Irish Martyrs
Died1537–1714, Ireland
Martyred byEnglish monarchy
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church
BeatifiedSeptember 27, 1992, by Pope John Paul II
FeastJune 20

Irish Catholic Martyrs were dozens of people who have been sanctified in varying degrees for dying for their Roman Catholic faith between 1537 and 1714 in Ireland.

Saint Oliver Plunkett

Canonized 12 October 1975 by Pope Paul VI

Beatified 27 September 1992 by Pope John Paul II


Generally speaking the persecution of Catholics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came in waves, caused by a reaction to particular incidents or circumstances, with intervals of comparative respite in between.[5]

Henry VIII

Religious persecution of Catholics in Ireland began under King Henry VIII (then Lord of Ireland) after his excommunication in 1533. The Irish Parliament adopted the Acts of Supremacy, establishing the king’s ecclesiastical supremacy.[6] Some priests, bishops, and those who continued to pray for the pope were tortured and killed.[7] The Treasons Act 1534 caused any act of allegiance to the pope to be considered treason. Many were imprisoned on this basis. At some time in 1537, John Travers, the Chancellor of St Patrick's Cathedral Dublin, was executed under the Act of Supremacy. [8]

Elizabeth I

Relations improved after the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary in 1553-58, and in the early years of the reign of her sister Queen Elizabeth I. After Mary's death in November 1558, Elizabeth's Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy of 1559, which re-established the Church of England’s separation from the Catholic Church. Initially, Elizabeth adopted a moderate religious policy. The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity (1559), the Prayer Book of 1559, and the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563) were all Protestant in doctrine, but preserved many traditionally Catholic ceremonies. [9] During the early years of her reign no great pressure was put on Catholics to conform to the "Established Church" of the new regime, but the situation changed rapidly from about 1570 onwards, mainly as a result of various events.[5]

In 1563 the Earl of Essex issued a proclamation, by which all priests, secular and regular, were forbidden to officiate, or even to reside in Dublin. Fines and penalties were strictly enforced for absence from the Protestant service; before long, torture and death were inflicted. Priests and religious were, as might be expected, the first victims. They were hunted into mountains and caves; and the parish churches and few monastic chapels which had escaped the rapacity of Henry VIII.[10]

Elizabeth did not submit herself to the church as desired, and was then excommunicated by the papal bull "Regnans in Excelsis" in 1570. This was a part of a new round of conflicts, in which Roman Catholics were obliged to repudiate Elizabeth's laws and the status of her officials, or to overthrow them if possible. In Ireland the First Desmond Rebellion was launched in 1569, at almost the same time as the Northern Rebellion in England.

During the Irish Rebellion of 1641 most of the Irish Catholic hierarchy proclaimed a Holy War at Kells, County Meath on 22 March 1642, giving a religious aspect to the political struggle.

The Wexford Martyrs were found guilty of treason for aiding in the escape of James Eustace, 3rd Viscount Baltinglass and refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy and declare Elizabeth I of England to be the head of the Church.

Charles II

The Popish Plot was a fictitious conspiracy concocted by Titus Oates that between 1678 and 1681 gripped the Kingdoms of England and Scotland in anti-Catholic hysteria.


The list of Irish martyrs is very long and happened over several reigns. There was a long delay in starting the investigations into the causes of the Irish martrys for fear of reprisals. Further complicating the investigation is that the records of these martyrs were destroyed, or not compiled, due to the danger of keeping such evidence. Details of their endurance in most cases have been lost.[6] The first general catalogue is that of Father John Houling, S.J., compiled in Portugal between 1588 and 1599. It is styled a very brief abstract of certain persons whom it commemorates as sufferers for the Faith under Elizabeth.[7]

After Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the cause for Oliver Plunkett was re-visited. As a result, a series of publications on the whole period of persecutions was made. The first to complete the process was Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, canonized in 1975 by Pope Paul VI.[6] Plunkett was certainly targeted by the administration and unfairly tried.


Dominic Collins

Dominic Collins was a Jesuit lay brother from Youghal, born into a merchant family. After the town was sacked and burnt he went to France. He served in the army, but eventually became a Jesuit lay brother. He returned to Ireland in the fleet sent by Philip of Spain in 1601 and defeated at Kinsale. Dominic with others landed at Castlehaven. He was captured and interrogated about his life as a Jesuit and as a soldier and sentenced to be hanged. The hanging took place in his native Youghal on 31st October 1602.[2]

John Kearney

John Kearney (1619-1653) was born in Cashel, Co Tipperary and joined the Franciscans at the Kilkenny friary. After his novitiate, he went to Leuven in Belgium and was ordained in Brussels in 1642. Returned to Ireland, he taught in Cashel and Waterford, and was much admired for his preaching. In 1650 he became guardian of Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary. During the Cromwellian persecutions, he was arrested and hanged in Clonmel, Co Tipperary. He was buried in the chapter hall of the suppressed friary of Cashel.[3]

Peter O'Higgins O.P.

Peter O’Higgins was born in Dublin around 1602 during the persecution under James I. He was educated secretly in Ireland and later in Spain. With the accession of Charles I in 1625, a limited tolerance obtained and Peter came back to Dublin and was sent to re-open the Dominican house in Naas. The 1641 rebellion, a result of the plantations, evictions and persecutions, brought with it years of conflict between Irish v Old English, Catholic v Protestant; Puritan v Anglican. During this time William Pilsworth, Rector of Donadea, was arrested by rebel soldiers and about to be hanged, when Fr. Peter O'Higgins stepped forward. Pilsworth later wrote that when he was on the gallows, “a priest whom I never saw before, made a long speech on my behalf saying that this…was a bloody inhuman act that would…draw God’s vengeance on them. Whereupon I was brought down and released.” [4]

The government moved on Naas and O'Higgins was arrested and turned over to Governor Coote of Dublin. O'Higgins was offered his life if he would renounce his faith. He responded, "“So here the condition on which I am granted my life. They want me to deny my religion. I spurn their offer. I die a Catholic and a Dominican priest. I forgive from my heart all who have conspired to bring about my death.” Among the crowd at the foot of the scaffold was William Pilsworth who shouted out: “This man is innocent. This man is innocent. He saved my life.” William Pilsworth was not wanting in courage, but his words fell on deaf ears. With the words “Deo Gratias” on his lips Peter O’Higgins died on 23rd March, 1642.[4]


Various churches have been dedicated to the martyrs, including:

See also