Sunday 28 March 2021

'A most peculiar martyrdom': Daniel O'Nielan, O.F.M.

On March 28, 1580 Franciscan priest Daniel O'Neilan (Donal O'Neylan) was put to death in the town of Youghal by its military governor, Sir William Morgan (d. 1584).  The town was caught up in the Second Desmond Rebellion and had been occupied by the rebel leaders on November 15, 1579. W.H. Grattan Flood, drawing on the Calendar of State Papers, describes what happened next: 

During the Christmas of that year the citizens of Youghal were so terror-stricken that in January they fled, and when the Earl of Ormond entered Youghal on February 1st, 1580, the only inhabitant he found there was a Franciscan friar, Father Daniel Nealan, the martyr.
W.H. Grattan Flood, Notes on Strancally Castle, JCHAS, Vol. 25 (1919), p.112.

Father O'Neilan's execution was noted by a number of martyrologists, all of whom record that his was no ordinary hanging. In 1869 Myles O'Reilly used the work of these writers to describe the friar's 'most peculiar' martyrdom:


Was a priest of the diocese of Cloyne, and endured a most peculiar martyrdom, on the 28th March, 1580. He was a most apostolic man, full of attention to the wants of the poor and of solicitude for all his flock. He was no sooner arrested and conducted under a military guard to Youghal, than two wicked men, named Norris and Morgan, undertook the task of his execution. They conducted him to the summit of Trinity Tower, and, having fastened a rope around his waist and arms, precipitated him from the battlements. The rope not being sufficiently strong to resist the shock, the holy man fell, mangled and almost lifeless, to the ground. 

The fury of his executioners, however, was not allayed. Observing that life was not yet extinct, they caused him to be dragged to a mill not far distant, when they tied him to the water-wheel. His lacerated body in a few minutes was wholly disfigured, and scarcely retained the semblance of human remains.

Philadelphus adds that John Norris was commander (what he calls prefect) and William Morgan captain of the troop that arrested him. He says he was an Observantine Franciscan. Dr. Moran, on the authority of Bruodin, calls him a secular priest. Wadding also claims him as a Franciscan.

 M. O'Reilly, Memorials of those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, (New York 1869), 67.

I am unsure why O'Reilly introduced the notion that Father O'Neilan may have been a secular priest as all of the other sources affirm that he was a Franciscan. Indeed, despite O'Reilly's attribution of this idea to the martyrologist Anthony Bruodin (himself a Franciscan), the translation of Bruodin's account by Father Denis Murphy records that our martyr entered the Order of Saint Francis in 1560:

1580. Daniel O'Neilan, O.S.F.
(From Bruodin's Propugnaculum, p. 439)

Daniel O'Neilan, born in Thomond of a noble family, consecrated himself to God by vows in the Order of St. Francis in the year 1560, and he lived in it for twenty years, both in Ireland and Spain. During this time he made great progress both in virtue and in learning, so that he was the model of a good religious to all. Urged by zeal for the salvation of souls, he returned to his native country which was then ravaged by the fury of the heretics. 

Immediately on landing at the post of Youghal, he was seized by William Morgan, the Governor of the town, and closely questioned. Daniel openly and fearlessly declared that he was a priest and a member of the Seraphic order. When the cruel tyrant heard this, without any process of law, he directed that Father Daniel's hands should be tied behind his back, and then ordered him to be scourged and salt and vinegar to be put into the wounds made on the skin by the lash. At last the tyrants seeing Neilan's courage, for he prayed without ceasing for himself and his persecutors, and despairing of changing his purpose, since he refused the honours offered to him if he would join with the heretics, ordered this brave champion of Christ to be hanged from the vane of a wind-mill with his head down, like Peter, the prince of the Apostles, and to be shot at till his whole body was pierced through with balls. By such a martyrdom Daniel earned for himself a glorious crown in heaven. He suffered at Youghal, in Munster, March 28th, 1580.

Rev. Denis Murphy, S.J. , Our Martyrs,  (Dublin, 1896), pp. 111-112. 

An earlier seventeenth-century martyrologist also recorded the details of the Petrine-style execution meted out to Father O'Neilan and the denial of a swift end to the suffering inflicted by those taking aim at him:

5. Daniell Oneilan was apprehended at Youghull by Sr. William Morgan and captaine Peers which then kept garrison in that towne. He was hanged with his legges vpwardes, and his head downewards: and then all the souldiors were comaunded to leuell at him with their bulletts; Comaundement was also giuen that none should leuell at his harte, therby to encrease his paine by his lingering death: he was a priest of the order of S. Frauncis: this hapned the 28. of march 1580.

J. Copinger,  The Theatre of Catholique and Protestant Religion (St Omer, 1620), p. 581

 Daniel O'Neilan is number 45 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs (1918) whose names were submitted to Rome for official consideration. No further progress has been made with his cause but he is number 3 on the list of causes currently being re-submitted for further consideration. There he appears as Donal O'Neylan, professed priest, Franciscan Friars Minor.

Content Copyright © De Processu Martyriali 2020-2021. All rights reserved