The Ballad of Fr. William Tirry
And so Father Tirry was captured, and if documentary evidence of his free life is sometimes sparse in detail, when it comes to his final thirty-nine days it is rich beyond telling. This is so because of extraordinary good fortune, and because of the foresight of men who saw the importance of his death, and had details of it recorded for posterity. One cannot, of course, claim that of all the Irish, who died for the faith at that time, Father Tirry was the most important and noteworthy. Far more key figures were executed. Nor was his death particularly cruel. In fact the death of Father Peter Taaffe, another member of his Order in Drogheda, was far more so. This priest was tied to a stake and cut to pieces by the gunfire of Cromwellian soldiers at point blank range. And the body of Brother Thomas Deir, o.s.a., was brutally lacerated. Father Tirry's death, on the other hand, was not surrounded by excessive torture. It was a simple hanging done with as much humanity as possible. Indeed during his whole imprisonment and death he seems to have been treated with out-of-the-ordinary reverence and kindness.
But Father Tirry is outstanding in one thing, and fortunate beyond most, in that we have today two first-hand accounts of his last thirty-nine days, records that were written as sworn statements within months of his death. Their authors were in fact two priests who were in Clonmel Gaol with him: Canon Walter Conway of the Cashel Archdiocese, and Father Matthew Fogarty, O.F.M. Cap. We will pause here for a moment to consider something of these two priests, and see how their accounts came to be written and preserved (and indeed discovered in our own time).
And first let us take the Capuchin, Father Matthew Fogarty, who was born in or near Thurles in 1603, and was captured by the Cromwellians at Farney Bridge in April, 1654. A few days later he was brought to Clonmel Gaol, where he found Father Tirry and four secular priests: Canon Conway and Fathers James Hackett, Thady Maglanan and James Mokler. Father Fogarty was, therefore, with Father Tirry from 28 April onwards, and so was in a position to give us exact information about the imprisonment. He did not witness the actual hanging, but was present at the Trial that preceded it. In fact Father Fogarty himself was also sentenced to death at the same Trial, but this was later commuted to imprisonment, and later still to exile on the Continent. By August, 1654, Father Fogarty was in France. He was to live only one year, but it says much for the calibre of the man, that his death was caused by a fever contracted as he waited for a ship to bring him back to Ireland. In any case, during that year he wrote his sworn testimony on Father Tirry.
It is hardly necessary, I think, to labour the point of the utter trustworthiness of this witness. His wish to return to the Irish Mission and certain death is enough to convince us. But besides, he is highly praised in Capuchin reports as a dedicated priest with character and zeal. And indeed one gets the same impression of 'down-to-earth fortitude and goodness from his account of Father Tirry's last days. This is written in English, in a straightforward unemotional style, and bases itself entirely on fact rather than hear-say. For example, he plainly says that before he came to Clonmel Gaol he had heard all about Father Tirry's great holiness, but had kept an open mind in the matter, until he could see for himself. No doubt he was cautious of public reputations of sanctity-knowing how apt the Irish are to excess in this matter. However, when he did see for himself, he was utterly convinced.
But even then he went to the trouble of inquiring whether or not Father Tirry had maintained his high standard from the beginning, and was only fully satisfied, when he was assured that it was so. Again, at the end of his testimony (for his readers' 'benefit more than his own) he mentions that he got Mrs. Everard's word of assurance that Father Tirry's goodness was not something that grew overnight in the face of certain death, but that it was rather something that marked all his life. Father Fogarty, therefore, is surely a reliable and thorough witness, and the best we have of Father Tirry's holiness and Trial.
Then there is Canon Conway's 'account. The Canon was Father Tirry's confessor in prison. Some time after the hanging he was deported to the Lowlands. There, in Brussels, he met the exiled Augustinian Provincial, Father James O'Mahony (who had been elected in Fethard in 1649), and his secretary, Father Henry Fitzgerald. More than likely, the Canon was the first to bring them the news of their confrere's death. This information the Provincial passed on to the Augustinian General in Rome (Father Filippo Visconti) on 4 September, 1654, and later in a letter on 7 November. He also included the mention of Father Tirry in a pamphlet ‘Sanguinea Eremus Martyrum Ord. Eremit. S.P. Augustini’, which was printed early in 1655, and which contains accounts of the known Augustinians at the time who had suffered for the faith in Ireland under Cromwell. (Three copies of this pamphlet have come down to us, and of course, also copies of Father O'Mahony's letters to the General).
Father O'Mahony, then relied on Canon Conway for his information about Father Tirry, and the Canon was a sound witness. Father Fogarty refers to him as 'a very pious and honest priest'. In any case, Father O'Mahony sent a copy of his pamphlet to Arhange Guin, whom we have already mentioned, and who was once again prior of the Augustinian House in Paris, where Father Tirry had studied. As we said the prior was naturally interested in the fate of his former student and wrote to Father O'Mahony for more details. By this time the Provincial was aware that Father Fogarty was now also on the Continent, so he wrote to him requesting that he would put on paper all he knew of Father Tirry's imprisonment and sufferings. This Father Fogarty did, and sent it to Father O'Mahony in April or May, 1655.
Father O'Mahony also got Canon Conway to write a formal statement. This was perhaps written in English. In any case, we know that the secretary, Father Fitzgerald, put the Canon's account into literary Latin form, and most likely he himself supplied the details about Father Tirry's early life. Father Fitzgerald also mentions that the Canon's statement was confirmed by other witnesses- presumably Fathers Hackett, Mokler and Maglanan. But essentially the document is Canon Conway's, and his reverence for Father Tirry is obvious from it. He had also brought some of his relics with him, principally the halter and the manacles.
Having procured the two accounts (from Father Fogarty and Canon Conway), Father O'Mahony sent them (or copies) on to Father Guin in Paris. He also enclosed a covering letter. Fortunately, within a few months, copies of these were made, and more fortunately still, these have come down to us. Almost by accident they were discovered in the Archives de France in Paris in 1952. Professor F. X. Martin, o.s.a., was responsible for this, and later edited the documents in Archiviurn Hibernicum, XX (1957) 69-97.
These two accounts, then, are our main sources of information concerning Father Tirry's imprisonment, trial and death (though neither priest was present at the hanging, and only Father Fogarty at the Trial). Their contents, of course, are corroborated from other sources (which however, can mostly be also traced back to the testimony of Canon Conway and Father Fogarty). For example there is Father O'Mahony's pamphlet that we have already mentioned. Then there are the letters between Father O'Mahony and the Father General, contemporary copies of which are preserved in the Augustinian General Archives in Rome. These were critically edited by Father M. B. Hackett, o.sa., in Archivium Hibernicum XX (1957) 98-122. Finally, there is the Commentarius Rinuccinianus part of which was written by Father Robert O'Connell, O.F.M. Cap. (who had met Father Tirry in Cork before the '41 Rebellion, and who, no doubt, based his account of the friar on the oral testimony of Father Fogarty, his fellow Capuchin).
In passing we may say that Father O'Mahony's pamphlet also gives the names and some details of other Augustinians who were put to death or suffered during the Puritan Persecution. As a memorial to them, let us here set down their names beside that of Father Tirry. They were: Peter Taaffe, Thadaeus O'Connell, Donatus Kennedy, Donatus O'Srynan, Fulgenitius Jordan, Raymond O'Malley, Thomas Tully, Thomas Deir, Dr. Patrick Comerford (Bishop of Waterford), Michael Barron, Edmond Ryan, Nicholas Finan, William Comerford, Richard Strange, Gerard Fennell, William Molavil, Nicholas Hackett, Edmond Henry, John Lynch, John de Burgo, Edmond Tobin, Augustine of Ulster, Edmond Ballak, William Curran, James Talbot, John de Burgo (another). It will be remembered that there were other Augustinians who suffered and who are not on that list, men like Denis O'Driscoll. We honour them all.
With regard to posterity, Father Tirry has been the most fortunate, mainly because Father Fogarty and Canon Conway lived to tell the tale, and Father Guin and Father O’Mahony had the foresight to have it recorded. Also there is the fact that the documents lived through the French Revolution and were discovered by modern scholarship.