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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

Towards Clonmel
(Chapter 3)

Back in Cork, then, a young zealous priest (say in the year 1637); Father Tirry began his ministry with the local Augustinian community. Documents tell us that he was chaplain to his uncle, the bishop of Cork and Cloyne, for a short time (perhaps a few months). Then he began his travels, that were in fact to end only on the scaffold. His priestly life, then, was a journey from Cork to Clonmel, with longer or shorter breathing-spaces, as the circumstances and obedience allowed. It is part of the vocation of most friars to be on the move, of course, but one may say that Father Tirry moved more than most. After his chaplaincy with the bishop, he later became chaplain to his first cousin, the second Viscount Kilmallock, and while with him also acted as tutor to young Dominic and David, the Viscount's two sons. So for the next few years (we actually do not know the exact length of time) Father Tirry was to be found at the Sarsfield home, or travelling around with the Viscount on his campaigns or visits to military bases. We read that his cousin held him in high esteem for the holiness of his life, the depth of his learning and the graciousness of his manners. One can imagine that Father Tirry would have preferred the prayers and penances and apostolates of his own community in Cork, but that was not for him. In the light of all that, were he ever to be canonised-which prayerfully he will-he could always be declared a new patron of army chaplains, in recompense for what must have been for him an irksome way of life!

Important Meetings

In any case, it was during this period that Father Tirry came into close contact with the Everard family at Grove near Fethard, in Co. Tipperary-since Mrs. Everard was the Viscount's sister in-law. Documents tell us that he was at one time tutor to John Everard, junior (and so possibly to his brother Nicholas). It must have been at this time, since both Everard brothers were dead before 1640. It is most likely, then, that John (and Nicholas) came to live with the Sarsfields for a while, and that Father Tirry taught these first cousins together. John Everarci, senior (who was a grandson of the Speaker in the Irish House of Commons in 1612), died shortly after his sons, but Father Tirry preserved the link with the Everard family-something which later was the most important in his life.

It was at this time, too, that Father Tirry met the Capuchin priest, Father Robert (Daniel) O'Connell, who noted the fact later when he wrote about the Augustinian in the Commentarius Rinuccinianus. Already in life, then, he had met two men who were destined to keep his memory alive for future generations (Fathers Guin and O'Connell). He was still to meet two others, who would prove even more noteworthy and more directly responsible for the fund of knowledge we have about him today (and particularly about the end of his life). In passing, one may say that of the latter two one was a fellow-Capuchin of Father 0'Connell. Father Tirry, then, owes much to this most Christlike of orders.

Towards his Jerusalem

To return to the thread of the story, Father Tirry remained on as chaplain to his cousin, Viscount Kilmallock, until the outbreak of the War in 1641. He was then recalled to his community in Cork city, and would have found peace there until 1644, when the infamous Morrogh the Burner (Lord Inchiquin) advanced on Cork and scattered all the religious and forced the bishop to take refuge in West, Cork. So Father Tirry was once again on the road and moving a little nearer to Clonmel. Also once again, owing to the absence of historical documents, we now find ourselves lacking another 'piece' of our jigsaw. It is difficult, then, to trace the exact footsteps of the Augustinian for the next few years. But we do know some of the main landmarks. For instance, it is certain that he was in Fethard from 1651 onwards, but it is also most likely that he arrived there in 1644 or 1645. Evidence certainly seems to point to the fact that he was in residence there in 1646. For one thing, on that year he was appointed secretary to the Augustinian provincial, Father Denis O’Driscoll, who lived in Fethard. There is also evidence that Bishop Tirry died in Fethard on that year. So one may presume that he was on a visit to his nephew (though this could have been to the Everards).

In any case, I see Fethard as Father Tirry's main base from the time he fled from Cork up until the end of his life, ten years later. The first years would have been peaceful and hopeful in that area, and one can surmise that the Auugstinians were able to live a fairly regular community life of strict observance, and administer openly to the spiritual needs of the people. Father Tirry participated in this, but in his capacity as provincial secretary, he was frequently away with Father O'Driscoll on official visits to other Augustinian communities. They would also, perhaps, have travelled to Galway in 1648 for a meeting summoned by the Papal Nuntio, and possibly again in 1649, when archbishop Rinuccini, then a broken man, took ship for Italy. It is interesting to note that at this time Saint Oliver Plunkett was a student in Rome, having been taken there in 1647 with four other Irish students for the priesthood by archbishop Rinuccini's predecessor, Father Scarampi.

Calm Before The Storm

Cromwell's shadow was now, of course, falling on the land, but before he came life was still so peaceful in Fethard that a Provincial Chapter was held there in June 1649, with something like forty Augustinians attending. Almost miraculously the Acts of that Chapter have come down to us in the original manuscript. From it we gather that Father James O'Mahony was elected provincial, with Father Henry Fitzgerald as his ~secretary. Father O'Driscoll was appointed prior to Fethard Abbey, and Father Tirry prior of the Augustinian house at Skryne, Co. Meath. (Later we shall be meeting Fathers O'Mahony and Fitzgerald again, for those also had a hand in getting recorded the accounts of Father Tirry's last days).

At the Fethard Chapter other priors and community members were also appointed, each of whom in his own degree was to suffer under Cromwell. For example, Father Peter Taaffe (brother of Viscount Theobald Taaffe) became prior of Drogheda and was the first Augustinian to be killed by Cromwellian soldiers, when the town was visited with such terrible slaughter at the beginning of the campaign. Father Tirry was not to meet his death until some years later, but in the meantime it is most unlikely that he ever reached Skryne. For one thing, it had no community in residence, so this title was purely nominal. It was merely meant to safeguard the rights of the Order, should it ever come into the position of. repossessing the property.

The fact that Skryne Priory had been taken from Augustinian hands tells us of the adverse conditions in Meath at that time. But to balance that, provisions were made at the Chapter for a new community that would man a monastery vacated by the Canons Regular at Killagh in Co. Kerry (the ruins of which can still be seen on the road between Castlemaine and Milltown). This latter would certainly have had the blessing of the then bishop of Ardfert and Aghadoe, Richard O'Connell, since he was in fact an uncle of the newly-elected Augustinian provincial, James O'Mahony.

The End

Two months after the Fethard Chapter, Oliver Cromwell landed in Ireland, and if Father Tirry was then forced to leave Fethard, he was certainly back by 1651-but it is more than likely that he never left the district. So here he lived for the last years of his life. The most reliable source (Father Matthew Fogarty, O.F.M. Cap.) tells us that he stayed with Mrs. Everard and there he administered to all who came. When he moved about he went disguised as a soldier. As I see it, then, after Cromwell had taken the town in 1650, Father O'Driscoll moved out into the countryside and lived with the people and looked after their spiritual needs. But it was a precarious and increasingly dangerous way of life, so much so, we are told, that he was forced to spend 'the coldest nights of winter under the open sky, amid bogs and wild lonely places, for three long years.' Finally worn out 'with cold, ill-health and starvation,' he died on 29 November, 1654, some months after Father Tirry.

Meanwhile Father Tirry looked after the spiritual needs of the townspeople. His movements were naturally hampered, but many people came to him at the home of Mrs. Everard, and he spent much time in prayer and study and penance (and in writing, as we shall see). The documents, then, link the names of these two men together, Fathers O'Driscoll and Tirry, and there is no doubt that they were close friends and worthy priests. It makes for interest, of course, to realise that each came from a different background-one from a purely Irish, the other from Old English. In them we can, then, surely see a fitting symbol for today's Ireland-together they portray for us the fusing of two cultures, the harmonious uniting of two minds for a common unity of purpose. Ireland today could do with more of that.

In any case Father Tirry's end came quickly. It is possible that he was appointed prior of Fethard in 1653. But be that as it may, his hiding place at Mrs. Everard's was betrayed, and so on Holy Saturday, 1654, he was taken prisoner by Cromwellian troops and brought to Clonmel Gaol to await trial. It was 4 April. Fortunately, Mrs. Everard did not suffer any ill-consequences, although according to the strict letter of the law she, too, could have been sentenced to death, or imprisoned, or transported, or have her property confiscated. She escaped all these, but her bravery and goodness in giving Father Tirry shelter during those years, must always be recalled, whenever his nobility in death is mentioned. As in the case of Mary who washed the Lord's feet, Mrs. Everard, too, must always be praised, when the priest's name is honoured.

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