Sunday 30 August 2020

Blessed John Roche

On August 30 1588 an Irishman, John Roche, was among the five laypeople hanged at Tyburn along with a priest, Father Richard Leigh. One of the others on the scaffold was a female martyr, Margaret Ward, whose story is linked to that of John Roche. Both had been convicted of helping another priest, Father William Watson, one of the martyred Father Leigh's co-workers on the English mission, to escape from prison. Roche's role was to provide shelter and transport for the priest once he was on the outside. He exchanged clothes with Father Watson and was later arrested in mistake for him. The priest got away with his life but Margaret Ward and John Roche paid with theirs. Bishop Richard Challoner (1691-1781) was one of the first to publish an account of their martyrdom in his Memoirs of Missionary Priests and Other Catholics of Both Sexes that have Suffered Death in England on Religious Accounts, from the Year 1577 to 1684, first printed in 1742. Challoner's work was invaluable in preserving the records of English martyrs and by the time the nineteenth-century writers Edwin Burton and John Hungerford Pollen, S.J. were producing their Lives of the English Martyrs series, some new information on the case of John Roche had come to light. Bishop Challoner had referred to an unnamed 'waterman' who had assisted in the escape of Father Watson, we now know that this man was John Roche.

The account which follows portrays Roche being drawn into the escape plan after a serendipitous meeting with Margaret Ward, just at the time when another boatman had refused to carry the priest to safety. I am wondering however about the circumstances in which this pair came to know one another at all. Margaret Ward is described as a 'gentlewoman' who is in the service of a Mrs Whittel, 'a lady of distinction'. John Roche was a working man, described as a 'waterman' or 'boatman'. As there are references in various sources to a family called Whittel being involved in harbouring priests and allowing Mass to be celebrated in their home, it seems most likely that the disparity in social status between the English gentlewoman and the Irish working man was bridged by their common commitment to the Catholic cause in Elizabethan London. The Roches were a Munster family of Old English origin, how John came to be working as a boatman in London in the 1580s would be interesting to know. In some sources he is referred to as John Neele or Neale, was this an alias he employed in the underground Catholic network?  Overall, I am left with the impression that there might be more to our humble boatman than meets the eye. The account below of the martyrs and the daring escape which cost them their lives relies primarily on the work of Bishop Challoner, but has been taken from Burton and Pollen's The Lives of the English Martyrs:
The story of these two martyrs is centred round William Watson, who was a native of the diocese of Durham and an alumnus of the English College of Rheims. In the Douay Diaries there are records of his receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation, the tonsure and four minor orders, the subdiaconate, diaconate and priesthood. He was sent into England on 16 June, 1586, with Richard Leigh and three other priests. As Richard Leigh fell into the hands of the persecutors before the end of the year, a similar fate happened to William Watson: for he was captured almost immediately and imprisoned in the Marshalsea. But he was soon released on condition of leaving England within a specified time. Richard Topcliffe, however, seized him and cast him into Bridewell Prison. Here, being overcome by hardships, he consented to go to the Protestant church. But afterwards he repented and by way of reparation declared his fault publicly in the church of Bridewell, whither he had gone previously through human weakness. He was again, therefore, thrown into prison and grievous sufferings inflicted upon him. At the end of a month, he was moved to a lodging at the top of the house, where the enemies of the faith endeavoured to persuade him to go to church a second time. Meanwhile, no Catholic had visited him, until Margaret Ward made an attempt to do so.

This courageous woman was born at Congleton in Cheshire of a gentleman's family, and entered the service of Mrs. Whittel, a lady of distinction. In the Historia Particular of Bishop Yepez, as quoted by Challoner, the vigilance of the prison authorities and the noble conduct of Margaret Ward are described as follows:

"She (Margaret Ward) was in the service of a lady of the first rank, who then resided at London; and hearing of the most afflicted condition of Mr. Watson, asked and obtained leave of her lady to go and attempt to visit and relieve him. In order to this, she changed her dress, and taking a basket upon her arm, full of provisions, went to the prison, but could not have leave to come at the priest, till, by the intercession of the jailer's wife, whom Mrs. Ward had found means to make her friend, with much ado she obtained permission to see him from time to time, and bring him necessaries, upon condition, that she should be searched in coming in and going out, that she might carry no letter to him, or from him; which was so strictly observed for the first month, that they even broke the loaves, or pies, that she brought him, lest any paper should thereby be conveyed to him; and all the while she was with him, care was taken that some one should stand by to hear all that was said. But at length, beginning to be persuaded that she came out of pure compassion to assist him, they were less strict in searching her basket, and in hearkening to their conversation; so that he had an opportunity of telling her, that he had found a way by which, if he had a cord long enough for that purpose, he could let himself down from the top of the house, and make his escape. "Mrs. Ward soon procured a cord, which she brought in her basket under the bread and other eatables."

Mr. George Stoker and Mr. Heath in their Relation thus continue the narrative.

"She provided him ... a man to accompany him, and a boat to convey him, assigning the hour when he should come down; the time was between 10 and 11 o'clock. When she came afterwards to the boatman he altogether refused, at which she was much grieved, thinking she had utterly cast away the good priest.

"By chance she met with a young man (Venerable John Roche) whom she had not seen in half a year before, who seeing her in that mournful plight demanded the cause. She denied to tell him; he more enforcing her, said he would willingly adventure his life to do her any pleasure ; and she said that so he must if he would help her in that respect. To this he accorded with faithful promise, whereupon she told him the whole matter. Then he went and provided another boat, and she came to the place appointed, and so received the priest and went his way.

"At his coming down there fell a stone which awaked all the house, so that they followed him with hue and cry; and his keeper making haste overtook them at Lambeth Marsh. The priest seeing him come after them said unto the man, 'Sure we be undone, for yonder comes my keeper'. Whereupon he returned towards him and bade him good morrow; but the keeper ran away, not knowing him. When he was gone they [changed] clothes, but the man upon his return was taken by the priest's apparel."

There are, indeed, some divergencies in the accounts that we possess of the above story of William Watson's escape from prison, which took place in August, 1588. Bishop Yepez, whom Challoner quotes, says that the time appointed was between two and three o'clock in the morning. Moreover, William Watson is said to have fallen down upon an old shed or penthouse, and it was the noise ensuing which attracted the attention of the jailers and others. Bishop Yepez, as quoted by Challoner, also relates that two watermen rescued the priest, and that one of them (John Roche) concealed him in his house, until he had recovered; for he was much hurt by the fall and had broken his right leg and right arm.

Although William Watson escaped, Margaret Ward and John Roche were to win the crown of martyrdom instead. The rope, by means of which William Watson had obtained his liberty, was seen by the jailer, who convinced that Margaret Ward alone could have brought it to the priest, proceeded to secure her arrest early next day. She was found by the justices and constables, on the point of departing in order to change her lodgings. Thereupon she was arrested, thrown into prison and loaded with irons. Father Robert Southwell, in a letter to Father General Claudio Aquaviva, dated 31 August, 1588, further describes her sufferings.

" She was flogged and hung up by the wrists, the tips of her toes only touching the ground, for so long a time, that she was crippled and paralysed, but these sufferings greatly strengthened the glorious Martyr for her last struggle."

After eight days she was brought to trial at Newgate on 26 August, where she cheerfully admitted that she had furnished the means by which William Watson had eluded the persecutors. Threats were employed to induce her to disclose the whereabouts of the priest; but they were all in vain. Various reasons are assigned for her condemnation. Venerable Henry Walpole in his Relation says that she was "condemned for giving of two shillings unto a priest at Bridewell"; while in the Relation of the Penkevels it is said that "[She was] condemned for bringing a rope to a priest being prisoner in Bridewell, who by that means escaped". Liberty was offered to her, if she would ask pardon of the Queen's majesty and promise to go to church. In reply, Margaret Ward refused to ask pardon for an offence against the Queen, which she had not committed, and expressed her belief that the Queen herself, if she had the compassion of a woman, would have done as much under similar circumstances. With regard to going to church, she had been convinced for many years that it was not lawful to do so, and she would lay down many lives, if she had them, rather than act against her conscience or do anything against God and His holy religion. John Roche was also tried and condemned at the same sessions.

In conclusion an extract may be given from the postscript of a letter, written by Mr. James Younge, priest, from Douay, 9 February, 1595. "Margaret Ward, gentlewoman, was hanged at Tyburn, because she brought a rope, enwrapped in a clean shirt, to one Watson, a priest, being in Bridewell prison, out of which he escaped by the help of that rope.

"John Neele (Roche), an Irishman, was also executed with her at Tyburn. He, in a search, was found in that apparel which the priest had on, when he escaped out of prison. Neele being a servingman, had given the priest his own clothes the better to get away. He was examined what he was, for at the first they thought he had been Watson the priest, but he confessed that he was a Catholic and had holpen the priest to escape, for which he was executed at Tyburn."
Rev. Edwin H. Burton and J.H. Pollen, S.J., eds, Lives of the English Martyrs , Second Series, The Martyrs Declared Venerable, Volume I, 1583-1588 (1914), 430-438. 

Both John Roche and Margaret Ward were beatified in 1929 and in 1970 Margaret Ward was one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales canonized by Pope Paul VI.

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Monday 24 August 2020

'This Most Constant Confessor' : Mr Ailworth, an Irish Martyr in London

 As regular readers of my blogs will know I am particularly interested in recovering the memories of the more obscure among our saints and martyrs. When I encountered an Irishman who died for the faith in England c.1580 and who is simply known as 'Mr Ailworth', I was immediately intrigued and wanted to learn more. Despite the fact that his Christian name has not been preserved, the details of Mr Ailworth's sufferings were recorded by two English priests of the Elizabethan period. They agree that our Irish martyr was imprisoned in a particularly insanitary London dungeon and there he died after just eight days. Bishop Richard Challoner (1691–1781), published both accounts in his pioneering work on the English Martyrs, Memoirs of Missionary Priests. The first comes from a collection known as the Concertatio Ecclesiae Catholicae in Anglia originally printed in 1583 and revised by English priest John Bridgewater in 1588. Bridgewater wrote of a number of Catholics, mostly priests, who had died in the early 1580s due to the rigours of their imprisonment and Challoner noted:
 In the same place he also informs us of Mr. Ailworth, a secular gentleman, who, for his constancy in his faith, was not only cast into prison and there put into irons, but also thrust down by the jailer into a nasty dungeon, or, rather, a common sewer, where he perished by the stench, within eight days.
The second account is from another English priest, Father Henry Holland, who died in 1625. Among his papers was a letter written in Latin describing the sufferings of Catholics, again mostly priests, but which also included a more detailed description of the case of our layman Mr Ailworth:
'And since we are returned to London, I cannot pass over in silence Mr. Ailworth, a young Irish gentleman, of a singular zeal for religion, who had hired a house, not in any street, but among the gardens, commodious enough for preaching and mass, where the Catholics sometimes met in a pretty good number, to the divine service, much to his content and satisfaction, who set more value upon what belonged to the honour and worship of God, than upon any earthly toys. But the thing became known, and reached the ears of Fleetwood, the recorder of the city. This furious man, with his constables, came to the house, and finding Mr. Ailworth in his chamber, carried him away to prison, even to the very worst prison in London. And in the way, being displeased at some word that the gentleman spoke, gave this most constant confessor a most violent blow on his head; then ordered him to be put into a filthy dungeon, destitute of all things, strictly forbidding any one to be admitted to visit him, or give him any thing; so the young gentleman, in eight days time, was brought to his end, by the stench and filth of the place.'
Bishop Challoner, V.A.L., Memoirs of Missionary Priests and Other Catholics of Both Sexes who Suffered Death in England on Religious Accounts from the Year 1577 to 1684, (Manchester 1803), 98; 225-226.

The additional details provided by Father Holland suggest that our Mr Ailworth may have been a man of some means, since he was able to rent such a large house for the use of the Catholic underground community. Did he, as his surname suggests, belong to a prominent Old English family in Ireland? Father Denis Murphy in a footnote to the entry on Mr Ailworth in his book Our Martyrs noted that there was a family called Ailward (Aylward) of Faithlegg, County Waterford.  At the time of the Cromwellian conquest, when it was a matter of retaining Faithlegg Castle at the cost of compromising his Catholic faith, local historian Father Patrick Power describes the choice made by John Aylward:
While Cromwell was encamped before Waterford he sent a detachment, possibly the same which had stormed Passage, to take a castle at Faithlegg belonging to a Catholic gentleman named Aylward. Aylward was, it is stated, offered specially favourable terms if he but dissembled his religion, for Cromwell had known him previously and had been under some obligation to him. Aylward, however, rejected the terms as repugnant to conscience. His castle was thereupon battered down under the supervision of a Captain Bolton to whom Aylward's forfeited estate was given, and whose descendants held the property for two centuries afterwards.
Rev. P. Power, A Short History of County Waterford, (Waterford, 1933) 

According to this site the Aylwards, like other landed Catholic families, continued to struggle with maintaining both their position and their faith until eventually various family members chose to stop dissembling and conformed to Protestantism.

The Catholic Encyclopedia in its entry for English Confessors and Martyrs also suggests the possibility of a link between our martyr and the Waterford family:
Mr. Ailworth (Aylword), probably of Passage Castle, Waterford, who admitted Catholics to Mass at his house, was arrested, and died after eight days, 1580...
And what of the man who arrested and condemned Ailworth?  Father Holland's account emphasized the role played by the Recorder of London, William Fleetwood (c.1535-1594), telling us that he personally struck his prisoner 'a most violent blow on his head' when Ailworth said something that did not sit well with him. Fleetwood was a lawyer who had been elected Recorder of London in 1571. In 1580 he was made serjeant-at-law. Fleetwood's entry in The Dictionary of National Biography testifies to his reputation:
As recorder he was famous for rigorously and successfully enforcing the laws against vagrants, mass-priests, and papists.
However, this zeal once famously led him to be hoist with his own petard:
William Fleetwood, the recorder of London, was subjected to the supreme indignity of imprisonment in one of his own lock-ups for the presumption of leading an over-enthusiastic raid on the Portuguese embassy, designed to secure the arrest of the Englishmen illegally attending mass in the ambassador's chapel. From the Fleet Prison he wrote: 'This is a place wherein a man may quietlie be acquainted with God'.
Patrick Collinson, Elizabethans, (London, 2003), p.72

Furnishing a similarly appropriate space for quiet communion with God was hardly in the mind of Recorder Fleetwood when he had Mr Ailworth placed in what amounted to an open sewer.

Mr Ailworth was recognized among the English martyrs who suffered during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and in the nineteenth century his cause was submitted to Rome for consideration. However, The Catholic Encyclopedia states that he is one of the forty-four dilati, those whose cases have been delayed for further investigation. They are mostly people who died after a comparatively short period of imprisonment. Death ex aerumnis carceris, from the hardships of incarceration, is one of the categories in which martyrdom can occur. Naturally, it is a little more difficult to prove than the case of a person who was publicly hanged, drawn and quartered. Normally too it would involve a longer period of imprisonment; Father Holland tells us us that Mr Ailworth was a young man yet he was dead after barely one week. That may well be a testimony to just how extreme the conditions of his imprisonment were. Certainly it was possible to survive long periods in jail at this time; Blessed Margaret Bermingham endured the damp and cold of prison for three years before her death at the age of around seventy in 1584. Archbishop Richard Creagh, whose case is among the forty-two Irish Martyrs currently under renewed investigation, survived two decades of incarceration in Ireland and in the Tower of London, sometimes chained and in darkness, before being poisoned in 1586.

In any case I think it unlikely that the cause of Mr Ailworth will proceed. It is a pity because he was obviously a man not only of great faith, but of great courage as well. One can only imagine what he suffered under the humiliating and horrific conditions of his imprisonment. It is a pity too because I feel sure that further research could lead to some fresh insights. William Fleetwood apparently kept up a running commentary on his activities in letters to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the Queen's senior advisor. Is there any reference to the Ailworth case among this correspondence? Or among other legal or prison documents? Could we locate a record of Fleetwood's examination of Mr Ailworth and see exactly what it was the Irishman said that so enraged him? Might we be able to discover precisely where and when he was incarcerated? Is it possible that further investigation of the genealogical records of the Aylwards could settle the question of whether our martyr was some scion of this family? Sadly, the reality is that the brave Mr Ailworth is just one of many overlooked and totally forgotten Irish Martyrs and thus all of these questions will probably remain unanswered.

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Saturday 15 August 2020

Brother Angelus of Saint Joseph: An Irish Carmelite Martyr

 A couple of days ago I looked at the martyrdom of an Irishman in England, the Drogheda merchant James Dowdall. Today we are looking at the case of a young English Carmelite martyred in Drogheda,  Brother Angelus of Saint Joseph. Born George Halley in Hereford, c. 1620 he was executed on August 15, 1642, a victim of the rebellion which had begun the previous year. The rebels under Phelim O'Neill had unsuccessfully besieged the town of Drogheda twice but were defeated in March 1642 by an English relief force under Lord Moore. Caught up in the aftermath was Englishman George Halley who had come to Ireland to enter the novitiate of the Discalced Carmelites. Initially I wondered why he did not enter the religious life in his own homeland but then found this note which provided the answer:
The presence of English Carmelites in Ireland is explained by a decision of the Carmelite general definitory, 20 Nov. 1636, allowing the Irish brethren to train two English novices annually in the Dublin friary. [1]
Alas, our young Englishman was not destined to see his own country again. The following account of the martyrdom of Brother Angelus has been taken from Carmel in Ireland by Father J. P. Rushe, O.D.C. Rushe was appointed the official historian of the Order in 1908, and was a witness in the cause of the Irish Martyrs as this Brother is one of three Carmelite martyrs whose causes were submitted to Rome. The account relies on the testimony of a priest, Father Nugent, who visited Brother Angelus in prison and also on that of a group of nuns. They add the detail that the martyr was not only shot but ultimately beheaded. This grisly detail explains why the early eighteenth-century portrait preserved in the Carmelite monastery at Piacenza depicts Brother Angelus with a sword embedded in his skull:
Brother Angelus of St. Joseph.

The Teresian student slain by the Puritans was known in the world as George Halley. He was an Englishman, the member of a Catholic family of Herefordshire. An Irish Discalced Carmelite had been the first entrusted with his education, and when at a very early age the youth found himself called to embrace the Religious life, he himself ambitioned to become a Friar of the same Order. He received the brown habit at Dublin in the year 1640, taking the name of Angelus of St. Joseph, which, we are told, was admirably significative of his gentle disposition. He hoped to be allowed to return to England after his ordination to labour there for the conversion of his countrymen. God willed otherwise, and now Ireland numbers him among her Confessors, as it was here he shed his blood for the faith.

Fra Angelus was professed in due course, having given great edification to his brethren during his noviceship. He had begun by resolving to remain ever indifferent to such things as could win for him human esteem; we shall see how his conduct was influenced by the same good purpose to the end. Hardly had he arrived in Drogheda to begin his studies when all the Friars had to leave that city owing to the fury of the Puritans. Brother Angelus escaped in the beginning, but he was subsequently arrested and taken back to the town. During his imprisonment he suffered great annoyance from the heretical ministers who tried to harass him by objections against the faith. On hearing them allude to the "Pure Gospel" of their sect, he quietly remarked that he knew the Law of the Lord must indeed be undefiled, and for this very reason he abhorred the errors of all fanatics.

His spirit could not be broken by the crudest privations; he was always wishing for yet greater trials. And keeping himself recollected by the practice of mental prayer throughout his long captivity, he was able, from time to time, to give prudent advice to the Faithful imprisoned with him for the Catholic cause. Contrary to all expectation, he was one day released on condition that he should leave Drogheda forthwith. This was an unaccountable act of leniency on the part of the Puritans. They must have had some political motive in view; perhaps it was their fear of Owen Roe O'Neill, who had succeeded Sir Phelim as leader of the Confederate army, and who was determined to besiege the city.

There was a certain Father Nugent, a Capuchin Friar, who knew Brother Angelus intimately, having often contrived to visit him in prison. This priest informs us that it was the intention of the young Religious on his release to join his brethren who were still leading "The Regular Life" in a place not very far distant (probably Ardee), which was still protected by an Irish regiment. On his way thither Brother Angelus met a little band of nuns proceeding in the same direction, and having a "Safe-conduct" from the Puritans: an extraordinary favour, surely, considering how women devoted to God were hated by the heretics of the seventeenth century. One night they found refuge in a fort held by the Confederates; but before morning it was taken by the enemy—the fanatical soldiers of Lord Moore.

Brother Angelus appears to have had a presentiment of his approaching doom. He was told that there was a priest in the fort; and that the Holy Sacrifice could be offered secretly without any great risk. Availing themselves of the opportunity, the Religious— Fra Angelus and his companions—made arrangements to assist at Mass the next morning, and to receive the Blessed Eucharist. Wonderfully strengthened by this great consolation, the young Friar proposed that the nuns should present their "Safe-conduct" to Lord Moore. Naturally they were terrified at the thought of meeting a Puritan general; but there was no other means of escape, and they were reassured when Brother Angelus said he was coming with them himself; for they imagined that he also would be allowed to leave the place in virtue of their passport.

Lord Moore received the nuns with much courtesy, telling them they were free to depart whenever they pleased. But he instantly recognised their companion as the monk who had been so leniently dealt with at Drogheda. A court-martial was summoned to decide his fate, and of course he was condemned to death. If Brother Angelus would avert this dread sentence, and even ensure the general's patronage and friendship, he had only to deny his faith. This he could not do; and it enraged the Puritans to hear him request, quite calmly, that his execution should not be delayed, as he longed to celebrate the grand privilege of the Blessed Virgin by dying for the Catholic faith. It was the Feast of Our Lady's Assumption.

A file of soldiers were ordered to take him apart, and shoot him. He knelt when they presented their firearms at his breast; but in this instance, likewise, Heaven intervened, several volleys having been fired in vain. However, the Puritans were determined to silence the voice that still invoked the holy name of Mary; like the Pagan tyrants, in the early ages of Christianity, seeing the failure of the executioners the general commanded them to have recourse to the sword. Brother Angelus was beheaded on the 15th August 1642. Lord Moore himself was shot dead soon after, having previously suffered the disgrace of an ignominious defeat.

The nuns, who had been the witnesses of the martyr's victory, communicated all the circumstances to his brethren later on. At first his body was interred by the Faithful of the district in a secret place, and in more peaceful times they removed it thence to a church with every mark of pious veneration for the slain Friar's memory. Brother Angelus's virtues were well known to them; although very young "he had been made perfect in a short space, thereby fulfilling a long time: because his soul pleased God." [2]

Brother Angelus is number 149 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs whose causes were submitted to Rome for consideration. He is also number 20 on the list of forty-two Irish martyrs whose causes are currently being re-submitted for further consideration.


[1]  Browne, Paul, Marcellus Glynn, and F. X. Martin. "The 'Brevis Relatio' of the Irish Discalced Carmelites 1625-1670." Archivium Hibernicum 25 (1962): 136-63; f.n. 5, p.156.

[2] Rev. James P Rushe, O.D.C., Carmel in Ireland (Dublin and London, 1903), 96-100. 

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Thursday 13 August 2020

Venerable James Dowdall of Drogheda

On August 13, 1599, James Dowdall, an Irish merchant from Drogheda was hanged, drawn and quartered at Exeter having been found guilty of denying the Royal Supremacy. His ship had ended up on the Devon coast due to bad weather on a return voyage to Ireland from France. The Dowdalls were a prominent merchant family who had contributed much not only to Irish civil and commercial life but also to the Church. The family pedigree embraced senior churchmen like Archbishop George Dowdall, and Saint Oliver Plunkett was a cousin. No less than three members of the family are among those who suffered for the faith, ironically though it was these very family connections which stopped the cause of James Dowdall from proceeding. For although his name was put forward with those of the English martyrs declared venerable in 1886, his cause was one of those held back for further investigation. The reason seems to have been a degree of confusion between James Dowdall of Drogheda and his namesake and kinsman James Dowdall of Athboy, County Meath. James Dowdall of Athboy also suffered for the Catholic faith by enduring long periods of imprisonment for sheltering priests. There is also some degree of confusion around the date of James Dowdall of Drogheda's execution with some sources citing September 20, 1600 plus Waterford or Wexford is occasionally claimed as his place of origin. It was to resolve these difficulties and to plead the case for reopening the cause of James Dowdall that Margaret Smith Kristich contributed two meticulously-researched articles to Seanchas Ardmhaca, the Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, in 2004 and 2012. Her work has has convincingly demonstrated that James Dowdall of Drogheda is a distinct individual from James Dowdall of Athboy and she has assembled a comprehensive dossier of evidence on the circumstances surrounding his martyrdom.

Dowdall's case was known to early seventeenth-century martyrologists, including his contemporary Bishop David Rothe (1573-1650). Rothe's account in his 1619 catalogue of Irish Martyrs, De Processu Martyriali, is of great value as it was written not long after the events it describes and because of the sources of information which Rothe as a senior cleric was able to access. In her 2004 paper Smith Kristich provided a translation of Rothe's account:
James Doudall a merchant of Vadipont (Drogheda), while he had crossed over to England to carry out some business, was examined first on the royal oath, and entrapped with snares of examination by torture, and because he was not afraid to profess his mind and Catholic faith openly, he was put to death, in the city of Exeter and it is said that his monument shines with stars to this very day. [1]
Another contemporary source, this time from a 1614 catalogue of martyrs by the English priest Father Worthington (1549-1627), unfortunately got both Dowdall's Christian name and place of origin wrong, although he gives August 13 as the date of execution and confirms Exeter as the place:
1599 - N. Dowdale Irish Merchant of Waterford was killed for denying the primacy of the queen in ecclesiastical affairs. Exeter 13, August. [2]
Later writers also recorded the Dowdall martyrdom story including Father Denis Murphy in his 1896 work, Our Martyrs, where he led with Anthony Bruodin's account published in 1669:
1599. James Dowdall
(from Bruodin's Propugnaculum, p.467)
He was a Drogheda merchant, and when returning from France to Ireland he was driven by contrary winds into a harbour in the south of England. The Mayor questioned him about the spiritual supremacy of Elizabeth. Dowdall answered, as a Catholic should, that he recognized no other as Head of the Church than the Roman Pontiff. Because he had spoken thus, his merchandise was confiscated, and he was taken to Exeter, his hands bound beyond his back as if he were a robber. There after being put to the rack, he was hanged and his body was cut into four parts; and in this way, in return for temporal goods, this very wise merchant got in exchange eternal life. He suffered September 20th, 1600. [3]
We can see that the Bruodin account is more detailed than those written earlier, but it confirms the main points. All the writers agree that Dowdall was executed in Exeter for denying the Royal Supremacy. Where they disagree is that the English sources have introduced uncertainty about the Irish martyr's name and his place of origin. Waterford and Wexford were also important trading ports and their merchant ships familiar visitors to England. It could well be that on hearing of an Irish merchant martyred at Exeter there was an assumption made that he must have come from one of these places. Irish writers Rothe and Bruodin, who are perhaps better-placed to know, agree that the man is James Dowdall and that his home port was Drogheda. Bruodin however has added some confusion by giving September 20 1600 as the execution date. To settle the matter Margaret Smith Kristich consulted the Devon Assize Court Records and found that the last reference to James Dowdall in the gaol calendar was from the last day of July 1599 when it recorded the sentence of hanging for treason. Since executions usually followed soon after sentencing, August 13 1599 is most probably the correct date. From the description of the county jail as 'a living tomb - a sink of filth, pestilence and profligacy' [4], the less time James Dowdall had to spend there the better, especially as he was put to the torture of the rack. Rothe's account suggests that the site of Dowdall's grave was known which in turn suggests that despite his traitor's death he may have perhaps received a conventional burial.

It is greatly to be regretted that this brave Irishman has had his cause delayed due to the confusing details in some of the accounts of his martyrdom. I will leave the last word to Margaret Smith Kristich who has done so much to set the record straight:

One can imagine that courage and forgiveness wrapped him warmly in the damp, cold, and filthy dungeon of  Exeter Prison. The vibrancy and sparkle of James Dowdall's life is retold in the many works about the Irish martyrs. It is said that his grave was illuminated with miracles. May the illumination of his life bless our turbulent world and bring us close to God.


[1] KRISTICH, MARGARET SMITH. “James Dowdall of Drogheda: An Irish Martyr.” Seanchas Ardmhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, vol. 20, no. 1, 2004, pp. 43–66 at p.55. JSTOR,

[2] ibid.

[3] Rev Denis Murphy, S.J., Our Martyrs (Dublin, 1896), pp. 207-208.

[4]  Rev. George Oliver, History of City of Exeter, (Exeter, 1861), p.190 in Smith Kristich, op. cit., 53.

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Wednesday 12 August 2020

Irish Names in List of English Martyrs

During the month of August we commemorate three Irishmen who were martyred in Britain. One was the Franciscan priest, Charles Mahony (also known as Meehan) who was executed in Ruthin in north Wales on August 12, 1679. The story of Father Charles was picked up by the Australian press following the beatification of a number of English martyrs in 1929. He himself was not beatified on this occasion and had to wait until 1987. I have a number of more recent sources on the case of Father Charles to investigate so look forward to writing a fuller account of him in the future. For now we have the main details of his martyrdom as well as a brief account of the cases of some other Irish names found among the English Martyrs:

Irish Names in List of English Martyrs.

While England is joyous over the recent Beatification of its native martyrs, Ireland, too, rejoices, for , there were many in the list of English martyrs who claimed Irish blood, and at least one of those under consideration who was entirely Irish both by birth and by service. He was Venerable Charles Mahony, and his name was included in the list of those whose cases still remained undecided by Rome.

He was an Irish Franciscan. We have on record as to the time or place, of his birth, other than that it occured in Ireland some time after 1639. He labored in Wales, it is said, and when the wholesale arrest of Catholic priests took place Father Mahony was among them. The British Museum now possesses a manuscript entitled 'The Last Speeches of Three Priests that were Executed for Religion, Anno Domini 1679.' The paper contains the following defence made by Father Mahony:

 "Now God Almighty is pleased I should suffer Martyrdom; His Holy Name is praised, since I die for my Religion. But you have no right to put me to death in this country, though I confessed myself to be a Priest, for you seized me as I was going to my native country, Ireland, being driven at sea on this coast.

"For I never used my function in England before I was taken. However, God forgive you, as I do and I shall, always pray for you especially for those that were so good to me in my distress, I pray God bless our King and defend him from his enemies and convert him to the Holy Catholic Faith, Amen."

The official document of Father Mahony's execution stated that he was under forty years of age and that he was tried and condemned at Denbigh, "confessing himself to be a priest." His execution took place at Ruthin in North Wales on August 12, 1679.

 There were others of Irish blood among the martyrs or those under consideration. One who was among the recently beatified was Blessed Father John Cornelius, whose name was also Mahony or O'Mahony. With him there suffered two other men, both from Dublin, known as John Carey and Patrick Salmon. This trio of Irishmen went to their deaths in the company of a courageous man from Cornwall, that picturesque section of England. The Cornishman was Blessed Thomas Bosgrave. He was arrested for showing sympathy toward the priests when he placed his own hat upon the head of Father John Cornelius as the guards were leading the Irish priest to prison.

Bosgrave was a brave man. He cared nothing for the soldiery or what they might do to him, and as he placed his hat on the saintly brow of Father John Cornelius he declared in the broad accents of a Cornwall man: 'The honor I owe to your function may not suffer me to see you go bare-headed.' Bosgrave was immediately seized and his death followed not long afterward.

Another name that may be added to the list of Irishmen who died for the Faith in England during those dark days is that of John Roche. He was an Irish servant who in the company of a Margaret Ward, a lady of Cheshire, assisted in the escape of Father William Watson from Bridewell. He and Miss Ward were captured, tried and condemned. Roche died at Tyburn on August 30, 1588. He is now among the Blessed.

Irish Names in List of English Martyrs. (1930, March 20). Freeman's Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1850 - 1932), p. 34. Retrieved April 25, 2020, from

Sunday 9 August 2020

'A Fool for Christ': Dermot Mac Bruodin O.F.M

On August 9 1617 the last member of the Franciscan community of Ennis, County Clare died. He had lived there alone for the past few years with just a servant for company, as the rest of the Brothers had been driven out in 1575. Yet perhaps this strange end to the life of Father Dermot Mac Bruodin is fitting for a man who cultivated an image as a 'fool for Christ.' Mac Bruodin belonged to an important family of Thomond and it was his family's connection to the O'Briens, lords of Thomond, that made it possible for Dermot to continue living on in his former friary after it had been suppressed and handed over to the new State Church. For Donat O'Brien, Earl of Thomond, had outwardly conformed to the new regime but did not forget old loyalties. He encouraged Mac Bruodin to play the part of the holy fool while also making it clear that the eccentric friar enjoyed his protection. Family ties also played a part in the survival of the story of Dermot Mac Bruodin for he was a kinsman of the martyrologist Anthony Bruodin O.F.M. (1625-1680) who featured him in his work on Irish martyrs, Propugnaculum Catholicæ Veritatis. Bruodin's account was one of those translated by Myles O'Reilly in 1868 and I reproduce it below. A more modern translation has been made by Luke McInerney and apppended to his 2017 paper A 'most vainglorious man': the writings of Antonius Bruodin which can be read online here. Although Bruodin's account makes it clear that Friar Dermot had suffered torture and imprisonment for the sake of his faith, he did not actually die in prison and is thus not included officially among the Irish martyrs. His bravery in returning to his homeland to preach the Catholic faith, his withstanding of the hardships of a life on the run as well as of torture and imprisonment and the pathos of him occupying his former monastic site alone make him indeed worthy to be remembered.

Rev. Dermitius Bruodin, O.S.F.

‘‘Dermid Bruodin was born in Thomond, in Ireland, of a family noted for many generations for piety, learning, and hospitality, and became a member of the Franciscan Order. His father was Miles Bruodin, owner of Mount Calary, a man much esteemed by Cornelius O’Brien, Earl of Thomond (Clare); his mother was Joanna Mahony, or Matthews. He was no longer a boy when, having learned the rudiments of learning, he lost his parents, and, having always intended to devote himself to God, entered the cloister amongst the strict observers of evangelical poverty—the Franciscans—as a novice in the convent of Inisheen, in Clare. He was a model of virtue, assiduous in prayer, ready for every exercise of humility, constant in fasting, and daily afflicting his body with the discipline.

"Having made his profession, by order of his superiors he proceeded to Spain, and there, among the sons of the province of S. James, progressed alike in learning and piety. When his studies were completed, he was advanced to the priesthood, and desired at once to devote himself to the saving of souls in his country, afflicted by heresy. His superiors agreed to his request, and Dermid, trusting in the Cross of Christ, embarked in his Franciscan habit (for neither danger nor the entreaties of his friends could ever induce him, as the other missionaries, to exchange his habit for a secular dress*), and, by the providence of God, he landed at a port near the place of his birth, near the island of S. Sinnanus, called Inniscatha, in the middle of the river Shannon, in the year 1575.

[*It is to be remembered that he dwelt in Clare, a remote district, inhabited exclusively by Catholics, and whither the Queen’s soldiers rarely penetrated.]

“The moment Bruodin touched his native soil he gave thanks to God, and began his apostolic labours amongst his friends and relatives (and then, as now, there were as many Catholics as Bruodins), and laboured with such zeal, where before they had been suffering from a dearth of pastors, that the Catholics in all the baronies of Clare were provided with spiritual food. Dermid had thus laboured for many years in the vineyard of the Lord, when the enemy of human salvation sought, by means of the satellites of Elizabeth, to put a stop to his zealous efforts. Divers man-hunters were therefore employed throughout Clare to catch in their nets the zealous preacher, whose zeal, indeed, for martyrdom would long before have brought him into their hands had he not been prevented by his superiors.

"Whilst the search was most eager Dermid was employed preaching and catechizing not far from Limerick, in a place, however, which was mountainous, and generally safe from the excursions of the heretics. However, his presence there came to the knowledge of the commander of the garrison in Limerick, who sent some musketeers to arrest him, and they seized him in the act of preaching from the top of a mound. He received many blows from the fists and sticks of the soldiers, and, with his hands tied behind him, was driven to Limerick, in the year 1603. Bruodin, who had been weakened by his voluntary fasts, was thrown into prison, where for four months he endured much, for it was forbidden under a heavy penalty for any Catholic to speak to him or give him any assistance.

“At the end of this time he was brought before the king's judges, and being asked many idle questions, Dermid boldly answered that his dress showed he was a Catholic and a Franciscan; that as to his name, profession, labours, and friends, they were abundantly known to those who had taken him when preaching; that therefore there was nothing to be done but either to set him free, or by torture to try his constancy in the profession of the Catholic faith. 'Well,' said the judge, 'you shall have your wish.'  By his order the Franciscan habit was torn off him, and he was severely flogged by two executioners; then his hands were tied behind him, and he was lifted up by them off the ground. Whilst he was thus tortured he was asked by a certain petulant preacher whether he felt pain? He answered, 'I feel pain indeed, but far less than my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, for whose cause I suffer, endured for me.' Then, let down from the rack, he was taken back to prison.

"At the time when Father Bruodin was being tortured there arrived in Limerick Donatus O'Brien, the powerful chieftain of his own race, and Earl of Thomond. He was a man of great influence both in England and Ireland. Touched by the affection which the O'Briens always bore to the Bruodins, he sought to devise some way of freeing Father Dermid from further tortures and the death which threatened him. With this view, the earl persuaded the judges that Dermid was a fool, with whom he often amused himself, and, to prove this, he adduced as an argument that no one but a fool would go about in public with his head shaved, and a long beard and a long habit, contrary to the usual practice of all the other Popish priests in England and Ireland.

The judges, either persuaded, or, as I think, not wishing to offend the powerful earl (whose fidelity and services to the Crown were well known), set Dermid at liberty, who was indeed nearly worn out with tortures and suffering. Dermid, thus set free as a fool for Christ, returned to his native district and prudently resumed his labours in Clare. Protected everywhere by being known as the mad monk, and favoured by Earl O’Brien (a man nominally a heretic, but a Catholic in his heart), he passed safely through the persecuting English at Inish** and elsewhere in the province, and gained many to Christ, ever wearing the Franciscan habit, and often rejoicing to bear insults and derision for the honour of Christ. At length, weighed down with years, and worn out with labours, Bruodin, fortified with the sacraments of the Church, slept in the Lord, in his Franciscan convent of Inish, the 9th August, 1617. The other friars had been expelled in 1575, and he had lived there alone with his servant for the three last years of his life .—Bruodin, lib. iii. cap. 20.

[** The Franciscan convent of Inish, or Inis-Cluan-ruada, founded, according to Ware, by Donagh Carbrac O’Brian in the year 1210, for Minorites, by the river Forgy.]

Myles O'Reilly, Memorials of Those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, (London, 1868), 185-188.

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Saturday 8 August 2020

The Gael to Saint Dominic

 Today is the feast of Saint Dominic and below is a poem in his honour by P J Coleman which appeared in The Rosary Magazine of 1903. I don't know anything of the author, except that he was a regular contributor to this and other journals. Poetry, much of it of dubious literary merit, was very much a feature of the religious press at this time. In 'The Gael to Saint Dominic' the Dominican founder is specifically associated with the three patrons of Ireland. The country itself is here defined by the persecution of the Penal era and the Rosary of Saint Dominic is the one consolation left when the people have been deprived of the Mass, preferring death to error, power or riches. There is the usual romantic invocation of windswept monastic ruins before the final verse imagines the 'throngs of Gaelic dead' and 'hosts with the martyr's palm' who will bless the 'sandaled sons' of Saint Dominic in heaven.



SAINT of the Rosary, to Ireland's heart
With Patrick, Brigid and Columba dear,
Though sword might pierce and persecution sear,
Thy name, Beloved, cased its keenest smart.
When error's hosts, inspired with fiendish art,
Against her raged with proud, satanic spear.
Beneath thine aegis nothing did she fear.
But braved Hell's legions and their leader swart.

Yea, when her sons of priest and fane were reft
And, tabernacl'd far in wood and cave,
The Eucharistic Christ by law was bann'd.
To Ireland still thy Rosary was left;
 For Mary's sake their lives her children gave
And in their blood baptismal blessed the land.

The shrines our fathers builded thee of old
Are mould' ring now in Irish mead and vale,
Through ruined aisles the winds of Ireland wail,
Where sleep thy sons in holy cloisters cold.
But dearer far than sceptered power or gold,
Is Mary still unto her loving Gael;
And, Dominic! in their hearts thou dost prevail,
With love of Ireland's children aureol'd!

Oh, in the last dread Judgment hour what throngs
Of Gaelic dead shall bless thy sandaled sons
Who brought them in their grief religion's balm!
What tribes shall flock with proud exultant songs
About thy feet! With jubilant orisons
What hosts shall gather with the martyr's palm!

The Rosary Magazine, Volume 23, July-December (1903), 192.

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