Cruel and Unusual

A portion of F.W. Byrne’s “Execution of Robert Emmet in
Dublin in 1803″

In 1766, Father Nicholas Sheehy was hanged, drawn and quartered, then decapitated by the state. This was his penalty for a murder he clearly did not commit.

During my research, I recently found a book, The Case of Fr. Nicholas Sheehy, edited by Ed O’Riordon that compiles the known accounts of this tragedy. I immediately ordered this treasure trove.

While corresponding with Mr. O’Riordon, he forwarded me an article he recently wrote for the South Tipperary Nationalist newspaper. In it, he considered the horror we feel as ISIS beheads innocents before our very eyes. “It is,” he writes, “the stuff of nightmares.”

Even as I compose this post, the fates of a Japanese journalist and Jordanian pilot are teetering between freedom and a barbaric death. O’Riordon quotes the reactions of two British Prime Ministers. David Cameron called the actions “despicable and barbaric” while former PM John Major referred to “thirteenth century barbarism.” All true. It sickens every one of us. Many news outlets (thank God) refuse to show the videos and I, for one, will not watch.

Yet, nearly 250 years ago, Father Nicholas Sheehy, a parish priest of County Tipperary, dared to stand up for the poor and struggling against powerful landowners considered by one historian “lunatic fringe.” Convicted of a trumped-up murder charge, the priest’s execution was swift and brutal.

O’Riordon brings this home as we think of today’s news reports. “We should hold on to those feelings of terror and dread and use them to understand the feelings of the people of South Tipperary when Fr Nicholas Sheehy P.P. was hanged and beheaded in Clonmel, in front of his parishioners and family, in 1766.”

Not the thirteenth century. Only two and a half centuries ago. Under British law.

Unbelievably, that was not enough. The priest’s severed head was staked in front of the jail for TWENTY YEARS for all to see as they walked the streets—as a ghoulish warning.

This was not uncommon practice then for true or perceived criminals. About ten years earlier in Boston, a slave named Mark was hanged for murdering his master. His rotting body was placed on display for twenty years. It is said Paul Revere passed these remains on his famous ride.

While we are appropriately horrified by what is going on in Syria and Iraq, it would serve us to remember that, but for a handful of generations, go we.

And yes, it was every bit as horrific.

NOTE: The above picture is from the cover of Ed O’Riordon’s book “The Case of Fr. Nicholas Sheehy”. While it does not depict Sheehy’s execution, Robert Emmet’s was similar.

The John Tuohy Files: Final Chapter

Saint Mary’s Church, Clogheen*

I stood outside St. Mary’s Church of Clogheen, studying the monument built to Father Sheehy’s memory in 1991. Each side had symbolic reliefs, which I was photographing when John Tuohy and Caspar strolled up.

This was John Tuohy’s church and his passion; he had already told me much about it and his diocese. It was built in 1864, nearly a hundred years following Father Sheehy’s execution, but the martyred priest’s church no longer exists.

Monument dedicated to
Father Nicholas Sheehy

On our way inside, Tuohy pointed to a young tree, still held up with cables to steady it. “We planted that tree in honor of the victims of 9-11,” he told me. I stopped and looked for a moment, stunned really. So caught up in the tragedy ourselves, I was reminded that the whole world was affected. The little tree touched my heart.

Inside, the sanctuary was larger and more ornate than I expected. It held a medieval beauty with its very high ceiling and statues atop each pillar. John Tuohy showed me images of Saint Patrick, of course, and Saint Cataldo, a monk native to the area who became shipwrecked in southern Italy following a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He settled there and became as beloved, they say, as Saint Patrick is to the Irish.

The view of the church from
the choir loft*

“Would you like to see the choir loft?” he asked after the sanctuary tour.

Of course, I would. He unlocked the door with an old skeleton key and up we climbed the narrow staircase to the balcony. This was an unexpected treat. The view of the church from there was gorgeous.

He brushed some papers from a stool beside the organ and invited me to sit. It was then I learned that my tour guide was none other than the church’s organist. He offered to play for me.



Monument panel:
Fr. Sheehy saying mass
3rd from bottom

Wow! He played “How Great Thou Art” and two other hymns. I was certainly taken aback and resolved never to forget it. “Reality check,” I remember thinking. “You are in Ireland, in a small town’s beautiful church, in the choir loft, while the organist plays music just for you.”

Life takes wonderfully unpredictable turns.

John Tuohy reminded me of one of my favorite people, my grandfather, Luke Pryor. Both seemed to live rich, full lives in very small towns. Each were somewhat absent-minded, funny, and brimming over with fascinating stories. Without a doubt, during my fantastic two-week stay in Ireland, my day with John Tuohy was my hands-down favorite.

*Photos with asterisks are from the parish website at http://www.bcparish.com/?page_id=14&album=3

The John Tuohy Files: Caspar

John Tuohy & Caspar

One of my husband, Wendy’s, pet peeves is the overuse of the word “surreal” during any and nearly all celebrity interviews. So I’ll describe my interview with John Tuohy as phantasmagoric. (I DO love my thesaurus.com)

After my dubious introduction to John Tuohy, the local historian with expertise on Father Nicholas Sheehy, I followed him into his shop–a shabby, cluttered room with a counter to the left. Behind a rack of postcards was a copy machine covered by a bath towel. Those were the only clues that I may have been in a place of business.

In all other respects, this was someone’s home. In fact, there to the back was the irritated fellow who took me to Tuohy, still grumbling in the kitchen.

John Tuohy and I went through a doorway to the adjoining shop which was, actually, a sitting room. These places were row houses built in the shotgun style; that is, they were narrow, with each room directly behind the other. John Tuohy’s shops seemed to be two of these that had a door cut between them.

I sat on the sofa as invited and met Caspar, the friendly dog. The old, old friendly dog. He was as serene and placid as a Buddhist monk. Yet, John Tuohy went off like I was being smothered by an wild-and-woolly Saint Bernard.

“Down, Caspar! Get down! Caspar. Lie down. Lie down, I said!” The man was frantic.

“He’s fine. Really,” from me. I am not an animal person. I hate when dogs jump all over me, which they do once they sense that I’m not interested in them. But, believe me, it was fine.

Poor Caspar could not jump up on me if he wanted to. The geriatric pooch just sat there, peering at me with his wishful-thinking eyes, almost apologizing for not being able to mount a more enthusiastic welcome. Out of respect, I tried not to pity him.

Finally, he lifted his paw and placed it on my leg. The shin, not the knee. It could have been a giant Q-tip for all the impact it made.

John Tuohy freaked. “Get down, Caspar! Lie down!”

The dog removed his paw and lay down.

Phew! The flustered Tuohy could finally relax; the danger had passed.

Somehow, Monty Python’s Flying Circus came to mind.

A Tale of Two Cities

Before my trip to Ireland, Michelle Stafford of Clonmel’s Main Guard contacted John Tuohy, a local historian from Clogheen (the town near Sheehy’s grave), who would be a willing wealth of information. She emailed his address–simply Main Street–and his telephone number.

Before school one morning, I called and, as an older person, was astounded that he answered the phone without any operator involvement whatsoever. We made an appointment to meet at 10 A.M. on my third day in the country.

My sister, Barbara, bought two copies of Frommer’s Road Atlas, one for each car we rented. This is an outstanding resource in itself and I highly recommend it. What I particularly like is that each page contains a section of Ireland in minute detail. Every four centimeters represents five miles–in American, that’s a fraction over an inch and a half.

If you look on the page of the map I was using, you can see the road follows a loop around a mountain. I had previously driven to Clonmel to the east of the Comeraghs, so this was my first time going this way. Being a responsible person, I left early.

As I zeroed in on my destination, I found myself driving back and forth, back and forth between the blue lines I’ve marked on the map. Where Clogheen should have been, was a field and a small hut of some sort. That certainly was not right.

Therefore, I was no longer early–I was now late. I became frantic. I had looked forward to this interview most of all and was blowing it. Oh–and this was before I owned a cell phone.

Not knowing what else to do, I decided to go into Clonmel and get better directions. Before reaching that city, a road sign said, “Clonmel–4 km” pointing to the right and “Clogheen–21 km” pointing left.

Even though that did not jive with the map AT ALL, I chose to follow the signs. At long last and thirty minutes late, I drove into Clogheen, which was larger than I pictured. I got directions to John Tuohy’s place and, once meeting him, started apologizing profusely for my tardiness. Which he hardly seemed to notice.

I explained my confusion about the map, to which he replied, “Oh. You were going to the wrong Clogheen.”

“The wrong Clogheen?”

“Yes. The one you were looking for is no more than a field.” (No joke!)

Sure enough, when I spread open my map book, there sat the TRUE CLOGHEEN.

Unbelievable.

Drinking In the Atmosphere



My mother and brother-in-law,
Tom Halligan, at Carrigeen Farm House.

 In Ireland, I wanted to inhale the air, crumble the dirt in my hands, and listen to the birds and whatever insects they may have. I mean, the internet offers a wealth of information about these places, but I wanted to know what it felt, smelled, and sounded like to actually be there.

Upon arrival in Dublin, we drove to the Carrigeen Farm House, our rental outside Kilmacthomas (about fifteen miles from the city of Waterford, of cut-crystal fame). The farm was in a most lovely rural setting tucked in the foothills of the Comeragh Mountains. Our landlady called it a “pet day,” meaning it was sunny with cottony clouds. This weather turned out to be fairly rare, as I later learned watching rain clouds roll in from the hills.

The drive to the farm house

While the others were napping from jet lag, I took my notebook and walked down a most picturesque two-rutted dirt road. I jotted down as many sensory images as I could. Here are a few:

TOUCH: “Briars lie hidden under the beauty of the wild flowers, patiently waiting for their prey; they then laugh while the victim sucks the blood from his throbbing finger. Mean-spirited vines.”
SMELL: “The rain splats into the dry, thirsty dust of the road. It smells like new life. It smells like hope.”
SOUND: “a donkey braying frantically with the heavy breathing of an asthmatic old man”
SIGHT: “a bird confidently shows off his masterful dance over a field of young grain”



Me and Tom on the footpath
to Mahon Falls

Apparently, I didn’t taste anything of note. These were written about six and a half years ago, and I now notice I have a tendency toward personification.



Another day, we went to Mahon Falls, not too far from our home base. It was not a pet day. Although it was June, I wore a flannel-lined raincoat as we trekked through a brisk, foggy drizzle. The craggy landscape was dotted with bleating sheep and goats. Gorgeous. It was like waking up in Jane Eyre, or any other gothic romance for that matter.



My mom and sister, Barbara
Halligan, at Mahon Falls

For my writer self, this was a godsend. While my primary purpose was to learn as much as possible about Nicholas Sheehy’s story, soaking up the countryside with all of my senses was priceless.

Witnessing 900 Years of History



Site of Father Sheehy’s trial
Main Guard, Clonmel

I did not want to waste one minute of my trip to Ireland. Through the internet, I found contact information for the building where Father Sheehy was tried and convicted, the Main Guard in Clonmel, County Tipperary. A lovely curator, Michelle Stafford, responded to my email with background information, suggestions, and further contacts. I made an appointment to meet with her the day after we arrived.

The Main Guard was built in the 1600s as a courthouse and a thosel, where tolls, duties, and customs were paid. As if 400 years old is not ancient enough, Michelle told me that some of the stones were taken from a dismantled abbey built by Cisterian monks in the 1100s. She pointed out the mason’s mark chiseled into one block 900 years earlier.


Michelle Stafford, a
wonderful help to me.

It is humbling to see and touch something another human worked on so very long ago.

Inside, she took me to the main room on the second floor where trials had been held. There was a display with Father Sheehy’s story and picture. We looked out the window to see, about a block away, a large yellow hotel where the gaol (as they spelled it then) had been located.

It was a relatively new place then, built in the 1700s, with six dungeons. It was there Father Sheehy had been held awaiting trial. I stared at the street Sheehy was forced to parade on his way to the courthouse.

The road Sheehy took to
his trial. Taken from
the Main Guard.

One account by a man named Curry states that “[o]n the day of the trial, a party of horse surrounded the court, admitting and excluding whom they thought proper…” As I looked where he had walked, I imagined the terror of being dragged through the jeers of enemies, no friends in sight.

After leaving Michelle, I walked that route in reverse to see the location of Sheehy’s hanging, where he was drawn and quartered, and where his head remained on a spike for two decades.

It was said, that out of respect, no birds ever pecked his remains in all those twenty years.

Okay. Enough drama. Sheehy’s likeness is part of the Fennessy Hotel sign where the gaol once stood. But he looked different in the sketch at the Main Guard. Very curious.
 So you decide. Was he a balding red-haired man with glasses or a handsome dark-haired fellow with more regular features? Hmmm. 
Father Sheehy at the Main Guard

  

Father Sheehy on hotel sign

Road Trip!

I caught a leprechaun!

Do you believe in synchronicity? Like when you’re thinking of someone you haven’t seen in ages, and out of the blue, they call you.

Well, with all the online research I was doing on Nicholas Sheehy for my book, Aroon, it came to pass that my sister and her family were taking a two-week vacation in Ireland. When I asked my mom (who was also going) what the chances were they would stop by any of the places I was investigating, she said, “Why don’t you come?”

What’s the likelihood a timely opportunity like that would arise?

I won’t go into the many reasons I had no business taking such a trip at that time. Let’s just say that at my family’s urging, I went.

My sister planned an amazing trip. We did not take a pre-packaged tour since she and her husband had already done that. She rented two houses–a farmhouse for one week in Kilmacthomas of County Waterford and, for the second week, a cottage by the sea in Donegal.

Kilmacthomas is a pretty short drive from Clonmel, the largest town of County Tipperary. That’s where Father Sheehy was tried and hanged. While they toured the area, I went off on my own to interview the museum curator and a local historian. Very, very cool.

The most poignant moment of the fortnight for me was in a cemetery outside the small town of Clogheen. After discovering Father Nicholas Sheehy in a few lines of a book, and weeks of researching and studying him, I stood alone on a windy, overcast day with my hand resting on his tomb. Someone I had not even heard of months before.



The tomb of Father Nicholas Sheehy



Oh, To Be Poor in Ireland!

The eighteenth-century peasants of Ireland were battered and crushed by the infamous Penal Laws imposed by the British. While their farms were backward and inefficient by English standards, rather than train farmers in new techniques, the Parliament passed an oppressive series of laws that left the peasant class dying of starvation.

These policies and their effect provoked Jonathan Swift to write his famous 1729 satire, A Modest Proposal. In it, he suggested the solution to the decimating poverty he encountered was to offer up Irish babies as succulent meals for the rich.

“…I believe no gentleman would refuse to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good, fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent, nutritious meat.”

Apparently, his sarcasm went over the aristocrats’ heads, for his condemnation of the ruling class had little effect.

To make matters worse (if you can imagine), in 1741, a terrible famine known as “The Great Slaughter” rampaged across Ireland. This disaster rivaled its more famous cousin, “The Great Potato Famine”. Numbers are sketchy, but one estimate has 38% of the population dying of hunger and disease.

According to the BBC’s A Short History of Ireland, “The Reverend Philip Skelton, curate of Monaghan parish, reported that there were ‘whole parishes in some places…almost desolate; the dead have been eaten in the fields by dogs for want of people to bury them. Whole thousands in a barony have perished, some of hunger and others of disorders occasioned by unnatural, unwholesome, and putrid diet.’

“An anonymous author of an open letter to Archbishop Boulter described conditions about Cashel in Co Tipperary:

‘Multitudes are daily perishing…I have seen the labourer endeavouring to work at his spade, but fainting for want of food and forced to quit it. I have seen the aged father eating grass like a beast…the helpless orphan exposed on the dunghill, and none to take him in for fear of infection…the hungry infant sucking at the breast of the already expired parent…’”

Remember, this was twelve years after Swift’s damnation of the poor’s deplorable plight.

In the years that followed, landowners found that sheep and cattle were more profitable than tillage. Hence, tenants were evicted as more grazing land was needed. Even the commons where all were free to feed their livestock were taken away.

James Connolly stated in Labour in Irish History, “Where a hundred families had reaped as sustenance from their small farms, or by hiring out their labour to the owners of large farms, a dozen shepherds now occupied their places.”
 
This and other restrictions were apparently the final straws. Having no political power or legal recourse whatsoever,

…the Whiteboys were born.

**See modern-day satirist Stephen Colbert’s take on Swift’s Modest Proposal:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word – Swift Payment
www.colbertnation.com
http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:item:comedycentral.com:368379
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

A Tipperary Martyr

“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
–William Butler Yeats

I find Irish history overwhelming. Our entire United States history is around five hundred years long (if you start with Columbus). That’s a drop in the Irish bucket. Using The Course of Irish History as my starting point, I scanned and examined the pages discussing the 1760s, when my characters would flee the country.

The more I read, the more I wandered back into such a complex cause-and-effect maze, I quickly got lost in the millennia of events. It seemed in the number of clear-thinking years I have left, I could never fully grasp the times or what they meant.

Then on page 186, as though fated, two sentences caught my eye and attention.

“Because he had expressed sympathy with the peasantry in their distress, Father Nicholas Sheehy was convicted on a trumped-up charge of murder, in the town of Clonmel in 1766, and was hanged, drawn and quartered. His grave in Shandraghan soon became a place of pilgrimage, and his death provided later generations of Whiteboys with a patron saint.”

I had never heard of Nicholas Sheehy, the Whiteboys, or even the town of Clonmel at that point, but their story would soon weave its way into my heart and mind and take me on a journey of over four thousand miles and nearly two hundred fifty years.

My Father Sheehy research binder
I started with numerous internet searches and the wealth of information–from the tragic to the mysterious to the ridiculous–could keep me writing forever. This was where I learned the love and excitement of research.

A few teasers for future posts on this topic:

  • Father Nicholas Sheehy was either the virtuous, innocent victim of class hatred and religious fanaticism OR in cahoots with “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” the Pretender to the English throne.
  • After being hung, drawn and quartered, and decapitated, Father Sheehy’s head was posted on a spike for twenty years.
  • The man Father Sheehy was convicted of murdering was reportedly seen in Newfoundland, Canada, two years later.
  • Legend says all the corrupt jurors and the hangman met unusual or humiliating deaths.
  • The main perpetrator of the injustice against the priest, Sir Thomas Maude, was said to have grown a tail.
Hey, you can’t fault the Irish for lack of imagination. The question is: Where does imagination stop and truth begin?

RESEARCH TIP: To find the distance from my home to Clonmel, Ireland, I used a very cool site called Google Maps Distance Calculator. (http://www.daftlogic.com/projects-google-maps-distance-calculator.htm) You merely type in your starting point, then manipulate the map to find and click on your destination. The site calculates the distance in the measurement you want–miles, kilometers, even nautical miles. Great fun!