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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 on Trial
(Chapter 6)

We have already seen that Father Tirry was hanged on 12 May, 1654, having spent thirty-nine days in Clonmel Gaol. His Trial did not take place until 6 May, the Wednesday before his death. In dealing with this Trial, we shall again follow Father Fogarty. Here it is even more fitting to do so, since he is the only eyewitness to have recorded the proceedings (or at least up to now none else has been discovered).

Setting and Personnel

Father Fogarty makes his one error, when he names the setting for the Trial as St. John's Church. In fact there was no church of that name in Clonmel at that time (nor indeed has there been since). Experts agree that the location was St. Mary's Church, and they explain Father Fogarty's error as a slip of the pen. They presume that Father Fogarty was familiar with the Church of St. John during his stay in Waterford as he waited a ship to the Continent and so, some months later, when he wrote his statement, he inadvertently put down St. John's instead of St. Mary's. It was a very reasonable error. We may take it, then, that the Trial took place in the sacristy of St. Mary's Church in Clonmel.

And the judge was Colonel Richards, one of the commissioners appointed to look into the cases of people from the district who were being transplanted to Connacht. He had come to Ireland in 1652, and historians assert that he was not unduly fanatical. Mr. Paris was another commissioner, and it was he who examined Father Tirry at the Trial. The jury was hand-picked.

And so the scene was set on 6 May, 1654, and the two priests were brought in under guard. They were to conduct their own cases. In his account, Father Fogarty confined himself to the part of the proceedings that dealt with Father Tirry, "partly to be brief, and chiefly esteeming all other discourses to avail nothing to this purpose, but in as much as they may redound to his honour and exaltation."

The Examination

Mr. Paris asked the first question:
"Why did you presume to stay in this land after that there was a proclamation published through out all the whole Kingdom of Ireland, the month of January 1653, charging all priests, friars, jesuits, monks, abbots, bishops, with all others whatsoever clergymen who derive their authority from the See Apostolic or Pope of Rome, to depart out of this kingdom of Ireland, under pain of death, within the space of forty days given them to prepare themselves?"

Father Tirry, then, as a friar, was first questioned about his disobedience to the Edict of 1653, which was issued in January, and confirmed in February (and again in June Actually, the time given was twenty days, or at most twenty-eight. Perhaps the error arises from the fact that a similar Edict issued by Queen Elizabeth gave forty days grace. However, let us listen to Father Fogarty, as he continues his account:

"To which peremptory question, like a stout and valiant soldier of Jesus Christ on earth, without fear or quaking, trembling or shaking (desirous as it seemed to suffer for the love of God and his religion) courageously answered [Father Tirry] that he came to the kingdom with his Superior Major's obedience, and that likewise without his obedience he could not, without breach of conscience, depart the land. "

To this clear statement of Father Tirry's mind, we get Mr. Paris's reply:
"What! Do you acknowledge any higher power in this kingdom than our power?"

And to that Father Tirry gave his all-important answer-in which he elucidated his own spiritual position. Father Fogarty writes:
"To which interrogation the future invincible martyr, without any ambiguity or evasion, answered this manner: 'In temporal matters I acknowledge no higher power in the kingdom of Ireland than yours, etc., but in spiritual affairs wherein my soul is concerned, I acknowledge the Pope of Rome and mine own Superiors to have greater power over me than you others."
There indeed, I think, we find a very clear statement of Father Tirry's mind in the matter. There is no mistaking his distinction between the spiritual and temporal. He was obviously not fired with nationalistic dreams, and so it was not a `case- of treason against the regime; nor could this be proved or sustained. He was in no way implicated in conspiracy, and there were no political undertones running through his life, nor indeed through his Trial. He seemed to have been judged solely for his beliefs in the Catholic faith. But this is a matter we must no labour, since the Church must first make its judgement on his condemnation.

The Jury

Father Fogarty then goes on to tell about the remainder of the Trial-in a veiled humorous kind of way. He tells how Colonel Richards had the jury sworn in "twelve base and poor churls of base condition." He says that the Colonel went through this formality, not for the sake of truth or equity, but in pretence, "to show more sincerity and indifference in the Father's behalf than he had in his heart." "The said company of clowns" was then instructed to judge whether Father Tirry had disobeyed the edicts or not, and to decide whether or not he was guilty of death. "And they vowing they would so do, they kissed the book and away they went."

But before they withdrew, there was, little side-show, which was not meant for the public, but which Father Fogarty witnessed 'and over-heard, and recorded with some glee; I imagine: "But before the clowns went to consult one with another, they demanded of the Colonel and its co-adjutors who sat about him, with a low voice-'Shall we find them all guilty?'"The Colonel, with all his, answered, "Who doubts it? What else should be done?"

And then the testimony goes on:
"Whereupon, they went roundly to work, and not long after, they came back, and delivered their verdict, as they were wished, and found both the friars guilty of high treason committed against the foresaid proclamations, etc."

And so, both Father Fogarty and Father Tirry were sentenced to death by Colonel Richards:

"You shall be led from hence to the place whence you came, and from thence to the gallows (when order shall be given) and be hanged by the neck till you expire."

The Sentence

Now, as it happened, this sentence was carried out only in the case of Father Tirry. And one must ask why. Normally in fact, the authorities were satisfied to imprison the priests who disobeyed the proclamation, and later deport them, although the strict letter of the law demanded death. In any case, Father Fogarty and the four secular priests in Gaol with him were all eventually banished to the Continent. But the full sentence of death was applied in Father Tirry's case, and Father Fogarty actually gives us the reason:

"But chiefly (though not a word spoken publicly) because Mr. Tirry [not only] transgressed their said act and proclamation, but also that he was found and apprehended in Fethard on Easter Eve before the altar, vested ready to do the ceremonies and office of that day. Further, that there was found on his desk some writings, refuting some declarations published by them, in confirmation and establishment of their own poisonous and perverse religion, and moreover, a long open profession of his own religion, quite contrary to their profession of faith, proclamation and decrees.."

So, Father Tirry was sent to the scaffold because of his disobedience to the decree of 1653, but more especially because he was taken in his vestments, and thirdly 'because of his writings, which no doubt he 'intended to publish. Elsewhere we are told that one work was in English and another, in Latin. Most likely, then, it was the writings that clinched his fate. Its holiness and lucidity must have been considered a particular danger to the authorities in their attempt to reform the faith of the Irish people. So, on the face of it, Father Tirry would certainly seem to have died solely for the faith. Coming from an Old-English background, he was no rebel at heart against the authority of the day as such, but he passionately believed in the freedom and truth of his Catholic faith. And for this he died.

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