|A portion of F.W. Byrne's "Execution of Robert Emmet in|
Dublin in 1803"
During my research, I recently found a book, The Case of Fr. Nicholas Sheehy, edited by Ed O’Riordon that compiles the known accounts of this tragedy. I immediately ordered this treasure trove.While corresponding with Mr. O’Riordon, he forwarded me an article he recently wrote for the South Tipperary Nationalist newspaper. In it, he considered the horror we feel as ISIS beheads innocents before our very eyes. “It is,” he writes, “the stuff of nightmares.”
Even as I compose this post, the fates of a Japanese journalist and Jordanian pilot are teetering between freedom and a barbaric death. O’Riordon quotes the reactions of two British Prime Ministers. David Cameron called the actions “despicable and barbaric” while former PM John Major referred to “thirteenth century barbarism.” All true. It sickens every one of us. Many news outlets (thank God) refuse to show the videos and I, for one, will not watch.
Yet, nearly 250 years ago, Father Nicholas Sheehy, a parish priest of County Tipperary, dared to stand up for the poor and struggling against powerful landowners considered by one historian “lunatic fringe.” Convicted of a trumped-up murder charge, the priest’s execution was swift and brutal.
O’Riordon brings this home as we think of today’s news reports. “We should hold on to those feelings of terror and dread and use them to understand the feelings of the people of South Tipperary when Fr Nicholas Sheehy P.P. was hanged and beheaded in Clonmel, in front of his parishioners and family, in 1766.”Not the thirteenth century. Only two and a half centuries ago. Under British law.
Unbelievably, that was not enough. The priest’s severed head was staked in front of the jail for TWENTY YEARS for all to see as they walked the streets—as a ghoulish warning.This was not uncommon practice then for true or perceived criminals. About ten years earlier in Boston, a slave named Mark was hanged for murdering his master. His rotting body was placed on display for twenty years. It is said Paul Revere passed these remains on his famous ride.
While we are appropriately horrified by what is going on in Syria and Iraq, it would serve us to remember that, but for a handful of generations, go we.And yes, it was every bit as horrific.
NOTE: The above picture is from the cover of Ed O'Riordon's book "The Case of Fr. Nicholas Sheehy". While it does not depict Sheehy's execution, Robert Emmet's was similar.