In 1992, St John Paul II proclaimed a representative group from Ireland as martyrs and beatified them.
These included the Dublin martyrs: Blessed Francis and his Godmother Blessed Margaret Ball. The canonisation of Oliver Plunkett in 1975 brought an awareness of the other men and women who died for the Catholic faith in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The word ‘martyr’ comes from a Greek word meaning “witness”. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter, speaking to those in Jerusalem at Pentecost, claimed he and all the apostles were “martyrs” i.e. witnesses, in this case to Jesus’s resurrection. Later the word came to mean a person who followed the example of Christ and gave up their lives rather than deny their faith.
The deaths of the Irish martyrs is important to understand. Henry VIII’s rejection of the Pope’s authority in 1534 led to the setting up of a state Church in England and in Ireland. In 1560, the Act of Supremacy made Queen Elizabeth the supreme head of the Church in England and Ireland. So it became a treasonable offence to refuse to acknowledge the English monarch as head of the Church and many Catholics were put to death for their faith in both countries.
The amount of information we know about these martyrs varies. About some, such as Archbishop Dermot O’Hurley of Cashel, we know quite a lot; about others, such as the Wexford martyrs, we know little more than their names and the fact of their death.
Here are their names in the chronological order of their deaths:
1. Bishop Patrick O’Healy and Father Cornelius O’Rourke, Franciscans: tortured and hanged at Kilmallock 22nd August 1579.
2. The Wexford Martyrs: Matthew Lambert, Robert Tyler, Edward Cheevers and Patrick Cavanagh: died in Wexford 1581.
3. Bishop Dermot O’Hurley: tortured and hanged at Hoggen Green (now College Green), Dublin, 20th June 1584.
4. Margaret Ball: lay woman, died in prison 1584.
5. Maurice Kenraghty, a secular priest, hanged at Clonmel on 20th April 1585.
6. Dominic Collins: Jesuit brother, hanged in Youghal 1602.
7. Bishop Conor O’Devany and Father Patrick O’Loughran: Franciscans, hanged 6th February 1612.
8. Francis Taylor of Swords, lay man, Lord Mayor of Dublin: died in prison 1621.
9. Father Peter Higgins, Dominican, Prior of Naas: hanged at Hoggen Green, Dublin 23rd March 1642.
10. Bishop Terence Albert O’Brien, Dominican: hanged and beheaded at Gallow’s Green, Limerick 30th October 1651.
11. John Kearney, Franciscan, hanged 11th March 1653.
12. William Tirry, Augustinian, hanged 2nd May 1654.
13. The Wexford Martyrs: Matthew Lambert and sailors – Robert Tyler, Edward Cheevers and Patrick Cavanagh: died in Wexford 1581
Matthew Lambert was a Wexford baker who had arranged with five sailor acquaintances to provide safe passage by ship out of Wexford for Viscount Baltinglass and his Jesuit chaplain Robert Rochford when English troops were pursuing them after the fall of the Second Desmond Rebellion (1579-83). The authorities heard of the plan beforehand and Matthew was arrested together with his five sailor friends. Thrown into prison, they were questioned about politics and religion. Lambert’s reply was: “I am not a learned man. I am unable to debate with you, but I can tell you this, ‘I am a Catholic and I believe whatever our Holy Mother the Catholic Church believes.’
They were all found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Only three of the names of the five sailors are known – Robert Tyler, Edward Cheevers and Patrick Cavanagh. Their execution took place in Wexford in 1581.
Another notable martyr was Bishop Dermot O’Hurley: tortured and hanged at Hoggen Green, Dublin, 20th June 1584
Dermot O’Hurley was born near Emly, Co. Tipperary, about 1530. His family were well off and as a young man Dermot went to study law at Louvain. In 1581 Pope Gregory XIII asked Dermot, still a layman, to become Archbishop of Cashel and he accepted, knowing that this appointment would make him a fugitive working in dangerous conditions. He reached Ireland in 1583, but while he was sheltering at Slane Castle he was recognised, arrested, imprisoned in Dublin Castle. Accused of plotting to overthrow the Queen’s government in Ireland, he was repeatedly questioned and tortured. He persistently protested that his mission was one of peace and he had no information to give his captors.