This column has often featured saints and blesseds who were martyred during the English Reformation and the anti-Catholic centuries that followed. Many British who died for their Catholic faith in these years have been declared Venerable; others, Blessed; and 42, beginning with St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, have been canonized saints. Since some 600 Catholics in all suffered martyrdom in England and Wales during those times, it is safe to say that in the future, other names will be added to the church calendar by the popes.
But what about Ireland? The Irish, too, were subjected by the English rulers to persecution for their Catholicism. Did not Ireland also have its martyrs?
It certainly did; and although the campaign against Catholicism in Ireland differed somewhat from that in England, over 250 Irish women and men have been singled out as possible candidates for beatification and canonization. A few of them have already received the honors of the altar. Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, has been declared a saint; and three natives of Ireland have been beatified along with the English martyrs because they met death on English soil: Bl. Charles Meehan, a Franciscan priest; and two Irish laymen, BB. John Carey and Patrick Salmon, who were servants of an Anglo-Irish Jesuit.
The reason why the cause for beatification of the Irish martyrs is so slow is an interesting one. To qualify as a martyr, a candidate’s death for the faith must be clearly documented. That was rather easy to do with most of the English martyrs, because British law required the careful preservation of court records. It was different in Ireland. As often as not, those executed for Catholicism were not even put on trial, so the circumstances of their death were not preserved. Church investigators would therefore have to search elsewhere for information – a long, and perhaps fruitless task.
When Pope John Paul II, on September 27, 1992, declared blessed seventeen Irish martyrs, he did the next best thing. He made a start on the process of selecting, from among those whose martyrdom had been verified, a group who represented a cross section of Irish Catholics: men and women, bishops, priests and lay brothers, laity from both higher and lower walks of life.
While there is still not much known about many of these, let me list them with their years of death and with brief comments:
Bl. Patrick O’Healy, bishop of Mayo, and Bl. Conn O’Rourke, both Franciscans (1579). Bl. Matthew Lambert, a baker, and three sailors: BB. Robert Mayler, Edward Cheevers, and Patrick Cavanaugh (1581). Mrs. Margaret Bermingham Ball, a widowed housewife who died in prison (1584). (She had been jailed at the insistence of her own son, who abandoned the Catholic faith and handed her over to the British officials. Bl. Margaret lived out her remaining life in patient suffering rather than disown the pope.)
Bl. Dermot O’Hurley, archbishop of Cashel, was suspected of knowing of a plot by the pope and the Spanish. His feet were therefore put into metal boots, filled with oil, and roasted over a fire.
Since he had nothing to confess, this brilliant man was finally given a choice between denying the pope or hanging. He was hanged in 1584.
A secular priest, Bl. Maurice McKenraghty was executed in 1585. Bl. Dominic Collins, a Jesuit lay brother, died in 1602. Bl. Conor O’Devany, a Franciscan, bishop of Down and Connor in Ulster, and Bl. Patrick O’Loughran, a priest, both died in 1612.
Bl. Francis Taylor was a prominent merchant and alderman of Dublin, where he was martyred in 1642. Bl. Terence O’Brien, the Dominican bishop of Emly, was executed in 1651. The last two of the group were Bl. John Kearney, a Franciscan priest (1654), and Bl. William Tirry, an Augustinian priest (1654).
Today, Ireland is torn apart by strife, largely religious in background. In declaring these seventeen “blessed”, the Holy Father pointed out how they had died for love, forgiving their persecutors. And he prayed God to “sustain those who work for reconciliation and peace in Ireland today.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara