Boetius MacEgan, Bishop of Ross


The fact that there were at least four Franciscans in the middle of the seventeenth century who bore the name of Boetius MacEgan and that two of those were bishops and died the same year has led to some confusion. For instance, Meehan, followed by O'Rourke, Bellesheim, Murphy, Ronan and others, states that Boetius MacEgan of Ross was educated at Louvain. There is no evidence for this. It is probably based on an entry in a Louvain student list which definitely refers to Boetius MacEgan, bishop of Elphin. Similarly in a learned volume published in Rome in 1936 the editor becomes hopelessly confused between Boetius of Ross and his namesake of Elphin.

Boetius of Ross was born in Duhallow and went to Spain at a fairly early age, probably to complete his education. He was received into the Franciscan order there or somewhere else abroad. He returned to Ireland about the 1630's, ministered to the spiritual needs of the people around his native Munster and was promoted in turn to many positions of importance in his order. For instance we find him guardian of the Franciscan friary of Buttevant around 1641 and 1642 and provincial definitor from August 1644 till June 1645, when he attended a general chapter of the Franciscans in Toledo and was elected definitor general of the cismontane family of the order

He was an enthusiastic supporter of the war of the Confederation of Kilkenny and from beginning to end remained a loyal friend and supporter of the nuncie. The nuncio on his side held him in high esteem and appointed him chaplain general of the Ulster forces with wide spiritual powers. In this capacity he accompanied the army on many of its campaigns. He was present at the hattle of Benburb, 5 June 1646, on which occasion he and his assistant chaplains heard the confessions of the officers and men before the battle, administered Communion to them and led them in reciting the litany of Our Lady and other prayers. After the battle he was deputed by Owen Roe to bring the captured banners to the nuncio at Limerick and to give him a full account of that resounding victory of Irish arms.

He took part in the great victory celebrations at Limerick and Kilkenny, but those were no sooner over than we find him setting out once more for Ulster in the company of the nuncio's auditor, Massari, who was sent to bring congratulations and good wishes to Owen Roe and his fellow officers and to concert plans for the immediate following up of their victory. Fortunately Massari's account of this journey has come down to us. It gives us interesting sidelights on Irish social life in the seventeenth century and a certain insight into the character of Boetius -- his energy and loyalty and devotedness, his quiet sense of humour as he smiles at the efforts of Massari to accommodate himself to the customs of the Ulster people in eating and drinking and sleeping arrangements.

He was proposed as bishop for the see of Ross by the nuncio himself in 1646 and was consecrated at Waterford in March 1648. His diocese remained in the hands of the Protestants and, since unlike most of the other bishops he had not been nominated by the supreme council, they were not inclined to make the slightest effort to secure for him from it any emoluments or benefices. The Inchiquin truce which was concluded by the more accommodating and Anglophile section of the Confederates left him in a still worse plight. He supported the nuncio in opposing the truce as detrimental to the interests of the Catholic religion, and when the nuncio fearing capture by the supporters of the truce fled from Kilkenny, Boetius followed him to Portlaoise and was a co-signatory with him of many of the documents he drew up and published on the different stages of his journey to Galway.

He was back once more in his native Munster by the early part of 1649, but still evidently denied entry into his diocese. Around March we find him around Carrick-on-Suir and Waterford.

Cromwell landed at Ringsend 15 August 1649 and Boetius threw himself with his accustomed vigour into a campaign to unite the country and its warring factions against him and to put into immediate execution some practical measures for its defence. He assisted at the congregation of the Catholic clergy at Clonmacnoise 13 December 1649 where discussions took place with a view to recovering that unity of purpose among the prelates that was destroyed by the Inchiquin truce. Soon afterwards he betook himself to Kerry where he assisted Colonel David Roche in rallying an army of young men to go to the relief of Clonmel then being besieged by Cromwell. This army consisted of about four or five thousand men, badly trained and badly equipped. At Macroom it was intercepted by enemy forces under Lord Broghill who sent in his horse against the Irish foot. Roche at this stage did not dare to risk an open encounter between his raw recruits and the seasoned veterans of the enemy, so he ordered his men to retreat westwards into the woods and fastnesses. The ground there favoured the foot rather than the horse, nevertheless training and discipline won the day. The Irish were scattered in all directions about six hundred being killed and about twenty taken prisoner. Among the latter was the bishop of Ross, who was promised quarter on the field of battle before being taken, but was hanged next day by Broghill's orders.

The castle of Carrigadrohid was garrisoned by Irish troops but had been by-passed by Broghill the previous day on his march towards Macroom in his eagerness to come to grips with Roche's troops. After the battle he sent Major Nelson with some horse and foot soldiers to summon the garrison to surrender and threaten that if that were not done the bishop should be hanged in front of it. The rest of the dramatic story is told differently in different sources but it seems as if Boetius was promised his life if he could prevail on the garrison to surrender. When he came within earshot he called them to hold out to the end, though he realised that this was to sign his own death warrant. He was immediatly set upon by the soldiers, who hanged him with the reins of his own horse from a nearby tree in full sight of the garrison. He was then cut down and beheaded.

Soon afterwards the garrison surrendered, partly because the fate meted out to the bishop of Ross struck terror into their hearts and partly because of a simple stratagem to which Broghill's troops resorted. The castle was a strong one and Broghill's men had no artillery, but they caused two or three teams of oxen dragging large pieces of timber to be driven up within a certain distance of the castle though not near enough to be seen distinctly by the soldiers inside. These, peering out at the preparations being made by the attackers, presumed they were heavy guns and feeling they no longer had any hope of holding out, surrendered the castle on practically the same conditions which they had previously refused.

That night or one of the following nights friends of Boetius removed the body and conveyed it for burial to the neighbouring church or cemetery of Aghinagh. Lynch in his history of the Irish bishops tells, and there is a local tradition to the same effect, that though the night was dark and cloudy a mysterious light guided the little funeral party to the place of burial.

Various. dates have been assigned for the death of Boetius -- the years 1649, 1650, 1651 ; the months of April and May. Let it be said at once that the year 1650 is absolutely certain and that the month of May is almost equally so. The 3rd, the 6th, the 10th, the 11th, of the month have all been mentioned. By some sort of slip of the pen Broglull's letter says April instead of May, but apart from that he and Roche agree in stating that the battle or skirmish at Macroom took place on the 10th of the month. Broghill says he sent a detachment against Carrigadrohid on the night after the battle and Roche says the bishop was hanged the day following the battle. The 11th of May can therefore be safely accepted as the day of his death, or, if we wish to give it according to the new style of dating, 21 May 1650.

Boetius MacEgan's is an outstanding name in a century of outstanding names. He was a trusted friend and counsellor, self-sacrificing and indefatigable, fearless to the end and unswerving in his devotion to his religion and his country. His cause is at present before the Sacred Congregation of Rites in Rome as one who was martyred in odium fidei.