The Life and Execution of Fr. Nicholas Sheehy
There has been many a black day in Irish history and the dawn of the morning of March 15th 1776 must be among them for it was on this morning that Rev. Fr. Nicholas Sheehy, parish priest of Clogheen in South Tipperary, was hanged in Clonmel jail. This was an unjust end for a man whose life had been totally dedicated to the poor and grossly oppressed people who he endeavoured to help.
After death from hanging, the body was decapitated and the head placed on a sword. This then which was fixed to a wall in a public place near the jail and where the head was left to decay for 20 years. The headless body was harnessed to a horse and dragged through the streets of Clonmel. Having completed this ignoble procession, Fr. Sheehy's body was made available to his Clogheen parishioners who gave him a respectful burial in Shanrahan cemetery just outside the town.
There were other executions around the same time too. Two months later, a cousin of Fr. Sheehy named Edward “Buck” Sheehy also was hanged. He was the father of Colonel Sheehy who became a distinguished officer in the French service and was aide-de-camp to Wolfe Tone. Also, executed on the same day as Fr. Sheehy was Ned Meehan from Grange, a Catholic man who refused to give evidence against him on behalf of the authorities and perjure himself. As the rope was placed on their necks on the gallows, three women rushed through the police cordon. These included two sisters of Fr. Sheehy and the young wife of Ned Meehan, who shouted from the gallows to the mother of his six children: O Biddy, Biddy dear. May God pity you and may he protect our six children – my poor wife.
Nicholas Sheehy was born in 1728 and his father, Francis Sheehy, was a native of Dromcollogher, Co. Limerick. This is where he grew up with his brothers Brian, William and Roger before seeking his independence by acquiring an estate in Glenaneiry, near the picturesque Nire valley at the foot of the Comeragh Mountains in Co. Waterford. Having settled there, Francis married a member of the Power family of Bawnfune outside Clonmel. This family were respected not because of their social standing and wealth but because of their consideration and generosity to poor, needy peasant country folk.
At that time, Catholic farming people very much were second class citizens. Those who were fortunate enough to be able to rent a few acres from a landlord worked hard rearing a few cattle or sheep. Nevertheless, their main task was to grow potatoes and wheat to feed their families. To clothe them, the production of wool and flax was much needed so that usable clothing could be made.
Nicholas has his childhood education at home and he also attended some private schools in Waterford. Then, he moved to France in order to further his education ahead of commencing training for the priesthood in Louvain, Santiago, Salamanca and Rome. Thus, he lived in Belgium, Spain and Italy before he was ordained to the priesthood at Rome in 1753.
Return to Ireland
Following ordination, he returned to Ireland to minister in parishes (like Newcastle) around south Tipperary and Waterford before being appointed parish priest of Clogheen and Burncourt. He was admired as a priest with passionate sense of social justice and practiced herbal medicine too. His sense of social justice brought him into conflict with local landlords because he campaigned vigorously against evictions. He also opposed the enforcement of a British rule forcing Catholics (who hardly had enough themselves anyway) to pay tithes (or monies) to support Church of Ireland clergy. Some Catholics found themselves under such pressure that they converted to Anglicanism.
At that time, the big landowners of south Tipperary feared another invasion like the one associated with the war of successions to the British throne fought by followers of James and William of Orange seventy five years earlier. So they started a campaign against Fr. Nicholas that claimed that he was advocating a rebellion against the Crown. They also added and that they feared being massacred by the distrusted Irish Catholics, who had associations with France through having fathers and sons fighting in the French army. This agitation against Catholics and against the Catholic clergy was not helped by members of a secret oath-sworn organisation with a very strong presence in south Tipperary.
The Whiteboys or Levellers movement had its origin in Kilmallock in 1760 when William Fant, an attorney, became enraged by the treatment meted out by the rich landlords to the downtrodden, suffering ordinary people of rural Ireland. The objective of this organisation of gangs of country people, especially the youth, was to carry out intermittent raids on the properties of landlords by night. Levelling protective walls and fences as well as digging up trees and other items together with sometimes killing cattle on estates was the cause of their getting the name “Levellers”. The title “Whiteboy” arose from the uniforms that they wore, which included a white cockade hat and a white shirt pulled over their ordinary clothes in order to conceal their identity when engaged in their destructive raids. The organisation spread rapidly throughout the country and especially in south Tipperary. Sometimes, as many as three hundred young people would take part in a raid.
Fr. Sheehy at one stage was accused by his enemies of taking part in the levelling of fences around common land in Dromlemmon. Despite the fact that any doubt about he condoning the violent actions of the Whiteboys contrasted with his outspoken philosophy of life, which was “Live and let live”, he was arrested for this alleged offence. Because the prosecutors could not find any Catholic prepared to give evidence against him in court, the case was dropped. Even so, this did not deter his opponents from continuing their campaign against him.
At that time, there lived a man of low social standing who was an informer and he became a suspect for stealing a chalice from a little church near Ballyporeen, the ancestral home of the late former President of the U.S.A, Ronald Reagan. This man's name was John Bridge and he was reproached by Fr. Sheehy, an action that led to an accusation of an assault on Bridge with a warrant being issued in the name of the priest. Aware of the determination of his enemies to build up accusations against him, Fr. Sheehy then went into hiding.
Ironically, a Protestant farmer friend named William Griffith, who lived near Shanrahan cemetery, suggested that if he took refuge in a tomb in the graveyard by day, he would invite him to sleep in his house by night. This offer was taken up by Fr. Sheehy so he spent his nights with Griffith and at dawn entered the tomb where he spent his day in prayer and offering up his daily Mass. This state of affairs was continued for twelve months.
Then, he decided to escape to the home of his cousin in Feoghanagh. Leaving Clogheen, he made his way through the night on horseback to Appletown Hall. Here he spent some time and it is said that he often celebrated mass in nearby Auglish cemetery. In time, Fr. Sheehy became very impatient and frustrated with his fugitive way of life that was so much at variance with what he saw as God's plan for him as an ordained priest. He decided to face the charges against him, of which he knew he was not guilty. He wrote to the Irish Secretary of the time, a Mr. Waite, offering to surrender on condition that his trial would not take place in Clonmel but in Dublin where he expected a fair trial. Waite wrote back, assuring him that if he gave himself up immediately that he would be granted his wish. On giving himself up, he was escorted under heavy military guard to Dublin.
The trial of Fr. Sheehy never got under way officially. The provost's preliminary investigation of the evidence did not prove that he was guilty of the treasonable offence of promoting a rebellion against the Crown. Also, there was no evidence to prove that he had any hand or part in the activities such as the destruction by the Whiteboys of the common land owned by a landlord who lived near Clogheen. Fr. Sheehy was acquitted of these charges at the King's Inn but was to be imprisoned in the Lower Yard of Dublin as a result of further charges instigated against him.
The authors of these charges included a clergyman and landlords from south Tipperary. They also were to have bribed people of the lowest orders of society to perjure themselves as proof of the allegations in court. This campaign was brought to a climax when John Bridge went missing. This was the informer suspected of stealing the chalice from the little church at Ballyporeen and provided a real opportunity to charge Fr. Sheehy with his murder.
A lady of low moral repute, Moll Dunlea, was bribed to bear false witness against the priest. She swore under oath that she saw Fr. Sheehy and other men carrying the dead body over a bridge near the estate. That bridge is known as Black Bridge today. Others testified that, on the same night, they saw a body being carried in a field beside the same bridge. Yet when the site of the supposed grave was dug up, no body was found.
Even so, among the list of charges prepare against Fr. Sheehy was the murder of John Bridge. The re-arrest for those charges took place in Dublin and he was handed over to the military in Clonmel to be court-martialled, having been brought on horseback from Dublin with his hands tied behind his back and his legs shackled by a chain that went around the horse's underside.
On the morning of Thursday, 16th March 1766, Fr. Sheehy was led into the courtroom in Clonmel amid a highly charged atmosphere. The presiding magistrate read out the charges against Fr. Sheehy and a local farmer named Ned Meehan, a father of six children who was accused of killing a Protestant by striking him over the head with a briar hook; the man was supposed to have died instantly. The charges against the priest were as follows: the murder of he missing Bridge, encouraging the commit the crimes that they did as part of the campaign that they waged against landlords and being engaged in planning and encouraging a French invasion.
The concocted evidence was given entirely of people of such low repute that perjury under oath was to them the value of the bribery that they had received. Having completed the evidence, the jury (which was comprised of landlords) retired for a while and, as expected, returned a guilty verdict on all charges. When handing down the sentence, the magistrate proclaimed: You shall be hanged, drawn and quartered and may God have mercy on your soul and grant you the sight of the enormity of your crime.
In reply, Fr. Sheehy thanked the magistrate and wished that God would have mercy on his soul. He then proceeded to deliver an eloquent and well reasoned protest against the shameful injustice, the gross perjury and deadly malice of which he himself, Ned Meehan and all downtrodden Catholics were the victims. He concluded by declaring: I leave it to God to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty.
On hearing the sentence, Fr. Sheehy's defending attorney shouted at the members of the jury: If there is justice in heaven, you will die roaring. As it was, these jurors hardly were impartial anyway. Many of them and others involved in the exercise met sudden and inglorious ends:
- Huge gatherings of rioters and processions of sympathy took place in Clonmel and surrounding towns and cities after the execution. It was on the occasion of one of those gatherings, this time in Kilkenny, that the hangman Darby Brahan was stoned to death.
- Moll Dunlea who fell down a stairway, split her skull in a cellar before dying
- Thomas Maude, member of parliament for Tipperary in 1761 who lived in Dundrum House, died a raving lunatic and screaming that Fr. Sheehy was pulling him down to hell. He was responsible for selecting the jurors who met and conspired on the drawing room of his home.
- John Bagwell of Kilmore developed a mental disorder and became incapable of speech and rationality. For years before his death, he imagined that he saw the headless body of Fr, Sheehy hanging onto his elbow.
- William Bagwell of Marlhill near Ardfinnane shot himself.
- Matthew Jacob of Mobarnane House near Fethard died from a violent epileptic fit.
- William Barker of Kilcooley Abbey dropped dead unexpectedly on a street.
- Shaw choked to death.
- Ferris from Clonmel went mad and beserk and became unmanageable.
- John Dunville died after a kick from his horse.
- Alexander Hoops died in a stream having gone insane.
- A juror named Minchin died a destitute beggar, ridden with disease.
- Osborn Tothall of Clonmel, cut his own throat. His family were prevented from burying him in the graveyard when they found his freshly dug grave had been filled with stones overnight.
- When Jonathan Willington of Castlewillington died in his lavatory, the cause of death never was revealed but there naturally were suspicions.
- Yet another died with a most unusual grin on his face.
- Tinker Lonergan contracted a strange disease and died an agonising death.
- A notorious horse thief named Toohey contracted leprosy.
While there were those who may have felt relieved that an obstacle may have been removed from their midst by an unjust action, it would appear that divine justice seemed to prevail when you read the above list. Interestingly, John Bridge was traced to Newfoundland, Canada where he was found alive and well after a two year search for his body. When approached, he was completely unaware that there had been a trial for his murder.
Following the execution of Fr. Sheehy, anger grew intensely among the Catholics. The activities of the Whiteboys grew in frequency and intensity. People mainly used to sneak to the head of Fr. Sheehy to catch some drops of blood with their bare hands. Then, they would go to the door of the Church of Ireland church in Clogheen as well as the doors of the parson's house, John Hewetson, making the sign of the cross with their blood-stained hands. The parson also was a member of the group who selected the witnesses for the trial.
It is considered remarkable that, during the twenty years that Fr. Sheehy's head was left exposed on a sword outside Clonmel Gaol, it was never touched or pecked by crows, magpies or other flesh-eating birds. After two whole decades of appealing, Fr. Sheehy's sister Catherine was given back the head of her brother, which she brought back to Clogheen in a bag under her arm for burial in the same grave with the rest of his body in Shanrahan cemetery, close to the tomb where he spent his days in hiding. The memory of their martyred pastor lives on strongly in the minds of the people of south Tipperary to this day together with that of the four young men whose to die by hanging rather than give evidence against their beloved priest.
In 1867, the parish priest of Clogheen planned to have an elaborate monument erected over the grave but Lord Lismore objected to the erection of any sort of memorial over the grave. So determined was he to have his wishes enforced that a guard of soldiers was set up to ensure that no action could be taken by the local people. However, in 1991, the people of Clogheen came together to erect a very impressive structure over the grave, This consists of a tomb surrounded by an ornamental steel railing overshadowed by a cross with an image of the crucified Jesus. An adjoining headstone is engraved with the following inscription:
Within this graveyard
lies the remains of
Fr. Nicolas Sheehy
P.P. Of Clogheen
Executed in Clonmel
March 15th 1766
Erected by the people
of Clogheen. March 1991.
These complement an impressive Celtic cross erected to the memory of Fr. Sheehy that stands imposingly in the yard next to the entrance of the entrance to the beautiful Gothic parish church situated in the heart of Clogheen. Today, it is a practice of the people of Clogheen to visit and pray at the grave, placing their intentions in the hands of their martyred parish priest. In the past, people preparing to emigrate used to bring a particle of soil from the grave with them to whatever new home they established in another part of the world.
At the time of his arrest, Fr. Sheehy left behind a set of mass vestments at Appletown Hall, Feoghanagh, which were donated later by a descendant of Roger Sheehy to the Most Revd. Dr. Dwyer, Bishop of Limerick and a family cousin. A stole, the vestment worn by priests across both shoulders when administering the sacraments, from this set of vestments was given to the Sheehy's of Dromcollogher. This item has been preserved respectfully by successive generations of Sheehys in a specially designed wooden reliquary at Woodfield.
There is a story about this stole from when the late Robert Sheehy, formerly a G.P. in Dromcollogher and affectionately known as Doctor Bob, was caring for his aged mother in her senility. One night, she was agitated and unable to sleep or relax. Then, he acted on inspiration and took the stole from its reliquary and placed it on his mother's forehead with a prayer. To his amazement, his mother relaxed immediately and slept peacefully through the night.