Inquisition records found on Irish

 

THE RECORDS of hundreds of Irish people who were brought before the Spanish Inquisition – including the man reputed to be the inspiration behind Zorro – have been discovered in Madrid.

Discovering the documents has been described as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” by NUI Maynooth historian Dr Thomas O’Connor. To date Dr O’Connor has uncovered records relating to about 500 Irish people in the Spanish national history archives.

Copies of the records will soon be made available to the public along with the original records of the Irish colleges in Spain stretching back five centuries. They are part of a campaign aimed at persuading students to study at NUI Maynooth.

The Spanish Inquisition lasted from 1478 to 1834. It was an attempt by the Spanish state to ensure conformity with the Catholic religion initially among Jews and Muslims and then Protestants.

The most famous Irishman brought before the inquisition was Wexford man William Lamport who was arrested in Mexico in 1659 for plotting against the Spanish colonisers and was burned at the stake.

He became a folk hero for the Mexican independence movement and was said to be the inspiration for Zorro.

Dr O’Connor discovered 80 folio pages which amounted to a summary of his inquisition trial in the archives. He said Lamport had demonstrated an “extraordinary political vision” for Mexico with a constitutional monarchy and a degree of independence from Spain, but also that he was “quite mad” and showed signs of having a mental breakdown under the pressure of the case.

The other Irishman who was executed was Corkman John Martin, who fled to Guatemala.

He was part of an expedition led by the notorious English privateer Sir John Hawkins which was ambushed by the Spanish navy off the coast of Mexico. A letter from Martin’s wife includes the lines “Isabel Martinez your daughter sends a loving kiss. May Jesus Christ let her see you again.”

Dr O’Connor also uncovered the story of Waterford-born Patrick Sinnott, a professor of rhetoric in the University of Santiago de Compostela. He was accused of being a warlock and was tried for necromancy (fortune-telling) and banished from the city for two years.

Despite the inquisition’s fearsome reputation, undeserved according to Dr O’Connor, they were the unlucky ones. The majority of Irish people brought before it were Protestants and the overwhelming majority were given a “conditional absolution”.

“In the English-speaking world the black legend of the Spanish Inquisition is extraordinarily persistent,” he said. “It is part of an anti-Spanish prejudice in English-speaking countries.”

Dr O’Connor said the real historical value of the records was the information it gave on the lives of ordinary Irish people. “You rarely get human stories in historical documents from this period and an archive as rich, varied and important as this,” he said.