The Execution of Blessed William Tirry

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Six of Michael Benedict Hackett’s A Presence in an Age of Turmoil: English, Irish, and Scottish Augustinians in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

At the entrance to the prison a crowd, comprising both people of the town, especially women, and others from the surrounding districts, pressed forward to see Friar William and receive his blessing. Fethard was well represented. He must have recognized many in the throng. Those at the front tugged at his habit to kiss it. In the sight of everybody he knelt down and received absolution from a priest who has not been identified. Before going to the place of execution, Richard Rouse, who filled the role of prison governor and marshal in charge of the execution, led the procession at the head of a strong escort of horses and foot to the prison where Peter Power was held. As the procession proceeded through the streets, the women in the crowd sent up a piercing wail of lamentation, mixed with loud condemnations of the sentence passed on William. He found this demonstration somewhat unnerving. Telling his sympathizers to control themselves, he asked them to let him go in peace and help him to pray. Perhaps those who wept most bitterly were his benefactors. For them he had a special request. Thinking of his confreres who were following him in spirit from behind their prison walls, he earnestly begged of devoted clients and friends to look after their needs. By now the route to the scaffold was lined with men and women, as many, we are told, as the street could hold. Tirry walked like one is ecstasy. With his eyes riveted on the heavens, he recited the rosary in a clear and joyous voice, his beads entwined around the fingers of his manacled hands. About every fifty yards he stopped, knelt down, and intoned an aspiration or verse from a hymn. The sobbing and moaning people on either side of the street fell on their knees as he came abreast and asked for his blessing. Raising his closely handcuffed arms and holding the palms together, he made the sign of the cross over those on his right and then over those on his left. Even the Puritans who abominated such proceedings could not remain impassive, and many were moved to tears on seeing William every inch a saint, going to his death.

Ahead, clearly outlined in the radiant May morning light stood the instrument of torture and death, the gallows. Far from causing Tirry feelings of revulsion, the sight of it actually seemed to spur him on. His pace quickened and an eager smile of longing lit up his face. The approach to and the area immediately surrounding the base of the scaffold was cordoned off by soldiers well trained in this kind of operation, though they were hard-pressed to keep back the angry, snarling crowd, estimated at about a thousand, which kept on castigating the proceedings. William’s comment was: “We must be proved by evil and this be fortified against evils by evils.” At the place of execution, William said words of encouragement to his companion, Peter Power, and gave him absolution. When Power started up the steps of the ladder to the platform on which the hangman awaited him, William went down on his knees and prayed aloud with all his heart for his companion until his lifeless body was taken down and his own turn came.

One can imagine the marshall, Rouse, catching the swaying halter. He handed it, we read, gently and even reverently to William, who touched and put it to his lips, saying it was more precious to him than the finest chain of gold in the kingdom. With the noose placed around his neck, William appealed to the marshal not to let him be thrown unawares, as he was about to mount the steps backwards and talk to the people from his position. Rouse assured him he need have no worry. At each step Tirry paused and spoke one of the Ten Commandments and then on the seven sacraments. He preached with tremendous effect, making the commandments of God and the Church the main theme of his discourse. Outside the Church there was no salvation. The faith which Christ preached and without which nobody could be saved was transmitted by St. Peter to his successors, the popes. This was the faith brought to Ireland by St. Patrick, who was commissioned by Pope Celestine. For this faith he, Tirry, was being executed.

Addressing the Puritans he stung them with the argument that many other martyrs had used to clarify the issue: “I would have life and favor if I defected to you.” “But,” he added, “I prefer to die for the true religion.” “There is,” continued Tirry, “only one gate to heaven. It is the Catholic faith and the good works of the Church.” His eloquence went home. The overwhelming Catholic majority among his audience pledged themselves that nothing would force them to give up their faith. Many non-Catholics were won over by Tirry’s impassioned oratory. His easy command of English gave him an advantage that perhaps not many possessed, namely the ability to switch from Gaelic to English, and vice versa. A Puritan minister experienced a mounting sense of alarm as he noticed the effect which William’s preaching was having on the non-Catholics. He urged the marshal to hang Tirry forthwith, but Richard Rouse ignored him and calmly told Tirry to proceed with the sermon. The irate clergyman, nothing daunted by the rebuff, began to interrupt Tirry with questions. “Where in Holy Scriptures,” he challenged him, “is it proved that Christ’s body is really in the sacred host?” The would-be controversialist must have had second thoughts about taking on Tirry, when the latter quick as lighting cited for him Matthew 26 and 1Corinthians 11 according to the Protestant version of the Bible published the previous year. It must have rocked the minister to discover that William could meet him on his own ground and turn the tables on him. Since the moment was not a time for indulging in controversy, Tirry advised his opponent to go and see Canon Conway, Father Fogarty, and the other priests in prison, who would solve his difficulties for him.

As Tirry raised his eyes to heaven, the sun, an image of the Sun of Justice and Mercy, shone straight down on him. He appeared to look through and beyond it. Despite its dazzling glare, his gaze remained fixed. He was about to signal to the marshal that he was ready. Before making one last appeal to God for mercy and forgiveness, there was something he wanted to declare in the most public, memorable, and fullest manner possible. It is unlikely that the three informers who betrayed him into the hands of his executioners had the effrontery to show themselves that morning in Clonmel though it remains possible that they did attend the execution. Despite having been cut to the heart by the cruel treachery of his three friends, William, being the man he was, had beyond doubt already forgiven them and bore no grudge against them. Now when death was upon him, the death for which they were in no small part responsible, he made sure that they and everybody else would know his mind. Addressing them in globo, he passed over their names in silence out of charity. He assured them of his entire forgiveness and, as a friend, prayed for them with great earnestness. Then proclaiming his own need for forgiveness from God, he struck his breast with his handcuffed hands. He asked that any priest present, especially an Augustinian, would give him a last absolution but without betraying himself. He signaled to the marshal that he was now ready, and the hangman pushed him off the ladder. With a jerk the noose bit into his neck, and his head fell to one side, blood pouring from his nostrils. William Tirry’s lifeless body swung to and fro. It was Tuesday, 12 May 1654, and the forty-sixth year of this life.

There was a rush for relics. People broke through the cordon of soldiers and swarmed beneath the scaffold, mopping up the martyr’s blood with their handkerchiefs. Others snatched at his habit, satisfied to secure a thread. By tradition, whatever the victim had on him went as a perquisite to the hangman. He was more than ready to dispose of Tirry’s habit and other articles to the eager bidders. Friends of the dead friar purchased his rosary as well as the rope and manacles, no doubt for a substantial sum, and handed them over to Canon Conway. He in turn brought these precious relics to Brussels and handed them over to James O’Mahony, the Irish provincial-in-exile, together with the Latin treatise which Tirry composed on the errors of Protestantism and the letter Dennis O’Driscoll wrote to him in prison. Sad to say, these items were later mislaid or lost.

Michael Benedict Hackett, O.S.A., A Presence in an Age of Turmoil, “Blessed William Tirry, O.S.A.,” pp. 152-155, Augustinian Historical Institute, Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania 2001