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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