Wednesday 13 September 2023

Nicholas Fitzgerald, O.Cist

In September 1581 Cistercian monk Nicholas Fitzgerald was hanged, drawn and quartered in Dublin.  This martyr bears the name of one of the most important Cambro-Norman aristocratic families in Ireland. His own branch, the Fitzgeralds of Lackagh, was descended from Sir Thomas Fitzgerald, second son of Thomas, the Second Earl of Kildare. As we shall see, this high social standing enabled the parents of martyred monk Nicholas to remove his body to the cathedral of Kildare, where the family burial place was in the south transept. The story of the martyrdom of Nicholas Fitzgerald was one of those preserved in the work of Father Malachy Hartry, O.Cist., in
the De Cisterciensium Hibernorum Viris Illustribus, appended to his 1640 history of Holy Cross Abbey, County Tipperary Triumphalia Chronologica Monasterii S. Crucis in Hibernia. Both of these sources were edited and translated by Father Denis Murphy, S.J., the late nineteenth-century promoter of the cause of the Irish martyrs. He gives Father Hartry's account of our martyr thus:

Nicholas Fitzgerald, a Cistercian monk, fleeing from the cruel persecution, while concealed in a wood to which he had fled through fear of the persecutors, was seized in his monastic habit, taken in chains to the city of Dublin, and condemned by the Viceroy (who was never sated with the blood of Catholics) to be hanged, and while half-alive to be quartered. He endured this kind of death courageously for the Catholic faith, wearing his religious habit. The faithful, influenced by their pious devotion, preserved the clothes and blood of the courageous martyr, dividing them into small portions as relics, in the year from Christ's birth 1581, in the month of September. His father Maurice FitzGerald and Margaret [FitzRedmond] Butler his mother obtained as a very great favour that they might carry away the quartered body of their beloved son for burial and lay it in the tomb of his ancestors in the church of the nuns of the Order of St. Brigid at Kildare. Our glorious martyr was descended from the noble race of the Geraldines.

Rev. Denis Murphy S.J., ed. and trans., Triumphalia Chronologica Monasterii S. Crucis in Hibernia, (Dublin, 1895), pp. 255-56.

 When Father Murphy came to reproduce this account in his 1896 catalogue Our Martyrs he added:

There is a tombstone close by the vestry door of the cathedral of Kildare which bears the names of the parents of Nicholas Fitzgerald. If the original position of this stone was ascertained, it would determine the place where the martyr was buried.

Rev. Denis Murphy, Our Martyrs (Dublin, 1896), 120-121.

Father Murphy included some further detail in a footnote on this tombstone which throws into doubt the accuracy of the date of Father Fitzgerald's martyrdom, established by Father Hartry as September 1581:

A tombstone recently removed from that part of the church, having a raised figure in armour on it, bears the following inscription in black-letter:

Domina Margareta Butler hoc monumentum fieri fecit ob memoriam Mauricii Fitzgerald de Laccah militis quondam sui mariti, qui obiit 20 die Decembris anno 1575. 

These were no doubt the martyr's parents. The difference of dates arises from an error of Hartry's most probably. 

Rev. Denis Murphy S.J., ed.and trans., Triumphalia Chronologica Monasterii S. Crucis in Hibernia, (Dublin, 1895), footnote 5, pp. 255-56.

A modern Irish Cistercian historianFather Colmcille Ó Conbhuidhe, agrees:

The martyrdom of this Cistercian monk took place, according to Hartry, in the year 1581, but if Nicholas's father was still alive at the time of his son's death as Hartry states, the date of Nicholas Fitzgerald's death must have been some years earlier, for the inscription of the tomb of Sir Maurice Fitzgerald shows that the latter died on the 20th of December, 1575.

Rev. Colmcille Ó Conbhuidhe OCSO, Studies in Irish Cistercian History (Dublin, 1998), 114-115.

The author also speculates that since our martyr was from the Lackagh branch of the Fitzgerald family which is midway between Kildare and Monasterevan:

It is not improbable, therefore,  that Nicholas Fitzgerald was a monk of the abbey of Rosglas, better known to us as Monasterevan.
 The Cistercian abbey at Monasterevan was founded in 1178 by Dermot O’Dempsy, king of Offaly and suppressed some time between 1539 and 1540. 

The uncertainty around the date of Friar Fitzgerald's martyrdom makes it more difficult to establish the exact context in which it occurred. It is clear though from Father Hartry's account, which he had directly from Father Richard Kelly, a priest then in his seventies who had known the martyr personally and who was an eyewitness to his sufferings, that his contemporaries regarded Nicholas Fitzgerald as a martyr. This they demonstrated by their preservation of his clothes and blood which were divided into small portions for use as relics. Father Ó Conbhuidhe adds some interesting further information on the family of our martyr in a footnote:

The Fitzgeralds of Lackagh were a staunch Catholic family. During the era of persecution which followed on the Reformation they remained true to the faith. They suffered severely under Cromwell, the whole family being transported to the Barbadoes to be sold as slaves. The head of the family at that time was Henry Fitzgerald of Lackagh Castle. He and his wife were over eighty years of age at the time of their transportation. Their children, the widow of their eldest son, and their servants were transported with them. 

Rev. Colmcille Ó Conbhuidhe OCSO, Studies in Irish Cistercian History (Dublin, 1998), footnote 52, p.115.

Friar Nicholas was thus not the only member of the Fitzgeralds of Lackagh to courageously witness for the Catholic faith at a heavy personal cost.

Friar Nicholas Fitzgerald is number 29 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs (1918) submitted to Rome for official consideration. No further progress has been made with his cause.

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