Rehabilitating Miler Magrath – a Catholic and Protestant bishop
The married Franciscan who fathered nine children
Miler Magrath: “The rehabilitation process could be tricky. For Catholics, Miler has the double black mark of being a ‘heretic’ for taking the Oath of Supremacy to Elizabeth and for having been excommunicated. On the Protestant side, Miler is an embarrassment, although the only known portrait of him hangs alongside those of other bishops in the Clogher episcopal gallery. ”
It may be time to rehabilitate Miler Magrath as Ireland’s pioneering ecumenist. He managed to be simultaneously a Catholic and a Protestant bishop, a Franciscan friar with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, a married man with nine children and a property magnate who would be the envy of Nama.
His first episcopal post was Catholic bishop of Down and Connor in 1565. Queen Elizabeth, who greatly admired him, appointed him Protestant bishop of nearby Clogher in 1570. A year later she promoted him to be archbishop of Cashel, where he remained until his death in 1622 at the age of 100. He had also managed to add on the dioceses of Waterford and Lismore and later, Killala and Achonry, which spread his property portfolio even further. While Rome left him technically in charge of Down and Connor for 10 years, Pope Gregory XIII, tiring of this double role, excommunicated him in 1580.
Miler nevertheless brought up his nine children as Catholic and secured lucrative posts for them in his Cashel holdings. His wife, Anny O’Meara of Toomevara, remained a staunch Catholic all her life. Once when Miler asked why she refused to eat meat on Friday , she replied: “Because I do not wish to commit sin with you.” “Surely,” he retorted, “you have committed a far greater sin in coming to bed with me, a friar?”
Both Protestant and Catholic churches in Ireland are wary of endorsing Miler’s role as an ecumenist or pluralist before it became respectable. “Notorious” is the epithet frequently used about him. The title of former Protestant bishop of Limerick Robert Wyse Jackson’s book on Miler is Scoundrel of Cashel. Canon Patrick Comerford of Christ Church and Anglican studies lecturer describes him as “the infamous Miler Magrath, one of the most corrupt pluralists in Irish Church history”.
In his new scholarly book on Miler, published by Lisheen Publications, Roscrea, Fr Patrick Ryan, of the Spiritan congregation, prefers the milder epithet of “the enigma of Cashel”. To his critics, Miler was “irascible, wild and unstable”. But to admirers he was “a great politician, a man of gravity and wisdom.”
The rehabilitation process could be tricky. For Catholics, Miler has the double black mark of being a “heretic” for taking the Oath of Supremacy to Elizabeth and for having been excommunicated. Then there is Miler’s political role. He worked closely with Dublin Castle officials in the undermining of the Desmond rebellion in Munster and uncovering rebels. But while he dutifully denounced “papist” activity in his dioceses, he would also tip off Catholic clergy before the posse arrived. A “double agent” is how one historian describes him.
He made soundings with Rome in 1608 about returning to Catholicism and kept up contacts with his Franciscan brethren. Pope Paul V legitimised his children in 1619. Miler said publicly that he would be “welcomed back” to Rome but there is no firm evidence of a deathbed reconversion.
On the Protestant side, Miler is an embarrassment, although the only known portrait of him hangs alongside those of other bishops in the Clogher episcopal gallery. He was once described as “the handsomest man in Ireland in his day”. He rode around wearing chainmail with a private army for protection, which he certainly needed. Not the image the Church of Ireland would like for its bishops.
Nor was he a model in his pastoral role. A contemporary complained that “People in his diocese scarcely knew there was a God. His cathedral is no better than a hog sty.” When his wife died he may have taken a concubine.
In his late 80s, he was still seeking new bishoprics in Derry and Raphoe or failing that, “some competent pension”. He began his letter of petition thus: “I am aged, impotent, impaired and almost quite spent in mind, means and credit, left but as a cipher in the vocation I hold here.” He was turned down but lingered on to his 100th birthday as the churches in his dioceses crumbled into ruin.
Miler wrote his own epitaph for his tomb in St Patrick’s Cathedral on the Rock of Cashel. It includes the lines: “Here where I am placed I am not. I am not where I am not. Nor am I in both places, but I am in each.” Fr Ryan speculates that this could mean, “I am not in either Church although I have a foot in both.”
A good motto for a 16th-century ecumenist?