Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Martyrdom of Ireland

Yesterday I reflected on St John Fisher and St Thomas More, two great English martyrs.  While martyrs belong to the whole Church, offering a universal message of fidelity to Christ, it is good to remember the martyrs of your own land - our own who made the ultimate sacrifice for Christ.

Over the last few days I have been thinking about and reading a little on our Irish martyrs.  Our most famous one is St Oliver Plunkett, a priest of my own diocese who became Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland and was canonised in 1975.  He was hanged, drawn and quartered for his faith at Tyburn in London on the 1st July 1681 - he was the last Catholic to be executed for his faith in England (to date).   St Oliver was a remarkable man who suffered much long before he fell into the hands of the authorities.  He must have had a constant headache as he tried to sort out the Church in Ireland and deal with Irish bishops and priests - I'd say physical martyrdom was easy after all that.  He was betrayed by his own - two priests: a Franciscan and a priest of the diocese of  Armagh. 

St Oliver Plunkett

But we have other amazing martyrs.  If I may stay with people from my diocese: Blessed Margaret Bermingham Ball: she was the St Anne Line of Ireland - harbouring and protecting priests; providing Mass for Dubliners in her own home.  A devout and kindly woman who could stand up for herself in any row, she was betrayed by her own son.  Walter had become a Protestant to help his career, when he became Lord Mayor of Dublin he decided to make an example of Catholic Dublin's most frequent offender - his mother.  He had her dragged through the streets to prison, telling her she would get out if she renounced her faith.  He did not know his mother very well - she remained steadfast and died from neglect three years later.  She was beatified in 1992.

Blessed Margaret Bermingham Ball

Other martyrs include the baker Blessed Matthew Lambert and his companions in martyrdom, three sailors, Blessed Robert Meyler, Blessed Edward Cheevers and Blessed Patrick Cavanagh, all from Wexford.  These four were found guilty of helping priests escape from the priest-hunters.  They were simple men who loved God - who would ever have thought that they would become Beati.  Blessed Matthew at his trail could not defend himself against the charges, he said in all his beautiful simplicity that he could not answer the learned arguments, he was just a baker who loved his Church and followed whatever it taught.  As for the Blessed sailors - sailors tend to have an awful reputation - a woman in every port, well Ireland, for all its faults, has three martyr sailors who are the epitome of love of Christ. 

More martyrs for you:  the Servant of God, John Burke whose cause is presently being considered in Rome.  He was another remarkable man who was executed in Limerick in 1606 for his faith.  He was a knight, happily married with several children, a man who was deeply holy - if he had not been martyred there would probably be enough evidence to canonise him for heroic virtue.  He harboured priests and arranged for Mass to be offered secretly in his home.  His reputation, however, reached the ears of the authorities and soldiers were sent to arrest him.  They arrived just as John was helping a priest prepare for Mass.  In the melee that followed John resisted arrest and made an effort to get the priest away.  They made it, but John, on the run, was eventually caught, put on trial and found  guilty.  He was beheaded on the 20th December 1606.

Finally, for today, the holy martyrs of Cashel.  On the 13th September 1647 the Protestant forces of Lord Inchiquin massacred hundreds of innocent Catholics on the Rock of Cashel: it seems that most of them were killed for their Catholic faith.  Unfortunately we know the names of only nine of them and their cause is being processed in Rome.  The nine: Fr Theobald Stapleton, a priest of the diocese of Cashel; a second Fr Theobald Stapleton who was a famous scholar in Europe; another diocesan priest, Fr Thomas Morrissey who was also a Third Order Franciscan; a Dominican priest, Fr Richard Barry; a Franciscan priest, Fr Richard Butler, with a Franciscan Brother, Br James Saul; and a Jesuit priest, Fr William Boyton.  There are also two women: Elizabeth Kearney and Margaret whose surname is unknown. 

These two ladies are most interesting.  Margaret, we might call her Margaret of Cashel, was known to be a devout Dominican tertiary, and having escaped the massacre, she came back to look for survivors and for the body of her spiritual director Fr Richard Barry, OP.  However she was discovered and put to death.  Elizabeth Kearney is already the mother of a saint - her son is Blessed John Kearney, a priest and martyr beatified in 1992.  It seems the apple did not fall far from the tree with Blessed John, his mother was a fine example of Christianity and was willing to lay down her life for her faith.  Hopefully she will join her son among the Beati and then, all going well, we may see mother and son canonised together. That should get the hankies out for the tears of joy.

Rock of Cashel, scene of the martyrdom of hundreds of Irish Catholics

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