Continued Persecutions - During the reign of Queen Anne, daughter of James II., the fierce blast of intolerance chilled and prostrated the Irish race till our people well nigh became obliterated from the island. Every priest was directed to register himself at the Quarter Sessions, March 1710, but out of 1,088 only 33 yielded to the fury of the tempest.
George I. ascended the throne in 1714. Chapels were ordered to be closed throughout the Kingdom, and Jews were appointed as priest-catchers, while the aristocracy, for the sake of preserving their property, in many cases, went with the tide of the Reformation. The population, under the withering influence of the barbarism to which it had Been subjected, was, in 1728, only 1,700,000, of which 700,000 were Protestants. To add to the national calamities of the period, in 1741 a dreadful famine scourged the land, no less than 400,000 it is said having perished. Next came the rumour that the French threatened invasion, which led up to increased persecution. Churches were all closed, and priests took shelter in their quondam retreats, the mountains.
In an old ruins in Dublin, where the Sacrifice of the Mass was being offered, a loft fell, killing the priest and nine of the congregation, and wounding numerous others. This brought some measure of compassion for a short time. The falling off in the cultivation of the land became so general and the grazing of the country as a sheep farm so nearly complete, that as soon as the foreign price for beef and mutton was raised the system of grazing increased, and the humbler classes had no means of subsistence. Hence, driven to desperation, the society of Whiteboys, and other societies of a like nature, sent the people to commit lawless outrages at night time.
At Waterford, in 1762, the first five of the Whiteboys were hanged upon the charge of being present at the burning down of a cabin, and this upon the evidence of one of their own associates who set fire to it with his own hand. Of course, the public excitement of the time, was at once set down as the result of the influence of the priests, although many of the most eminent divines publicly declared and advised the people upon the unwise and unchristian character of the course which they pursued. Soon the Government found one of its victims in the person of the historic Father Nicholas Sheehy, of Tipperary.
Born – Father Nicholas Sheehy was born at Fethard, about six miles from Clonmel. He was related to some of the most respectable families in Tipperary, and became parish priest of Clogheen, in his own county. This tender hearted man whose burning zeal for his afflicted countrymen brought him into antagonism with the local magnates about Clonmel, had a bitter cup before him. Informations for conspiracy against the State were sworn against him, as against a number of respectable persons around Clonmel, for riot, and after a fair trial they were acquitted.
Meantime the disappearance of the informer Bridge at Clonmel was made a pretext for a second charge against this innocent man. A reward of £50 was offered by the Government any persons who would discover the person or persons concerned in said act. Of course Father Sheehy was pointed to as the probable person concerned. Bridge had been a Whiteboy, and under torture had been compelled to give evidence against Father Sheehy at the previous trial, in company with the abandoned woman, whom Father Sheehy had excommunicated. Hence the surmise that Father Sheehy had got this instrument, which was used against him, done away with, was a favourite one with the few blood-thirsty tyrants who ruled in Tipperary. In fact those disappointed tigers complained so much of Richard Acton who acquitted Father Sheehy by on the previous trial that Judge had to leave this country and take the inferior post of Judge in England.
Early in 1764, after repeated and continuous attempts to compass his destruction, the Government issued a Proclamation, offering £300 reward for his apprehension. Upon the appearance of the Proclamation Father Sheehy wrote from one of his hiding places - for he was compelled to secrete himself from the ravenous wolves who thirsted for his end - to Mr. Secretary Waite offering to give himself up providing he would be tried in Dublin, This offer was accepted, but the Dublin jury saw through the criminality of the informers - a horse dealer called Tuohy, a woman named Mary Butler, and a vagrant boy named Lonnergan. The trial did not take place till the 10th February 1766, when he was acquitted of High Treason. The circumstances which led up to this trial were, in part, such as at all times created trouble in this country, viz. - the poverty of the people, and the harshness of their rulers, but there were some exceptional circumstances peculiar to the locality at the time which exasperated the people.
Irritations - The enclosing of Commonage, by which the poor very often lived, was one of the first acts leading irritation. Next, the collection of Tithes, which, as our readers are aware, meant the tenth part of the produce the Protestant Clergymen. In this case, Messrs. Foulkes and Sutton, the two Protestant Clergymen, commissioned an gent named Dobbyn, to collect their Tithes at Ballyporeen. But the Tithe Proctor levied a new tax for himself named Marriage Money, thus proving himself an impersonation of King, Lords and Commons. Every couple married by a Priest should pay five shillings to this worthy.
Thus the desperation to which the people were driven ended in rising of one kind or another till sufferings of the worst fell to the lot of the people. The verdict of acquittal for high treason was no sooner passed for Father Sheehy than he was charged with murder, and after a few days he was conveyed to Clonmel, where his merciless enemies lay waiting for their prey. It seems a pleasing incident in the sufferings of this man that while he hunted from house to house, from hill to mountain top, and thence to ravine, he at length found shelter in the house of a Protestant for the few last days before his arrest, viz., the house of Mr. Cornelius O'Callaghan. During his stay at this house his abode by day was a family vault in the churchyard close by.
Tried for Murder - The delay for a new trial was not long. On the 12th March 1766, he was tried at Clonmel for the murder of John Bridge. Most of the previous witness were produced, with the addition of Mrs. Mary Brady (Moll Dunlea) an abandoned character. Amongst the evidence in favour of Father Sheehy was that of a respectable man, and a man of property, named Keating, who proved Father Sheehy was in his house all that night, but during his evidence Mr. Hewitson, the Protestant clergyman in court, stood up and declared he had Keating on his list as a marked man. Hence Keating, on Hewitson's word, was arrested and sent to Kilkenny Gaol.
Father Sheehy was convicted, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, which sentence was carried into execution at Clonmel on March 15th, 1766. Father Sheehy asserted his innocence before his death of all the charges made against him. His head was stuck on a spike and placed over the porch at Clonmel old gaol, where it remained for upwards of twenty years. This statement seems almost incredible, but is none the less true. His sister, Mrs. Burke, was at last allowed to take it away, and buried it beside the ruins of the old church of Shandraghan. A most sensational historic incident of this kind must always be expected to bring in its trail some strange memories, which are handed down to posterity.
Strange Stories - Clonmel being part of the Diocese of Waterford the Bishop of Waterford (then Dr. Egan) lived at Clonmel. Now, it is quite a usual theme when this subject turns up among local gossippers to hear it related with quickened breath how Dr. Egan might have used his influence with the then government and saved Father Sheehy from his doom. Dr. Egan was a Kilkenny man. It is very doubtful, indeed most improbable, that the bishop of a worthy priest would allow such an opportunity to escape him without using the weight of his influence to avert his unhappy fate. It is even stated by some as part of this unfortunate and melancholy history that Father Sheehy's sister, while her hands were still imbued with her brother's blood left the tracks of her bloody fingers upon the hall door of the bishop.
Such stories seem idle exaggerations, which, however, sometimes cling as tradition to otherwise truthful anecdotes. It would appear that Father Sheehy knew through the confessional who were the murderers of Bridge, and that he addressed a letter, no doubt authentic, to Major Sirr the day before his execution, saying he knew the perpetrators of the murder but they were not the persons sworn to. No doubt, he may have been deceived in the confessional, as it was not unfrequented at the time to send people to the confessional for the purpose of deception.
Bridge's body was never found, though over and over it was sought for; and a rumour frequently prevailed in the neighbourhood that he was living in Newfoundland. Edmond Sheehy, cousin to the priest, with several other persons, were executed on the 3rd May 1766, for the murder of Bridge. This Mr. Sheehy left five children, one of whom, Ellen was married to Edmund Power, of Carragheen, County Waterford. By marriage she became the mother of the late Countess Blessington, Lady Canterbury, and the Countess of St. Marault. Thus, as usual, the money of England placed in the hands of a few officials has coloured one of the most gory pages in the melancholy history of Ireland.