Miler Magrath

Miler Magrath
The Most Reverend 
Miler Magrath
Archbishop of Cashel
Miler Magrath
Appointed 3 February 1571
Reign ended 14 November 1622
Predecessor James MacCawell
Successor Malcolm Hamilton
Personal details
Born circa 1523
Died 14 November 1622
Nationality Irish
Denomination Roman Catholic / Anglican
Spouse (1) Amy O'Meara
(2) name unknown
Children four sons and four daughters

Miler Magrath or Miler McGrath (also Myler; in Irish, Maolmhuire Mag Raith: servant of Mary, son of grace) (1523? – 1622), was born in County Fermanagh, Ireland. He came from a family of hereditary historians to the O'Brien clan. He entered the Franciscan Order and was ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood. The Vatican later appointed him the Bishop of Down and Connor in Ireland, but he converted to Anglicanism (more specifically the Church of Ireland) and became the Protestant Archbishop of Cashel. He is viewed with contempt by both Protestant and Catholic historians, owing to his ambiguous and corrupt activities during the Reformation. He also served as a member of the Parliament of Ireland.


Early life

Magrath became a Franciscan priest and spent his early life in Rome - "on the Capitoline" - whence he was sent on a mission to Ireland. It was believed that, on passing through England, he displayed his Catholic letters of authorisation in order to demand bribes for accepting the Reformation. In any case, he appears to have satisfied the authorities that his position as a Catholic bishop in Ireland would not preclude his valid assent to the Act of Supremacy.

In October 1565, Magrath was appointed Roman Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, although the temporalities were ruled over by his kinsman Shane O'Neill, chief of the O'Neill clan, whom he visited in 1566. In May 1567 he attended on the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney, at Drogheda, where he agreed to conform to the reformed faith and to hold his See of the Crown. However, in 1569 John Merriman was appointed the Protestant Bishop of Down and Connor, and Magrath held on to the Catholic See, before he was finally deprived of Down and Connor by Rome in 1580 for heresy and other matters; thus he had enjoyed dual appointments as Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland prelate for nine years.


In 1570, Magrath was appointed by the Crown as the Protestant Bishop of Clogher, including the temporalities, and visited England, where he fell ill of a fever. In February 1571, he was then appointed Archbishop of Cashel and Bishop of Emly (no new appointment was made to Clogher until 1605). In the same year he imprisoned some Franciscan priests at Cashel. In a rage, the rebel crusader James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald threatened to burn to ashes everyone and everything connected with Magrath if they were not released. The friars were immediately liberated by Edward Butler. In 1572 he brought charges against Butler's elder brother, Thomas Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde, but they were given no credence. In 1575, as he went on his way to Dublin, he was attacked and badly injured by the kerne of a hostile Clan.

Until the end of the Desmond Rebellions in 1583, Magrath remained in his province, while assisting the English government on the one hand and intriguing with the Catholic rebels on the other. In October 1582, he travelled to England bearing letters of strong recommendation, which cited his ability to provide valuable information on the rebels. He complained that Cashel was only worth £98 and - in spite of the misgivings of William Cecil, Lord Burghley - was granted the See of Waterford and Lismore in commendam, which he held until 1589, and then again from 1592 upon the death of Bishop Wetherhead. Despite his allegiance to the authorities, Magrath never arrested the new Catholic Archbishop of Cashel, Dr Kearney, who lived peacefully under his nose. However, Magrath continued to court favour with the authorities, and in 1584 he did arrest the Catholic Bishop of Emly, Murrough MacBrian, who died two years later in custody in Dublin Castle. In March 1589 he wrote commending the Kerry plantation undertaker Sir William Herbert, who was a controversial figure on the Protestant side.

In 1591 Magrath visited England without leave, and grave charges were pressed against him in his absence. During his visit he sought to convert to Protestantism the condemned Gaelic Prince of Breifne, Brian O'Rourke, who scorned the bishop at the foot of the gallows-ladder before his execution in London. At about this time Magrath's cousin, Dermot Creagh, was the Catholic Bishop of Cork and Cloyne with Legatine authority in Munster, and they remained on mutual terms. Magrath appears to have feared that his soul was in jeopardy, and with a view to repentance and reconciliation with Rome, took care that his cousin would not be captured, while at the same time feeding information to the Crown about his whereabouts.

Nine Years War

In 1599, during the Nine Years War, Magrath was taken prisoner by Con, son of his kinsman Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone. The earl ordered Magrath's release on the ground that only the Holy Father had authority to lay hands on his "friend and ally". Magrath promised that he would return to Catholicism, except that he had to see to his children, and Con released him on conditions: a money payment, with O'Meara's son (related to Magrath's wife) to act as surety in person.

In 1600, Magrath went to London and convinced Robert Cecil of his loyalty, although appearing a turbulent person, and was granted a pension. While at court he accused Sir Henry Lee of Ditchley of treason, with the "most indecent and contumelious words", and Lee's cousin, Thomas Lee (a captain in the Irish service who was later hanged for his involvement with the coup attempt of the Earl of Essex), wrote to Cecil seeking the opportunity to meet the charges.

Magrath returned to Ireland with the English-backed pretender to the earldom of Desmond. He claimed poverty owing to the war, but Cecil soon complained that he was allowing the Anglican Church of Ireland to lie like "an hogsty" and sought Sir George Carew to remonstrate with him over this neglect.

The New Era

Under James I, Magrath's holding of four bishoprics and seventy spiritualities was criticised by Sir John Davies, then attorney-general of Ireland. In 1607 the archbishop of Dublin, Thomas Jones, criticised his spiritual administration, and Magrath resigned Waterford and Lismore six months later. The estate of Lismore had been sold by him to Sir Walter Raleigh for a nominal price, although he kept the capitular seal of Cashel. He was ultimately compelled to accept the Sees of Killala and Achonry in Connacht, which were of little worth: in 1610, he complained he had not received their possession, and the full grant was not made until 1611.

In 1608 a jury found that he had declared his kinsman, the fugitive rebel Hugh O'Neill, wronged over the Bann fishery (a property right relating to the ancient authority of English law in Ireland, which the Crown had successfully contested in a precedent-setting case), and had credited O'Neill with, "a better right to the crown of Ireland than any Irishman or Scottishman [ie. James I] whatsoever". Despite the sensitivity of the matter, the indictment was not proceeded with. In a further assertion of his tribal identity, Magrath rowed with the Bishop of Derry in 1609 over the possession of Termon Magrath, the lands of which were granted in the following year to Magrath's son, James.

Magrath moved to Ulster (where he erected a building, which still stands at Templecrone, County Donegal), and had William Knight appointed his co-adjutor at Cashel; Knight soon left the country after disgracing himself by drunken behaviour in public. It was reckoned that the revenues and manors of the See of Cashel were entirely wasted. The Lord Deputy, Sir Arthur Chichester, had a poor opinion of Magrath, describing him as "stout and wilful", but held back for fear of his influence amongst the Ulster Irish, and Stafford too spoke of his oppressions.

In 1612 the underground Irish Provincial of the Franciscan Order still held out hope of Magrath's reconciliation with Rome; in 1617 it was thought he might exchange the Rock of Cashel for the Capitoline, where he had spent his youth. Magrath's last known involvement in public life was on his attendance at parliament in Dublin in 1613. He died ten years later, in his 100th year, after 52 years as a bishop.


Magrath has remained a figure of controversy in Irish history. On the Protestant side, he was blamed for financial corruptions which gave the Anglican religion in Ireland a black eye from which it has never recovered. He was scorned for being a drunkard. On the Catholic side, he was viewed as an apostate priest and a collaborator with a violently Anti-Catholic regime.

Towards the end of his life, a caustic satire against him was written in the Irish language by a the Franciscan priest-poet Father Eoghan Ó Dubhthaigh. Much of the satire burlesques the fact that his first name means "The Servant of Mary" in Irish, when he had renounced the veneration of the Blessed Virgin in exchange for an earthly wife. The poet suggests that he deserved the name "Maol gan Mhuire" ("The Servant Without Mary") much better.

Given the treachery through which he lived, and whatever one might say about his real allegiances, Magrath possessed a knack for survival. The forbearance shown by his most bitter critics at Court, even when they were certain that he was obstructing the persecution of Catholics, is an indication of his great power and influence. In any case, the freedom allowed to him and his great skill in manipulating both sides in the drive for Reformation shows how tricky the times were in Ireland.

As for being a drunkard, perhaps his longevity gives the lie to that charge.


Magrath married a Roman Catholic, Amy, daughter of John O'Meara of Lisany, in County Tipperary; and had issue, Turlough, Redmond, Bryan, Mark, Mary, Cicely, Anne, and Eliza. Upon his wife's death he married again.[1]

Other points

It has been suggested that the character of Magrath in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake owes something to the reputation of Miler Magrath.


  1. ^ Cotton, Henry (1851). The Succession of the Prelates and Members of the Cathedral Bodies of Ireland. Fasti ecclesiae Hiberniae. Vol. 1, The Province of Munster (2nd ed.). Dublin: Hodges and Smith. pp. 12–13. 
  • Richard Bagwell, Ireland under the Tudors 3 vols. (London, 1885–1890).
  • John O'Donovan (ed.) Annals of Ireland by the Four Masters 7 vols. (1851).
  • Dictionary of National Biography 22 vols. (London, 1921–1922).

External links

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Eugene Magennis
Bishop of Down and Connor
Succeeded by
Donat O'Gallagher
Church of Ireland titles
Preceded by
Hugh O'Carolan
Bishop of Clogher
Succeeded by
George Montgomery
Preceded by
James MacCawell
Archbishop of Cashel
Succeeded by
Malcolm Hamilton
Preceded by
Marmaduke Middleton
Bishop of Waterford and Lismore
(in commendam)

Succeeded by
Thomas Wetherhead
Preceded by
Thomas Wetherhead
Bishop of Waterford and Lismore
(in commendam)

Succeeded by
John Lancaster
Preceded by
Owen O'Connor
Bishop of Killala
(in commendam)

Succeeded by
Archibald Hamilton
(Bishop of Killala and Achonry)
Preceded by
Eugene O'Hart
Bishop of Achonry
(in commendam)


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