An overview of the Irish martyrs from 1868 today, the year in which Myles O'Reilly (1825-1880) published his Memorials of Those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland, an important work in the nineteenth-century rediscovery of the Irish Martyrs. O'Reilly was born in Dublin but educated outside Ireland, something he had in common with many of those he wrote about, first in England and finally taking his LL.D. in Rome. He also shared some of the exciting times of the martyrs in that he entered pontifical service at the invitation of Pope Pius IX and served as commander of the Irish Battalion of the Papal Army. In 1860 he was part of the defence of Spoletto, but was eventually forced to surrender. You can read more about this campaign and see a photograph of Major O'Reilly resplendent in his uniform at the History Ireland website here. On his return to Ireland O'Reilly was elected as M.P. for Longford and was a staunch supporter of the Father of Irish Home Rule, Isaac Butt. He was also involved with higher education and acted as examiner in classics for the Catholic University of Ireland. This background thus fitted him to research the sources recording the Irish martyrs, the majority of which were written in Latin and to translate them for a wider audience. One of those who read the Memorials is the anonymous author who contributed the piece below to the English Catholic periodical the Tablet, which was syndicated by the Pilot, a Catholic newspaper in Boston with a large Irish expatriate readership. From the way the writer speaks it is clear that he has his own knowledge of the subject. I noted that our Englishman takes a little swipe at the Home Rule policy espoused by O'Reilly in his warning that anyone who equates an independent parliament with national freedom should bear in mind that the Irish Parliament of the 1530s passed the legislation allowing the suppression of the monasteries. He also has little respect for the iconic status among his countrymen of Queen Elizabeth I, whom he refers to as 'the royal virago'! In dealing with the case of Jesuit David Wolf he speaks warmly of the 'wisdom and charity of the Society of Jesus' which makes me think he could well be a member of the Society himself. Indeed, I am wondering if our anonymous author might be someone like Father John Morris S.J., a postulator of the cause of the English Martyrs:
From the London Tablet.
Sufferers for the Catholic Faith in Ireland.
It has often been said that there is not an acre of Irish ground unwatered with the blood of martyrs. Yet it is probable that few of our readers, even in Ireland, have any adequate knowledge of what this amounts to, or of the vast treasures laid up for their country by the intercession of what may be fairly called an unnumbered host. Or again, how long this more than Diocletian persecution lasted. We think of Queen Elizabeth and the “flag’s War,” but are apt to forget that the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries can equally show their goodly roll of acta sanctorum. Mr. O’Reilly has done an excellent work in collecting his memorials of “Sufferers in Ireland for the Catholic Faith,” in which we find an abundant variety of name and race, as well as of religious orders and states of life. Among the sufferers are recorded bishops and archbishops, the secular clergy, Carmelites, Cistercians, Dominican and Franciscan friars, Jesuits, Vincetian and Trinitarian brothers, Tertiaries, with a crowd of devout lay folk, men and women. And all these— we may say with equal courage—professing their faith and accepting their certain doom of captivity, torture, and often most barbarous death, with the unshaken constancy, nay, with the eager joy of the martyrs under imperial Rome. Beginning in the sixteenth century with the crusade against all Catholics as “rebels,” the persecution gradually embraced every other element of animosity; or, as Mr. O’Reilly justly observes, “the differences of race, of conquest, and of government, all added their elements of bitterness to intensify and prolong those sufferings, and that shedding of blood which were singularly absent from the first conversion of Ireland.”
The first step was taken by Henry VIII. in 1535, on the death of Allen, Archbishop of Dublin, when Dr. Browne, an Augustinian friar, unhappily allowed himself to be consecrated by Cranmer, and to receive the pallium from him. He was upheld by a man still more blameworthy, the real but faithless Bishop of Meath, Dr. Staples, who had conformed to the Parliamentary opinions. It is worth while to keep these two names in mind, as a record that they were the only two Irish bishops who fell. As one of Henry’s chief aims was to possess himself of the Church wealth, the next act was the seizure of the religious houses, and in 1538 we find the faithless Irish Parliament granting the King 370 monasteries, and in 1538 all the religious houses in Ireland. Those who like to imagine that a separate representation would ensure national freedom, should study the acts and spirit of the Irish Parliament in its palmy days. It is also remarkable that as there were but two bishops who fell, there is record only of one abbot —the last of Thurles—who opposed the royal command to surrender his monastery to the commissioners. The same ruin which then came upon this country was, of course, bitterly felt in Ireland, singularly fertile in religious houses. The monks, canons regular, nuns, and brothers of the Cross, and also the four mendicant orders, Franciscans, Dominicans—”Preachers” Carmelites, and Augustinians, were all thrown houseless on the country. The famous image of Our Lady of Ath Trium, where all manner of diseases were healed, was burnt; and the still more venerated Bacul Jesu —or Staff of Jesus, preserved with the utmost care—shared the same fate.
During the too brief reign of Mary, Dr. Staples was extruded from Meath, and Dr. Walsh, a Cistercian, was consecrated Bishop. His four years’ useful rule was cut short by Elizabeth’s accession, who ordered conformity to the “Common Prayer” throughout Ireland; and, upon Bishop Walsh’s indignant refusal, the royal virago sent her commands that he should be “clapt up in prison.” Not in the luxurious cleanliness and comfort of Millbank or Coldbath Fields, but in a “subterraneous dungeon, dark and noisome,” where not a ray of light could penetrate, and this for thirteen years. There, so manacled that he bore the sears of his chains to the grave, this brave prelate made prayer his sole occupation and delight, when it is said that the abundance of Divine consolation so overwhelmed his soul that his prison cell gave him the foretaste of heaven. And wisely judging, also, that manual labor was the best alternative to prayer, the captive Bishop obtained leave for a bed of knotted or platted rope, which he untied and knotted up again till he was heartily tired. Finding that Dr. Walsh’s constancy of mind was accompanied by an inconvenient persistency of life, his persecutors resolved to condone his flight, and he was allowed to escape from Dublin Castle in a small vessel to the coast of France. He passed from Nantes and Paris to Alcala in Spain, where a noble lady, a genuine daughter of Spain, was allowed to keep him some time in her house, to nurse and tend him and dress his wounds. Thence he retired to the Cistercian monastery in the. town, and there closed that checquered life which a crowd of witnesses attested had never been stained by a mortal sin. His body lies in the Collegiate Church, where the epitaph inscribed by the Bishop of Granada may be read at this day.
Imprisonment in noisome dens was gentle discipline compared with what shortly followed. In 1565, some soldiers attacked a convent of harmless Franciscan friars in Armagh, and cruelly flogged all who refused to acknowledge the Queen as Head of the Church; and, from that day till 1798, Irish Catholics were commonly flogged to death for not renouncing their religion. The persecution spread from the simple Franciscans to the leading men in the Irish Church. In 1560, Father Wolf, a Jesuit, had been sent from Rome as Apostolic Commissary, or Nuncio, with full powers to fill up the vacant Irish Sees, an office which he discharged with great judgment and discretion. The instructions given to him, which as sent to the Cardinal Protector of Ireland were preserved in the Vatican, admirably illustrate the wisdom and charity of the Society of Jesus; a wisdom and charity which, like that of the Church, will always be ascribed to the perfection of craft, were not discerned to be the gift of the Spirit of God. The Nuncio or Legate, for such in truth he was—was to visit the chief noblemen, the bishops and the clergy, to commend their zeal and encourage them to persevere, to see that the bishops remained in their dioceses and instructed their flocks, to watch how the sacraments were administered, and the decorum of the services was maintained. And where it was possible new monasteries and grammar schools were to be opened, and some hospitals and refuges provided for the poor. No alms, under any pretence, were to be taken for these services, and “the salvation of souls alone was to be the moving spring and reward of every fatigue.” At the same time full powers were given by the Holy See to Father Wolf and Archbishop Creagh, the newly consecrated Primate of all Ireland, to create University schools throughout the island, but this was too great a good to be accomplished for many a day. Both these noble men, actively hunted as great prizes, were seized and imprisoned in Dublin Castle, and Pope Pius V. himself wrote to the Court of Spain to intercede with Elizabeth for their release. In his letter he calls the Primate “our venerable brother,” and the priest “our beloved son, David, of the Society of Jesus.” Father Wolf made his escape to Spain, but could not be satisfied without returning to Ireland, where he sickened and died in 1578.
The first Franciscan victim had suffered in 1569. His name, which should be recorded, was Brother Daniel O’Duillian, who first also underwent that ingenious variety of cruelties for which Ireland became so renowned a field. Heavy stones were fastened to his feet, while he was hoisted to the top of a gate tower. He was then hung head downwards, and made a target for the soldiers’ bullets; but, as in the case of St. Sebastian, they were ordered to torture and wound, but to prolong life. One ruffian, more merciful than the rest, shot him through the heart, and Brother Daniel went to his reward, and, perhaps, obtained the same crown for a long array of his brethren, for the Irish Franciscans martyred seem like the stars of heaven for multitude.
The first bishop martyred was the last of Mayo, Dr. O’Hely, also a Franciscan, and, like so many Irish of that day, a student of Alcala. Scarcely had he landed, dismissed from Rome with the blessing of Gregory XIII,, when he was arrested and carried before Sir William Drury, and was at once condemned to a sentence more barbarous than any yet known. The Bishop and Father O’Rorke were racked, had their arms and legs smashed with hammers, and sharp irons thrust under their nails. Their bodies were then hung on a tree for fourteen days, and used as a target by the soldiers. As the Bishop was being led away, he summoned Sir William Drury to appear shortly before the judgment seat of God, and he died in great agony a fortnight afterwards. This incident had, however, no effect on the Government, and under Sir John Perrott, one of Elizabeth’s godsons, the horrible details of hanging with the head downward, twisting a knotted cord round the head till the skull broke, smashing the arm and legbones with hammers, and burning the soles of the feet until they were charred, equal those of pagan Rome. Whoever, therefore, is minded to study the ancient martyrologies to awaken zeal, and kindle a noble emulation to be ready to do and to bear the like, should also be familiar with the more recent memorials of those whose names should be among us household words.
Several of the longer biographies contain passages rich in interest, and should be enlarged for our lending libraries, and in some there is a pathos more tender than in the finest works of fiction. Very touching is one record of a few lines, of twenty-two old men, unnamed, burnt to death together by the soldiers in Munster in 1580. Such things turn our eyes with a fresher joy to that great approaching festival on which we contemplate the turbam magnam, quam dinumerare nemo poteratex omnibus gentibus, and behold the crowds shining upon those who have overcome.
It is a little to be regretted that Mr. O’Reilly did not create some thread of connection in his records by dividing the subject into reigns, giving with each sovereign the included time, and a list of the bishops, monks, and lay people who suffered. As it is, it is somewhat bewildering to range through the various biographies overlapping one another, and it is difficult to carry on the chronology of English events occurring at the same time, while a few words of connection would have added to the interest as well as the value of the work. However, these are trifling defects in a book which no one can lay down without feeling his heart kindled and his mind elevated in beholding the deeds of his fathers. The book from which the above facts have been taken, has just been published by the Catholic Publication Society, and is for sale by Donahoe. Price, $2.
Pilot, Volume 31, Number 50, 12 December 1868
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