A foot in both camps – Brian Maye on Catholic bishop and Protestant prelate Miler Magrath

A notorious intriguer

We might think of churchmen as being generally unworldly, but Miler (Meiler) Magrath, who doubled for a time as a Catholic bishop and Protestant prelate (of several sees), became famous, or infamous, for his rapacity. He was also a Franciscan friar who fathered nine children. This notorious intriguer died 400 years ago on December 22nd, having lived almost a century.

His year and place of birth are uncertain but probably 1522 and Co Fermanagh. His father held the Gaelic Irish church offices of “coarb” in Tyrone, Donegal and Fermanagh. He became a Franciscan friar and following study in Rome was sent to Ireland as a missionary, becoming bishop of Down and Connor in 1565. Within two years, he converted to Anglicanism by declaring to Lord Deputy Sidney at Drogheda that he’d hold his see for the reformed religion. In 1570, he was appointed Anglican bishop of Clogher and promoted to archbishop of Cashel in 1571, retaining, it seems, the temporalities (secular properties and possessions of the church) of Clogher as a new bishop wasn’t appointed there until 1605.

Amazingly, he remained Catholic bishop of Down and Connor until excommunicated for heresy by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580, despite marrying Anne O’Meara of Lisany, Co Tipperary, around 1576.

She remained a Catholic and their nine children were raised as Catholics, Magrath himself still being a Franciscan friar. In this paper (August 21st, 2014), Joe Carroll told the amusing story that once when she refused to eat meat on a Friday, on being asked why by her husband, she replied that she didn’t want to commit a sin with him, to which he retorted: “Surely you have committed a far greater sin in coming to bed with me, a friar?”


During the second Desmond rebellion in Munster, Magrath provided information on the rebels to the government. Judy Barry, who wrote the entry on Magrath in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, says that he might also have intrigued with the earl of Desmond and Richard Creagh, the Catholic archbishop of Armagh, “but only as a means of securing immunity”, depending on the outcome of the conflict. Afterwards, the authorities granted him the united sees of Waterford and Lismore as a reward.

Two years later, while he was absent in London, leading citizens of Cashel presented a series of charges against him to the lord deputy, such as extortion, simony, keeping an armed bodyguard, helping Catholic bishops and occupying multiple livings in the archdiocese.

He succeeded in getting himself cleared of all the charges, which indicated the influence he had in high places, but his relations with Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam were tense.

During the Nine Years War, he managed to keep the favour of both sides, Hugh O’Neill describing him as a “friend and ally”.

Magrath offered to act as a mediator in the conflict, boasting to Robert Cecil, English secretary of state, that O’Neill and the Ulster chieftains trusted him completely. His offer was turned down but, according to Judy Barry, “he continued to ply the government with advice on how to end the war and with requests for favours, compensation for losses incurred during the war, jobs for his sons, and money to pay his spies”.

His pleas weren’t in vain as Queen Elizabeth granted him a pension in 1600.

During the reign of the new monarch, James I, he continued to survive if not thrive, as complaints mounted against him about the number of dioceses and livings he and his family held.

He had to defend himself at court and elsewhere against many charges but Lord Deputy Chichester eventually recommended “it were better not to discontent that heady Archbishop, and leave him at liberty, for he is a powerful man among the Irish of Ulster and able to do much hurt by underhand practices, in which he is well experienced”.

That King James agreed to this advice shows that even the most powerful were wary of Magrath’s capacity for intrigue.

In his latter years, he seems to have sought to become reconciled with the Catholic Church, with the papal archbishop of Cashel and the provincial of the Irish Franciscans petitioning Rome on his behalf. These petitions were granted but he never formally returned to Catholicism, although Pope Paul V legitimated his nine children in 1619.

Magrath was buried in Cashel cathedral, where he had erected his own monument. Part of his epitaph, which he is believed to have composed himself, read: “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,” a reference perhaps to his being in both churches but neither a Catholic nor a Protestant.