Monday 20 March 2023

Friar O'Dowd's Victory: A True Story of the Seal Inviolate

March 20 1393 marks the death of Saint John Nepomucene, who is regarded as the first martyr of the seal of the confessional. Nearly two hundred years later one of our native martyrs, County Mayo Friar John O'Dowd O.F.M., was hailed as the John Nepomucene of Ireland for making a similar sacrifice. I have previously posted an account of Friar John based on the surviving sources here, but below is an account which was published in The Rosary Magazine in 1903. Although presented in the form of an historical novel, writer P.G. Smyth ably describes the story of Father O'Dowd's heroic sacrifice and references Saint John Nepomucene towards the end:

Friar O'Dowd’s Victory 



ONE day in the reign of Queen Elizabeth of England — it was the 9th of June, 1579 — in the full heat of the persecution of the Catholic Church in Ireland, a small party of horsemen rode towards the monastery of Moyne, in the far west of that racked and war-wasted island.

The pleasant landscape was bathed in sunshine, save where over mead and woodland flitted the shadows of the white clouds sailing aloft in the blue. Solemn and venerable, even in its pathetic semi-dilapidation, lay the stately old Franciscan house, with all its picturesque grey gables and gothic windows, and the tall square campanile, or bell tower, soaring over all. To the right, as the party rode onward, shone the bright estuary of the river Moy, with beyond it the yellow sand dunes of Bartra, and beyond them the dark blue ocean, flecked with foam. To the left lay billowy green upland and sweeping woods, with stretches of pasture and tillage. The wholesome breath of the brine came mingling with the sweet fragrance of the clover blossoms. There was a winsome summer smile on the face of nature. 

 But there was an oppressive sense of dread in the air, a panic of terror on the land. People were abandoning their homes and fleeing into the woods for safety. Men and boys with loud shouts were driving off their cattle — the black, shaggy, long-horned Irish cattle that ran like buffaloes. White-capped mothers hurried along with infants clasped in their trembling arms. Girls with the snood or ribbon of maidenhood binding their tresses dragged along their little brothers and sisters. It was a general frantic run for shelter and safety — a stampede which was of but too frequent occurrence in most parts of Ireland in these unhappy days — for from the south was rolling a terrible dark cloud charged with the lightning of rapine, ruin and death. 

Straight to the monastery the horsemen galloped, and at the church door, which was round-headed and surmounted by a winged angel carved in stone, the leader dismounted, his armor and weapons clanging as he leaped on the sward. He was a stalwart man, with a huge commeal or mustache, and his hair fell in masses, native Irish fashion, on his shoulders. He entered the church, reverently doffed his helmet and genuflected. 

 “Ho, Father John, Father John,” he called. 

As his voice rolled and echoed through the spacious interior he felt abashed at his boldness in breaking the pervading solemn hush of sanctity. The place was deserted, a vast stony solitude. To the left a sheer wall hung with sacred pictures that showed the marks and tears of malicious usage. To the right three huge round arches joining the nave with a still wider space provided for lay worshippers. In front of the arch under the bell tower, crossed with a screen of metal trellis work, through which were seen the chancel, with the oaken stalls of the friars, the high altar and the noble orient window. The metal screen was bent and twisted in places, many of the windows were broken, the wooden stalls were chopped and gashed, and there were other marring tokens of visits of the Reformers. 

“The wanton, sinful ruffians!” commented the visitor. “I wonder what mischief they’ll do the grand old place this turn.” And again he called : “Ho, Father John, are you here?” 

 Receiving no reply he walked with jingling spurs up the nave and entered the chancel through a low archway in the thickness of the tower wall. Then he opened the door leading to the cloisters. Some years previously no Catholic layman would have attempted or even dreamed of such an intrusion, but the confusion of the times, the stress of danger, the great passing away of the friars made havoc of strict monastic rules. The visitor found himself in a covered walk extending around a perfect square of handsomely carved small arches, enclosing a sun-lighted open space where now rank weeds and grass covered where once lay flower beds and beds of medicinal herbs used by the monks in their province as physicians. Upon this walk opened the doors of many arched cells, and around it the dark-robed sons of St. Francis had paced, read and meditated for more than one hundred years. 

A famous place, by the way, was in its heyday this fine old monastery of Moyne. Founded in 1460 by Thomas Oge (or the young) Bourke, high chief of this western territory, at the instance of Provincial General Nehemias O’Donohoe (sent by Pope Nicholas V. to introduce into Ireland the reformed Franciscan rule known as the “strict observance”), it took two years in the building, and was consecrated by Bishop Donat O’Connor of Killala exactly thirty years before Columbus sailed with his caravels into the mysterious West. The consecrating prelate was a member of the Order of St. Dominic, whose sons had established themselves in this district two centuries previously. Five provincial chapters were held here, and here was the place of novitiate for the Franciscan Order in the western province of Ireland. The fame of the monastery traveled to foreign lands; the sweet- toned bell that swung in the lofty campanile was a present from the Queen of Spain. Among the novices that in later years paced the cloister walk was a tall, red-haired one, namely Florence Conroy, afterwards Archbishop of Tuam, and founder of the celebrated Franciscan monastery of Louvain, where the flowers of Irish religion and learning, trampled upon with iron bigot heel at home, were triumphantly preserved and propagated abroad. 

Sad, yet sublime, telling of the struggles of an oppressed, indomitable race for light, liberty and freedom of worship, are the memories that breathe around that cloister square of Moyne. 

 “Ho, Father John, Father Cathal,” again called the visitor. 

In response the tall figure of a friar issued from one of the cells. He was in stature over six feet and a half and built in proportion, noble, kindly and benevolent of mien. For Father John O'Dowd was a typical member of his race, the ancient native family that once gave kings and princes to this western territory that extended long league upon league from the green banks of the river Robe to the grey round tower of Drumcliff. 

 “Well, Tibbot Bourke, my son, God bless you," he said cheerily. 

“Make haste, father, there is no time to lose,” said the cavalier. “The English Queen's soldiers have crossed the Moy at Ballina and are coming this way. They have taken us by surprise and they are too strong for us, so we can do nothing but alarm the country. Come — we have horses at the door for yourself and Father Cathal.” 

“Father Cathal has been called to a sick bed two miles hence,” said Father O'Dowd, “and for me, surely I am not going to run away and abandon this holy place to desecration. “You know,” he said, with a sad smile, “of the whole community there are now but two of us left, but we must not be false to our trust.” 

“But what good can you do by remaining?” protested Tibbot Bourke. “To stay here means outrage or death at the hands of these fiends. Remember their last raid and the fate of poor Brother Felix.” 

He alluded to a tragedy of the previous year. On the approach of a party of English raiders the monks then in the monastery took to their fishing boats and rowed for safety out into the bay — all but one, the venerable lay brother ( Felix O'Hara, brother of the lord of Leyney, who insisted on staying behind, urging that the soldiers would not harm one so aged as he and that his presence might induce them to respect the sacred place. On their return, after the departure of the plundering troopers, the friars found the old lay brother lying in his gore on the steps of the grand altar, where the marauders had wantonly murdered him. 

 “Brother Felix nobly won a martyr's crown,” said Father John. “An O'Hara would not shrink his duty in the hour of peril; neither shall an O'Dowd. I have no fear of the Sassenach, so try not further to persuade me, Tibbot, my son. Go now, and Dominius vobiscum.” 

In vain the cavalier sought to break the friar's determination. He had to depart reluctant and despondent. There was a sound of horses' hoofs and jingling of bridle chains as he and his party rode away, and then the silence of brooding death settled over Moyne. 

 Father O’Dowd hastily removed the sacred vessels of the altar and concealed them in a secret recess. Missals and documents he similarly disposed of, and then, entering his broken stall, he knelt before the high altar in the silence of the chancel and drew over his spirit the strengthening armor of prayer. The last, lone monk in the great deserted monastery! To him a solemn, bitter, Gethsemane-like hour was that in the church of Moyne. The old race crushed and humbled, the old creed banned, the alien powers of persecution and death turned loose. There, beneath his sculptured slab on the gospel side of the altar, showing the De Burgo lion and hand, with the crescent which symbolized a second son, lay the dust of  the founder of the monastery, the pious young Lord Thomas Bourke, head of the tribe, recalling the prosperous old days when he and his warriors, bards and brehons assembled to lay the foundation stone of the sacred edifice. And there, opening off the epistle side, extended the Lady chapel, where in rows along the opposite walls lay the remains of generations of the Bourkes and their kinsmen by marriage  the O'Dowds. There was buried Owen O'Dowd, thirty years chief of his tribe, who died in the Franciscan habit in Moyne in 1538, and there also lay his son and successor Owen, lord of Fireragh, and his wife, the lady Sabia Bourke. Great and appalling the change, all in a few years, from the days when the chant of psalmody rose from a full choir of monks, and the altar, bright with flowers, blazed with lights and the bell tinkled, and the incense floated over the devout thronged congregation of farmer clansmen and their wives and children. 

 “Poor old abbey !" thought the lonely friar, “your halcyon days are indeed gone." 

 “Many a bitter storm and tempest 
Has your roof-tree turned away 
Since you first were formed a temple 
To the Lord of night and day. 
 “Holy house of ivied gables 
That were once the country’s pride, 
Houseless now in weary wandering 
Roam your inmates far and wide. 
“Refectory cold and empty, 
Dormitory bleak and bare, 
Where are now your pious uses, 
Simple bed and frugal fare?" 

The church door was dashed rudely open and a number of armed men came pouring in. Some of them rushed upon the friar and seized him with shouts and curses. Others hurried away through the building in quest of plunder. Others commenced their usual iconoclastic work of slashing pictures, hacking statues and discharging bullets at the altar. Father John was roughly hauled before the English commander, who regarded him with a frown, which soon turned into a laugh of derision. 

 “You are the very man we need, sir friar," he said. “Ho, there, bring hither the prisoner." 

A bound captive was thrust forward. His attire was disheveled, his face and clothing streaked with blood. The friar recognized in him a chief man of the Bourkes. 

“Shrive this arch traitor and rebel," commanded the officer. “No doubt he has some very interesting secrets for your ear, and he may like to unload him- self of them before he makes reparation on the gallows tree for having dared to bear arms against her highness." 

Father O'Dowd and the condemned man were allowed to retire apart, and the latter, pale but manful in that terrible hour, murmured his confession and gave the friar some last messages for his wife and children. The soldiery, their steel morions and breastplates shining in the rays that streamed through the broken windows, looked on with scowling con- tempt and impatience, at intervals uttering a profane command to make haste. At length, hardly giving time for the words of absolution, they seized the doomed captive and dragged him away. With anguish in his heart and tears in his eyes the friar knelt at the altar to pray for the parting soul. After a time a hand shook him rudely by the shoulder and a finger pointed to the window. Swaying beneath the masses of shimmering light and shade made by the foliage of a large ash was the body of the unfortunate Bourke. 

“Now, friar, for your turn," said the English commander. “That must have been a very interesting story yon swinging rebel told you. Its secrets will suit the service of her highness. Tell it to me." 

Friar John arose and gazed down with calm surprise and scorn on the insolent face of his interlocutor, who was a full foot beneath him in stature. 

 “Mean you,” he inquired with dignity, “that I shall break the seal of the confessional ?” 

 “I mean,” said the officer, nervously twitching his ruff and fingering his sword hilt, “that for the service of our gracious Queen you shall reveal to me the secrets which the traitor confided to you or else share his fate. Come, sirrah, give me at once a clear account of all he told you.” 

“That I may not and shall not do.” “No trifling, shaveling!” thundered the officer. “Refuse to reveal all and this minute you shall hang.” 

 “Sir, I refuse,” said the intrepid friar, with quiet dignity and resolution. 

“Take him out and hang him,” commanded the Queen’s man with a volley of oaths. Then, reconsidering, he said : “Hold, he shall tell in spite of himself; I know a sure way of loosening the tongues of such as he.” 

Then in the sacred precincts of Moyne, before the altar of God, occurred a dread scene of excruciating human torture. The friar was seized, his hands were tied behind his back, the cord of St. Francis was taken from his waist and bound around his temples, with a turning lever behind by which it could be tightened at will. A torturer seized the lever and gave it a sudden wrench. The victim’s face quivered with agony. 

 “The confession?” 


 The Divine Spirit that strengthened St. John Nepomucene in his hour of trial also strengthened John O’Dowd. Before him was the altar, which, although now its broken and desecrated tabernacle no longer contained the Holy of Holies, its crucifix was torn down and the sanctuary lamp extinguished, served to raise his mind to the glorious crown of martyrdom so near his grasp. And there lay the tombs of his kindred, noble saints and warriors whose memories would be sullied did he dare to violate his sacred duty or be false to the grand old faith that his ancestors received from Saint Patrick. Undismayed by the crowd of pitiless faces and steel-clad forms that surrounded them he resolutely ignored them and turned his thoughts to heaven. 

 “Another turn or two. Come, the confession.” 

The sweat of agony covered his compressed temples. His eyes protruded as if in horror from their sockets, but his lips moved in prayer. 

 “The obstinate fool!” cried the chief of the miscreants, fuming with baffled rage. “Turn harder and harder.” 

The victim slipped through the hands of the torturers and lay motionless on the floor. 

 “Take off that cord and pick him up. He is only in a faint or shamming. We shall soon make him speak.” 

But no; the saintly John O’Dowd, constant to the death, had in mercy been taken out of the cruel hands of his persecutors, wreak what ignominy they might on the lifeless remains of the brave martyr. Triumphant in death he had passed away, bearing the palm of victory, to join the white-robed host that follows the Lamb.

P. G. Smyth,  'Friar O'Dowd's Victory', The Rosary Magazine, Vol 23, (July-December, 1903), 218-222.

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