tight that his eyes burst from their sockets. His skull was then broken and his brain crushed. All the time he was praying to God and to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He died in 1579. "I have seen and examined ocular witnesses of this fact, who were then serving in that body of English soldiers," writes the famous Father L. Wadding, O. S. F.
Another of the martyrs, Terence Albert O'Brien, O. P., Bishop of Emly, was in the city of Limerick when it was beseiged by Ireton, Cromwell's son-in- law. He was offered a bribe of forty thousand gold crowns and a pass to any place he pleased if he would quit the city and cease to urge the citizens to resistance — all of which he refused, preferring to give his help to the Catholic people. When the city was taken he was put in chains and executed in the market-place, in the year 1651. Ireton, his judge, to whom he had foretold the swift vengeance of God, was soon after stricken by the plague, and died exclaiming that the murder of the Bishop was the cause of his death.
Amongst the laymen who suffered for the faith was John O'Connor. He was seized by the Cromwellian soldiers and publicly hanged in Tralee because he would not abjure his religion.
Space will not allow me to give more instances of the martyrs' triumphs. I hope in a future article to give an account of the martyrdom of some of the children of St. Dominic.
From what I have written it will be seen how fierce and diabolical on the one side was the conduct of the persecutors, and how strenuous and glorious on the other was the struggle made by the children of St. Patrick for liberty of conscience. Irish Catholics and their descendants all the world over have great reason to be proud of the men and women who have handed down to them, pure and unsullied, the heritage of the faith. The Church in Ireland shines today with brighter lustre than at any other period of its history. It has come forth from the ordeal of blood and fire not only scatheless, but more vigorous than ever. "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians." The persecution that swept away every vestige of Catholicity in other lands only served to make our forefathers, if possible, more devoted children of the Church. Let us, then, in the words of Scripture, "praise men of renown, and our fathers in their generation. ...Good things continue with their seed. Their posterity are a holy inheritance, and their seed hath stood in the covenants. ... Let the people shew forth their wisdom, and the Church declare their praise." (Eccl. xliv, 14c.)
Note — There are three hundred and forty-four names on the list I have before me. But I believe others were subsequently added. Later on I hope to have the complete list and to be able to give the names of all the martyrs.
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