The harsh conditions in which William Tirry spent his last days, imprisoned in a squalid gaol cell, were a far cry from the comfortable surroundings he could have enjoyed had he chosen a different path in life.
In 1608, he was born into the privileged home of a well-connected family in Cork City. He grew up here, studious and reserved, with his sister and two brothers. His uncle and namesake would be Bishop of Cork and Cloyne in later years.
Following his secondary education, at the age of 18 as far as we know, he was received as a postulant at the Cork Augustinian 'Red Abbey'. In so doing, he left behind a life where wealth and influence were assured, for one where sacrifice and devotion were assumed.
He continued his studies in Valladolid, Spain where he was ordained as a priest in 1634. Further study brought him to Paris and Brussels, before returning to Cork in 1638. He acted as secretary to his uncle the Bishop for a few months before working as chaplain and tutor for his extended family.
He returned to the community of Holy Trinity Abbey in 1642. The following year he was appointed to the Friary in Fethard and became prior in 1646. Here he would spend the last eleven years of his life and is believed to rest to this day.
This was a time of huge unrest in Ireland with widespread persecution of Roman Catholics. The arrival of Cromwell in Ireland prevented William taking up a new appointment as prior of Skreen, Co. Meath in 1649. The walled town of Fethard was taken by Cromwell in 1650. The Church and Friary were desecrated. In spite of the dangers, William remained to serve the people of Fethard, going into hiding in and around the town with the help of people such as Mrs Amy Everard. A law enacted in 1653 decreed that any priest found on Irish soil was guilty of treason and as a result many priests fled to the continent. William, however, bravely continued to work with secrecy and caution until his betrayal.
On Holy Saturday 1654, while preparing for Mass in Mrs Everard's house, Fr William Tirry was arrested by Cromwellian soldiers. In the room were found some of his writings: including a comprehensive profession of his Catholic faith. He was taken to Clonmel gaol. His mock trial took place 10 days later on May 6th with his execution following on May 12th. In their accounts of his last days, his fellow prisoners, priests and religious amongst them, spoke with huge admiration for his courage and sanctity.
He is quoted as saying, in Irish, on the eve of his execution,
"God Almighty be thanked, who chose me to this happy ending."
His last pulpit was to be the steps of the gallows, where he forgave his betrayers and preached on the importance of the Ten Commandments to the large crowds, Catholic and Protestant alike, who had gathered there. His powerful, moving speech was perhaps a long way from the reserved young man who had entered the Augustinian Abbey as a postulant, 28 years previously.
Permission was granted to the people of Fethard to bring back the body of their martyred priest for burial in the ruined Friary buildings. Blessed William was laid to rest then, somewhere within the century-defying church now known to locals simply as 'The Abbey'.
Fr William Tirry was beatified by Pope John Paul II in St Peter's Square, Rome on September 27th 1992.