Friday 31 May 2024

'The Glory of Martyrdom': James Eustace, O.Cist.

Cistercian Monk

The Cistercian Order, introduced to Ireland as part of the reform of the Irish church in the twelfth century, contributed a number of martyrs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, details of whom have been outlined here. There is some doubt though about the dating of the execution of Irish Cistercian martyr James Eustace and few surviving details of the circumstances in which he met his death.  His case is linked in the sources with that of his confrère Nicholas Fitzgerald, a post on whom can be found here. Like the Fitzgeralds, the Eustaces were a prominent Old English Kildare family, who had occupied some of the highest offices of state for centuries before the King introduced his religious changes in the 1530s. Nineteenth-century promoter of the cause of the Irish Martyrs, Father Denis Murphy S.J, outlined the history of this family in a footnote to his 1895 translation of the work of Cistercian historian Father Malachy Hartry, the Triumphalia Chronologica Monasterii S. Crucis in Hibernia:

Eustace. The founder of this family was a relative of Maurice Fitzgerald, to whom Henry II gave the barony of Naas. A descendant of his, Richard Fitz Eustace, became Baron of Castlemartin in 1200. Others became Barons of Harristown and Portlester and Viscounts Baltinglass. In 1426 Sir Richard was Lord Chancellor. Viscount Baltinglass joined in the war of Gerald, Earl of Desmond, and lost his estates in consequence. 'Of this noble and historic name,'says D'Alton, 'five have been Lords Chancellor, two Lords Deputy, and one Lord High Treasurer of Ireland. Army List, ii.450. 

Father Hartry was writing around the year 1640, but he does not seem to have had any personal acquaintance with Father James Eustace, whom he claims was martyred twenty years earlier. In the Triumphalia Father Hartry treated the case of Father Eustace alongside that of fellow Cistercian martyr Father Nicholas Fitzgerald. He had been executed in September 1581 and Father Hartry had included details of the place and manner of his execution, as well as of the subsequent interment of his remains. His source was a priest who had known both martyrs, although in the case of Father Eustace it is simply reported that he suffered in the same manner as Father Fitzgerald:


Afterwards on the 8th day of the same month [September], the Revd .James Eustace (received) the glory of martyrdom, and by sufferings on earth like those of his fellow-monk already mentioned [i.e.  Father Nicholas Fitzgerald], obtained a reward in heaven in the year of the Virgin 1620. I heard the account of the two preceding from the venerable Mr. Richard Kelly, in the 76th year of his age and the 51st of his priesthood, who knew both martyrs well and had been an eyewitness of their sufferings.

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

In his own catalogue of Irish martyrs published in 1896, Father Murphy raised a doubt about the date of Father Nicholas Fitzgerald's martyrdom based on the dating of a family tombstone.  A modern Irish Cistercian historian feels that the date of Father James Eustace's martyrdom is equally problematic:
There is some doubt as to the date of the martyrdom of James Eustace. The Cistercian Malachy Hartry puts it in the year 1620, while Father Myles Ronan, in his book on the Irish martyrs, says he was slain on the day following the martyrdom of Nicholas Fitzgerald. The context itself would seem to demand an earlier date than 1620: for Nicholas Fitzgerald and James Eustace are bracketed together by Hartry, and the same venerable priest who gave him the details of Nicholas Fitzgerald's martyrdom was also his informant concerning the capture and death of James Eustace. This venerable old priest, Richard Kelly by name, then in the 76th year of his age and the 51st of his priesthood, was himself an eyewitness of their sufferings and had known both martyrs well, from which it may be inferred that they were from the same vicinity and hence probably members of the same community, and had suffered death about the same time. If this be so the express statement of Fr Malachy Hartry that James Eustace suffered death in 1620 can only be explained on the supposition that he put down the wrong date and allowed it to stand uncorrected. His narrative seems to imply that he himself had no personal knowledge of James Eustace, who, if the date 1620 be the correct date of his martyrdom, must have been a contemporary of Hartry in the Cistercian Order. No details have been preserved regarding the manner or the place in which James Eustace suffered, nor have we any record of his family connections, though the name suggests that he may have been the scion of the noble family of which one branch gave rise to the Viscounts of Baltinglass.

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

I find An t-Athair Ó Conbhuidhe's argument here compelling. The fact of the martyrdom of Father James Eustace is not in doubt, merely the date on which it occurred. Given that Father Hartry's source clearly linked Father Eustace's martyrdom with that of Father Fitzgerald, Father Myles Ronan's contention that he died on the day after his confrère also makes sense. In the List of Martyrs for the Faith appended to his 1935 work The Irish Martyrs of the Penal Laws, Father Ronan first records at the year 1581 the death of Father Nicholas Fitzgerald , O.Cist. on September 7 followed by this entry:

1581 (September 8). James Eustace, O.Cist., was slain by the heretics for the faith.

Rev M. Ronan, The Irish Martyrs of the Penal Laws, (London, 1935), 199. 

Father James Eustace is number 109 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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