The Irish Martyrs

On June 20th, we honour the Irish Martyrs, a multitude of souls who gave their lives for the Catholic faith in Ireland between 1537 and 1714. Their sacrifices span a dark and turbulent era marked by profound suffering and unyielding faith. In the days of Queen Elizabeth I and her successors, and through the relentless era of Oliver Cromwell, countless priests and laypeople stood firm in their beliefs, though the details of their endurance have faded with time.

The persecution of Catholics in Ireland began under Henry VIII. When the English Parliament adopted the Acts of Supremacy, it severed the king’s Church from the Pope’s influence, ushering in a period of brutal repression. Bishops, priests, and laypeople across England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland who remained loyal to the Pope faced unimaginable torture and death. Allegiance to the Pope was declared treason, and many Catholics were imprisoned under this harsh decree.

The lineage of Irish martyrs grew across the reigns of numerous monarchs. From Henry VIII (d. 1547) to Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), James I (1603-25), and Charles I (1625-49), their steadfast faith was met with persecution. This continued under Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth (1649-59) and through the Restoration period with Charles II, William of Orange, and Queen Anne (1660-1714). The arrival of King George I in 1714 marked a new chapter, yet the echoes of this martyrdom remained.

Fear of reprisals delayed the investigation into the lives and deaths of these martyrs. Additionally, many records were destroyed or never created, as keeping such evidence was perilous.

Catholic Emancipation in 1829 allowed for a revival of the Catholic faith in Ireland, and the cause of Oliver Plunket became a beacon of this resurgence. His journey from persecution to beatification in 1920 and canonisation in 1975 by Pope Paul VI symbolises a victory of faith over oppression.

On 27 September 1992, Pope John Paul II beatified the 17 martyrs we commemorate today. These individuals, whose names and stories resonate with courage and devotion, remind us of the enduring power of faith in the face of adversity.

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.