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Irish Confessors and Martyrs

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General survey

The period covered by this article embraces that between the years 1540 and (approximately) 1713. Religious persecution in Ireland began under Henry VIII, when the local Parliament adopted acts establishing the king's ecclesiastical supremacy, abolishing the pope's jurisdiction, and suppressing religious houses. The act against the pope came into operation 1 November, 1537. Its penalties were sufficiently terrible, but the licence of those enforcing it was still more terrible. When they had been at work little over a year the Bishop of Derry wrote to Pope Paul III that the King of England's deputy and his adherents, refusing to acknowledge the pope, were burning houses, destroying churches, ravishing maids, robbing and killing unoffending persons. They kill, he said, all priests who pray for the pope or refuse to erase his name from the canon of the Mass, and they torture preachers who do not repudiate his authority. It would fill a book to detail their cruelty. Intolerable as these evils seemed, they were aggravated beyond measure, three years later, when the general suppression of religious houses was superadded. Then ensued the persecution which the Four Masters likened to that of the early Church under the pagan emperors, declaring that it was exceeded by no other, and could be described only by eyewitnesses.

The extirpation was so thorough that even remembrance of the victims was effaced. In the published catalogue of Irish martyrs submitted recently to the Congregation of Rites, there are but two cases belonging to Henry's reign. The absence of records for this period is easily explained. The destruction of all kinds of ecclesiastical property, and documents especially, accounts for much, since few but churchmen could make such records; but it is perhaps a more probable explanation that scarcely any were made, as it was neither sage nor practicable to have or transmit what reflected upon government under Tudor despotism. Few memorials could be committed to paper before places of refuge had been secured in foreign countries. Then they were taken down from the lips of aged refugees, and as might be expected they exhibit the vagueness and confusion of dates and incidents to which personal reminiscences are subject when spread over long and unsettled periods.

For the time of the suppression there is a partial narrative in the recital of an old Trinitarian friar, written down by one of his brethren, Father Richard Goldie or Goold (Goldæus), an Irish professor at the University of Alcalá. According to this account, on the first announcement of the king's design, Theobald (Burke?), provincial of the order, came to Dublin with eight other doctors to maintain the pope's supremacy. They were cast into prison; Theobald's heart was torn from his living body; Philip, a writer, was scourged, put into boots filled with oil and salt, roasted till the flesh came away from the bone, and then beheaded; the rest were hanged or beheaded; Cornelius, Bishop of Limerick, was beheaded there; Cormac was shot and stoned to death at Galway; Maurice and Thomas, brothers-german, hanged on their way to Dublin; Stephen, stabbed near Wexford; Peter of Limerick and Geoffrey, beheaded; John Macabrigus, lay brother, drowned; Raymond, ex-superior, dragged at a horse's tail in Dublin; Tadhg O'Brien of Thomond, torn to pieces in the viceroy's presence at Bombriste bridge between Limerick and Kilmallock; the Dublin community, about fifty, put to various deaths; those of Adare, cut down, stabbed, or hanged; those of Galway, twenty, burned to death in their convent or, by another account, six were thrown into a lime-kiln, the rest weighted with stones and cast into the sea; those of Drogheda, forty, slain, hanged, or thrown into a pit; at Limerick, over fifty butchered in choir or thrown with weights into the Shannon; at Cork and Kilmallock, over ninety slain by the sword or dismembered, including William Burke, John O'Hogan, Michael, Richard, and Giollabrighde. This is the earliest narrative as regards period. It deals only with the Trinitarians. It had the misfortune to be worked up by Lopez, a fanciful Spanish writer, and consequently has incurred perhaps more discredit than it deserves. The promoters of the cause of the Irish martyrs have not extracted any names from it. Nevertheless, the version given by O'Sullevan Bearr in his "Patriciana Decas", despite many apparent inaccuracies and exaggerations, contains in its main statements a not improbable picture of the experiences of this single order when the agents of rapine and malignity were let loose upon the members. It is as a cry from the torture chamber, expressing the agony of a victim who loses the power to detail accurately the extent of his sufferings or the manner of their infliction.

The first general catalogue is that of Father John Houling, S.J., compiled in Portugal between 1588 and 1599. It is styled a very brief abstract of certain cases and is directed towards canonization of the eleven bishops, eleven priests, and forty-four lay persons whom it commemorates as sufferers for the Faith by death, chains, or exile under Elizabeth. Cornelius O'Devany, the martyred Bishop of Down and Connor, took up the record about the point where Houling broke off, and he continued it until his own imprisonment in 1611. Shortly before that time he forwarded a copy to Father Holywood, S.J., desiring him to take steps to have the lives of those noted therein illustrated at length and preserved from oblivion. O'Devany's catalogue was in David Rothe's hands while he was preparing the "Processus Martyrialis", published, in 1619, as the third part of his "Analecta", which still remains a most important contribution to the subject. During the next forty years Copinger (1620), O'Sullevan Bearr (1621 and 1629), Molanus (1629), Morison (1659), and others sent forth from the press works devoted either wholly or in part to advancing the claims of Irish martyrs to recognition and veneration. In 1669 Antony Bruodin, O.S.F., published at Prague a thick octavo volume of about 800 pages, entitled "Propugnaculum Catholicæ Veritatis", a catalogue of Irish martyrs under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth, and James, containing notices of about 200 martyrs, with an index of 164 persons whose Christian names come first as in a martyrology. Bruodin based his work on Rothe's "Analecta", but he made large additions from other writers, as Good, Bourchier, Gonzaga, Baressus, Sanders, Wadding, Alegambe, and Nadasi, and in particular from a manuscript ascribed to Matthew Creagh, Vicar-General of Killaloe, which had been brought to the Irish Franciscans of Prague in 1660.

Practically nothing was done for about two centuries after Bruodin's publication. A proposal to take up the cause of Primate Oliver Plunket within a few years of his martyrdom was discountenanced by the Holy See, lest at that critical juncture such action should become an occasion of political trouble in England. After the English Revolution and the commencement of the new era of oppression that succeeded the capitulation of Limerick, it was manifest that any movement towards canonization of the victims of laws still in force would result in merciless reprisals on the part of the ascendancy. At length, in 1829, the last political hindrances were removed by Catholic Emancipation, but over thirty years were allowed to pass unmarked by any action, either because more immediate demands pressed upon the energies of the Catholic community or because, during the long period for which the matter had been laid aside, the sources of trustworthy information had become so inaccessible or forgotten that the task of accumulating evidence seemed too formidable to undertake. In 1861 Dr. Moran, then Vice-Rector of the Irish College, Rome, and subsequently in succession Bishop of Ossory and Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney, reopened the question by his life of Oliver Plunket, the first of a series of important historical publications, in which he covered the whole period of Irish persecutions from Henry VIII to Charles II. All these publications were effectively, if not professedly, directed towards hastening the Church's solemn recognition of the martyrs. The first of these writings (1861) expressed the hope that the day was not far distant when the long afflicted Church of Ireland would be consoled by the canonization of Oliver Plunket. In 1884, when the last of them, a reissue of Rothe's "Analecta", was published, the intermediate advance had been so great that the editor, then Rothe's successor in Ossory, noted the expression of a wish both in Ireland and abroad "that, although our whole people might justly be regarded as a nation of martyrs, yet some few names, at least, among the most remarkable for constancy and heroism would be laid before the Sacred Congregation of Rites and, if found worthy, be enrolled among the privileged martyrs of Holy Church." While Dr. Moran was thus engaged, Major Myles O'Reilly also entered the long neglected field, and in 1868 he published a collection of memorials in which he brought together, from all the original sources his great industry could reach, biographies of those who suffered for the Faith in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. This collection was made with both zeal and discrimination; it was the first general compilation since Bruodin's, and, coming down to a later date, it contained twice the number of notices in the former one. As a result, in great measure, of these several publications, the case was brought to such a point, about ten years after the reissue of Rothe's "Analecta", that the ecclesiastical authorities were in a position to make preparations for holding the processus ordinarius informativus, the diocesan inquiry which is a preliminary in the process of canonization. The work of collecting evidence, greatly facilitated by the previous labours of Moran and O'Reilly, was entrusted to Father Denis Murphy, S.J. He, unhappily, did not live to submit his testimony; but before his death he had reduced to order a great mass of materials extracted from a larger number of writers than had been used by O'Reilly. The number of individual notices is, however, much less, since Father Murphy excluded, with one or two exceptions, all those whose trials did not culminate in death. His materials were published in 1896, under the title of "Our Martyrs", and the record begun by Father Houling was thus, after three hundred years, completed by his brother Jesuit in form to be submitted in a regular process of canonization.

The usual practice of conducting the preliminary process in the diocese where the martyrs suffered would have entailed the erecting of a tribunal in every diocese in Ireland, a course attended with no advantages. The Archbishop of Dublin, therefore, at the united request of all the Irish bishops, accepted the responsibility of conducting a general investigation for the whole country. But, before further progress could be made, certain unforeseen causes of delay arose which were not removed until the end of the year 1903. In December of that year the vice-postulator issued his requests for the attendance of witnesses in the February following. The initial session was opened by the Archbishop of Dublin, 15 February, 1904. Between that date and 3 August, when the taking of evidence in Ireland was completed, sixty sessions had been held. The testimony of Cardinal Moran was taken by commission in Sydney. When it arrived in Ireland meetings were resumed, 23 October, and continued for some twenty further sessions to complete the return, a transcript of the evidence with exhibits of books and documents. This work was brought to a conclusion at Christmas, and on 5 February, 1905, the full return of the inquiry was delivered to the Congregation of Rites. The number of sessions held was about eighty, in all of which the Archbishop of Dublin presided. Evidence was taken in respect of about three hundred and forty persons, with a view to establish the existence of a traditional belief among learned and pious Catholics that many persons suffered death for the Catholic Faith in Ireland under the penal laws; that these persons did, in fact, suffer martyrdom in defense of the Catholic Faith and of the pope's spiritual authority as Vicar of Christ; and that there is a sincere desire among Irish Catholics, in Ireland and elsewhere, to see these martyrs solemnly recognized by the Church. The chief portion of the evidence was necessarily that derived from records, printed or written. In addition, witnesses testified to the public repute of martyrdom, and traditions to that effect preserved in families, religious orders, various localities, and the country at large, with a particular statement in every case as to the source of the information furnished by the witness. Subsequent to this inquiry the further minor process (processiculus), to collect writings attributed to some of the martyrs, was held January-March, 1907.

The investigation of the claims to the title of martyr made for those who suffered under the Irish penal enactments since 1537, is attended by difficulties that do not arise in the case of their fellow-sufferers in England, difficulties due to the historical situation and to the character of the available evidence. Not more than one-third of Ireland was subject to the rule of Henry VIII when he undertook to detach the island from the Catholic Church. The remainder was governed by hereditary lords under native institutions. The king's deputy at times obtained acknowledgment of the over-lordship supposed to be conferred by the Bull Laudabiliter; but the acknowledgment was so little valued that the population was commonly classified as the king's subjects and the Irish enemies, not, as yet, the Irish rebels. The Church, however, was the Church of Ireland, not the Church of the English Pale, and the claim to Supreme Headship of the Church entailed the effective reduction of the whole island to civil obedience, which, as then understood, required acceptance of the whole English system of laws and manners. Hence, it is not always easy to discern how far the fate of an individual resulted from his fidelity to religion, and how far from defense of ancestral institutions. Again, the evidence is not always satisfactory, for reasons already mentioned. The public records are very defective, as in a country that has experienced two violent revolutions, but the loss so caused might possibly be over-estimated. No large proportion of those put to death had been brought before a regular court. There was a general immunity from consequences which encouraged captains of roving bands and stationary garrisons, provost-martials, and all that class, to carry out the intention of the law without its forms. In such cases there are no records. During the year of the Armada a Spanish ship made prize of a Dublin vessel bound for France. A Cistercian monk and a Franciscan friar were found on board. They said they were the sole survivors of two large monasteries in the North of Ireland which had been burned with the rest of the inmates. There seems to be no other mention of this atrocity.


The list which follows includes the names of those persons only in respect of whom evidence was taken at the inquiry held in Dublin. The case of Primate Oliver Plunket has already been conducted successfully through the Apostolic Process by Cardinal Logue, his successor.

Under King Henry VIII

Under Queen Elizabeth

Under James I and Charles I (1604-1648)

Commonwealth (1649-1659)

The Restoration onwards

Uncertain dates


O'REILLY, Memorials of those who suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland (London, 1868); MURPHY, Our Martyrs (Dublin, 1896); Irish Ecclesiastical Record, XIII (1903), 421; MORAN, Historical Sketch of the Persecutions suffered by the Catholics of Ireland under Cromwell and the Puritans (Dublin, 1884); IDEM, History of the Catholic Archbishops of Dublin (Dublin, 1864); Spicilegium Ossoriense, I (Dublin, 1873), III (Dublin, 1884); ROTHE, Analecta Nove et Mira, ed. MORAN (Dublin, 1884); O'SULLEVAN BEARR, Patriciana Decas (Madrid, 1629); BRUODIN, Propugnaculum Catholicæ Veritatis (Prague, 1669).

About this page

APA citation. McNeill, C. (1910). Irish Confessors and Martyrs. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. McNeill, Charles. "Irish Confessors and Martyrs." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Robert B. Olson. Offered to Almighty God for James and Kathleen McElwee and Robert and Bridget Wiggs and their families.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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