Our Church of the Irish Martyrs was the first Church of that name in Ireland, established in 1994. But who were these martyrs and why choose ‘Irish Martyrs’ as the name for a church in Letterkenny?
Martyrs for us as Christians are those who suffered for following and practising their belief in following Christ and in some cases even paid the ultimate price of losing their lives giving witness to the Faith. Throughout the world there are many who have given witness to the faith in this way over the millennia, including here in Ireland.
On 27th September 1992 Pope John Paul II (proclaimed a Saint himself in 2014) declared “Blessed” seventeen people, who gave witness to the faith in Ireland during the penal times. These seventeen Irish Martyrs are:
• Bishop Patrick O’Healy
• Fr. Conn O’Rourke
• Margaret Bermingham
• Dr. Dermot O’Hurley
• Fr. Maurice MacKenraghty
• Dominic Collins
• Bishop Conor (Cornelius) O’Devany
• Fr. Patrick O’Loughran
• Francis Taylor
• Fr. Peter Higgins
• Bishop Terence Albert O’Brien
• Fr. John Kearney
• Fr. William Tirry
• Matthew Lambert
• Robert Myler
• Edward Cheevers
• Patrick Cavanagh
Of these seventeen Irish Martyrs, one has a Donegal connection, Bishop Conor (Cornelius) O’Devany, Bishop of Down & Connor. From Donegal he became a Franciscan in c.1550 while still a young man. In 1582 was appointed Bishop of Down & Connor, and consecrated on May 13th 1582 in the Church of Santa Maria dell’ Anima in Rome. He returned to Ireland sometime shortly afterwards. In 1588 he was committed to Dublin Castle, but failing to convict him of any crime punishable with death, Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam sought authority to “be rid of such an obstinate enemy of God and so rank a traitor to her Majesty as no doubt he is”. He lay in prison until November 1590, when he was released.
He continued his ministry to the people and managed to escape arrest until the middle of 1611. Aged in his eighties, he was caught while administering confirmation and again imprisoned in Dublin Castle. On 28th January 1612, he was tried for treason, found guilty and sentenced to death. On the 1st February 1612, he was drawn on a cart from the Castle to the gallows at Georges Hill Dublin. The whole route was crowded with people lamenting and begging for his blessing. It was reported that as he was being brought to the gallows he told the people that he was being carried to his place of execution while Christ had to carry his cross. As he climbed the gallows to meet his death he continued to exhort the crowd to persevere in their faith and even kissed the scaffold before being hung, drawn and quartered.
On the gallows he was offered his freedom if he would confess his treason and take the Oath of Supremacy, but he replied that he was being put to death for his Catholic faith and not for treason. With him suffered Patrick O’Loughran, a priest arrested at Cork. The people, despite the guards, carried of his clothes, and even the fragments of his body and took chips of the gallows. They prayed all night by the remains and an infirm man was reported cured by touching them. Such was the size of the crowd at the execution that viceroy ordered the bodily remains to be buried on the spot, but the next night the remains were exhumed and interred in a local churchyard.
The Feast Day of the Irish Martyrs is celebrated on 20th June