Thursday 9 July 2020

The Irish Franciscans

We are introduced to some of the Irish Franciscan martyrs in this report of a talk given in Scotland in 1890 by Father Antonine Scannell, O.S.F.  I think the speaker was an Irishman by birth although he served in Glasgow, where there was a large Irish population attracted by the economic opportunities offered by this heavily-industrialized city. The Franciscan Order was established in Ireland in the thirteenth century, tradition has it that they first landed in Youghal in 1231. Father Scannell gives a stirring account of their contribution to Irish history, especially their role in the success of the Irish Counter-Reformation. He describes the great scholars of the Irish Franciscan College at Louvain concentrating on Waterford man Luke Wadding and the Donegal Franciscans John Colgan, Michael O'Clery and the Four Masters. But the 'triumphs' of the Order were the many Franciscan martyrs, a selection of whom he introduces.


The following discourse on the struggles and triumphs of the Irish Franciscans was delivered lately in the Franciscan Church, Glasgow, by the Very Rev. Father Antonine Scannell, O.S.F., in aid of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. He said: Among the very many incidents that occurred and are recorded in the ecclesiastical history of Ireland during the past three centuries, it could be said without hesitation that there was not one that could be compared to the subject spoken of that night. That subject was replete with interest. The men he intended to speak of had been instrumental in preserving the faith of the Irish people and keeping it alive in many a lonely district in Ireland. It had been sealed, too, by the blood that flowed from the hearts of the noble Franciscans. He would wish them to understand his intention was to include in their struggles, first of all, what they did to keep alive the faith of the Irish people, what they did by the works that flowed forth from their pens, what they did by that love they ever bore to their fatherland, and the means that they employed for the purpose of securing Ireland's independence. By their triumphs he simply meant nothing more than their martyrdom. To speak that evening of the history of the Irish Franciscans from the time they landed in Youghal to the present day would be a herculean task to attempt, and though he limited his remarks to the latest three centuries, the field was so vast that he was bound to keep himself within a certain limit, and to be as brief as possible. 

During the course of these past years Ireland had been under the sword of persecution, and the very shamrocks on the hillsides and plains that once drooped their heads to the footsteps of saints had been dyed again and again by the blood that poured forth from the hearts of Irish Franciscans. Myriads of hired informers had been sent around the country for the sole purpose of hunting down like bloodhounds their priestly victims. A few indeed escape, in spite of the watch that had been kept upon them. Many of these noble-hearted men went forth in the midst of perils and danger, braving every obstacle, to uphold the banner of faith, and, if necessary, to dye it again with their blood. Time after time these pseudo reformers rose up and attacked every dogma of their holy religion, and these champions of faith had again to descend for the hundredth time into the arena of discussion to refute the calumnies that had been directed against the Holy Church.

Let it be said to the eternal and immortal honour of the Irish Franciscans that when driven from their homes, which were gutted and razed to the ground, they not only assembled in the glens and woods to recite the holy office, but they, even in the very face of the tyrant, wore the holy habit of St. Francis, in defiance of all penal laws, and, what is more, during the very rage, and height, and apex of the persecution in Ireland, the Irish Franciscans met from time to time in Dublin to hold their provincial chapters, and elect the various superiors for the different houses in the country. Sometimes nearly seventy of them assembled, and they could often hear beyond the walls of their place of meeting the groans of some victim of the tyranny of those penal times.

 Not only this, but more. There is not a county in Ireland, from one end to the other, where there is not heard of and known the name of some brave son of St. Francis, who endured direful hardships and who braved every difficulty in bringing aid to those who stood in need of it. Who has not heard of that brave Father Ward, a native of Tir-Conail, who, with his companions, traversed every county of Ulster? At a time when other priests were forced away and sent off in exile, that man went into the lonely districts of Ulster where the people were scattered and without sacraments or sacrifice, and though he knew that there was danger around him, yet there was not a cabin he did not enter, not an aching heart he did not relieve, not a dying fellow-countryman that he did not whisper words of consolation into his ear. Mayo and the Western counties had been visited by Father O'Dowd and his companions, never thinking of aught else than the spiritual wants of those in need of their aid, yet they knew there was nothing before them but the gibbet or the rack, whose terrors they braved. Look around the Southern coasts of Ireland. See such men as Father Hanley and Father O'Sullivan rising with their habit, moving among the people in the time of direst persecution — men who heeded not the danger that surrounded them and prevented many a bloody deed during those disastrous times, who brought peace, comfort, and happiness by their presence among the people. Well did Wicklow, Carlow, and Wexford remember the names of Fathers O'Molloy, Doherty, and Ferrall, all sons of St. Francis. These men passed from one mountain district to another, went from cabin to cabin, telling the people not to think of them, but of themselves, that if they were sheltered in the house it would be as dangerous for shelterers as for sheltered. And many a cold winter night did those brave Franciscans pass on the rocks and mountains, with nothing but the canopy of heaven over their heads.

Not only did they uphold and keep the faith of the Irish people at home, they did more — for at one time the Irish Franciscans were more numerous than all the other religions put together— not only did they keep the lamp of faith alive at home, but went abroad like the saints of old. Even to Scotland did they come, and for many a year on the western coasts was our holy religion preserved by the Irish Franciscans. Who has not heard of Father Ward, of Father O'Neil, of Father M'Cann, and of Father Hegarty? These were the men sent by Pope Paul V. into the vineyard of Scotland at the time when Knox's ruffians were raping through the land, and be it said to his glory that Father Ward by his labours, brought back into the fold many a heretic who had erred. Those four Franciscan fathers converted over four hundred heretics and brought them back to the Church they deserted. In one part, a Protestant minister pursued some of the Fathers and had a warrant in his pocket for their arrest. They were apprehended and thrown into a filthy prison. But the children of St. Francis cared little about gibbet or dungeon, scaffold or rack.

Strange to say, during the fury of the tempest of persecution there were men to be found among the children of St. Francis, who sent forth from their pens the most marvellous works of literature, history, science, and art. There is M'Caghwell or Cavellus, the successor of Peter Lombard, the man who wrote the commentaries of the works of the Irish Franciscan, John Duns Scotus, termed "The Subtle Doctor," the defender of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Mother of God. But this is only one. Among the many learned works produced, we have that of Florence Conry, Archbishop of Tuam, a child of St. Francis, who went forth from the press the most wonderful works on every branch of science. What is to be thought of the authors of the Annals of Ulster— tbe Annals of Ireland—the annals of the Four Masters? Who were the Four Masters? Four Irish Franciscans— men, who although they had been driven time after time from their home in Donegal, still pursued their labours on the hillside or in the camp. The Annals of the Four Masters were received by ancient and modern writers with the utmost reverence and respect. Nothing can surpass the eulogiums that have been given to these learned and pious men. Again, who was the man who left within our grasp the history of the saints of Ireland? He is a man that, during a long course of years, brought together every possible document that could be obtained for the purpose of recording every deed of those saints that lived in every vale and hill in Ireland—that man was no other than Father John Colgan, an Irish Franciscan.

But there is one who holds his head and shoulders above every other writer of his age, and who was a prodigy, not only of his own time but of succeeding ages— Father Luke Wadding, a native of Waterford. It is simply marvellous how that man, in the midst of the whirl and bustle of his time, and the solicitude he had for the Irish people, could ever produce the works he did in such rapid succession. Apart altogether from the Annals of the Franciscan Order, which are certainly huge volumes in themselves, we can scarcely understand how it was possible he sent forth the innumerable works that have been and will be admired by the learned of every age. He was a man who raised up colleges for Irish students who were refused learning at home, and was a man who, singlehanded as he was, had the banners of the Irish chieftains blessed by the Sovereign Pontiff in the crusade they waged for faith and fatherland against the heresy of the time. He it was who sent or had sent the nuncios, Scarampi and Rinnuccini. Whatever may be said about their mission in Ireland, one thing is certain— that if Rinnuccini had been sent to Ireland when Wadding first desired it, Ireland would have been independent; there would not have been a Saxon in the island. Who was it, too, that sent the double-edged sword of Aodh O'Neil to Eeoghain Ruadh (Owen Roe)— that sword that drove terror into the enemies of Ireland? No other than Father Luke Wadding. Who was it encouraged Eeoghain Ruadh, who was it raised and roused the Irish exiles abroad to return to their native land and enter the army of Eeoghain Ruadh? No other than the humble Franciscan, Father Luke Wadding. 

These were some struggles of the Irish Franciscans. And now for their triumphs. They were well aware it was impossible they should escape the bloodhounds and hired informers, but he could not attempt that evening to relate to them all the triumphs of the Irish Franciscans over every instrument of torture during penal times; it was only possible to place before them the suffering of a few. Father O'Duillan was taken in the Friary in Youghal by order of the Viceroy. He was a man of singular meekness and piety. Captain Dowdall apprehended him. He was tied with cords and dragged along the streets to Trinity Gate. Heavy stones were tied to his feet, and he was swung up with ropes to the tower. After having been held aloft in the air for a length of time he was lowered again; his feet were than tied and he was raised with his head towards earth. The soldiers were drawn around him, and during (he course of that time the holy man never ceased to pray for his executioners. They were ordered to fire and two bullets passed through his heart. While Father O'Dowd was performing his offices of charity in Mayo he was permitted to hear the confession of a man condemned to death. Immediately the tyrants demanded of him all that he heard from the condemned man. Father O'Dwyer refused and declared he could not. They threatened him, but in vain, " I know nothing about what the man said to me." "See the gibbet; see the rack!" Father O'Dowd declared he cared nothing about their threats. They took off his cord, wound it around his head, put in a large stick between the cord, and twisted it until the very eyes burst from their sockets and the skull was crushed. In an agony he expired.

Father Donald and Father Hinley were apprehended on the southern coast. They were tied back to back and carried to the top of a steep rock, and from it were precipitated with violence into the waves of the Atlantic.

Father O'Hely, who had been raised to the Bishopric of Mayo, with his chaplain, returned from Rome, and immediately on landing they were apprehended and brought before Drury in Limerick. They were asked to acknowledge the Queen— the glorious "Queen Bess" — as head of the Church. The bishop declared he acknowledged no head except the Sovereign Pontiff, the visible head of the Church on earth. For that act of treason both of them— the chaplain was Father O'Ruark, a descendant of the princes of Breffni — both were placed on the rack. Sharp-pointed needles were thrust up between their nails and their feet. Their limbs were pulled to the farthest extent. The dislocated bodies were suspended with chains for fourteen days, and during that time they were the target of the brutal soldiery.

 In the city of Cork, Father Francis Mahoney was apprehended for nothing else than refusing to acknowledge the king or queen as Head of the Church. His hands were first bound together. Pitch and tar were placed between his fingers. Fire was then set to the fingers, and while they were blazing a parson present asked him whether be felt any pain. The holy man said, "Just put your finger in the flames." After that he was hung, but, strange to say, after being hanged for several hours and cut down— his friends being allowed to carry off the body— he rose up again to life. This is a thing that frequently happened during the ages of persecution in Ireland. It may or may not be looked upon as a miraculous occurrence. However, as soon as he arose he called upon those present to bring before him the chief officers of the British forces in the city, and when they appeared the holy man upbraided them, showed them the evil they were pursuing, and the wickedness of their courses. Instead of being the means of reconciling, this exasperated them the more, so much so that the friar was ordered to be hanged.

The Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr. O'Devaney, with his chaplain, both Franciscans, were brought to Dublin Castle and thrown into a dungeon there. Efforts were made to assist him, but the only wish he expressed was that he should be buried in his habit. He was a man of over eighty years of age, and when he was brought before villainous tyrants in Dublin Castle and accused of all sorts of things he had never heard of, and told that he would be set at liberty if he would but acknowledge their heresies, the holy man arose and declared: "No; I have not many years to live, and as our Lord died on the Cross for me, I am only too glad to suffer death for love of Him, and here now before you and the world, I declare that I am prepared to shed my blood for the faith." He was dragged in a cart through the streets of Dublin. When he mounted the scaffold, he, with thousands around him, prayed aloud for all who were about to execute him, and thanked God that the moment had arrived that he could give proof of his love for Him.

There is this to be remarked about the struggles of the Irish Franciscans— the great thing they looked forward to, the great thing that animated them, was the desire of having at one time or another the opportunity of shedding their blood for the faith of Jesus Christ. This is certainly more than human. These men of God braved hardships and dangers, because the faith they taught the people they wished to seal with their own blood. Hence it is that if there be a name to-day revered, honoured, respected, and loved in Ireland, it is certainly that of a child of St. Francis. Hence it was also they had reason to look back with pride to those men who spent their days and themselves for the faith of their fathers, who were worthy inheritors of the mantle of St Patrick, and who to-day, after 300 years of persecution, were as bright and glorious and strong as the first day they landed in the town of Youghal.

New Zealand Tablet, Volume XVII, Issue 45, 28 February 1890, Page 27 

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