Wexford Martyrs: 7 facts about Six Irish Catholics hanged, drawn and quartered by Elizabeth I for treason in 1581
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Wexford Martyrs: 7 facts about Six Irish Catholics hanged, drawn and quartered by Elizabeth I for treason in 1581

THE Wexford Martyrs were six Irish Catholic rebels who were hanged, drawn and quartered in the late 16th century for treason against Queen Elizabeth I of England.

On this week in 1581:

The men were executed in Wexford town on July 5, 1581 after being found guilty of refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy which declared Elizabeth to be head of the Church.

They were also convicted of aiding the escape from Ireland of rebellious Anglo-Irish nobleman James Eustace, 3rd Viscount Baltinglass as well as several Catholic priests, laymen and a Jesuit.

Their names were Patrick Cavanagh (Pádraigh Caomhánach), Edward Cheevers, Robert Myler, John O'Lahy and Matthew Lambert - while the identity of the sixth martyr has sadly been lost to history.

Here are 7 things you should know about the Wexford Martyrs...

1. Persecution

Religious persecution of Catholics in Ireland began under King Henry VIII (then Lord of Ireland) around 50 years before 1581, when he broke the Church of England away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church during the English Reformation - the process of transforming England into a Protestant country.

The Irish Parliament adopted Henry's Acts of Supremacy and Treasons Act in 1534, meaning many priests, bishops and laypeople who continued to pray for the Pope were imprisoned, tortured and killed.

In 1537, John Travers, the Chancellor of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, was executed under the Act of Supremacy - one of the first executions of the so-called Irish Catholic Martyrs.

2. Rebellion

There was no great pressure put on Catholics to become Protestant during the early years of Elizabeth I's reign, but the situation changed rapidly from about 1570 on wards.

In 1569, the First Desmond Rebellion was launched in Ireland at almost the same time as the Catholic Northern Rebellion in England.

Both insurrections were mercilessly crushed by the English forces, and Gaelic customs such as Brehon Laws, Irish dress, bardic poetry and the maintaining of "private armies" were outlawed and suppressed in Ireland.

3. Defeated

A decade later in 1579, the Second Desmond Rebellion was sparked when Anglo-Irish lord James FitzMaurice FitzGerald launched an invasion of Munster.

This second rebellion was even bloodier than the first and only ended in 1583 with the death of Gerald FitzGerald, 15th Earl of Desmond, and the defeat of the rebels.

One of the leading rebels during the insurrection was James Eustace, Viscount Baltinglass, who began raising forces in Co. Wicklow in the summer of 1580 in support of the Earl of Desmond's separate uprising in Munster

4. Fugitive

Viscount Baltinglass wasn't very good at the whole rebelling thing and was forced to flee to Munster after 45 of his followers were executed in Dublin.

Baltinglass and his chaplain, Father Robert Rochford, eventually found refuge with a Wexford baker named Matthew Lambert.

Lambert fed them and arranged for a ship to take them to Catholic Spain with the help of five sailor friends.

5. Betrayed

Lambert was betrayed and - along with the five sailors - arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the Elizabethan government.

While being questioned, Lambert replied: "I am not a learned man. I am unable to debate with you, but I can tell you this, I am a Catholic and I believe whatever our Holy Mother the Catholic Church believes."

All six men were found guilty of treason and hanged, drawn, and quartered in the centre of Wexford on July 5, 1581.

6. Spain

Viscount Baltinglass actually made it to Spain in the end and was initially well-received by the Catholic nation.

However, he later died there childless in 1585 having only just failed to persuade King Philip II to provide sufficient troops and ships to invade Ireland.

Three of his own brothers had been executed or slain while rebelling against England, while another brother later served in the failed Spanish Armada of 1588.

7. Legacy

In 1992, Pope John Paul II beatified 17 Irish Catholic Martyrs who died between 1537 and 1714, including the Wexford six.

One of the most notable martyrs was Bishop Dermot O'Hurley, who was tortured and hanged at Hoggen Green, Dublin on June 20, 1584.

A monument commemorating the executed Archbishop of Cashel was erected in the Irish capital following his beatification in 1992.

Originally published on July 2019.