Monday 31 October 2022

How an Irish Bishop Died for Faith and Fatherland

The hanging of the Dominican Bishop of Emly, Terence Albert O'Brien, O.P. on October 31, 1657, following the siege of Limerick, is one of the cases of Irish martyrdom which left a lasting impression on subsequent generations. In part I am sure this was because of the details preserved by the martyrologists of the time, most notably Bishop O'Brien's prediction that his persecutor, the Puritan General Ireton (who was Oliver Cromwell's own son-in-law), would soon be standing before God's tribunal himself. When Ireton contracted the plague ten days later it was reported that he said he had wished he had 'never set eyes on that Bishop' and attempted to distance himself from any responsibility for the execution. As a further testimony to Bishop O'Brien's status as a martyr, which would have been understood at the time, it is also recorded that fresh blood continued to drip from his severed head which did not show any signs of decomposition. All of these details feature in the article below published in an Australian newspaper in 1905. A year earlier the Archbishop of Dublin had opened the official inquiry into the Irish martyrs, something which was of interest to expatriate Irish communities. This well-written piece on Bishop O'Brien is attributed to 'J.B.' who concludes with the verdict that "He was taken and hanged, because of the great things he had done for the Faith."

How an Irish Bishop Died for Faith and Fatherland

Terence Albert O'Brien, O.P., a scion of the Royal House of Munster, and Bishop of Emly, was taken and hanged because of the great things he had done for the Faith, on All Saints Eve, A.D. 1657.
He was staying in the City of Limerick when that city was besieged by Ireton, the son-in-law of Oliver Cromwell. He was offered a bribe of 40,000 gold crowns, and a pass to any place he pleased, if he would quit the city, and cease to urge the citizens to resistance, all which he refused, preferring to give help to the Catholic people up to his death.

When the city was taken on the 29th of October, the articles of capitulation exempted twenty-four persons from quarter. Dr. O'Brien was one of these, and being arrested, he was brought before Ireton, who ordered him to be tried by a court-martial. When asked did he want counsel, he calmly replied that he knew his doom and only wanted a confessor. This boon was granted, and Father Hanrahan, a member of his own Order, was suffered to pass the whole day and night of the 30th October with the Bishop in his cell.

 On the following day the finding of the Court was announced to him, as he lay stripped on a pallet; and the officer charged with this duty gave him to understand that the sentence was to be carried out on the instant. On hearing this, he got up to dress himself, but before he had time to do so, the Provost-Marshal's guard pinioned his arms, and thrust him out of the cell almost in a state of nudity. It was only natural that his fine sense of delicacy should resent this cruel insult, but finding that all remonstrances were even lost on the posse who surrounded him, he paused an instant as if to collect himself, and said in a solemn tone that "the time was not distant when Ireton should stand before God's tribunal to account for his bloody deeds."
It was a long way from the prison to the place of execution, and as the cortege proceeded, it was encountered at every step by sights the most appalling. For two days previously, Ireton's troops had been allowed to pillage and slay as they liked, and there was hardly a house that did not bear witness to their licentiousness. Windows shattered, doors wrenched from their hinges, corpses of men and women lying stark in the gutters, wares of every sort scattered and trodden under foot, showed that destructiveness had revelled to satiety. No living thing appeared along the route of that sad procession, and the universal stillness would have been unbroken were it not for the heavy tread of the doomed man's escort, and the ringing of their weapons as they clanked on the pavements.

The Bishop conducted himself with his accustomed firmness, and though distressed at being obliged to parade the deserted thoroughfares on that winter's evening in a state little short of absolute nakedness, his step was as steady and his bearing as erect as either could have been on that memorable day when he followed the trophies of Benburb to St. Mary's Cathedral.
On reaching the foot of the gibbet, he knelt and prayed till he was commanded to arise and mount the ladder. He obeyed, seized the rungs with vigorous grasp, and turned round as if anxious to ascertain whether any of the citizens had ventured abroad to witness his death scene. Having satisfied himself that a few of them were present, and within hearing, he exhorted them to continue true to the Faith of their fathers, and to hope for better days, when God would look with mercy on unhappy Ireland. To those who were weeping for him he said, "Do not shed tears on my account, but rather pray that in this last trial I may by firmness and constancy obtain heaven as my reward."

The persecutor, Ireton, to whom the Bishop had distinctly foretold that the vengeance of God would soon fall upon him, was struck down with the plague ten days after, and in his mad raving used to exclaim that the murder of the Bishop was the cause of his death; and turning his face to the wall, he used to mutter: "I never gave my vote for the death of the Bishop; it was the act of the Council of War. Would to God I had never set my eyes on that Bishop." Then, tortured by a guilty conscience, the wretch breathed forth his soul.
The martyr's head was fixed on a high pole on the top of the Castle. For a long time after, fresh blood dropped from it, and the skin and flesh were in no way changed.

He was a native of the city of Limerick, where his uncle, Maurice O'Brien, was Prior of the Dominican Convent. He himself later on succeeded to the same office. He went as Provincial to the General Chapter of the Order held in Rome in 1644, where, in acknowledgment of his services, he was made master of theology. He finished his studies in Spain, spending for that purpose eight years at Toledo. When the Chapter at which he was present in Rome had ended, he set out for Lisbon to visit the two convents of his Order in that city, one for Brothers, the other for Sisters. While at Lisbon, news reached him that he had been appointed Bishop of Emly by Pope Urban VIII.
From the Acts of the General Chapter of the Order of Preachers, held in 1656, we learn that in 1646 the number of Dominicans in Ireland was 600, that in 1656 the number was under 160 who were exiles from their native land, and that the others had been put to death at home, or had died a lingering death after their cruel banishment to the Barbadoes.

 Of forty-three convents which the Order possessed in 1645, not a single one remained in their hands ten years later. The fury of the persecuting heretics had either levelled them to the ground or turned them to profane uses.
Dr. O'Brien was consecrated Bishop of Emly, 1647. He found his new See in a most deplorable condition, for the country had been ravaged and . desolated by Lord Inchiquin and his brutal soldiery. As a member of the Confederation, Dr. O'Brien had zealously supported the Papal Nuncio, and approved of his excommunication of the abettors of the Ormond party. In 1650 the progress of the Cromwellian army compelled him to retire to Galway. He returned to Limerick just before its siege by Ireton in 1657.

Famine, and the treachery of Colonel Fennell combined, compelled a surrender of the city on the 29th of October. The articles of capitulation exempted twenty-four persons from quarter. Amongst those was the illustrious Bishop. "He was publicly hanged," says Clarendon, "without any formality of justice, and with all the reproaches imaginable." "He was taken and hanged," says the Bishop of Clonfert, writing from Innesbofin on the 31st August, 1651 [?], "because of the great things he had done for the Faith." Suffering in such a cause is glorious beyond measure and meritorious beyond reckoning. "Tribulation," says St. Paul, "worketh above measure exceedingly, an eternal weight of glory."   J. B.

How an Irish Bishop Died for Faith and Fatherland. (1905, January 28). Freeman's Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1850 - 1932), p. 40. Retrieved April 26, 2020, from

Thursday 6 October 2022

Translation of the Relics of Oliver Plunkett

Earlier this year we looked at an article by Sir Shane Leslie (1885-1971) on the trial of Saint Oliver Plunkett.  Below we have another of Sir Shane's articles, this time a 1920 report on the translation of the relics of the newly-beatified Oliver Plunkett to the Benedictines' Downside Abbey. Whilst in prison Saint Oliver had entrusted his bodily remains to an English Benedictine fellow-prisoner, Dom Maurus Corker.  He took them into exile in Germany where, following the dissolution of the English Benedictine foundation at Lamspringe, the body of Saint Oliver came to rest in Downside in 1883. At that time the remains of the Irish martyr were placed in a plain stone tomb. In 1920 they were translated to a much grander purpose-built shrine. Sir Shane paints a vivid and dramatic picture of the proceedings where although everything was carried out with great dignity and solemnity, nevertheless there seems to have been an undercurrent of tension, given that the relics of Ireland's most famous martyr were in the possession of the English. Leslie, a convert to both Catholicism and Irish nationalism, describes Saint Oliver as a 'holy hostage' and regrets that his body does not lie at Armagh. Saint Oliver was martyred at Tyburn and thus his cause fell under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical authorities in London, with jurisdiction only being transferred back to Ireland early in the twentieth century when our own church authorities were organizing the causes of the native martyrs. The English could point out that the head of Saint Oliver, an important relic on display for veneration, had been returned to his homeland, where its translation to a new shrine at Drogheda formed 'the greatest Catholic event of the year in Ireland' in 1921. It is also true that Saint Oliver himself had bequeathed his remains to the English Benedictine, Dom Maurus Corker and that their survival owed much to the courage of English laywoman Elizabeth Shelton and others. Yet perhaps it was inevitable that there was some resentment on this issue given that renewed interest in the Irish martyrs and the organisation of their causes took place against the backdrop of the national revival and the campaign for independence.  Indeed, it was reported that during the beatification of Oliver Plunkett in 1920 the English Archbishop Stanley had been invited to celebrate Mass but was replaced by an Italian following objections by the Irish bishops. Sadly, exactly one hundred years after the publication of Sir Shane Leslie's article the much-reduced community at Downside announced that it would move away from its impressive home. Although the famous school at Downside is unaffected by this decision, it does make me wonder if the time might now be right for Saint Oliver's bodily relics to come home to Ireland?





It is Downside in the once Catholic west-country, yet hemmed by the memory of Giastonbury, and the Abbey Tower is flying the flag of Gregorius Magnus for the first celebration of the translation of the Relics of the Blessed Oliver Plunkett, October the sixth, 1920. Few of the faithful found their way to the remote hamlet in Somersetshire to witness what none else in England to-day except themselves have witnessed, the actual translation of the body of a Saint from the mundane grave or sarcophagus to the Altars of the Church. Probably the last translation to take place on English soil was that of St. Thomas de Cantilupe, whose head is one of the treasures of Downside Abbey. But the long spell has been broken, and a Saint, albeit an Irishman, has been solemnly translated within the Realm of England. 


Cardinals and Bishops of England were present to do the Blessed Oliver honor, and Ireland seemed only represented by the weather, which wreathed the Abbey in sheets of rain, but during the High Mass and while the body of Oliver was being carried into the open air a gleam of sudden sunlight fell like a benediction from Heaven, making the yellow flag with the blood-cross of the Benedictines glow against the grey clouds like a flame of fire. Within the Abbey all was hush and expectation around the scaffolding leading to the highly poised shrine which has been built in the northern transept. It was an Irish Abbott, however, with forty years of choir behind him, who received the cardinals at the door. In black robe and train Cardinal Gasquet sang the High Mass in the presence of Cardinal Bourne, whose bright robes seemed terribly symbolic of the blood that England has shed. As the Cardinals sat back enthroned, the black monks, to whom the Martyr bequeathed his sacred body, raised the chant, whose, perfect modulation seemed at one time reminiscent of the Irish keening and at another of the proud triumph of Holy Church. With splendid emphasis the choir sang the great hymn of Peter and Paul, while to each stanza the whole of Downside School poured forth the chorus, 

O felix Roma, quae tantorum Principum
Es purpurata pretioso sanguine, 
Non laude tua sed ipsorum meritis 
Excellis omnem mundi pulchritudinem. 


Who can ever now forget that those words were sung at the enshrining of Oliver Plunket? The Mass concluded, three Abbots in glorious apparel lifted the many-colored but acephalous body of Oliver from the Gospel side of the high altar and, preceded by the Comrnunity in their dark cowls and the Bishops of Clifton and Plymouth in purples, carried it down the choir and by the south door into the open air, preceded again by Cardinal Gasquet in cope and mitre and followed by Cardinal Bourne, as it were the chief mourner behind that radiant bier. At a distance, joining in the litanies of the Saints, came the school and the laity, and when, for a wonderful moment, the sunlight streamed upon all (the colours it seemed like a harlequin minglement of funeral and carnival, for there was no sign of mourning save in the Benedictine habits, and the cantors and bearers wore dalmatics, blue and yellow and purple. And the red pall over the relics became as bright as blood.


Preceded by crucifix and smoking censer, the Relics were brought slowly home to the Abbey for the last time, and who but the Catholic Church would honor dead and mouldy bones with what would have been the mockery of color and ceremony if she were not divinely aware that the undaunted spirit they once housed has ascended to the Father? 


Slowly the Relics were brought to their appointed place, and then a strange and beautiful piece of pageantry was seen in the Abbey of St. Gregory the Great de Downside. Upon four high pillars in the northern transept had been set a finely gilded ark reached by ladder and scaffolding, and to this four monks in albs climbed up and let down ropes to the bearers. It was more than a symbol; it was a travesty of Tyburn played in mid-air. Were these four not the ghostly executioners who once stood and moved about a certain scaffold. Were those not the ropes of the gibbet, and was not that Tyburn running upward, or only pillars of stone? But that assuredly was the veritable body of the Martyr and eminent servant of God, Oliver Plunket, which was now a second time swinging between Heaven and earth. High above the chanting monks, above the sweet-toned choir, rose the holy body, caped in crimson and sealed with the seals of the Holy Church. But that crowd was no bloodthirsty mob, only monks and children, and these seated figures were the presiding Cardinals and not the evil and infamous Justices who condemned Oliver Plunket. After two centuries the Church re-enacted the event of his death at Tyburn, and of that brutal human crime seemed to show a divine parody. Upon no sledge of pain, but in a glorious shrine he was laid, and it was no knife that descended but a golden lid which was lowered by chains from the roof, and then it was seen that the scaffolding has only to fall away to reveal the Altars of God. 


The monks descended the ladder, leaving Oliver to the centuries and once more a canonised Archbishop to the veneration of the folk. The sacrilege of Canterbury was repaired, and the Church once despoiled of the body of Thomas of Canterbury has enshrined the body of Oliver of Armagh. With sad and appropriate words Cardinal Bourne marked the occasion, deploring the tragic conditions prevailing in Ireland, and appealing to the blessed one to pray for Ireland and for England too! Then, after the intonation of the "Te Deum" the Cardinals and monks withdrew, but with what fresh force sounded the "Te Martyrum candidatus exercitus" and like a living flash from the organ, for the lonely body of a Martyr was there! In good keeping lies the Blessed Oliver Plunket. Though Irishmen would like him to have echoed the prayer of Brian Boru, 'My soul to God, and my body to Armagh!' yet he bequeathed his body to those, who have had it in their keeping and with whom it will now likely rest till the Judgment Day. Like a holy hostage Ireland's martyr remains in England and behind the golden bars of his prison shrine awaits the day when the England which gave him over to a cruel death will return to the Faith for which his life was given. 

Already the long train of pilgrims has begun, and hardly was he enshrined than kneeling figures approached his mediation and candles began to flicker into flame like silent prayers. With exceeding joy the good monks sang Vespers, and late into night their Matins. Then there was silence in the Abbey. One by one the votive candles flickered out and the Martyr was left alone in his glory. 

"HISTORIC CEREMONY AT DOWNSIDE ABBEY." Freeman's Journal 9 December 1920.



Content Copyright © De Processu Martyriali 2020-2022. All rights reserved