Queen Elizabeth I had outlawed the Catholic Church and it was an act of treason to shelter a priest. Sir John Bourke of Brittas, Co. Limerick was a secret member of the Rosary Confraternity of the hidden Dominicans of the City. He promoted the Rosary in his family and locality risking the enmity of the Crown by his open avowal of the Catholic Faith and protection of hunted clergy. When Elizabeth died and James, son of Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, came to the throne in 1603, there was a pause in the persecution as James I had promised that he would not persecute “any that will be quiet and give but an outward obedience to the law.” Bourke now openly attended St. Mary’s Cathedral which had been restored to the Catholics and was received with his family into the Dominican Confraternity of the Holy Rosary. However, English Catholics, disillusioned with their new king, led a failed assassination attempt against him in 1605 that triggered a new wave of anti-Catholicism and harsher legislation. On the renewal of persecution, Sir John was summoned to answer a charge of refusing to attend Church of England services and thereby committing a statutory offense. He was imprisoned, but his friend, Sir George Thornton, obtained his release; yet he continued to harbor hunted priests and protect Catholics. Each year he invited priests to secretly celebrate Mass in Brittas Castle. During one secret celebration on the feast of the Holy Rosary ─ the first Sunday of October ─ in 1606 or 1607, he was betrayed by his kinsmen, Theobald Bourke of Castleconnell and Sir Edmond Walsh of Abington. A detachment of soldiers arrived to arrest the priests and Sir John stalled until Mass was over and Fathers Clancy and Haligan escaped through a secret passage. On his refusal to co-operate, Brittas Castle was besieged. Sir John “with his helmet on his head, his shield on his left arm and his sword in his right hand, burst out and made good his escape.” He made it to Waterford on his way to Spain, but was there betrayed, arrested and sent back to Limerick for trial. He refused to renounce the Catholic Faith or conform to the new state religion, stating “he could acknowledge no king or queen against the King of Heaven and Queen of Heaven. . . whoever would act otherwise was not a servant of God but a slave of the devil.” He was tried by Judge Sir Dominic Sarsfield, and sentenced to be hanged, beheaded, and quartered. He was executed on Gallows Green three months later on 20 December and his body, returned to relatives, was buried in St. John’s Churchyard, where no trace of it remains.
In 1625, Charles II took the throne on the death of James I and limited Catholic tolerance returned. Sir Dominic Sarsfield had renounced the Faith for political gain, but his brother kept it and passed it to his son Patrick. In 1640, Patrick Sarsfield (not the Earl of Lucan) the nephew of Sir Dominic, wanted to atone for the terrible deed of his uncle and he and his wife, Eleanor, had a statue of the Blessed Virgin carved from oak in Belgium. It was almost life-size at four and a half feet tall. It has Mary wearing a white robe and a blue cloak decorated with stars, and her brown hair is coiled over her right shoulder. She holds the infant Jesus in her left arm and through her right hand she threads a silver rosary coming from the hand of Jesus. At her feet are the carved faces of winged cherubs and on her head a jeweled golden crown. He also commissioned a silver chalice, which was placed in a hollowed out section of the statue’s back. Patrick and Eleanor donated the Statue and the Sarsfield Chalice, dated 1640, to the Dominicans of St Mary’s parish in Limerick and he inscribed it with his wife’s and his name in reparation for the sin of his Uncle. They were presented to Fr. Terence Albert O’Brien who would later become Bishop of Emly.
However, the religious policies of Charles II and his marriage to a Roman Catholic, generated the mistrust of English Puritans who thought his views were too Catholic. In 1642 an English Civil War resulted in his overthrow and his execution in 1649 after which the anti-Catholic Puritan army of Oliver Cromwell turned its attention to Ireland. In September 1651, a messenger arrived at Limerick with the news that Cromwell’s army was on its way. Panicked residents began to prepare for an assault. Sacred books and vessels were taken from churches and hidden. The statue of Our Lady of Limerick, as it was now known, presented a problem because of its size, but it had to be protected from the infidel at all cost. It was decided to bury it in a coffin and that they did. On the last day of June, the Puritan army surrounded the city, terms of surrender were rejected and a siege began. Through a long hot summer with food supplies gone people were reduced to eating anything they could catch, even rats. Inevitably, plague broke out and hundreds died. Limerick finally capitulated and articles of surrender were signed. On 30 October 1651, all the city leaders were executed including Bishop Terence Albert O’Brien who had received the gift of the statue, but never revealed its secret location.
A century passed and no one had seen the statue for a hundred years, though they knew of it existence and its legendary beauty. People prayed to Our Lady of Limerick as a means of keeping the memory of the statue alive. Finally, the Papists Act of 1778 became the first Act of Parliament for limited Roman Catholic relief. It was now safe to exhume the statue and its location was revealed. In 1780, the Dominicans built a small chapel in Fish Lane to replace an earlier church destroyed by anti-Catholic forces. The statue was recovered from its earthly grave where it was found lying face down, in perfect condition; no erosion, no insect damage and no rot had affected her. Inside the statue, the magnificent Sarsfield Chalice was found, as perfect as the day Patrick and Eleanor Sarsfield had donated it a century before. The statue was given a place of honor in the new Dominican chapel on Fish Lane where it remained until 1818 or 1820 when it was carried in procession and enthroned on its own altar surrounded by images of saints in the Church of St. Savior in Glentworth Street. In 1954 the Virgin was crowned with a tiara of gold, pearls and diamonds all donated by the women of Limerick with the result that rich and poor alike had some share in the graces that flow from Our Lady of Limerick. On the Virgin’s arm rests the Infant Jesus while the long silver rosary, with an ancient tubular cross, still stretches from her right hand. Our Lady of Limerick, a gift in reparation for the sins of man, watches over her beloved city and its people to this very day – a remarkable relic created to atone for deeds against the Irish, protected by the Irish and, after surviving the centuries, returned to a position of veneration by the Irish.
As is the case with many accounts that took place in the penal times, secrecy was paramount and historical documentation is difficult to find. In this story, we found records that define Sir John Bourke’s arrest and execution as 1606 and 1607, yet the accounts are identical. There is also a question of whether the clergy were Dominican or Franciscan although the statue is now in the care of the Dominican sisters. In the absence of those minor details of historical data, we rely on the facts in hand and tradition and in this case the tradition has proven to be 99% accurate.
Thousands of miles away, in Glenns Ferry, Idaho, stands Our Lady of Limerick Catholic Church, a historic church built in 1915 obviously by parishioners with a connection to Limerick. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 17, 1982.