On 15th October 1624 the city leaders of Malines (in French, called Mecheln) in Belgium refused the establishment in their town of the Irish Augustinians, who had bought a house in order to found a convent for their own use as a centre of safety. After the bitter persecution by Oliver Cromwell (which began in 1649) the Irish Province opened a refuge in Rome in 1656 where their house of theology still exists. Their church, St. Patrick's, is now the national Irish church in the eternal city. One Irish Augustinian, William Tirry O.S.A., was arrested while celebrating Mass at Clonmel, Ireland in 1654, and executed. He was one of the seventeen Irish persons that the Pope beatified (i.e., declared to be "Blessed") in the year 1992.
William Tirry was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1608. He entered the Order when he was 18 years old and did his studies at Valladolid, Paris and Brussels. Following ordination to the priesthood he returned to Ireland as a member of the Augustinian community in Cork, a city which became predominantly Protestant with the war of 1641. Following the arrival of Cromwell in Ireland in August, 1649, and the outlawing of priests throughout the country, William was forced to exercise his ministry in secret. He was betrayed while about to celebrate the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, 1654, and was taken to the prison at Clonmel. His crime: being a priest in Ireland! He was offered his freedom if he would renounce his Catholic faith, but he refused. Accused of treason, the court, under pressure of the military, declared him guilty. He was led to the gallows dressed in his Augustinian habit and, from the place of execution, pardoned those who had betrayed him. He asked absolution if there should be a priest in the crowd, thinking that a fellow Augustinian, Fr. Dennis O'Driscoll, the former provincial whose secretary William had been, was present. The day was May 12, 1654. His body was interred at the Augustinian Abbey in Fethard. William was beatified by John Paul II on September 27, 1992 together with sixteen other Irish martyrs.
In the wake of the Reformation in seventeenth-century Ireland, aspirants to the priesthood, whether diocesan or religious, were often ordained before beginning their study of arts (philosophy) and theology. As ordained priests, students would be able to accept Mass stipendsWith stole fees received as well as stole fees, the priest-students could provide funds for their upkeep. Obviously the custom ran counter to the legislation of the Council of Trent, but such legislation did not and could not be expected to extend to countries like where the Catholic religion was proscribed by the State.
In about 1675, an Irish Augustinian became the first English-speaking member of the Order to work in North America. Trained in philosophy and theology in the Augustinian Province of Andalusia in Spain, John Facundus Skerret O.S.A. first remained in Spain to teach theology at Cadiz, and then returned to Ireland. He was the Augustinian Prior (religious superior) at Galway for at least the years 1662-1664. He then ministered in what is now the U.S. state of Virginia. He was forced to leave there in 1680 during the animosity generated against Catholics because of the Gunpowder plot in England. With his facility with the Spanish language, Skerret then moved to Puerto Rico, and later served at the Canary Islands.
In the meantime, Augustinians in Ireland were living under any guise that allowed them to escape detection. An address to parliament in 1703 reported that "regulars (i.e., members of religious orders) concealed themselves under the guise of physicians and other professions. They easily obtain leave to reach as schoolmen." One ingenious Augustinian was the colourful character, Edmund Byrne. By day he was disguised as a soldier and known as the swashbuckling 'Colonel Byrne,' and by night he was a priest offering Mass and the sacraments. It was he who first rented the John's Lane Mass site in 1700 (not the present Augustinian property, but near it). He was in exile in France in 1705, but back in his homeland as the Irish Augustinian Provincial from 1717 to 1724. A Provincial Chapter was held in Ireland (probably in Dublin) in 1703, and documented that there were eighty Augustinians in Ireland. A list in 1722 nominated that there were at least seventy-eight Irish Augustinians then on the Continent for study or for other reasons.
It is an extraordinary fact that this period of persecution produced more vocations (applications) to the Order than any other time. The Provincial in 1725 wrote that, because of lack of any more space in Augustinian seminaries on the Continent, he had to decline accepting "sixteen who offered themselves" to the Order in Ireland. Photos (at right)Picture 1: St Augustine's Church, in the main street of Cork, Ireland. Picture 2: Augustinian churct, Grantstown, Ireland. Picture 3: Augustinian church, Limerick, Ireland. In 1692 the Augustinian Prior General had commented that Augustinian candidates from Ireland were "for the most part young men from noble families." In truth, these sons of landowners and merchants would have been the ones with educational opportunity, including previous exposure to the learning of the Latin language. As well, these probably were the only families who could afford financially to send their sons to the Continent for the numerous required years of education for priesthood, which was a calling that was held in very high respect by the general population of Ireland. Some of these young priests returned to Ireland at the risk of their lives. A small number of them suffered martyrdom.
In the eighteenth century aspirants also came from the less wealthy farming class and from the growing towns and cities. Dublin in particular was a fruitful source of vocations to priesthood and religious life. Some Irish Augustinians laboured for about half a century in Newfoundland, beginning in 1756. Some even with great courage managed to enter England and Scotland at different times in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but were unable to re-establish any Augustinian communities there. In 1751 an Irish Augustinian, Augustine Cheevers O.S.A., was made Bishop of Ardagh, Ireland and served there under the harsh Penal Laws until 1756. He was then transferred to the Diocese of Meath, and died there on 18th August 1778. Another Irish Augustinian, William Gahan O.S.A. (1732-1804), wrote and published during the difficult time of the penal laws. His Sermons and Moral Discourses had been reprinted seven times by the year 1873. As well he wrote about fifteen other instructional books about the Catholic Church, its beliefs, history, devotions and practices of piety. His Manual of Catholic Devotions was used in revised form by the armed forces during World War II. Gahan had studied at Louvain, Belgium to the doctorate level. In 1761 he began parish work in Dublin. He was once jailed for refusing to break the seal of sacramental Confession. Twice he was Provincial of the Order in Ireland.
After centuries in hiding, the Order in Ireland became stronger after some toleration of religious liberty by the Emancipation Act of 1828. During the rest of that nineteenth century, Augustinian communities were set up once again in a few of the twenty towns where they previously had existed. Over the years these Irish Augustinian communities in the late nineteenth century gained enough candidates and became sufficiently established to receive successively from the Curia of the Order in Rome full recognition as an official house of the Order. (In Latin, this was a domus formata - a house formed according to all requirements and regulations of the Church and the Order). Augustinians from Ireland brought the Order back to England and formed a community at Hoxton in London in 1864. In 1862 there began the construction of a great church at Saint John's Lane in Dublin, which was completed externally in 1895 and internally in 1911. In 1878 Irish candidates to the Order were sufficient to open a house of study in Orlagh, near Dublin.
In 1883 there were fifty-three priests in the Irish Province, and the responsibility was accepted to staff a vicariate in North Queensland, Australia. A similar responsibility was taken on regarding the north of Nigeria in Africa in 1938. The houses in Australia became a separate Province of Australia in 1952. Those in England and Scotland became a Vice-Province of Ireland in 1951, and a separate Province in 1977. The houses in Nigeria became a Vice-Province in 1997 and a separate Province of Nigeria in 2001.The Irish Province has more than a dozen communities in Ireland, and a community overseas at Saint Patrick's Church (Rome, Italy) - see link below. Some of its members still minister in Augustinian ministries in Australia, Ecuador and Nigeria, and a number of individuals have special ministries elsewhere.
St Patrick’s in Rome. Web site of the Irish Augustinians, who have conducted a house in Rome since the year 1656. http://www.stpatricksrome.com/irish_augustinians.asp
Former Augustinian Priory, Callan. Excellent photographs by Brian T McElherton. (Note that many other Augustinian friaries on this web site did not involve the Order of St Augustine, but the more numerous Canons Regular of St Augustine.) http://irishantiquities.bravehost.com/kilkenny/callan/callan_priory.html
Former Augustinian Friary, Adare. Founded in County Limerick in 1316, but now a Church of Ireland. Excellent photographs by Brian T McElherton. (Note that many other Augustinian friaries on this webite did not involve the Order of St Augustine, but the more numerous Canons Regular of St Augustine.) http://irishantiquities.bravehost.com/limerick/adare/adare_augustinian.html
Fetherd. Photographs and historical details of Holy Trinity Augustinian Priory, (Note that many other Augustinian friaries on this webite did not involve the Order of St Augustine, but the more numerous Canons Regular of St Augustine.) http://irishantiquities.bravehost.com/tipperary/fethard/fethardpriory.html
(See also http://www.flickr.com/photos/moli516/2903763611
The Low Lane Church: The Story of the Augustinians in Drogheda. By Patrick N. Duffner O.S.A., Augustinian Fathers, Drogheda, 1979.