January 24th : Blessed William Ireland, SJ

Blessed William Ireland, SJ

Born : 1636
Died : Jan 24, 1679
Beatified : Dec 15, 1929

William Ireland was born in Lincolnshire, England. He was educated at the English College at Saint-Omer, Flanders and entered the English Jesuit Novitiate at Watten, Flanders at nineteen. He did theology at Liege and was ordained in 1667. For ten years after his ordination he taught at Saint-Omer and was confessor to the Poor Clares at Gravelines.

He returned to England in 1677 and was appointed procurator of the English Province. He was based in London and was travelling under the name “Ironmonger”. His apostolate however lasted slightly over a year because Titus Oates, a renegade Anglican minister who hated the Jesuits, concocted a ridiculous story accusing the English Jesuits of planning to assassinate the king, overthrowing the government and of reinstating the Catholic Church. This fabricated “Popish Plot” roused the fury of the nation and renewed the persecution of the Catholics resulting in the arrest of Frs Ireland, John Fenwick and their lay assistant John Grove at their residence in the dead of the night. They were imprisoned at Newgate where they suffered from three months of incarceration before being brought to trial together with Fr Thomas Whitbread and the Benedictine brother, Thomas Pickering.

At the trial, Oates falsely testified that he was present at a special meeting of Jesuits in April that year when plans were supposedly made to murder the king and that Frs Ireland, Fenwick and Whitbread were present at that meeting. Oates also declared that Fr Ireland was seen at the royal residence in August and that the assassination would have taken place had Bro Pickering’s pistol not failed to fire. Fr Ireland maintained that he was away from London at the time he was falsely alleged to be seen near the royal palace and was able to produce evidence. Instead a young maid, bribed by Oates came forth to say that she had seen the priest in London during that same period. On the basis of this false testimony, Fr Ireland Br Pickering and Mr Grove were found guilty of high treason and ordered to be hang, drawn and quartered.

The execution was postponed for a month because Charles II never believed that the Jesuits were involved in a plot against him, but when Oates produced more disreputable witnesses, the king, fearing the people’s anger, agreed to proceed with the executions.

On Friday, January 24, 1679, Fr Ireland and Mr Grove were taken to Tyburn, the place of execution. Br Pickering was given a reprieve, but was later executed on May 9. At the gallows, Fr Ireland professed both their innocence and denied any plot against the king’s life and said: “ I beg God Almighty to shower down a thousand and a thousand blessings upon his Majesty……and all the royal family, and also on the whole kingdom. As for the Catholics that are here, we desire their prayers for a happy passage into a better world, and that God would be merciful to all Christian souls….. and so I beseech all good people to pray for us and with us.” On completing these words, Fr Ireland and Mr Grove recollected themselves in prayer. The cart was drawn from under them and they remained hanging until they were dead. The bodies were then cut down and quartered. Fr Ireland was forty-three years old and had been a Jesuit for twenty-four years. He was the first Jesuit martyr of the infamous Titus Oates plot.