Sunday, March 23, 2003


On this day in 1642 the Dominican priest Blessed Peter Higgins was hanged in Dublin, Ireland for his priesthhood and his Catholicism. The place and date of his birth are unknown, but the best guess is around 1600 in or near Dublin. There isn't much written on the web about Blessed Peter. I shall try to record some of Fr. Corish's short "life" when I get some time later. Off to Mass now.


Actually there is more in Desmond Forristal’s Seventeen Martyrs so I have taken some of Bl. Peter’s details from that volume. (Published by The Columba Press, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, Ireland. [1990] It seems still to be available from Veritas in Dublin for about 7 and a half euros.)

1641 saw a rising of the Catholic population in Ireland, particularly in Ulster, against the English and Lowland Scottish planters.

“By the beginning of 1642 the rebels were coming very close to Dublin. They captured the town of Naas and were within twenty miles of the city. Most of the Protestant population of the city took refuge in Dublin but some were unlucky enough to fall into the hands of the rebels. One of them was a clergyman, Canon William Pilsworth, son of the Protestant Bishop of Kildare, who has left us a vivid account of his ordeal.

“He was captured by the rebels and brought to the gallows to be hanged. As he stood upon the scaffold, a jeering mob surrounded him and mockingly asked him to preach them a sermon. Just when he had given up hope, a priest suddenly appeared and made a long and impassioned plea to the crowd on his behalf. He spoke warmly of the clergyman’s father, the Bishop, who had lived for many years among them and did not deserve that his son should receive such treatment. He warned them that if they put him to death they would draw down God’s vengeance upon themselves for their cruelty. The crowd were so moved by his words that they allowed the Canon to come down from the scaffold and make his way to Dublin. He does not name the priest who rescued him, but all the circumstances suggest that he was the Dominican prior of Naas, Father Peter Higgins.”

This was not the only example of Fr. Peter’s sense of justice and mercy. Forristal says that there were many other times during the brief period that the town was in the hands of the rebels that he did everything in his power to prevent such atrocities as occurred in other parts of the country. “Many Protestants afterwards testified that they owed their lives to his intervention. Sometimes he defended them publicly and used his powers of persuasion to have them set free. At other times, he sheltered them secretly until they could safely make their way to Dublin. A Protestant minister later described how the priest had taken him into his own house and hidden him under his bed until the danger was past. Then he provided him with clothing and money and sent him safely on his way.”

When the town was finally captured by English government forces, two very different personality types shared the power. One was James Butler, Earl of Ormond and commander of the royal army and the other was Sir Charles Coote, the governor of Dublin. When Ormond arrived in Naas, Fr. Peter was one of the few left in town. He was soon seized by the soldiers and brought to Ormond. Upon learning that he had taken no part in the rising and had protected Protestants, Ormond promised to protect him. Coote, a fanatical Protestant and a member of the “parliamentary” faction, arrived soon after and demanded Fr. Peter be turned over to him, “which meant certain death” according to Forristal.

Ormond refused and a new civil war seemed likely to break out. As a compromise, Fr. Peter was brought to Dublin. Although Fr. Peter was still imprisoned, Ormond informed the Lord Justices that he had done no crime “and that there were plenty of Protestants in the town who would willingly testify to all that he had done for them.”

Coote was unwilling to let his prey escape. Unknown to Ormond, Coote gave orders for Fr. Peter’s mock trial and execution.

“Early on the morning of the 23 March 1642 Peter Higgins was brought to the market-place in the city to be hanged. A crowd quickly gathered, and he addressed them, telling them that he was innocent of any crime and affirming his loyalty to the Catholic faith and to the Order of St. Dominic. His words were followed by uproar among the crowd, most of whom were refugees from the rebels. Those who knew him shouted that he was innocent and called for his release. Among them was the minister who had hidden under his bed. Those who did not know him howled for his blood, venting upon him all their anger against the rebel Irish. Even when the executioner had done his work and the priest had breathed his last, the crowd were not appeased. They stripped his body and subjected it to mockery and abuse. They refused to let it be buried within the city and when it was being carried outside the gate they attacked it and beat it savagely. His final burial-place is unknown.

“A relation of Ormond’s happened to pass through the market-place and saw what had happened. He immediately informed Ormond, who went to the Lord Justices and demanded that Coote be called to account for what he had done. They refused to take any action and Ormond could do nothing except to denounce Coote’s crime and dissociate himself from it. For many Catholics it was not enough. They never forgave Ormond for promising to protect the priest and failing to keep his promise.”