Thursday 28 April 2022

Father Fergal Ward, O.S.F.: 'hanged with the cincture of his own habit'.


On April 28 in the year 1575, according to some sources or 1577 according to others, the Franciscan guardian of Armagh, Fergal Ward, was beaten and hanged. The Franciscan friary at Armagh was founded in 1263/4. It was included in the monasteries ordered to be suppressed in 1542 and in 1557 was reported to have been surrendered.  The friars remained in the local area though and in 1565 two were flogged to death through the streets of Armagh. A report of 1586 in the Calendar of State Papers speaks of 'Armagh, a small village; the church and friaries are all broken and defaced.' Father Donatus Mooney O.F.M. wrote in 1616 that 'the convent of Armagh was destroyed in the late wars'. Indeed, in 1596 the ruins of Armagh friary had been used by Con O'Neill to mount an attack on the English forces seeking to supply their garrison in the town. So the execution of Father Fergal Ward is set against the backdrop of these decades of religious, political and military upheaval. Below are two accounts of his martyrdom. The first is from Bishop P.F. Moran's 1864 History of the Catholic Archbishops of Dublin, using Franciscan records. It gives a glimpse into the hardships faced by Friar Fergal as he attempted to exercise his ministry in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. His capture illustrates how vulnerable Catholic priests and religious were to the rough justice of martial law, for he appears to have been seized by soldiers and executed without any form of legal process. He is also reported to have been hanged using the rope cincture of his habit, a detail commonly found in accounts of the killings of members of religious orders:

Anno 1577*
Dr. Moran thus relates his martyrdom:

"While Drury was lord-deputy, about 1577, Fergal Ward, a Franciscan, and a native of Donegal, was put to death in Armagh. He was venerated by the people for the simplicity of his life and his zeal for the salvation of souls. He travelled at intervals throughout the whole province of Armagh, visiting the scattered families who, in the mountainous districts, lived without the comforts of the holy sacrifice or the strengthening grace of the sacraments. On one of these excursions he fell into the hands of the soldiery, and, being scourged with great barbarity, was hanged from the branches of a tree with the cincture of his own religious habit.

*From Dr. Moran's History of the Archbishops of Dublin, Introduction, p. 141, where he quotes Synop. Prov. Franciscan. in Hib. p. 66. The same account is given by Bruodin, lib iii. cap. 20, where he refers to John Good's work.

M. O'Reilly, Memorials of those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, (New York 1869), 42-43.

The second account is drawn from Anthony Bruodin's 1669 catalogue of Irish martyrs, Propugnaculum Catholicae Veritatis. It confirms the details of Friar Fergal Ward's beating and hanging, although here the blame is placed on the 'Ministers of Elizabeth' and some variant dates are given for the year of his execution:


(From Bruodin's Propugnaculum, p.247)

Fergall Ward, a native of Tyrconnell, a member of the Seraphic Order of St. Francis, was a very eloquent preacher and most observant of poverty. He had laboured zealously for three years in the vineyard of the Lord, and was then promoted to be Guardian of the convent of Armagh about the year 1575. At this time the plague of heresy, introduced by Elizabeth, was raging throughout Ulster. Ward opposed it as a skilful physician. Wherefore be was seized by the Ministers of Elizabeth, and no regard being had for his great age or religious character, he was scourged cruelly and beaten. At length when the holy martyr, persevering in his good purpose, exhorted his executioners to return to a better life, by order of the ministers he was hanged with his own girdle on the 28th of April, 1575, as Father John Good writes, or in 1565, as Wadding states in his work on the Martyrs of the Order

Rev. Denis Murphy, S.J., Our Martyrs, (Dublin, 1896), 94-95. 

Father Fergal Ward O.S.F. is number 38 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.


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Sunday 24 April 2022

Father Donatus O'Mollony: 'ready by God's help to endure all torments and death itself.'

On April 24, 1601, Irish priest Donatus O'Mollony (Donough O'Maloney, Daniel O'Maloney), vicar of the western Diocese of Killaloe, died in prison in Dublin. He had been tortured immediately before his death in an attempt to force him to acknowledge Queen Elizabeth's claims to spiritual as well as temporal authority.  This he refused to do, saying 'a woman, who may not speak in the church, I cannot acknowledge as its head.'  Father O'Mollony was not the only Irish martyr to take this stand, four decades earlier Thomas Leverous, Bishop of Kildare, also declared that a woman could not exercise authority over the church on the grounds that it was contrary to scripture and that Christ had not extended this privilege even to his own mother. Unlike Bishop Leverous, however, who was deprived of his see but allowed to retire to Limerick and take up a new career as a teacher, Father O'Mollony was to pay with his life. Leverous made his stand in the beginning years of Elizabeth's reign when the policy of coercion was not so rigorously applied in Dublin, Father O'Mollony made his in the final years when coercion was enforced. The account of his martyrdom below has been taken from Myles O'Reilly's 1869 collection Memorials of those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. The original source is the work of the Irish martyrologist Anthony Bruodin O.F.M. (1625-1680), who, as he tells us, was related to Father Donatus through his mother, Margaret O'Mollony. The O'Mollony (O'Maloney) sept were one of the most important in Thomond and had provided chieftains and leading churchmen from their ranks for centuries. The last native-born chieftain, Dermot O'Mollony, was forced to flee as a teenager to Flanders in the wake of the Second Desmond Rebellion, his kinsman Malachy O'Mallony, Bishop of Killaloe, mentioned in Bruodin's account, was imprisoned in London in the early 1570s but escaped and returned to Ireland. A later Bishop of Killaloe, John O'Molony would die in the Cromwellian siege of Limerick in 1651.  So this was a family who were very much at the centre of events in this turbulent era. Bruodin's pride in the courage shown by his kinsman in resisting torture, which he says impressed even his tormentors, shines through his account of the martyrdom of Donatus O'Mollony:


"Was of a noble family, a theologian and priest, and vicar of the diocese of Killaloe. He was a truly apostolic pastor, and when the wild boars ravaged the vineyard of the Lord in the diocese of Killaloe, (of which Malachy O'Mollony was bishop,) he feared not to risk his life for his flock. He was taken in the district of Ormond, where he was visiting the parish priest, and, with his hands tied behind his back like a robber, was dragged to Dublin in the midst of the soldiers. The reader may imagine what he suffered in this long journey. (I have heard much of it from my mother, Margaret O'Mollony, a near relative of the martyr, and from other friends in my country, but for the sake of brevity I omit much.) Hardly was Donatus shut up in the Tower of Dublin, when the iron boots, the rack, the iron gauntlets and the other instruments with which the executioners tortured the confessors of Christ were paraded before his eyes, and he was asked by the chief-judge whether he would subscribe to the queen's laws and decrees in matters of religion. Mollony, filled with the spirit of God, answered courageously he was ready to obey the queen's commands in all things not contrary to the laws of Jesus Christ, the King of kings, and his vicar on earth. The judge, like Pilate, answered: 'The queen in her kingdom is the only vicar of Christ and head of the church; therefore you must either take the oath of supremacy or die.' Mollony answered, 'Either Paul, the doctor of the Gentiles, and Christ himself in his gospels, err, or the queen is not the vicar of Christ!' 'Then you will not acknowledge the supreme authority, after Christ, of the queen in spirituals?' 'By no means! said Mollony;  'a woman, who may not speak in the church, I cannot acknowledge as its head; nay, for the truth of the opposite I am ready, by Gods help, to endure all torments, and death itself! ' Very good,' said the judge; 'we shall see to-morrow if your deeds correspond with your words.'

"Next day, about nine o'clock, the executioners, by order of the judge, so squeezed Donatus's feet in iron boots, and his hands in like gauntlets, that blood came from all his ten fingers.

"But the torture failed to move him, and during it Donatus more than once returned thanks to God that by his grace he was able to bear the torture for his Son's name. He was then for two hours extended on the rack, so that he was stretched out a span in length. During the cruel torture Donatus continually either prayed or exhorted the Catholics who were near to constancy in the faith, which is the only road to salvation, and for which he was ready to shed his blood. The executioners were moved to tears by the patience and constancy of the sufferer, and, by order of the judge, carried him, half-dead, back to prison, where a few hours afterward he slept piously in the Lord, on the 24th April, anno 1601." — Bruodin, lib. iii. cap. XX.

M. O'Reilly, Memorials of those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, (New York 1869), 174-5.

As 'Daniel Maloney', Father Donatus O'Mollony is number 22 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs (1918) whose names were submitted to Rome for consideration. No further progress has been made with his cause.

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Thursday 14 April 2022

Three Martyrs of Ferns: Fathers Daniel O'Brien, Luke Bergin, O.Cist., and James Murchu

On April 14, 1655, three priests of the Diocese of Ferns were hanged in Wexford. Two were secular priests, Father Daniel O'Brien, Dean of Ferns and Father James Murchu (Murphy), the other, Father Luke Bergin, a member of the Cistercian Order. The story of their martyrdom was set down by one of their contemporaries, Galway-born Father John Lynch (c.1599–1677) in his De praesulibus Hiberniae (‘Of the bishops of Ireland’). Father Lynch was writing from exile in France, having left Galway sometime after the fall of the city to Parliamentarian forces in the spring of 1652. In his account of these three martyred priests he bolsters their status as martyrs by emphasizing that the judge at their trial declared 'that no crime was more grievous than that of being a priest', when the jury initially found them innocent of any crime. This helps to establish that they were executed in odium fidei (out of hatred for the faith), one of the categories under which martyrdom occurs.  Furthermore, after their executions Father Lynch records that lights were seen shining over their graves, a common trope in martyrological accounts of the period. He obviously had access to more information on Dean O'Brien, whom he tells us was known as 'Daniel the Spaniard' due to his affection for Spain where he had been educated.  This and other details suggest that Father Lynch had been informed by eyewitnesses to the events in Wexford and or by someone with personal knowledge of the man. The account from De praesulibus Hiberniae was translated by Father Denis Murphy, the then Postulator of the Cause of the Irish Martyrs, in his 1896 catalogue Our Martyrs:


(From Lynch's De Praes. Hib., i., 365)

The first was educated in the Irish College of Compostella, and such was his gratitude for the kindness which he received from the people of Spain, that he always spoke of them with the greatest affection, and would wear no other dress but that worn by the Spanish clergy; hence he was called Daniel the Spaniard. As a priest he was remarkable for his virtuous life, charity, and zeal for souls; and so great was the love of the Catholic people for him, that they would sacrifice for him not only their property but their very lives. One time the soldiers of a certain garrison, suspecting that the Catholics had assembled at the castle of a nobleman to hear Mass, surrounded the place, so that no one could escape. Their captain demanded that the priest should hand over the chalice to him; if he did not, he threatened to shoot every one in the house. Daniel, hearing these words, came out of his room, and cried out: 'I am the priest who said Mass, these people have done nothing wrong.' He was seized, stripped of his clothes, and robbed of some money which he had. Daniel handed him the chalice, and when he had taken a draught of beer out of it, all of a sudden he fell, as if in a fit of apoplexy, and by his cries and convulsions, he struck terror into the bystanders. Daniel in pity made the sign of the cross over him, and offering a short prayer, restored him to health. In gratitude he gave back the chalice, and ever after was kindly to priests.

Though Daniel escaped from this danger, he fell in with greater. Three times he was captured by heretical soldiers. Once he was saved from hanging by the efforts of a Catholic, a friend of the Governor. Towards the end of his life he was so worn out with disease that he could not walk. He was taken to the prison, mounted on horseback.

When he heard the sentence of death pronounced on him, he seemed to get back all his former vigour, and to the surprise of the spectators he walked to the scaffold firmly. Having mounted it, he addressed the crowd standing round, and declared he was innocent of any crime, and earnestly besought the Almighty to receive his soul. He was hanged on April 14th, 1655, the vigil of Easter Sunday.

His companions were Luke Bergin, a Cistercian, and James Murchu, a priest. The jury at first declared they were not guilty of any crime; but when the judge urged that no crime was more grievous than that of being a priest, they were declared guilty. The citizens, even the Protestants, asked that they should not be executed within the town, but their request was refused.

The three martyrs were buried in the old ruined church of the Franciscan Monastery, outside the walls of the town. To the comfort of the Catholics, and to the confusion of the heretics, lights were seen shining over their graves, in token, no doubt, of the bliss which they were enjoying in heaven.

 Rev. Denis Murphy, S.J., Our Martyrs, (Dublin, 1896), 361-362.

Father Daniel O'Brien is number 166, Father James Murchu (Murphy) number 167 and Father Luke Bergin O. Cist., number 168 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs (1918). They are also numbers 40, 41 and 42 in the cause of Richard Creagh and 41 Companion Martyrs of Ireland whose cases are currently being prepared for resubmission to the authorities in Rome.

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