The notorious Miler Magrath, simultaneously a Catholic and Protestant bishop

Miler Magrath Archbishop of Cashel
Portrait of Bishop Miler Magrath hanging in Clogher episcopal gallery (source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

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The 16th-century Archbishop of Cashel, Miler Magrath, is one of the most controversial religious figures in Irish history. Originally a Catholic, he converted to Protestantism but made overtures to Rome in later life. It might appear that this cleric couldn’t quite make up his mind where his loyalties lay; his motives, however, were always driven by power and money.

“Corrupt”, “unscrupulous”, “bluffer”, “deceitful”, “mercenary” and “duplicitous” are just some of the words used by historians to describe Miler Magrath. His contemporaries preferred terms like “wicked”, “drunkard”, “greedy” and “handsome”. But he was also clever, ambitious, diplomatic and determined. He knew what he wanted and how to get his own way.

Catholic origins

Miler Magrath (Maolmhuire Mag Raith) was born into a Roman Catholic family in c.1522 in modern-day Co. Fermanagh. By about 1540, he had joined the Franciscans and was ordained a priest by the end of that decade. He had been educated in Rome. On 12 October 1565, he was appointed Catholic bishop of Down and Connor by the pope. Soon after, he drew up a document detailing his wishes to rid Ireland of the few Protestants it possessed.

But Magrath faced a problem in his diocese that frustrated him greatly: the powerful O’Neills were withholding temporalities. These were church-owned properties and revenues that had the potential to provide the bishop with a substantial income.

Shifting loyalties

Perhaps owing to his financial woes, his loyalties quickly shifted. He met with Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland. Magrath informed him that he would be willing to convert and join the Anglican Church to become the queen’s bishop.

Henry Sidney Lord Deputy of Ireland
Portrait of Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland, by Arnold Bronckorst, 1573 (source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Magrath received no response from the Protestant Church so, instead, he started to canvas Rome for a better position, one that would prove more economically advantageous. This included the see of Clogher in 1568 but with no success.

However, within two years he was appointed the Protestant bishop of Clogher by the Crown and within a few short months, he became the Protestant archbishop of Cashel. He held this position in Cashel until his death, though he managed to amass more dioceses during his lifetime. This included Emly (1571–1622), Waterford and Lismore (1582–89; 1592–1608), and Killala and Achonry (1608–1622), all of which came with financial benefits in abundance.

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To prove his allegiance to the Crown, Magrath imprisoned a couple of his former Franciscan brethren in Cashel in 1571 for preaching against the Reformation. In response, James fitz Maurice Fitzgerald (rebel leader in the Desmond Rebellion) threatened to burn everything associated with the archbishop. Soon Edward Butler forcibly rescued the prisoners. Magrath’s actions made him very unpopular in Cashel but created a favourable impression with the authorities in Dublin and London.

Family life

Putting his former vow of chastity behind him, in c.1576 Magrath married Anne (or Amy) O’Meara from Lissanisky near Toomyvara, Co. Tipperary. Surprisingly, she remained a Catholic throughout her life. Together they had nine children – Tirlough, Redmond, Brian, Markes, James, Mary, Cicely, Ann and Ellis – all raised Catholic.

Magrath’s contemporary Phillip O’Sullivan Beare wrote about the following exchange between the married couple in his Historiae Catholicae Iberniae Compendium (published 1621). “Why is it wife that you will not eat meat with me [on a Friday]?”, asked Magrath. “It is because I do not wish to commit sin with you”, she responded. “Surely you committed a far greater sin in coming to the bed of me a friar”.

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There is some evidence that Magrath married a second time when he was in his 90s, though some historians dispute this. Others claim he had a concubine.

Declared heretic

Despite his Protestant appointments and marriage, Magrath continued to hold his Catholic bishopric in Down and Connor and assert his claim to its temporalities until 1580 when he was declared a heretic by Pope Gregory XIII for taking the Oath of Supremacy to Queen Elizabeth and for many other crimes.

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Magrath had enjoyed the benefits of dual appointments from both churches for nearly a decade but was now officially cast out and excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

Material interests

His Franciscan vow of poverty long forgotten, Magrath took every opportunity to increase his fortune. He sold clerical positions to the highest bidders and leased ecclesiastical lands and property. Instead of reinvesting that income into the upkeep of his churches or payment of his clergy, as would have been expected, he used it to line his own pockets.

Constantly trying to gain more and better benefices, at one stage he applied for the deanery of St Patrick’s in Dublin. He also had himself appointed preacher in the army for which he earned “ten dead-pays” (payment illicitly claimed for dead soldiers). He ran lucrative side businesses, such as his jail where he imprisoned those he charged with treason but would release them again on payment of a bribe.

Magrath tended to make an impression wherever he went: he wore chainmail and was accompanied by an armed private army. This is not surprising given his unpopularity within various circles that had resulted in several attacks from which he was lucky to escape with his life.

He liked to indulge in whiskey and could well afford to. His contemporary Patrick Kearney made the following observation about his undisciplined behaviour:

“The said Milerus, contrary to the sobriety required in a bishop, is an open and common drunkard and maketh all his guests to carouse at every sitting till they all be drunk. Moreover, he doth embrace none other qualities so much as whoredom, drunkenness, pride, anger, simony, avarice and other filthy crimes.”

Double agent

Operating as an intelligence officer and working closely with Sir John Perrot (Lord President of Munster and later Lord Deputy of Ireland) and with Dublin Castle officials, Magrath was always keen to supply information. This information, however, was not always reliable. Nonetheless, he helped to root out rebels and Catholics during the Desmond Rebellion. For example, Magrath had Peter Power, Catholic Bishop of Ferns and Maurice MacBrien, Catholic Bishop of Emly, arrested (the latter bishop died within two years while imprisoned in Dublin Castle). In 1590, Magrath reported on the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland to the authorities in London.

Lord Deputy of Ireland John Perrot
Portrait of John Perrot, Lord Deputy of Ireland, by George Powle (source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

On the other hand, Magrath chose to protect some Catholics even giving tip-offs about impending arrests, especially during the Nine Years War (1593–1603). For instance, he helped his cousin, Dermot Creagh, Bishop of Cork and Cloyne, evade capture. A letter to his wife dated 26 June 1592 directs her to instruct Creagh to leave the country or risk arrest and to subsequently burn the letters. Magrath was part of a negotiating team who managed to secure a temporary ceasefire in 1597 and became an ally of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, though Magrath was captured for a short time by O’Neill’s illegitimate son, Con. Another interesting case is the Catholic Archbishop of Cashel, Dr Kearney, who continued to reside freely within Magrath’s own archdiocese.

Hugh O’Neill Earl of Tyrone
Portrait of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, 1608 (source: Adapt – Immediate Media via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

While he did much to assist some rebels and Catholics during this period, Magrath also made requests to the government seeking compensation for losses incurred during the war, positions for his sons and financial aid for his spies. In some cases, Magrath may have protected Catholic individuals out of loyalty but, more often, he was probably motivated by self-preservation.

Despite the double game he was playing, the clergyman held little support in his dioceses among Protestants or Catholics. This is clear in 1591 when some Cashel inhabitants met with Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam to make formal complaints against the archbishop, while he was in England. These included extortion, harbouring Catholics and occupying 22 livings in the diocese. A sworn inquiry was held, after which the court published its findings of 40 counts of treason.

Word soon filtered through to Magrath on what was unfolding back in Ireland but instead of rushing home to defend himself, he remained in London where he made counter-accusations of wrongdoings against his accusers. This led to the issuing of a pardon from the Privy Council, as well as letters of recommendation from the queen, which cleared Magrath of all imputations.

Magrath’s capacity for narrowly avoiding trouble seems to have been largely due to his relationship with Queen Elizabeth. From early on in his career within the Anglican Church, he had managed to gain her approval and was favourably received by the queen in London fairly regularly. His financial success was also largely thanks to the queen. On a visit to London in 1600 for example, the queen granted the cleric a pension.

Turning tides

Just a few years later, Magrath’s fortunes began to shift when James I succeeded to the Crown. Much criticism was again levelled at the archbishop, this time via a number of commissions set up to report to the government on the state of the Protestant Church in Ireland. On various occasions, Magrath was threatened by court proceedings though they never amounted to much.

Sir John Davies, Attorney General of Ireland, cited Magrath as the most notorious example of pluralism. The archbishop, his brother, his sons and his widowed daughter together held over 70 spiritual livings, approximately 30 of which were held by Magrath alone, not to mention his four bishoprics. Moreover, the churches in these places were in a decaying state (Emly Cathedral was in ruins and Cashel was also in poor condition). One contemporary complained: “People in his diocese scarcely knew there was a God. His cathedral is no better than a hog sty”. No provisions were made for divine services, schools or dispensing of the sacraments. The benefices often lacked incumbents or had absentee curates or uneducated preachers. Not surprisingly then the congregations were also diminishing with that in Cashel amounting to a single parishioner.

Attorney General of Ireland John Davies
Portrait of Sir John Davies, Attorney General of Ireland, 17th century (source: My Poetic Side, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Perhaps not surprisingly given his deteriorating reputation in the Anglican Church, there were whisperings that Magrath intended to reconcile with the Roman Catholic Church. He made overtures to Rome in 1608 and again in 1612, promising to renounce 40 years of heresy. Those who knew him truly believed he was genuinely remorseful.

In response, the pope invited him to Rome where he promised Magrath a loving reception. Possibly on account of his old age, Magrath didn’t go and there is no evidence that he formally returned to the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, his nine children were legitimated by the pope in 1619.

Death & legacy

In the final years of his life, Magrath seems to have softened. His contemporary Phillip O’Sullivan Beare wrote:

“The wicked Miler … does not hunt priests nor endeavour to detach Catholics from the true religion. He is now nearly worn out with age.” 

By 1620 he was bedridden and remained so until his death two years later at the age of 100. It is claimed Magrath repented on his deathbed though what form this took is unclear.

Before his death, Magrath had an effigial monument carved by Patrick Kerrin. It was erected over his grave on the south side of the choir in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Cashel. He also composed his own epitaph, which records his regret that he was not as holy as St Patrick. One line, in particular, seems to sum up the archbishop’s changeable nature:

“Here where I am laid, I am not. I am where I am not. Nor am I in both places, but I am in each place.”

Some have taken this as an indication that Magrath’s body lies elsewhere, while local lore claims that soon after his burial in the cathedral some Catholics dug up his body and re-interred his remains elsewhere.

Maolmhuire Mag Raiths tomb
Miler Magrath’s tomb at Cashel, Co. Tipperary (credit: artist J.S. Prout, engraver J. Walmsley, published 1885 in Picturesque Ireland).

The ambitious Miler Magrath remains one of the most controversial religious figures in Irish history. Concurrently a Catholic and Protestant bishop, he manipulated both sides for his own ends. His heresy and betrayal angered the Catholic Church, while his financial corruption and drunken antics were an embarrassment to the Anglican Church in Ireland. Despite these charges, he managed to retain his power and influence throughout much of his life and to always elude his opponents in a most cunning way.

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