The Ballad of Fr. William Tirry
An Augustinian Friar (1609-54)
Contents | Introduction | Prologue | Young Life | The Augustinian | Towards Clonmel
The Witnesses | Man In Custody | Man on Trial | A life sealed | Epilogue
from a book by Fr. John O'Connor OSA
Man in Custody
Let us now give our full attention to Father Tirry's life in Clonmel Gaol from 4 Aprilto 12 May, 1654. We will base our account mainly on the written statement of Father Fogarty, filling it out from the other sources, as the need arises. Father Fogarty's testimony is in English and in the spelling of the day. For the sake of clarity we will modernise the spelling, and add some punctuation, but leave the rest untouched. From the quotations, we hope that not only will a picture of life in prison emerge, but also some fairly clear indications as to the character and personality of Father Tirry. In any case, in no other document can we come quite so close to him.
The Testimony The Capuchin begins his account in a formal manner:
"In the name of God. Amen. Here begins a true relation of the virtuous life and conversation of the Reverend Father F. William Tirry, Augustinian Friar, native of the famous city of Cork in Ireland, penned by Father Matthew Fogarty, Capuchin, his fellow-prisoner and eye-witness of the said life since the 18th of April 1654 till he expired in the gallows the 2nd May next ensuing in Clonmel in Ireland."
Father Fogarty, we should note, dates the events according to the old Julian alendar. So, in the modern Gregorian Calendar, the above dates would read respectively the 28th April and the 12th May. He then immediately goes on to tell of his own capture and indeed of his open-minded scepticism about Father Tirry, until he has seen him for himself.
"After being apprehended by the English garrison of GortAnna in the barony of Eliogarty and brought prisoner to Clonmel, though I heard great fame and report of the preparations for death that this Reverend Father made (for it was given out, the very day that he was taken, that doubtless he would suffer death) though I believed it in a manner, yet was not wholly persuaded, till I saw by experience the success and pursuance of his exemplary life."
There we see how careful Father Fogarty was with his facts. He formed his own conviction after sober experience. And at the end of his statement he again stresses his methodical investigation. He was afforded the opportunity of meeting Mrs. Everard sometime after the hanging, and he tells us that he inquired from her about Father Tirry's pre-prison days-or rather he sees the value of quoting her testimony about those days. He writes:
"It happened that Mrs. Everard of Fethard, alias Amy Roche (with whom the Revererd Father kept many years before his death) came to see us prisoners to the Marshal's house, a good while after his death, and inquired of us what extraordinary preparations the Father made against death that was so sure at hand, and when she was told of all his daily exercises, as heretofore written, she replied 'Alas! When Father William thought but little of any such death, his daily exercises, devotions and piety. Kneeling, sighing, contrition, and other daily inventions of devotions were no less."
There we see a careful investigator and valiant woman join together in bearing trustworthy witness to the priest's saintliness.
But let us return again to the earlier part of Father Fogarty's testimony, where he gives us the pattern of Father Tirry's daily living in Clonmel Gaol. He writes:
"First, therefore, every morning betwixt 3 and 4 of the clock, he would get up roundly and put on his apparel with all expedition, and soon after fall to his prayers on his knees, and there continue till 8 o'clock, still either praying, weeping, or striking his breast through sensible contrition, to the great edification of all his fellow prisoners, to the admiration and conversion to a better life of all his hearers, both ecclesiastical and laymen, yea, sectaries and papists, not only in the town of Clonmel, but also further in the towns and villages throughout all Ireland, as far as the breath and rumour of his holy life were spread."
From that, one gathers that Father Tirry had the reputation of being a saint, which had spread far beyond the shadow of the Comeraghs or Slievenamon.
Later again, Father Fogarty testified to this public image, when he writes about the day sentence of death was passed on Father Tirry:
"And thereupon [Father Tirry] was brought to the prison till it was night time, and then Richard Rous, the Marshal, seeing a great concourse of people of each sex, very desirous to speak to him, came and brought him to his own house, and put him into the chamber where he was before he was censured, and trusted the keys of the chamber to a very pious and honest priest called Walter Conway, one of our fellow prisoners, and would suffer anyone to come to speak to him [i.e. to Father Tirry] and entertain him without being present at all [i.e. without the Marshal being present]. Which kind of entertainment was much against his heart, he having but a short time to look to himself [i.e. to prepare for death]."
From the preceding extract we learn many things, and not least the reverence with which everybody treated him. This is true even of the Marshal, whose courtesy was remarkable all through. Previous to the Trial, Father Tirry, at least, had a private room for some time in the Marshal's house, where he could receive people who came to see him-a facility which he, and the other priests also, seemed to have enjoyed later. (These rooms may, of course, have been part of the Gaols-of Which there were three in Clonmel at the time). We also see the trust the Marshal placed in Canon Conway. It has been suggested that the Marshal's motive was the hope of being handsomely paid, out of the offering that the Catholic people inevitably brought to the priests. This may be so, and the hope may have materialised, since the same courtesy was evident on the scaffold. However, we do know that at this time Father Tirry gave generously to the poor, and who is to say that he did not give away all he received, and that the Marshal did not act out of anything but the noblest motives?
In any case, the veneration of the people is evident, and no doubt many were now coming to 'him as penitents for the last time. It is possibly true to suggest that he was greatly revered as a confessor and counsellor, and that during his years of hiding with Mrs. Everard this would have been his main apostolate. From the documents he emerges as a person similar to the Cure d'Ars, a sought-after confessor, a man concerned with the poor (Canon Conway stresses this) and a person of extraordinary mortification and prayer.
The People of God
However, let us again listen to Father Fogarty, as he continues to tell us about Father Tirry's daily life in prison, before and after the sentence of 6 May. As we read it we can be charmed with the freshness of his words.
"And so he passed the time in continual prayers, abstinence, laying on bare-ground to repose a little, when mere necessity would constrain him thereto, and that, rather to fortify his weak body and complexion, to undergo more and more pains, and practice more spiritual exercises for the love of God, whom he had to serve but a short time in this life, than merely to ease or condescend to his own body or pleasure. And when he awakened, would presently fall (to) his wonted exercises of confessing, kneeling, praying, weeping, striking his breast, sighing and lamenting; and I believe rather for the want and necessity of others than his own; for it is hard to judge such an exemplary member as he was, to have any great offences. "
There we see Father Tirry depicted as a sufferer for the Mystical Body, and especially, perhaps, as one who pleaded for the faith in Ireland, which he saw threatened all round him. But Father Fogarty continues:
"He never omitted any day since his commital till the day of his execution inclusive, without a most penitent confession, with effusion of tears, accompanied with a most profound humility and contrite heart, daily receiving the Blessed Sacrament with tears dropping from his eyes, which had a greater grace and gift of tears than ever I saw man or woman to have."
From his words, then, there is no doubting that Father Fogarty shared the people's veneration for Father Tirry. And the same is clear in Canon Conway's account. The Canon brought with him to Brussels the halter and chains used on the day of the hanging, and in his sworn statement he alleges that a miracle took place, while they were at sea, through recourse to Father Tirry and the use of part of his clothing. He tells of an unexpected storm blowing up as they came along by the coast, some way off Dunkirk. The crew was unable to cope, and hopes of survival were almost abandoned, when, through prayers to Father Tirry and the use of his relic, calm was restored. It may be reminiscent of Jonah, or the story of St. Paul's shipwreck in the 'Acts of the Apostles'. Nevertheless, Canon Conway looks upon it as an extraordinary event, and his view was corroborated by the other secular priests who were with him on board. Nowadays one might wonder about it. Still, Canon Conway mentions it, and Father O'Mahony does likewise in his letters to the General. In his pamphlet, Father O'Mahony also records the curing of a blind woman through the use of a Father Tirry relic, and he considers miraculous the conversion of many people at the time of the hanging. But these, of course, are matters for the judgment of the Church.
All in all, it is clear that both Canon Conway and Father Fogarty were deeply impressed by Father Tirry's saintliness. But the judgment on that, too, rests with the Church. So, now let us turn our attention to the Trial, and try to tease out a little the motives that seemed to lie behind the execution. In the judgment of his cause this is the vital matter. As we proceed we should again be getting to know the man a little better.