Thousands of priests suffered much in Ireland during the reigns of King Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth I and their immediate successors, as well as during the era of Oliver Cromwell.
A catalogue of Irish martyrs published in 1896 named 257 clergy and laity martyred during the period between 1534 and 1714.
The details of their endurance have generally been lost to the written historical record. In the case of William Tirry O.S.A., however, there is an exception.
As will be explained hereunder, William Tirry O.S.A. is one of the best documented of the seventeen Irish martyrs who were beatified by Pope John Paul II on 27th September 1992.
His cause for being declared a saint was able to be promoted because there still exists written evidence of some witnesses to his endurance for the Christian Faith while imprisoned and awaiting execution.
As well, his life and suffering represents the similar endurance of many other people of Ireland whose names and deeds are no longer recalled.
William Tirry was born in the City of Cork, Ireland in 1608. He was a member of a well-to-do "Old English" (i.e., Anglo-Irish) family who had been loyal locally to both the British king and the Catholic Church for over 200 years.
The Tirry family was prominent in the life of the city of Cork, where his paternal uncle was bishop of Cork and Cloyne. From 1505 onwards no fewer than twenty members of the Tirry family had served as the Mayor of Cork.
William joined the Augustinian Order in 1627 or 1628, but whether he spent his first year in community in Cork or on the Continent is unknown. When he reached Continental Europe, firstly he studied philosophy in the famous Augustinian house of study at Valladolid, a city in central Spain.
He then moved to the Grand Convent of the Augustinians in Paris for 1635 and 1636. At this Augustinian studium generale (general study house), he was taught theology. After some time in Brussels he returned to Ireland; Brussels was a common gathering and departure point for Irish priests returning to their native land.
Ordained to the Catholic priesthood somewhere on the Continent - probably in Valladolid - probably in 1637 or 1638, Tirry then returned to Cork, Ireland. He was one of the Augustinians at their famous Red Abbey in Cork for some time before the Catholic northern rebellion in 1641.
(The Red Abbey tower is the only medieval building in Cork that is still standing today. The earliest documentary references to the Abbey are early fourteenth century. The tower dates to the later medieval period and was originally the tower part of an Augustinian church, built over the junction of its nave and chancel.)
William was secretary to his uncle and chaplain to his first cousin, and a tutor to the man's sons.
After 1641 Tirry is thought to have been based variously in Augustinian communities in Cork and in Fethard (County Tipperary). Long before the Irish Augustinian Province began, the Order of St Augustine originally came to Fetherd late in the thirteenth century or early in the fourteenth century; King Edward I of England granted them additional land there in June 1306.
In 1646 Tirry was appointed secretary to the Irish Augustinian Provincial. On 15 June 1649 he had been appointed Prior of the Skreen friary in Co. Meath without being able to live there due to the presence of Cromwellian troops. (Oliver Cromwell himself landed in Ireland on 15th August 1649.)
Tirry came to Fethard as Prior about the year 1651. From 1650 to 1654, Tirry was like other priests in hiding and exercising his sacramental ministry in secret. His story is that of a priest remaining at his post, knowing that he was thereby placing his life in jeopardy.
By virtue of the law of 6th January 1653, to be a priest on Irish soil constituted a crime of treason punishable by death.
He probably stayed in the Fethard area by using various safe houses and hiding places. Because of his deep spiritual qualities, his ministry was particularly appreciated by many people.
Even so, three local people betrayed the presence of Tirry to the soldiers of Cromwell for the reward of five pounds sterling that was available for reporting the presence of a priest.
(Continued on the next page.)
Blessed William Tirry O.S.A. (1608 - 1654). A biography by Brother Thomas Taylor O.S.A. He lives in Chicago.