Irish Catholic Martyrs

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Irish Martyrs
Lives of Irish Martyrs and Confessors (1880) (14594645478).jpg
Cover of Lives of Irish Martyrs and Confessors (1880)
Died1537–1714, Ireland, England, Wales
Martyred by English monarchy
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Beatified 27 September 1992, by Pope John Paul II
Feast 20 June

Irish Catholic Martyrs (Irish : Mairtírigh Chaitliceacha na hÉireann) were dozens of people who have been sanctified in varying degrees for dying for their Roman Catholic faith between 1537 and 1714 in Ireland. 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. On 22 September 1992 Pope John Paul II proclaimed a representative group from Ireland as martyrs and beatified them. "Martyr" was originally 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", that is, 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. [1]

Irish language Gaelic language spoken in Ireland and by Irish people

Irish is a Goidelic language of the Celtic languages family, itself a branch of the Indo-European language family. Irish originated in Ireland and was historically spoken by Irish people throughout Ireland. Irish is spoken as a first language in substantial areas of counties Galway, Kerry, Cork and Donegal, smaller areas of Waterford, Mayo and Meath, and a few other locations, and as a second language by a larger group of habitual but non-traditional speakers across the country.

Oliver Plunkett Irish archbishop, martyr and saint

Saint Oliver Plunkett, was the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland who was the last victim of the Popish Plot. He was beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975, thus becoming the first new Irish saint for almost seven hundred years.

Pope John Paul II 264th Pope of the Catholic Church, saint

Pope John Paul II was head of the Catholic Church and sovereign of the Vatican City State from 1978 to 2005.


Saint Oliver Plunkett Saint Oliver Plunkett.jpg
Saint Oliver Plunkett

Individuals formally recognized


12 October 1975 by Pope Paul VI.

Archbishop of Armagh Wikimedia list article

The Archbishop of Armagh is an archiepiscopacy in both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church, two of the main Christian churches in Ireland. It takes its name from the city of Armagh in Northern Ireland. The ordinary also holds the title of Primate of All Ireland in each church. Since the Reformation, parallel successions to the archiepiscopal see have taken place.

Tyburn village in the county of Middlesex close to the current location of Marble Arch in present-day London

Tyburn was a village in the county of Middlesex close to the current location of Marble Arch and the southern end of Edgware Road in present-day London. It took its name from the Tyburn Brook, a tributary of the River Westbourne. The name Tyburn, from Teo Bourne meaning 'boundary stream', is quite widely occurring, and the Tyburn Brook should not be confused with the better known River Tyburn, which is the next tributary of the River Thames to the east of the Westbourne.


15 December 1929 by Pope Pius XI.

Blessed John Carey was martyred at Dorchester, Dorset, England for adherence to the Roman Catholic faith. His feast day is 4 July.

Dorchester, Dorset County town of Dorset, England

Dorchester is the county town of Dorset, England. It is situated between Poole and Bridport on the A35 trunk route. A historic market town, Dorchester is on the banks of the River Frome to the south of the Dorset Downs and north of the South Dorset Ridgeway that separates the area from Weymouth, 7 miles (11 km) to the south. The civil parish includes the small town of Poundbury and the suburb of Fordington.

22 November 1987 by Pope John Paul II.

Charles Mahoney, O.F.M., was an Irish Friar Minor, who is honored as a Catholic martyr, one of the Eighty-five martyrs of England and Wales beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987. His feast day, together with that of the other martyrs, is celebrated on 4 May.

Ruthin town and community in Denbighshire, Wales

Ruthin is the county town of Denbighshire in north Wales and a community. Located in the southern part of the Vale of Clwyd, the older part of the town, the castle and St Peter's Square lie on a hill, while many newer parts are in the flood plain of the River Clwyd. This became apparent several times in the late 1990s – flood-control works costing £3 million were completed in autumn 2003. Ruthin is skirted by villages such as Pwllglas and Rhewl. The name comes from the Welsh words rhudd (red) and din (fort), referring to the colour of the red sandstone bedrock, of which the castle was built in 1277–84. The original name was Castell Coch yng Ngwern-fôr. The mill is nearby. Maen Huail is a registered ancient monument attributed to the brother of Gildas and King Arthur, located outside Barclays bank in St Peter's Square.

Wales Country in northwest Europe, part of the United Kingdom

Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It is bordered by England to the east, the Irish Sea to the north and west, and the Bristol Channel to the south. It had a population in 2011 of 3,063,456 and has a total area of 20,779 km2 (8,023 sq mi). Wales has over 1,680 miles (2,700 km) of coastline and is largely mountainous with its higher peaks in the north and central areas, including Snowdon, its highest summit. The country lies within the north temperate zone and has a changeable, maritime climate.

27 September 1992 by Pope John Paul II.

Margaret Ball Lady Mayoress of Dublic and Catholic martyr

Margaret Ball (1515–1584) was a prominent member of 16th-century Irish society, who, despite being the widow of a Lord Mayor of Dublin, was arrested for her adherence to the Catholic faith and died of deprivation in the dungeons of Dublin Castle. She was declared a martyr for the faith by the Catholic Church and beatified in 1992, one of a group of 17 Irish Catholic Martyrs.

The Wexford Martyrs were Matthew Lambert, Robert Myler, Edward Cheevers, Patrick Cavanagh, John O'Lahy, and one other unknown individual. In 1581, they were found guilty of treason for aiding in the escape of James Eustace, 3rd Viscount Baltinglass; for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy which declared Elizabeth I of England to be the head of the Church; and for conveying Catholic priests, laymen, and a Jesuit out of Ireland. On 5 July 1581, they were hanged, drawn and quartered in Wexford, Ireland. They were subsequently Beatified by Pope John Paul II.

Dominic Collins, SJ, was an Irish Jesuit lay brother, an ex-army man, who died for his Catholic faith. He was beatified as a martyr by Pope John Paul II on 27 September 1992.

Other martyrs

Gelasius Ó Cuileanáin was a martyred Cistercian Abbot of Boyle, Ireland,

Boyle, County Roscommon Town in Connacht, Ireland

Boyle is a town in County Roscommon, Ireland. It is located at the foot of the Curlew Mountains near Lough Key in the north of the county. Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery, the Drumanone Dolmen and the lakes of Lough Arrow and Lough Gara are also close by. As of 2016, the population of the town was 2,568.


The persecution of Catholics in Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came in waves, caused by a reaction to particular incidents or circumstances, with intervals of comparative respite in between. [6]

Henry VIII

Religious persecution of Catholics in Ireland began under King Henry VIII (then Lord of Ireland) after his excommunication in 1533. The Irish Parliament adopted the Acts of Supremacy, establishing the king's ecclesiastical supremacy. [7] Some priests, bishops, and those who continued to pray for the pope were tortured and killed. [8] The Treasons Act 1534 caused any act of allegiance to the pope to be considered treason. Many were imprisoned on this basis.

In 1536, Charles Reynods was posthumously convicted of high treason for successfully persuading the Pope to excommunicate Henry VIII of England. In 1537, John Travers, the Chancellor of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, was executed under the Act of Supremacy. [9]

Elizabeth I

Relations improved after the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary in 1553-58, and in the early years of the reign of her sister Queen Elizabeth I. After Mary's death in November 1558, Elizabeth's Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy of 1559, which re-established the Church of England's separation from the Catholic Church. Initially, Elizabeth adopted a moderate religious policy. The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity (1559), the Prayer Book of 1559, and the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563) were all Protestant in doctrine, but preserved many traditionally Catholic ceremonies. [10]

In 1563 the Earl of Essex issued a proclamation, by which all priests, secular and regular, were forbidden to officiate, or even to reside in Dublin. Fines and penalties were strictly enforced for absence from the Protestant service; before long, torture and death were inflicted. Priests and religious were, as might be expected, the first victims. They were hunted into mountains and caves; and the parish churches and few monastic chapels which had escaped the rapacity of Henry VIII. [11]

During the early years of her reign no great pressure was put on Catholics to conform to the "Established Church" of the new regime, but the situation changed rapidly from about 1570 onwards, mainly as a result of Pope Pius V's papal bull Regnans in Excelsis which "released [Elizabeth I's] subjects from their allegiance to her". [6]

In Ireland the First Desmond Rebellion was launched in 1569, at almost the same time as the Northern Rebellion in England. The Wexford Martyrs were found guilty of treason for aiding in the escape of James Eustace, 3rd Viscount Baltinglass and refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy and declare Elizabeth I of England to be the head of the Church.

Charles II

During this period, the English persecution of Catholics in Ireland was more lenient than usual, owing to the sympathy of the king, until the Popish Plot, a fictitious conspiracy concocted by Titus Oates, between 1678 and 1681 gripped the Kingdoms of England and Scotland in anti-Catholic hysteria. Those caught up in the false allegations included:


Irish martyrs suffered over several reigns. There was a long delay in starting the investigations into the causes of the Irish martrys for fear of reprisals. Further complicating the investigation is that the records of these martyrs were destroyed, or not compiled, due to the danger of keeping such evidence. Details of their endurance in most cases have been lost. [7] The first general catalog is that of Father John Houling, S.J., compiled in Portugal between 1588 and 1599. It is styled a very brief abstract of certain persons whom it commemorates as sufferers for the Faith under Elizabeth. [8]

After Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the cause for Oliver Plunkett was re-visited. As a result, a series of publications on the whole period of persecutions was made. The first to complete the process was Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, canonized in 1975 by Pope Paul VI. [7] Plunkett was certainly targeted by the administration and unfairly tried.


John Kearney

John Kearney (1619-1653) was born in Cashel, County Tipperary and joined the Franciscans at the Kilkenny friary. After his novitiate, he went to Leuven in Belgium and was ordained in Brussels in 1642. Returned to Ireland, he taught in Cashel and Waterford, and was much admired for his preaching. In 1650 he became guardian of Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary. During the Cromwellian persecutions, he was arrested and hanged in Clonmel, Co Tipperary. He was buried in the chapter hall of the suppressed friary of Cashel. [4]

Peter O'Higgins O.P.

Peter O'Higgins was born in Dublin around 1602 during the persecution under James I. He was educated secretly in Ireland and later in Spain. With the accession of Charles I in 1625, a limited tolerance obtained and Peter came back to Dublin and was sent to re-open the Dominican house in Naas. The 1641 rebellion, a result of the plantations, evictions and persecutions (but not in County Kildare), brought with it years of conflict between Irish v Old English, Catholic v Protestant; Puritan v Anglican. During this time the William Pilsworth, Protestant rector of Donadea, was arrested by rebel soldiers and about to be hanged, when Fr. Peter O'Higgins stepped forward. Pilsworth later wrote that when he was on the gallows, "a priest whom I never saw before, made a long speech on my behalf saying that this…was a bloody inhuman act that would…draw God's vengeance on them. Whereupon I was brought down and released." [5]

The government army moved on Naas in February 1642 and O'Higgins was arrested and turned over to Governor Coote of Dublin. O'Higgins was offered his life if he would renounce his faith. He responded, ""So here the condition on which I am granted my life. They want me to deny my religion. I spurn their offer. I die a Catholic and a Dominican priest. I forgive from my heart all who have conspired to bring about my death." Among the crowd at the foot of the scaffold was William Pilsworth who shouted out: "This man is innocent. This man is innocent. He saved my life." William Pilsworth was not wanting in courage, but his words fell on deaf ears. With the words "Deo Gratias" on his lips Peter O'Higgins died on 23 March 1642. [5]

The most likely reason for Prior Higgins' execution without trial was that on the previous day, 22 March, at a synod at Kells, County Meath chaired by Archbishop Hugh O'Reilly, the Catholic bishops had pronounced the rebellion to be a "Holy and Just War. Higgins had been summarily executed as a result. [12]


Various churches have been dedicated to the martyrs, including:

See also

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  12. Catholic encyclopedia article, accessed Feb 2017
  13. Naas Parish website