The Wexford Martyrs were Patrick Cavanagh, Matthew Lambert, Edward Cheevers, Robert Tyler and two others whose names are not known. They were found guilty of treason for aiding in the escape of James Eustace, Viscount Baltinglass. James Eustace, whose family had links with Clongowes Wood Castle, now a Jesuit boarding school near Dublin, joined the Earl of Desmond in the hope of putting Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne. The attempt failed and Baltinglass had to escape to Spain in 1583, where he died. One of his brothers was executed in Dublin, two others fled the country and the Kilcullen family lost its lands and titles. Cavanagh and his companions refused to take the Oath of Supremacy and declare Elizabeth I of England to be the head of the Church. 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 hanged, drawn and quartered in Wexford.
The celebration of the Irish Martyrs includes hundreds who are remembered for giving their lives for the Catholic faith in Ireland between the years 1537 and 1714. A huge number of priests and lay people suffered much in Ireland during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and that of her immediate successors, as well as during the era of Oliver Cromwell. However, the details of their endurance in most cases have been lost. Religious persecution of Catholics in Ireland began under Henry VIII, when the English Parliament adopted the Acts of Supremacy, which established the king’s supremacy over the Church, independent of the Pope. In England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland bishops, priests and lay people who continued to recognise the pope were tortured and killed. Further legislation laid down that any act of allegiance to the pope was to be considered treason. Many Catholics were imprisoned on this basis.
The list of Irish martyrs alone is very long and happened over several reigns. They began, as mentioned, under King Henry VIII (died in 1547) but continued under Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), James I (1603-25) and Charles I (1625-49). Then under Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth (1649-59) and followed by the Restoration (Charles II, William of Orange, Queen Anne, 1660-1714). In 1714, King George I came to the throne.
There was a long delay in starting the investigations into the causes of the Irish martyrs for fear of reprisals. In addition, investigation was hampered by a lack of records which were either destroyed or not drawn up, because of the danger of keeping such evidence.
Following Catholic Emancipation in Ireland in 1829 when the Catholic religion could again be freely practised, the cause of Oliver Plunket was taken up. This resulted in a whole series of writings covering the period of persecution. The first to complete the process was Oliver Plunket, Archbishop of Armagh, who was beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975 by Pope Paul VI. On 27 September 1992, the 17 martyrs we commemorate today were beatified by Pope John Paul II.
They include: Dermot O’Hurley, Margaret Ball, Patrick O’Hely, The Wexford Martyrs, Conor O’Devany, Terence Albert O’Brien, William Tirry.
Photo: Dublin martyrs: Blessed Francis and his Godmother Blessed Margaret Ball