We look today at the case of Father Robert Netterville, a Jesuit martyr, believed for many years to have died on June 15, 1649 as part of the Cromwellian massacre at Drogheda but whom more recent research has suggested actually died five years earlier on July 17, 1644. He was from the Meath branch of an Old English family who had contributed much to civil and religious life in Ireland, as diocesan historian Dean Anthony Cogan noted:
The noble family of Netterville, seated at Dowth Castle, was distinguished for its attachment to the Catholic faith, and for the many eminent ecclesiastics who, in times of greatest peril, devoted their lives to the salvation of the people. In 1217 Dr. Luke Netterville, son of Sir Luke of Dowth, was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh; in 1224 he founded the Magdalen Convent of Drogheda for the Dominican Fathers, and in 1227 he died, and was buried in the monastery which he had erected.
In subsequent years the Nettervilles of Dowth branched into several independent houses viz., of Corballies in County Dublin, of Castletown-Kilpatrick, Crucerath, and Knockcumber, in county Meath; of Miltown in County Tipperary (afterwards transplanted to County Galway), each of which rivalled the parent house in devotion and attachment to religion. When Cromwell and his myrmidons were slaughtering the inhabitants of Drogheda, in 1649, the Rev. Robert Netterville, a Jesuit Father, was then old, infirm, and confined to his bed. The "Relatio rerum" of the Jesuits thus describes his sufferings: "He was forced away by the soldiers and dragged along the ground, being violently knocked against each obstacle that presented itself on the way; then they beat him with clubs, and when many of his bones were broken, they cast him on the highway. On the fourth day, having fought a good fight, he departed this life to receive, as we hope, the martyr's crown."
Nicholas Netterville of Dowth was advanced to the peerage of Ireland on the 3rd of April, 1622, with the title of Viscount Netterville of Dowth. He left issue, eight sons and five daughters, two of whom viz., Christopher and Nicholas became Jesuits...Rev. A. Cogan, The Diocese of Meath - Ancient and Modern, Vol.II, (Dublin, 1867), footnote p.305.
Both Fathers Christopher and Nicholas Netterville are also interesting characters, but let us return to their martyred uncle Father Robert and the account of his death given by Denis Murphy S.J. in his 1896 catalogue, Our Martyrs. Father Murphy used the 1675 work Societas Jesu usque ad sanguinis et vitae profusionem of Mathias Tanner, S.J., (1630-1692) as his source:
1649. Robert Netterville, S.J.
(from Tanner's Soc. Jesu, &c., p.137.)
In the year 1649 all the Catholics were banished from Dublin by order of the parliament, and a proclamation was issued at the same time imposing the penalty of death on any of them who should be found to have passed even one night within the walls of the city or in the suburbs. And to prove that they were not more merciful to the pastors, capital punishment and the confiscation of property were the penalty imposed on anyone who would allow a Jesuit or any priest to stay even an hour in his house. The same took place in Cork, which city the heretics had got possession of by a stratagem. After many of the inhabitants had been slaughtered, a proclamation was issued ordering all to leave the city or abandon their religion when the third cannon shot was fired. Before the signal was given, a sad sight, yet worthy of the first age of the Church, might be witnessed. For young and old, even the sick, ladies too of high birth, all went out of their own accord into the open country, in the morning rich and prosperous, in the evening exposed to hardships such as they had never endured before, to pass the rest of their lives in caves and woods, or to beg their bread. The inhabitants of the city of Drogheda and the Fathers of the residence of the Society of Jesus there endured like calamities or even greater, for owing to the bloodthirsty ferocity of the heretics, the bodies of the Catholics were lying about in every street, in the houses, and in the fields; the blood of young and old alike, of women as well as men, was flowing in streams through the streets.
By some means or other the English learned that F. Robert Netterville was a priest and a Jesuit. Wherefore, on the 15th of June, they burst into the house, and regardless of his advanced age and of his venerable appearance, they seized him by the feet and dragged him out of the bed in which he lay, beat him with sticks, and when they had broken some of his bones, left him half-dead on the highway. Four days after that he gave up his soul to Christ, rejoicing greatly that he suffered such torments for Christ's sake.
Rev. Denis Murphy, S.J., Our Martyrs, (Dublin, 1896), 310-311.
Father Murphy's contemporary, the scholarly Father Edmund Hogan S.J. (1831-1917), also included our martyr in a chronological catalogue of Irish Jesuits where he hailed him as 'a most meritorious missioner':
Netterville, Robert (M), born in Meath in 1582; entered the Society in Italy in 1604; was professed of the four vows; and died at Drogheda, June 19, 1649. He was Minister in Naples; came to Ireland from Sicily in 1615; was in Kildare in 1621; beaten to death near Drogheda by the heretical soldiers; was a most meritorious missioner.
Rev E. Hogan, S.J., Chronological Catalogue of the Irish Members of the Society of Jesus from the year 1550 to 1814, appended to Rev H. Foley, S.J., Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus, Volume VII, part II, (London, 1883), 16.
Although the earlier Jesuit writers placed the execution of Father Robert Netterville within the context of the Cromwellian massacre at Drogheda in 1649, the research of Jesuit archivist Father Francis Finegan (1909-2011), suggests that this was an error. The website of the Irish Jesuit Archives contains his reconstruction of the entire career of Father Netterville starting with his birth on October 23, 1583 in County Meath. He entered the Order in Rome on the same day in 1604 and was ordained at Naples six years later. He spent the years between 1615 and 1623 back in Ireland, where he ministered in the counties of Kildare and Meath before leading a party of seminarians to the Irish Colleges in Spain. There, however, he seems to have had a disagreement with the Archbishop of Cashel/Dublin and as a result found himself recalled to Dublin in 1625, where he stayed until 1641 when he left to escape the Puritan control of the city. He remained in the north Leinster area afterwards. Father Finegan argues that Robert Netterville was taken captive and killed by the Scots Covenanter army under General Robert Munroe (d.1680), who had made raids as far as North Westmeath in June and July 1644. His research suggested that the correct date of Father Netterville's death was July 17, 1644 and that some of the Jesuit writers had given the year 1649 in order to coincide with the massacre of Drogheda, possibly also mistaking him for another Irish Jesuit, Robert Bathe, who died in Kilkenny in 1649.
Father Robert Netterville is number 222 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs (1918) of those whose names were submitted to Rome for official consideration. No further progress has been made to date with his cause.
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