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
William Tirry was born in Cork in 1609. His family was of Old-English stock, and had been a leading one in the City since around 1500. An Edward Tirry was elected Mayor in 1505, and during the two hundred years that followed, over twenty members of the family held that office. William Tirry's grandfather, Edmond, was Mayor in 1604. He had two sons and one daughter. One of the sons (also William) became a priest, and later the bishop of Cork; he died in Fethard in 1,646, on his way home from a meeting of the Confederate allies. Edmond's daughter, Joan, married Dominick Sarsfield, who later became first Viscount Kilmallock and was of the same family as Patrick Sarsfield, the hero of the Siege of Limerick. The remaining son, Robert, married a Joan Tirry (no doubt a near relation), and these were the parents of the William we speak about. There is no mention of other children in the family.
Already I referred to the scarcity of detail about Father Tirry's early life, but in fact this is no great drawback. Like the Evangelists, when dealing with Christ, our main attention is directed to the priest's death, since it was this that gave real significance to his life. So here let us simply say that up to the age of seventeen or eighteen, he lived the ordinary life of a well to-do family of his time. The Tirrys were Catholic, and he was well educated. The historical documents relating to this part of his life stress that he was particularly learned in Latin and English, but most likely Gaelic was his first language. In any case, it was in Irish that he spoke from the heart, years later, when the news was brought to him that he was to die on the following day.
In this respect, then, like all the Old-English families that had come to Ireland in the early days of the Anglo-Norman Invasion (1169 onwards), the Tirrys had become more Irish than, or just as Irish as, the original Celtic and Danish families themselves. They had kept the Catholic faith, and had adopted the Irish language and customs. But by and large the Old-English had, of course, remained politically attached to the English 'Crown. Needless to remark this latter would not have been the case with the Old-Irish, though one may conjecture that some found themselves in a sort of dilemma. Before the Norman Invasion it would be true to say that many native Irish believed that the pope had an overlordly claim or custodianship of the land. These, therefore, could have found 'themselves in a quandary, when Henry II was alleged to have the blessing of the pope to take over the lordship of Ireland. However, there is no evidence to suggest that any such 'qualms of conscience deterred the Irish from their opposition to the English rulers, even before Henry VIII had 'broken with the papacy and Elizabeth I was excommunicated.
His Own Circle
In any case, although many of the Old-English families, like the Geraldines, had married into Irish families, the Tirrys, and many of the lesser families in cities and towns, seemed rather to have inter-married, and to have mixed in a circle of their own. During his life-time, for instance, we know that Father Tirry was mostly 'associated with Old-English families to which he was related by either blood or marriage. We have already mentioned the Sarsfields. Now one of these, the second Viscount Kilmallock (Father Tirry's first cousin), married a Joan Roche of Fermoy, and her sister in turn married a John Everard of Fethard (Co. Tipperary). It was with this Amy Roche-Everard that Father Tirry stayed for the last years of his life. Then again, John Everard's mother was a daughter of Lord Dunboyne, one of the great Butler family. Incidentally, these Dunboynes had a family vault in the Augustinian Church in Fethard (where the Lady Chapel now is). Much later, the controversial Bishop Butler, who had left his calling, was said to have been quietly buried there. It is interesting to note that it was the Augustinian, Father Gahan, who attended to the dying bishop, when he was 'being reconciled with the Church. The Dunboyne Institute in Maynooth is, of course, named after this Bishop Butler. But all that is, another story.
In any case, the above-mentioned families were those that figured prominently in Father Tirry's life. They were all Catholic at the time, and Irish speaking, and were deeply involved in the Confederate War of Charles I (1625-1649), and in the Cromwellian War that followed. And some indeed paid the price with their lives.
The Young Man
But to come back to the young William Tirry himself, we can easily imagine him maturing in this melieu, a quiet, reserved youth, well-mannered and intelligent, and as time went on showing signs of a deeply spiritual nature. This is certainly true of him in later life, but those qualities must have been emerging during his growing up in Cork 'City. At that time, too, the innate leanings in his make-up towards asceticism, and perhaps mysticism, must have been evident. One sees him, then, more as a young John the Baptist, or Cure d'Ars, than as a blossoming Thomas More.
However, all these elements were soon crystalised into one ideal, when around the age of eighteen or so, he sought admission to the Augustinian Order. Had he so wished, the wealth and influence of the Tirry family could have secured for 'him a secular life of doubtless opportunity. But instead he chose the priesthood and religious life. We do not know, of course, why his choice fell on the Augustinians, but presumably with the help of grace he saw their way of life as the ideal answer to the leanings in his make-up towards prayer, study and asceticism, and towards a regular apostolate among the people in administering the sacraments, celebrating Mass and preaching the Word. Just then in Ireland, in fact, the Augustinians were reflecting something of the new wave of reform for more strict observance that had begun in the orders of Friars on the Continent sometime earlier. During the troubled years of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and to an extent during the earlier part of the reign of James I, the Augustinians like all the other orders had had a disturbed existence, with little real chance of living a stable religious life. But in the comparative lull that had been evident in the later years of James and that had carried on into the time of 'Charles I, things were looking brighter and hopes were higher. We know for example that the Augustinian, Dermot McGrath, had come to Ireland in 1613, fired with the spirit of the observant movement and full of zeal to renew the Order here. And we know that his mission was blessed.
These considerations may have influenced William Tirry's choice of the Order. If he first joined the Cork community (which as we shall see is not at all certain) then he may well have been influenced by his uncle, the bishop, who had been a student on the Continent with the prior in Cork at that time-Father John Lavallin. Or it is possible that he himself had known the prior socially, since the Lavallins, like the Tirrys, were also involved in the civic life of the city. But of course, whatever of the human means, or the special attraction to the Augustinians, in last analysis it was God who determined the particular character of his calling and shaped it to the end.
My own mental picture of William Tirry is that of a recluse by nature. But as it happened, his life turned out to be anything but secluded. He may have dreamt of harmonious living in the shelter of a well-organised community, but from the beginning of his priestly ministry he was destined to be on the move as a most active apostle. His student days, perhaps, came nearest to his ideal, and also the last years of his life-but then he was in hiding, as were all the priests and religious in Ireland during the Cromwellian persecution.