PETER O’HIGGINS was born in Dublin in 1602[?] during the severe persecution under James I. He was educated secretly in Ireland and later in Spain. With the accession of Charles I in 1625, a limited tolerance obtained and Peter came back to Dublin and was sent to re-open the Dominican house in Naas. Naas was within the Pale where English law was in force, even though most of the big landowners were still Catholic. Peter had to be careful; he still managed to have a Mass-house of sorts.
At this time William Pilsworth was Church of Ireland Vicar of Donadea. He was the son of the Anglican Bishop of Kildare who was a tolerant man. The Vicar was an exact contemporary of Peter’s and their paths were later to cross. Another, more famous, contemporary was Lord Deputy Wentworth who had close connections with Naas at this time and whose great house at Jigginstown nearby was then nearing completion. Wentworth spent much of his time there. According to the historian Richard Cox, author of Hibernia Anglicana:
“Wentworth who was exposed to the hatred of the Puritans…by suffering public Mass-Houses at Naas, so near his own house and by permitting friars to dwell in a house of his own which he had built for other purposes”.
Then came the 1641 rebellion – an inevitable explosion resulting from the plantations, evictions and persecutions of the period. Eleven years of bitter warfare followed during which conflicting interests crossed and criss-crossed: Irish v Old English, Catholic v Protestant; Puritan v Anglican, etc. In County Kildare the immediate consequence was the total collapse of law and order. While there is no need of actual bloodshed, plunder became a daily occurrence. The property of landowners, Protestant and Catholic, known to be government supporters, was looted and their castle and horses driven off. The terrified owners fled to Dublin.
William Pilsworth, Rector of Donadea, was late escaping to Dublin and when he was stopped by rebel soldiers he was found to be carrying a letter from his brother-in-law asking him to help in bringing the head of a rebel leader to Dublin. Arrested immediately, he was offered his life if he agreed to attend Mass; but this he refused to do. He wrote later that when he was on the gallows, “a priest whom I never saw before, made a long speech on my behalf saying that this…was a bloody inhuman act that would…draw God’s vengeance on them. Whereupon I was brought down and released.”
The priest was Peter O’Higgins. These cruel days were the setting in which Peter O’Higgins showed heroic charity. While the opposing parties were trying to provoke a war of religion, he took his stand as a true minister of religion in the genuine sense of the word. Making no distinction of race or creed, he sheltered the homeless and restrained the violent.
However the government was moving to take charge of the situation in the Naas area. A certain Robert Bysse, who worked in the court of chancery in Dublin, wrote to his brother: “Our army marched to Naas and found no fortification or enemy. Very many of the inhabitants of worth had fled. There was taken one Father Heggin, a prior ther, and Thomas and Walter Ashe of that town. These were taken to Dublin”.
Peter could probably have escaped before the advancing army had arrived, but remained, as he had committed no offence.
As Peter had voluntarily surrendered to Ormonde’s army, some ten years later Ormonde himself was accused of having unjustly shed the priest’s blood. At this time, Ormonde was trying to enlist foreign help to restore Charles II to the English throne and since the charges were serious, he had to defend himself. In 1653 the defence of Ormonde was taken up by Richard Bellings who wrote:
“Ormonde gave Peter Higgins in charge if Sir Thomas Armstong, who commanded the cavalry. Coote [governor of Dublin and the villain of this story] who had received from the Lord Justices power of life and death over priests and Irishmen of low degree, happened to be in Naas at the time and claimed the Dominican as his by right. On his return to Dublin, Ormonde presented petitions from at least twenty Protestants that the priest’s life might be spared. All of these owed their lives and their property to him and most of them drew up their petitions at the suggestion of Ormonde himself. The latter expected that the priest would soon be released. He was amazed when a servant of his, who happened to be crossing the Green on the morning of the execution, told him he had seen the dead body “hanging from the gallows”.
The earliest account of Peter’s harsh imprisonment and death was published together with the decisions of the Dominican General Chapter held in Rome in 1644. The Irish Prior Provincial, Father Terence Albert O’Brien – who would himself be hanged in 1651 – spoke to the gathering about the suffering of the Irish Church and related the story of Peter O’Higgins. The Justice were prepared to grant the prisoner his freedom, provided he publicly renounced his Catholic Faith. He requested that their offer be put in writing and handed to him on the gallows.
The Gallows stood on the west side of the open area corresponding to the present Stephen’s Green. Though it was early morning, a crowd had gathered to witness the execution. Some looked forward to hearing a priest deny his faith. When it came to the turn of Father O’Higgins, a document was handed to him as he stood on the scaffold. The substance of what he then said was recalled years afterwards in Paris, by an eye-witness of the scene:
“So here the condition on which I am granted my life. They want me to deny my religion. I spurn their offer. I die a Catholic and a Dominican priest. I forgive from my heart all who have conspired to bring about my death.”
He then threw the document to a friend in the crowd and nodded to the hangman. With the words “Deo Gratias” on his lips Peter O’Higgins died. It was 23rd March, 1642. Among the crowd at the foot of the scaffold was a Protestant clergyman who wept openly and shouted out: “This man is innocent. This man is innocent. He saved my life.” William Pilsworth, Rector of Donadea, was not wanting in courage, but his words fell on deaf ears.
Seventeen Irish martyrs were beatified in 1991. Two Dominicans were included on the list … Terence Albert O’Brien and Peter O’Higgins. Blessed Peter’s feast is celebrated on 23rd March.