On 1st February 1612, Bishop Conor O’Devany and Father Patrick O’Loughran were martyred together on account of practicing their faith.
Exclusive excerpt from The 17 Irish Martyrs by Mary McAleese (Columba Books)
It is truer to say that martyrs create faith more than faith creates martyrs.Miguel de Unamuno
On the north side of Dublin’s river Liffey, not far from the City Centre, there is a small residential enclave known as O’Devany Gardens. Until the promotion of the martyrs’ cause began in earnest in the late 1980s, it is unlikely that many, if any, of the residents of the street had much idea of the reasons why their street bore the name O’Devany. The man in question had been dead for almost four centuries and during his lifetime had been bishop of the northern diocese of Down and Connor, one hundred miles away. I who was born and reared in the heart of that diocese had never heard his name mentioned, even though the names of those who tormented and eventually killed him were and are celebrated in the street names of Belfast, the city at the core of Down and Connor. Yet somewhere in the vague mists of Dublin’s folklore, the story of this tragic elderly prelate had been carefully preserved and handed on from generation to generation, ending up as a label on a gable wall, almost but not quite forgotten. There is a sense of justice about his vindication as a martyr even after all these lost years, for it is probable, according to the contemporary historian John McCavitt, that O’Devany was the most historically significant of the martyrs, perhaps of even greater significance than Saint Oliver Plunket. It is also poignantly ironic that Conor O’Devany was the author of the Index Martyrialis, a list of all the priests and lay people who had died for their faith, and itself an important source of information about many of his fellow martyrs.
Conor O’Devany was an Ulsterman, born in the parish of Glenfin, County Donegal, the most westerly and most ruggedly beautiful of the northern counties. He grew up in a family whose links to the Church were not just strong but special, for he was a member of an “aircheannach” (as it is written in Gaelic) or erenagh family. Each parish had its erenagh, a layman who played a central role in the structure and management of parish affairs. He traditionally rented and farmed Church lands and assumed responsibility for the maintenance of Church property. Often the erenagh was an erudite and educated man who actively assisted in the education of young priests. It was hardly surprising then that many vocations to the priesthood came from within the erenagh family, for family life revolved around and was enmeshed in the daily life of the Church. Conor O’Devany was one such vocation.
Though we know relatively little about his childhood in the diocese of Raphoe, County Donegal, the infant Conor arrived into a world seething with religious and political upheaval. The precise date of his birth is not known, but it was close to that cathartic day in 1534 when Henry VIII, infuriated by Pope Clement VII’s refusal to grant him an annulment, scorned allegiance to Rome and set himself up as Supreme Head of the newly-created Anglican Church. With bishops and priests from Donegal and Derry (many of them relations) as regular visitors to his home, the stormy politics of the times were much discussed at the O’Devany table. Even so, Reformation and Counter-Reformation seemed reasonably distant concerns in that remote corner of Ireland. Its very geography nourished conservatism, and deep-rooted tradition flourished there still.
About the year 1550, in his late teens, Conor joined the Franciscan order at the Observant friary in Donegal. It was an interesting choice and says something about the commitment of the young Conor to authentic Christian values and genuine spirituality. The fifteenth century was characterised by a determination among the Irish monastic community to reform and shake itself out of the decay and lethargy into which it had fallen. The “Observant” reform movement was the vehicle of change. It received overwhelming popular support, with many old monastic houses adopting it, new ones springing up all over the country, and a reinvigoration of lay participation particularly in the Third Order of St. Francis. The Franciscan house in Donegal was established in 1474 by the ruling O’Donnell family during that period of unrivalled regeneration.
There were bad days ahead in which the monasteries would be attacked and demolished in the war against Catholicism, but those days had not yet arrived when Conor submitted himself to the rigorous life of an Observant Franciscan. The friary was then full to capacity, a hive of spiritual activity.
As Conor settled down to the day-to-day life of a friar he can have had little idea of the role he was to play in bringing the Counter-Reformation into the mainstream of Irish life, nor of the appalling sacrifice he would make in doing so. Yet in many ways the signs were already there. The conflict between the state religion and the Church of Rome was worsening. The government was determined to stamp its authority on all aspects of worship. The monasteries were in the front line and the Observant friars became resolute defenders of the traditional Faith. In Donegal as elsewhere there must have been endless hours of debate on the state efforts to abolish the Mass and impose a common form of worship, as well as constant fears for the safety of the monastery in the growing climate of hostility to “papishness”. The young friar was doubtless reassured by the Catholic Queen Mary’s assumption of the throne in 1553, but the security was short-lived. Conor entered his twenties just as Ireland began a scandalous century of blood-letting. The battle for English, Protestant political and religious control of the Irish Catholic people was about to be well and truly declared.
Elizabeth I became Queen in 1558 on the death of her half-sister, Mary. They had hardly exemplified sisterly devotion. Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s controversial second wife. Mary was the daughter of his first marriage to the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, whom he had summarily divorced after the Pope refused to annul the marriage. Mary’s life was a tale of tragic reversals. Her father’s attempts to annul the marriage to her mother placed her under the cloud of illegitimacy. She was kept away from her mother and treated appallingly by Anne Boleyn, though Henry eventually became reconciled to his eldest daughter and restored her right to succeed to the throne.
During Mary’s reign Elizabeth had been imprisoned in the Tower of London and Mary’s emphatic, often violent reinstatement of Roman Catholicism (she has gone down in history as “Bloody Mary”) had been hard on Elizabeth’s supporters. Now that Elizabeth was monarch (and certainly no less bloody than her half-sister), the pendulum predictably swung forcefully back to Protestantism. In 1560, the English Parliament enacted the Act of Succession and the Act of Uniformity under which it was no longer possible to remain faithful to Rome while at the same time acknowledging the sovereignty of the Queen. Fidelity to Rome at any level was treachery, according to the law, and the government was bent on eradicating it. Rome, for its part, was no passive observer.
The outside world was closing in like a vice on the remote Donegal monastery where Conor lived the simple, hard life of a devout friar. The Pope and the Queen of England were at loggerheads as the Queen’s agents tightened their control on Irish worship and began their systematic attempts to abolish Catholicism. In response, Pope Gregory XIII appointed a team of Irish bishops to provide pastoral backbone to the beleaguered Catholic people. Conor O’Devany was one of these new bishops. His consecration as Bishop of the diocese of Down and Connor took place in the German national church of Santa Maria dell’Anima in Rome on the 13th May 1582. The ceremony was conducted by the Cardinal Protector of Ireland, Nicholas de Pelleve, Archbishop of Sens. The archives recording Conor’s appointment indicate that the circumstances of his birth had created an impediment to his consecration, which required a formal dispensation “super defectu nataliam”. Just what the defect was is not known, but it is likely that his parents’ marriage was regarded as void under Canon Law because of the degree of consanguinity. Such marriages, between closely related cousins, were very commonplace, particularly in the quasi-tribal clan-based system of Gaelic Ireland. It is also possible that his father was a priest (again a not uncommon occurrence), in which case the dispensation would have been necessary. Conor was the third Franciscan in a row to be appointed bishop of Down and Connor, and he returned to the diocese immediately after his consecration.
The new bishop’s work was clear. The tide of state Protestantism was to be resisted in Ulster by the dedicated teaching of the doctrines of the Council of Trent. The Council had not only reformed and updated the Church, but had painstakingly countered each of the points of doctrinal conflict raised by Protestantism. There were others who planned to respond to the violence of the government with retaliation in kind, but Conor O’Devany was not among them. In 1587, he and six fellow bishops attended a synod in the diocese of Clogher (also in Ulster) where they laid plans for the promulgation of the decrees of the Council of Trent throughout the northern dioceses. The news of their meeting and their plans provoked more than a little worry and annoyance among the state authorities, who were unable or unwilling to distinguish between political and religious activity. Since in their own case the two were fused like inseparable Siamese twins, they saw this development as evidence of further rebellious foment in Ulster.
At every turn Bishop O’Devany was in danger of arrest. The authorities did not simply dislike Roman Catholic clerics. Their intemperate language in letters of the period shows a searing sectarian hatred. The Catholic primate of Ireland, Archbishop Creagh of Armagh, had been arrested in the 1570s and held in prison for many years. Rome appointed Redmond O’Gallagher, Bishop of Derry, to act temporarily in place of the primate, but he too was constantly under threat. In July 1588, with the entire country in a state of high nervous tension because of the failure of the Spanish Armada, and anticipating that he too would soon be arrested, O’Gallagher wrote to Conor O’Devany, delegating to him the primate’s powers of absolution and dispensation. As it happened, the Bishop of Down and Connor was no more immune from arrest than the Bishop of Derry. The letter was in Conor O’Devany’s pocket when he himself was arrested a short time later during the blanket sweep of the country which followed the defeat of the Armada. The aim was to cleanse Ireland of committed Catholics.
Chained up in the freezing cold of Dublin Castle, Bishop O’Devany endured four intensely miserable years. Under the prison rules no food, clothing or water was supplied to prisoners except that brought to them by their families and friends. Conor was over a hundred miles away from his home and he had neither contacts nor money. He came very close to dying from hunger and thirst, but thanks to his own resourcefulness and the common humanity of his fellow prisoners he survived, though greatly enfeebled by the harshness of the prison conditions.
In November 1590 O’Devany submitted a petition for his release. It was a masterfully constructed document, probably written with experienced help and advice from Catholic lawyers, for it cleverly exploited both the political and legal weaknesses of the day. He promised to “behave himself as becomes the dutiful subject. . .” but nowhere in the document did he take the oath of supremacy acknowledging the Queen as head of the Church. The petition came before the three commissioners for ecclesiastical causes: Lancaster, the Protestant Archbishop of Armagh, Jones, the Protestant Bishop of Meath, and Loftus, the Lord Chancellor and Protestant Archbishop of Dublin. All three men were capable of the vilest acts, but there was a large measure of uncertainty about the effects of persecuting Catholic clergy too ardently. Conor O’Devany benefited from their ambivalence on this occasion and was released in 1592. Almost immediately Loftus found himself accused of going soft on Catholics because he had unlawfully released “a Romish bishop.” In his own defence, Loftus decided to gild the lily by falsely claiming that O’Devany had not only taken the oath of supremacy but was willing to spy on behalf of the government. “O’Devany”, wrote Loftus, “willinnglie submitted himself not onely to take the oathe of supremacye, but also tooke his corporall oathe ever afterwards to become his majesty’s true and faithfull subject and espetially in this – that he sholde riveall unto the Lord Deputy and Councell from tyme to tyme anie forrayn or Domesticall practice against his majesty. or this estate, coming to his knowledge, which oathe he tooke with a moste earnest protestation of his good and true meaning to serve his majesty for which respect I and the rest were moved to take compassion of his miserable estate …”
Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, Loftus was unable to produce any document in which Bishop O’Devany took the oath of supremacy.
Conor made his way northwards back to his diocese where hearts were hardening rapidly against the English. The northern clans were being pushed to their limits. When the most hesitant of them, the O’Neill of Tyrone, decided that he would be pushed no further and would take to arms, he fused a powerful alliance with the other chieftains. At its zenith, it looked as if the alliance could turn the tide of history in favour of the native Irish and their preferred religion. Towards the end of 1592, when war seemed likely, the bishops met in the west of Ulster to review the deteriorating situation. They decided to ask Philip II of Spain for help. The driving force behind the bishops’ meeting was the new primate, Archbishop Edmund Magauran of Armagh. Conor O’Devany had been away from the scene for a long time and could not have emerged from prison in the best of health, so it is likely that he was not at the meeting. Later he was to deny vehemently any suggestion that he took part in the ensuing war. His denial was all the more credible because of the somewhat scathing criticism of him made by Peter Lombard, the former O’Neill agent who became Archbishop of Armagh during the heady days of 1601. Conor “was a good man but an innocent,” said Peter, “from whom no great help can be expected.” He was probably right on all counts, for when O’Neill went to O’Devany asking for help in his crusade against the English domination, the bishop refused point-blank to have anything to do with military or political affairs.
In early 1603, the Ulster chieftains gave up their military crusade and admitted defeat. They had one piece of luck, however, in what was otherwise a fiasco, for Queen Elizabeth died only days before O’Neill’s formal surrender. Instead of the punitive terms the Irish chieftains might have expected, their lands were not confiscated. The new monarch, James I, was the son of one of the most controversial and intriguing characters of the period, Mary Queen of Scots, who had been imprisoned and finally beheaded by Elizabeth because as a Catholic she was seen to pose a threat to English Protestantism. The Irish hoped that James might be inclined to ease off on the harsh imposition of English Protestantism, for he himself was deeply attracted to doctrinal Presbyterianism rather than Anglicanism. He had become King of Scotland at the tender age of one after his mother was deposed. He never set eyes on her again and seems to have harboured very little affection for her if one is to judge by his failure to intervene convincingly with Elizabeth when Mary was sentenced to death. From an early age his eyes were firmly set on the throne of England, for Elizabeth was childless and James was her nearest heir. He came to the throne with an inflated sense of his own destiny and greatness and with no love of Catholicism. Any hopes of a benign reign were annihilated when a Royal proclamation in 1605 ordered all Jesuits and seminary priests to leave the kingdom and required all laity to attend Protestant worship. The consequences for failure to comply were drastic.
Conor O’Devany was now an elderly man in his seventies, running out of energy and safe hiding places. By his very presence in Ireland he was breaking the king’s law, and to survive at all he often had to resort to disguises. The Ulster chieftains were able to provide him with only limited protection, for they too were under constant pressure and harassment by the military and state authorities.
Conor managed to avoid capture for a time with the help of the O’Donnells, but the authorities were on his heels. Indeed, George Montgomery, the Protestant bishop of the northern dioceses of Derry, Raphoe and Clogher, was actively engaged in trying to establish O’Devany’s whereabouts and was raising alarm in the Pale about what might happen if he was left to roam about the country. There was speculation that he might be headed for Spain to plead the cause of the chieftains, but his age makes the claim seem as futile as it is unlikely.
The 4th September 1607, marks the date of one of Ireland’s saddest hours, when the great Ulster chieftains, among them the legendary Hugh O’Neill, left Ireland for ever, so great was their despair of ever achieving freedom in their own country. If Conor had been concerned for his own safety, he could presumably have accompanied the earls into exile. He chose not to go. Soon after, he was appointed vice-primate of Ireland, but the new office only increased his chances of being arrested. His protectors were all gone and the primate himself, Peter Lombard, was in Rome. Conor was in the front line and defenceless.
In 1610, he made a pilgrimage to Monahincha, near Roscrea, County Tipperary. It had been designated a place of pilgrimage by Pope Paul V a few years earlier and had drawn thousands of faithful Catholics to it in the intervening period. Conor, making no concession to his advancing years, made the pilgrimage barefoot. He was not just on a private visit, however. In parishes the length and breadth of the country the open, normal practice of the faith was becoming more difficult and dangerous with each passing day. Pilgrimages, on the other hand, provided an ideal opportunity to administer the sacraments to large numbers of people. They also frightened the devil out of the Protestant establishment. On his visit to Monahincha, the sacrament of Confirmation would have been high on Conor’s list of priorities, and while other priests performed weddings, baptisms and heard confessions, it is certain that the Bishop of Down and Connor, by now one of only two Catholic bishops remaining in Ireland, spent much of his time conferring the gifts of the Holy Spirit, of grace, strength and courage, on both adults and children. Given the times the people of Ireland were living in, this was certainly an appropriate sacrament to administer.
The making of the pilgrimage to Monahincha was no easy thing to do. The road was long, and fraught with dangers. Many of the women pilgrims were brutally assaulted by marauding soldiers from nearby garrisons. For a man nearing eighty, it was a measure of Conor’s own enduring courage and fortitude that he was able to make it at all.
His life now was devoted, in between furtive pastoral activity, to compiling his Index Martyrialis, a vital contemporary record of people who were dying and had died for their faith in his time. In a final twist of fate, it was to be an important document in processing the causes of a number of his fellow martyrs. He completed his work in the early part of 1611 and sent a copy to the Jesuits. Just in time, for in that summer the king’s men caught up with him at the home of Brian MacHugh óg MacMahon, the son-in-law of Hugh O’Neill. Bishop O’Devany was visiting MacMahon’s home on a specific pastoral mission rather than simply in search of refuge, though, in truth, there were few places left where he could safely find shelter. A family squabble had arisen within MacMahon’s clan and the bishop came to act as mediator in the hope of settling it. Inter-family quarrels were commonplace, but in the light of what was happening throughout the country the bishop very likely found such family feuds an unseemly and unchristian waste of energy and resources. The soldiers who arrested him came upon him quite by chance, but there was much jubilation in Dublin at his capture. He was the most senior cleric to fall into Crown hands for quite some time. They took him to Dublin and imprisoned him in Dublin Castle once more. The closing chapter of his life was now to be linked with that of a young priest whom he had never met before, Father Patrick O’Loughran, who was, like many of his clerical contemporaries, languishing in jail waiting to see what the authorities had in mind for him.
Patrick O’Loughran was an Ulsterman, from County Armagh, and like Conor O’Devany he came from an erenagh family which had provided many priests to the diocese of Armagh. His actual name was a variant of Patrick Giolla Phádraig, which means the servant of Patrick. Judging by the date of his birth, in or around 1577, he was ordained during the war year. O’Loughran had been chaplain to both Hugh O’Neill and his wife, the Countess of Tyrone. It was a job which went with being the son of an erenagh in the territory of the O’Neill, for Patrick’s family home at Donaghmore was in the O’Neill mensal lands. There would have been little choice in the matter, and when O’Neill decided rather suddenly to join the other earls in their flight to the European mainland in 1607, his former chaplain, now jobless, sailed to Flanders hoping to further his studies there. He became a student at the Irish College at Douai and made a visit to Rome, possibly hoping to meet up with O’Neill, sometime in 1608. He was delighted, while there, to have the opportunity to kneel before the Pope.
In 1611, Patrick O’Loughran decided to return to Ireland. He had been awarded a benefice in County Louth and perhaps wished to take it up, though his full reasons for leaving the relative safety of Douai are not clearly known. Alerted by his spies, Lord Deputy Chichester, the President of Munster, was waiting for him as soon as he disembarked in Cork in the month of June. Chichester’s favourite occupation for some time had been the pursuing and hanging of Catholic priests. Under questioning by the Lord President, Patrick openly admitted that he was a priest and former chaplain to the O’Neills. He was taken directly either to Dublin Castle or to the common criminal prison, where he joined many other clerics in captivity.
Not all the imprisoned clerics were regarded in the same light by Chichester. Some were of Old English background, and while Chichester had no fondness for them, the authorities were to some extent anxious to try to appease and win them over. But a continental-trained Gaelic priest from rebellious Ulster, and especially one who had ministered to the much loathed Hugh O’Neill, was just the type to bring out the worst in the Lord Deputy.
Today’s Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast are situated at the end of Chichester Street, right in the heart of the Diocese of Down and Connor. A few years ago, one could drive past them or around them, park beside them, and wander into them. Today they are protected behind reinforced screening. Access is severely restricted in order to protect the judges (a number of whom have been violently murdered) and court personnel as well as the buildings themselves, which have been blasted to bits several times over the past two and a half decades. One wonders if Arthur, Lord Chichester, after whom the street is named, is any wiser today than he was then. At the time, his obsession to acquire wealth and power led him to seize the lands and property of the Catholic gentry, including a place well known to the contemporary world as Belfast’s famous Falls Road. Such actions, and those of other English soldiers of fortune let loose to plunder Ireland in the name of the English Crown, are known by their historical, heavily pasteurised word, “plantation.”
The Lord Deputy’s particular preoccupation with priests who had trained abroad was centred on their commitment to the Counter-Reformation. He liked to describe them with colourful turns of phrase. Such priests were “hellish,” “viperous” and in his most agreeable mood, “caterpillars.” Their training was, in his view, designed to do nothing more than “raise commotions here where the Pope has more hearts than the king.” Chichester’s aversion was not of course peculiar to him alone. It was a widespread and strongly held view among Protestants in England and Ireland. Chichester was champing at the bit to ratchet up the repression. He had no time for more reasoned arguments, which advised that vigorous action against the priests would be counterproductive. Chichester belonged to the stamp-it-out-the-harder-the-better brigade.
In April 1611, King James I ordered Chichester to make sure that there was a “uniform order set down for the suppression of papistry.” This enigmatic order required a clarification, which Chichester duly sought. He got his answer in August when he was told that it might be useful and timely to impose exemplary punishment on some titular bishops, provided that the facts could be twisted to show political rather than religious transgression. There was a chronic shortage of available bishops. Apart from Conor O’Devany and Archbishop Kearney of Cashel, there was not in all of Ireland another Catholic bishop to be found. Since Bishop O’Devany was already conveniently lodged in Dublin Castle, the field narrowed down to him. Although he was eighty years old, he was about to be charged with treason. Father O’Loughran commended himself because, like O’Devany, he had a connection to the Ulster chieftains. From this Chichester believed he could fashion a case of guilt-by-association.
Conditions in prison for the two men were appalling. Their hardship was somewhat relieved from time to time by visits from Dublin’s Catholic citizenry and a few Franciscans who were, despite the dangers, able to bring them the necessary materials for saying Mass.
Chichester’s strategy began with threats and cajoleries intended to persuade his prisoners to take the oath of supremacy. Both men were offered not just their lives but preferment as well if they would submit to the religious authority of the king. They refused, and their refusal gave Chichester the problem of deciding what to do next. He was under orders to make an example of a bishop, but he had to proceed in a way which had at least the vague facade of legitimacy about it. In December he made up his mind to proceed with charges of treason, since this was the only offence which would safely guarantee the death penalty.
The procedure for bringing a charge of treason was as heavy on formality as it was light on due process and concern for human rights. As a preliminary to the full hearing, a grand jury was summoned in the district where the crime was thought to have been committed. Its function was to see if there was evidence of the offence strong enough to justify a trial. The members of the jury were often handpicked by the government. They received virtually all their information from government sources and were generally directed to the verdict they were expected to find. The accused was not allowed any legal representation, though the Crown’s case was of course argued by experienced lawyers.
It took a month to assemble a suitable jury. It met on a wintry morning in January in Newry, County Down, on the southernmost edge of Ulster. This was the place where O’Devany’s treason allegedly arose. It was the nearest he was to get to his diocese of Down and Connor, a few miles farther north. The grand jury obligingly found that there was evidence of treason in that O’Devany had aided and abetted Hugh O’Neill and “other most wicked traitoures.” The finding was delivered hastily to Dublin and the prisoner was charged on 22 January 1612 in the court of king’s bench. The full trial was set for 28th January. The senior presiding judge was one Dominic Sarsfield, a member of the Old English establishment, regarded by the native Irish as a most loathsome traitor himself and a man of utterly evil disposition. Throughout the trial he constantly hectored and abused the accused, though the court did accede to O’Devany’s request that he be addressed by his religious title and not in the derogatory terms initially used by the judges. Both men pleaded not guilty, and the twelve-man jury was sworn in to try both men separately. There was only one Irishman among the twelve. The rest were either English or Scots, their sympathies already a foregone conclusion. The courtroom was packed to capacity and the atmosphere was dramatically tense. After all, this was to be a show trial, a major public relations exercise designed to strike sheer terror into the recusant population.
O’Devany had no lawyer and was not entitled to call any witnesses in his defence, yet he showed remarkable legal skill in handling his own case, so much so that given the help he received many years earlier from Dublin lawyers, it seems entirely probable that he was very well prepared with similar help this time. He frankly admitted that he had lived in turbulent Ulster during the war but pointed out that he did so because that was his diocese and his job as bishop was to minister to the pastoral needs of his people.
Contemporary accounts of the trials survived quite by chance when the papers were included in a book of precedents designed to help lawyers in the conduct of similar trials. They bear little resemblance to modern images of trials in which defendants are protected by a battery of due process rights, represented by trained advocates and judged by randomly selected jurors and credible judges. O’Devany and O’Loughran were subjected to a form of lawful kangaroo court, where the dice were loaded from the outset. The judges were committed in advance to obtaining a verdict of guilty, and the dialogue was just for show. Both priests denied any wrongdoing or any association with political or military activity. They left the court in no doubt that the only evidence against them was of the practice of their faith and their allegiance to Rome. True to his orders, Sarsfield was delighted to pass the death sentences. The date of execution was set for 1st February.
Visitors to Bishop O’Devany’s cell were surprised to find him in great spirits and very relieved that he was not to end his days rotting in prison. He remarked that he had not felt as well in ten years, and his only wish was to be buried in his beloved Franciscan habit, which mattered more to him than his bishop’s insignia.
The first of February came all too quickly. It was a typical, miserable, brooding Irish day. A blanket of cloud hung over the city as the prisoners were handed into the custody of the sheriff in the mid-afternoon. They arrived at the place of execution, lying face upwards in a cart, their bodies bound by ropes. Conor’s Franciscan habit was worn under other clothing at the insistence of the authorities, but he bore this last indignity with equanimity, even managing to remark how fortunate he was to be transported to his death, while Christ had been forced to carry his own Cross. George’s Hill, less than a mile from the Castle on the north side of the River Liffey, was the site on which they were to die. The scene was bizarre. Along the route were Protestant ministers calling on the condemned men to give up their faith in the Catholic Church and save themselves from the gallows. A more important sign of what was to follow was the huge number of Catholics who came to support the bishop and his young companion. They were in an angry mood, and they were there in their thousands. Many were so incensed that the death sentence had been passed on so old and obviously innocent a man that they were there to confess their faith in public for the first time after many years of dissembling. O’Devany’s death was to be cathartic, and the signs were visible as he was pulled from the cart. An attempt was made to rescue him and might have succeeded, but the bishop himself pleaded with the crowd to let the execution continue. He raised his bound hands in blessing and asked them to remain constant in their love of the Catholic faith.
The Irish executioner accurately judged the temper of the crowd and disappeared, terrified of what would befall him if he had a hand in killing O’Devany. A substitute was hastily arranged. An Englishman serving time in jail for murder, was persuaded to do the job in exchange for a promise that he would not be executed himself. The sheriff nervously ordered the two prisoners to come forward to the gallows. Soldiers held the crowd back as Conor O’Devany removed the garment covering his Franciscan habit. He handed his Franciscan cowl to a woman friend who had visited him in prison and to whom he had entrusted his burial instructions.
Patrick O’Loughran, showing great fortitude, insisted that the bishop should go first so that he would have a priest to minister to him at his final moments. Conor, on the other hand, was afraid that the young priest would disintegrate emotionally when he saw the death that awaited him and so begged to go second so that he could encourage Patrick throughout the ordeal. Finally it was agreed that Conor should die first. As he slowly mounted the scaffold, Luke Chalenor, a Protestant minister, begged him to acknowledge his treason and ask for pardon. Conor replied that he had committed no treason and was being killed for his faith in the Catholic Church alone. The proof was that all he had to do was to acknowledge the king as head of the Church in order to go free. He had been made that offer a hundred times, and a hundred times he had turned it down. Chalenor offered to pray with him but Conor declined and prayed by himself. By the time he reached the top of the scaffold, his prayers had become a rallying cry to the assembled faithful. He exhorted them to persevere in their faith and to pray for those who persecuted them. He prayed that those who had abused him would return to the faith of their forefathers, and he forgave them for all they had done to him. The soldiers tried to stop him. Clearly what he had to say was not acceptable to the authorities. He offered his forgiveness to the nervous hangman, kissed the rope solemnly and placed it around his neck. Suddenly, the sun burst through the dark clouds and a red glow cascaded over the gallows as his body dropped down. As he hung lifeless from the rope, the sun disappeared again and the gloom descended. Now his aged body was disembowelled before the stunned assembly. The words “Behold the head of a traitor” rang out as his head was severed from his body. The executioner set the head to one side as he prepared to cut the corpse into quarters. Moments later the head was gone, rescued by a mourner and never to be recovered, despite a very sizeable reward for its return.
The crowd, by now almost demented, grabbed every available part of the bishop’s clothes and body, proclaiming them the sanctified remains of a martyr. It was a far from edifying sight and cannot have done much to give courage to the waiting Patrick O’Loughran. The normally timorous young man found a strength he did not know he possessed. Firmly reciting the canticle, Nunc dimittis, he walked calmly to his death. Like Conor before him, he blessed the crowd before surrendering himself to the horrific fate that lay immediately before him. Once again, the grief-stricken crowd surged forward to seize what they could of his earthly remains. The soldiers tried to stop it and, in the melee, quite a few people were injured.
All through the night the people kept a vigil, praying and singing. In the morning the Crown officials buried what remained of the bodies beside the scaffold, but the next night twelve young Catholic men stealthily dug up the remains and buried them with enormous reverence according to Catholic Church rites in a secret grave reserved for martyrs. To this day the location of the grave is unknown.
Conor O’Devany’s martyrdom was instantly acknowledged and his relics were quickly brought to places all over Europe. A man whose arm was paralysed experienced an instant cure as he participated in the vigil that followed the bishop’s death on George’s Hill. It was the first of many miracles attributed to the elderly Franciscan.
More than thirty years later Dionisio Massart, who later became the secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, was spending a night as the guest of Robert Nugent at Carlanstown, County Westmeath. He was startled to be shown a severed head, which he wrote had “eyes, skin and hair, still fresh as if the head had been severed from the shoulders that very hour.” The mysterious disappearance of Conor O’Devany’s head had at last been solved.
Once again the authorities had been guilty of poor judgement. The death of the two priests was supposed to quell the most fervent Catholic heart and to intimidate the weak. It had just the opposite effect. So indignant and outraged were the Catholics of the Pale that their resolve strengthened. The Old English Catholics embraced the Counter-Reformation and despite the increasing harshness of the repression, they fought tooth and nail against every government attempt to obliterate Catholicism. Chichester was dumbfounded by the extent of the reaction he had unwittingly induced, and Parliament was so hesitant to impose more restrictive measures that all plans to increase the penal legislation were effectively scuttled.
Conor O’Devany’s death was a catalyst within the Counter-Reformation movement in Ireland, though his vital contribution has been obscured by the prominence of the last Irish bishop martyred for his faith, Saint Oliver Plunkett. Now, however, Conor O’Devany is being rescued from oblivion by contemporary historians, anxious to place him in the centre of the Counter-Reformation stage where he truly belongs. The pastoral backbone Conor had come to Down and Connor to instil became his bequest to the people of the Pale. In his life he was a patient and self-effacing man, and in death he remained the same – waiting four hundred years for official recognition of his martyrdom, stepping aside to permit Oliver Plunkett to be the first Irish martyr canonised.
As for Arthur Chichester, the burghers of Belfast chose to ignore, or to conveniently forget that the man whose memory they cherish was ignominiously recalled to London in 1614 and pensioned off under a cloud of disgrace.
Ireland’s shores are no stranger to bloodshed for faith. During the 16th and 17th centuries, nearly 460 individuals were put forth as dying for the faith. Yet of that number, only 17 were beatified by the church, begging the question, in a time of intertwined religious and political upheaval, how do we define a martyr?
Former president Mary McAleese seeks to uncover just that. From Franciscan friars and bishops to diocesan priests and a single laywoman – what made these 17 individuals stand apart from the rest?
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