Come on now, admit it. When you flip that calendar from February to March, you think of the color green, and you think of Ireland. St. Patrick and his great feast, celebrated in the midst of the Lenten fast, is such a huge part of the Catholic consciousness in the U.S., that we cannot help turning our minds to the Emerald Isle, even if in passing, and even if we’ve never had the pleasure of being there.
What I’d like to do here is get you thinking a bit more deeply about Ireland, specifically about its witness to the faith – especially through the blood of the Irish Martyrs, a group of hundreds of men and women who gave their lives for Christ’s Church during the bloody religious persecutions between 1537 and 1714.
As in England, the Irish persecutions had their origins with Henry VIII’s rejection of the authority of the Pope. In addition to being King of England, Henry Tudor was also Lord of Ireland (and later King of Ireland), his authority being supreme throughout the whole island nation. He was married to Catherine of Aragon, and when the king became impatient with what he perceived to be his queen’s “inability” to produce a male heir to the throne, he grew restless and turned his attentions to a younger woman: Anne Boleyn. because of his infatuation with the younger woman, he determined to put Catherine away and have his marriage annulled. Pope Clement II, however, was unwilling to accede to the king’s whim and never granted Henry the right to remarry. Henry grew more and more belligerent toward papal authority until he finally took the bold step of declaring himself the head of the Church in England and Ireland and getting Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to grant him the right divorce Catherine and legally marry Anne Boleyn. In 1533, both Henry and Cranmer were excommunicated, declaring at the same time the archbishop's decree of annulment to be invalid and the marriage with Anne null and void. It was at this time that England broke off all diplomatic relations with Rome – and the state Churches of England and Ireland were born, marking the beginning of Tudor despotism.
The Treasons Act of 1534 made it high treason, punishable by death, to refuse to acknowledge King Henry as supreme head of the Church in England and Ireland. As in England, those Irish men and women accused of being “papists” (supporters of the Pope) were subject to the most horrible kinds of deaths, often preceded by formal torture proceedings. Even worse than the terrible papist punishments were the king’s deputies who were granted authority to enforce the Treasons Act. In 1538, the Bishop of Derry wrote to Pope Paul III that the king’s henchmen were marauding all over the Emerald Isle, burning houses owned by Catholic families, destroying churches, raping young women, and robbing and killing innocent people. Three years later, when all convents and monasteries were dissolved by decree of Henry VIII, a persecution likened to that of the early Church began in earnest. The ultimate goal was to completely wipe away Roman Catholicism from the face of Ireland.
In the process of destroying all ecclesiastical property, the various religious congregations were dealt with mercilessly. When the king’s plan to suppress all religious houses was announced, Theobald, provincial of the Trinitarian friars, travelled to Dublin with eight companions to defend the Pope’s supremacy. They weren’t given much of a hearing. The king’s men threw them immediately into prison. Theobald’s heart was ripped out of his chest while still alive. One of the provincial’s companions, Philip by name, was made to wear boots filled with oil and salt and then roasted until the flesh came away from the bone. The rest were beheaded or hanged.
The manner in which the kings men executed the religious is not only revolting but truly diabolical. Records show that victims were routinely drawn and quartered, stabbed, hanged, burned alive, and dismembered by swords. One document records what transpired at a convent in Galway: six monks were thrown into a lime kiln, and the rest weighted down with stones and cast into the sea to drown. Remember, these victims – these martyrs – were being brutally killed for one reason only: They remained faithful to Pope, to the Church, to Christ.
Unfortunately, the names of most of these courageous martyrs were never recorded. In 1915 Pope Benedict XV (no, not XVI) signed the “Commission of Introduction” for the beatification of some 260 Irish martyrs in March, 1915. The most well-known of this company is St. Oliver Plunkett, who served as Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.
In 1673 Irish bishops were banned by edict, and Archbishop Plunkett went into hiding, suffering a great deal from cold and hunger. In one of his many letters he thanked God “Who gave us the grace to suffer for the chair of Peter.” Six years later he was arrested and falsely charged with treason. He was brought to London where he was put on trial, and with the help of perjured witnesses, was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, the place of public execution in central London. With deep serenity of soul, he calmly rebutting the charge of treason, refusing to save himself by giving false evidence against his brother bishops, which is what his tormentors were hoping for. Oliver Plunkett publicly forgave all those who were responsible for his death on July 1, 1681.
Plunkett’s canonization by Paul VI in 1975 brought a renewed awareness of the many other men and women who died for the Catholic faith in Ireland during the 16th and 17the centuries; seventeen other representative Irish martyrs, identified below, were beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1992.
The seventeen Irish Martyrs are:
1. Bishop Patrick O' Healy
2. Fr. Conn O'Rourke
3. Margaret Bermingham
4. Dr. Dermot O'Hurley
5. Fr. Maurice MacKenraghty
6. Dominic Collins
7. Bishop Cornelius O'Devany
8. Fr.Patrick O'Loughran
9. Francis Taylor
10. Fr. Peter Higgins
11. Bishop Terence Albert O'Brien
12. Fr. John Kearney
13. Fr. William Tirry
14. Matthew Lambert
15. Robert Myler
16. Edward Cheevers
17. Patrick Cavanagh.
While celebrating the Irish Martyrs we must always remember those scores of others, men and women, who gave their lives for the Faith but whose sacrifice has not, as yet, been officially recognized. So, this March when your mind turns to the wearing of the green, don’t forget the red that provided the seedbed of the faith on the Emerald Isle.