The Ballad of Fr. William Tirry
As the day slowly dawned in Clonmel on 12 May, 1654, the Comeragh Mountains became visible again, and the town gradually awakened, as it had done for generations, with the sounds of the day, degree by degree, taking over the silence of the night. From the first light, the inhabitants of the garrison town showed signs of starting out on the routine of another day. In many ways, it would follow the pattern of yesterday, and would set the headline for the morrow. However, I like to think that this morning was marked with differences, that from the moment they began their daily chores, the people expressed a sense of urgency in their actions, or reflected something that would have told an onlooker that this was to be a day out-of-the-ordinary. For so it was. But not in a carnival sense. The sinister reality was that this morning in Clonmel two men were looking at the sun for the last time, and this knowledge must surely have shown itself on the face of the town, as it began the day.
With some fancy, one could easily sketch out the ordinary activity that went on behind the facades of houses and shops and inns on this fresh May morning, and one could readily enough capture something of the atmosphere, with references to such things as the particular alertness of the Cromwellian soldiers, as they stood on guard, or moved cautiously about the streets. But we have too much fact for that. For instance, we know that by mid-day, a great crowd had gathered in the Market Square, with some people certainly from Fethard, and some no doubt from other near-by places like Grove and Lisronagh. We have no direct proof that some had made the long journey from Cork, but in the circumstances, I believe that such must have been the case. We also take it that there were disguised priests present, and with very little difficulty we can outline the preparation that, in the main, went on at the Army Headquarters and in and around one of the Gaols, and particularly the happenings in one of the rooms of the Marshal's house. It can also be accepted beyond much doubt, that the focal point of the town's thoughts that morning was the newly-erected scaffold in the Market Square. Fancifully, if we wish, we may picture it standing there, ominous- looking, its strong rope swaying idly in the light breeze from the river. But there was nothing of fancy about its cold existence, nor about its use, later in the day, as an instrument of death for Mr. Peter Power and Father William Tirry.
In any case, on this Tuesday morning in May, 1654, there must have been a palpable air of expectancy and foreboding seeping through the town of Clonmel, as it nestled there at the foot of the Comeragh Mountains, and looked out on the hinterland of South Tipperary. Peering back now over the three centuries, trying to re-capture the scene, I seem to be almost deaf to the noise element that must have been involved, for I rather imagine it as a hushed and whispering place. Symbolically perhaps, the only sound that echoes to me through the ages comes from the cavalry horses, with their bridles and bits and buckles, and their prancing hoofs on the cobblestones. And that is always louder than reality. And yes, there are the voices of the children. I think if I were ever to re-create the scene dramatically, I would centre in round the children.
That morning they, too, must have been stirring early, sensing that something was afoot. No doubt they would have been warned to keep indoors, but as I see it, soon the coaxing sun would have been too much, and when backs were turned, they would have slipped out into the streets to begin the day. And so I see them darting in and out among the people, I can hear their shrill shouts, and sense something of their wonder. Sometimes, they stand still to admire the horses and soldiers, sometimes to look quizzically at strangers, but never are they very far from the Market Square. Here, time and time again they return, sometimes to play, but mostly to look up in awe at the high gallows. But then off they scamper again, obviously impervious to the real adult world around them, and hardly realising the tragedy that was to be enacted in their town that morning.
Later on in life, though, I am certain that these children would have remembered this morning best of all. With painful vividness, born out of the crystal perceptibility of youth, they would have been able to recall each detail of the grim spectacle-the brusqueness of the soldiers, the restlessness of the horses, the long-drawn-out procession from the Gaol. They could tell of the wave of sorrow that swept the crowd, with men and women openly weeping. In middle age, they might well have forgotten the minister who tried to argue, or, the Marshal who was kind, or the calm detachment of Mr. Power. But they surely would remember the gaunt figure of the priest in his black religious habit, as he blessed, or paused, or prayed, or spoke, or knelt on the rough cobblestones. Only too well would they remember, perhaps, and only too clearly would they recall how they themselves, with all the agility of children at their command, had wormed their way into the inner ring around the scaffold and witnessed the end at first hand. It would be their boast that they had been there, and had looked on bravery and nobility in death.
However, we must return to our more clinical presentation. Our study is about the Augustinian priest, Father William Tirry, from the near-by Abbey in Fethard. Thirty-nine days previously, i.e. 4 April (which was Holy Saturday that year), he had been taken prisoner by Cromwellian soldiers at the home of Mrs. Everard in Grove, as he stood vested to begin the day's ceremonies. He was brought to Clonmel Gaol, and tried for treason in St. Mary's Church on 6 May. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. On the morning we speak about (12 May) the sentence was carried out. A Mr. Peter Power (about whom we know little beyond the fact that he was a gentleman and ready for death) was hanged immediately before Father Tirry.
In Father Tirry's case, we are fortunate to have first-hand information, particularly about his time in prison, his trial and subsequent death. For his life-story before that we have the principal landmarks. Our main purpose, then, is to take an overall look at his life-span, from its first beginnings in Cork, until the end came in Clonmel, as the river Suir went quietly by, keeping its own counsel, and the Comeragh mountains looked down in silent judgment. It was this ending, of course, that raised Father Tirry out of the ordinary run of men and women who came and went around Clonmel that May Day, and that gave him a new lease of life in the long memory of the people. Witnesses may come forward and testify to the sanctity of his life, even prior to his capture. Nevertheless, I think it is true to say that, but for the circumstances of his death, his life would not now be recalled, and he would lie in his grave, as undisturbed and unremembered as the great host of unknown saintly Irish people, who lie buried all over Ireland.