Because he had expressed sympathy for the peasantry of their distress, Father Nicholas Sheehy was convicted on a trumped-up charge of murder, in the town of Clonmel in 1766, and was hanged, drawn and quartered. His grave in Shandraghan soon became and place of pilgrimage, and his death provided later generations of Whiteboys with a patron saint.
–“The Course of Irish History”, page 186
The above is the catalyst for my journey to discover Father Sheehy. That’s all that was written about the martyred priest in this history, but as I’ve told you before, my curiosity was piqued.
I had read the expression “drawn and quartered” before this, but to be honest, did not really know what that meant. What was the procedure for this form of state-sanctioned execution?
Well, if anyone tells you we are a more violent society now than the good old days, feel free to use the classic Joe Wilson line, “You lie!” We are justifiably squeamish about the electric chair (see The Green Mile) and unsettled over lethal injection. But a mere two hundred years ago, a more heinous method of legal extermination than many of us can imagine was performed before entertainment-hungry crowds.
If a person was convicted of high treason against the crown, he was first drawn by horse or sledge to the place of execution. He was hanged, but not until dead. Still alive, he was cut down so that his intestines could be pulled out and burned before his very eyes. I can only imagine the person became unconscious or dead at this point from pain and loss of blood.
But he then had his head cut off and his body ripped into four parts (quartered), usually with an arm or leg in each. Sometimes horses were tied to each limb and driven in different directions in order to tear the body apart. The heads were then spiked and left to rot in a prominent location–a grisly example to others.
Father Sheehy’s execution was held on March 15, 1766 (Beware!), the day after he was sentenced. According to an account by Jerry Griffin of Clogheen, he was brought out of the jail where he blessed the people and proclaimed his innocence. He also said of his persecutors and jury, “I forgive and pity them all, and would not change places with any of them.”
Since the hangman’s noose was directly across the street from the jail, it is doubtful he was drawn on a sledge. He was hanged until dead, so did not have to witness the burning of his entrails that followed. He was quartered and his head spiked before the jail for twenty years.
This horrifying death was typically reserved for treason. Yet, Father Sheehy had been charged, tried, and acquitted for treason. In evidence of the hatred toward this man, although the charge was murder, he suffered this most grievous punishment.
Below is a clip from the series, The Tudors, in which Catherine Howard’s “playmates”, Culpepper and Dereham, are executed. The first was fortunate enough to be decapitated, but the second endured the same terrifying execution of Father Sheehy. The clip portrays the horror of this death without showing the most gruesome parts.