Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy

“White Martyr of Munster” by Arthur O’Callaghan


During the Middle Ages, the alpine city of Ivrea between Italy and France was an important stopping off point for those journeying to and from Rome. It was at Ivrea that our own St. Patrick was consecrated bishop when news of the death of Palladius reached him.

On the evening of October 24th, 1492, a lone pilgrim arrived on foot at the hostel for pilgrims. Dressed in a coarse habit and hood and wearing the oyster shell emblem that ensured safe passage, he appeared to be very weak and worn out by fatigue. The warden of the hostel gave the exhausted traveller a hospitable welcome and a place to rest for the night. At dawn, a strange and mysterious light was observed coming from his room. On entering, the warden discovered the body of the pilgrim illuminated by a beautiful radiance of light.

The bishop of Ivrea, Nicholas Garigliatti, was notified. This bishop had an extraordinary dream during the night in which he had witnessed a man dressed in bishop’s robes ascending in glory to heaven. He immediately recognised the dead man as the person he had seen in the dream. The man’s belongings were examined – a wallet, a water container and a pilgrim staff were his sole possessions. However, the wallet contained some papal documents and a bishop’s ring.

News of these happenings spreads quickly throughout the region. The question everyone asked was: “Who is this man?” Meanwhile, Bishop Garigliatti ordered that the body be clothed in episcopal robes and brought to Ivrea Cathedral for solemn lying in state before burial within the cathedral. Very soon afterwards, a strong local devotion developed towards this holy man now buried in the church and to whom miracles were being attributed. Monsignor Angelo Perusio, in his testimony, states that the remains of Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy are buried under the altar of the cathedral with the remains of St. Eusebius. He concludes by stating “God has not abandoned the body itself with many miracles performed since 1492”.

In 1742, the Bishop of Ivrea, Monsignor Michael de Villa, ordered the tomb of Thaddeus to be opened. The intact skeleton was fully clothed. Thaddeus was dressed in a purple soutane and rochet (surplice worn by bishop). A white beard fell upon his breast and on the right hand an Episcopal ring.

All these events are calendared in a manuscript history of the ancient city of Ivrea, which was compiled in 1763 by Canon Robesti of Ivrea. Thaddeus McCarthy was born in 1455 almost certainly at Innishannon, Co. Cork. His mother was reputedly a daughter of Edmund Fitzmaurice, ninth Lord of Kerry. It was a turbulent time for the McCarthy clan, who were constantly at war with the Anglo-Norman Geraldines who had invaded their territory. The O’Driscoll’s of Ross were also enemies of the McCarthy clan. Despite all this animosity, Thaddeus lived a normal and happy childhood in his castle home.

He studied for the priesthood under an uncle, Canon Thady McCarthy and continued his studies in Paris with another relative, Professor Don Raymond, at Paris University. He was ordained in Cork by Bishop William Roche and travelled to Rome afterwards to continue his studies. While in Rome, his many outstanding qualities made a deep impression and although only 27 years old, he was appointed as Bishop of Ross in Cork, which had become vacant by the death of Bishop Donald. Thaddeus was consecrated bishop on May 3rd, 1482. It was the “Feast of the Finding of the True Cross”. As events were later to unfold, he was to carry his own heavy cross for the next ten years until his death in 1492.

On returning to Ireland, he was confronted with the news that since the death of Bishop Donald, Ode O’Driscoll had been appointed bishop of Ross, having been consecrated by the Archbishop of Cashel. A bitter dispute broke out between the McCarthy and O’Driscoll clans over who was the rightful bishop of Ross. The dispute lasted several years, during which the O’Driscolls made many false accusations against Thaddeus, who responded by restraining his followers from any acts of violence. Thaddeus was essentially a man of peace and completely without rancour. Above all, he was a man of God who carried his endless trials with heroic fortitude. When the O’Driscoll’s brought these false and slanderous charges to Pope Innocent XIII in Rome, the Pope issued a decree excommunicating Thaddeus and a certain number of his followers from the Church.

Thaddeus appealed to Rome asking that his side of the story be heard, but he insisted that he was ready to obey in justice whatever the findings. Both O’Driscoll and Thaddeus were summoned to the inquiry and after a two-year investigation, the verdict was that O’Driscoll was to continue as Bishop of Ross. However, in a surprise appointment, Thaddeus was to take over the vacant post of Bishop of Cork and Cloyne. He was totally vindicated of any charge against him and declared innocent of such. Almost immediately, however, storm clouds were gathering in opposition to his appointment.

The posting as Bishop of Cork and Cloyne was greeted with derision and hostility by the opponents of the McCarthy clan. These included the corporation of the City of Cork, the Earl of Desmond and Gerald Fitzgerald regarded by the McCarthy clan as the head and source of opposition to Thaddeus. Fitzgerald had insisted that he was the rightful candidate for the position of Bishop of Cork and Cloyne. A powerful figure, he had the backing of leading landowners in the county.

Armed men took possession of the cathedral preventing Thaddeus from entering. Everywhere he turned, he suffered the pain of rejection. For two years, he travelled from town to village armed with the papal documents announcing his rightful appointment and absolution from any criminal charge. This persecution as such was the outcome of political pressure. By now, he was alone, having strenuously opposed any form of retaliation by his own McCarthy clan. They, in response, abandoned him. Now, without family support, status and security but with unwavering faith and trust in God, he once again set off for Rome to plead his case to the Pope. Pope Innocent XIII gave him another document dated 18th July, 1492. It ordered that Gerald, Earl of Kildare, at that time, one of the most powerful figures in Ireland, should, with his army, protect and restore Thaddeus to his rightful place as Bishop of Cork and Cloyne.

Fourteen weeks later, he arrived at Ivrea having presumably walked from Rome. He died at the pilgrim hostel and would have been buried in a pauper’s grave had it not been for divine intervention. Thaddeus was 37 years old. News of his passing reached Cork the following year and appears to have made little impact. Gerald Fitzgerald was now Bishop of Cork and Cloyne. He resigned this position some years later and his resignation was the final chapter of a period noted for its political and religious conflict.

During the great famine in 1847, the clergy and people of Ivrea donated a substantial sum of money for the relief of the Irish Famine victims. They also requested any information on Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy, principally because of the veneration of the people of Ivrea and the many miracles attributed to his intercession. This request aroused great interest in Thaddeus and, after a long investigation into his life, it was decided to seek his beatification.

Monsignor Richelmy, Bishop of Ivrea, and Thomas Alphonsus O’Callaghan, OP., Bishop of Cork, petitioned the Holy See seeking the beatification of Thaddeus. This was done on behalf of the people and clergy of Ivrea and Cork. A further two-year investigation conducted by Monsignor Antonio of the Sacred Congregation of Rites was undertaken. Finally, in 1896, Pope Leo XIII beatified Thaddeus, in a ceremony attended by clergy and laity from Ireland and Italy. The Italians would not hear of parting with the remains of their beloved Thaddeus, but agreed to donate a major relic of his to the dioceses of Cork. Thousands of people were present when the beautiful reliquary containing his relic was brought in procession to the North Cathedral where it remains today. Thaddeus was honoured with the title of “White Martyr of Munster” principally because of the intense mental and physical anguish. A rejected Bishop of three dioceses, excommunicated by the church, had now at last come into his own.

Today, his shrine in the Cathedral attracts many who come, perhaps to pray, and ask his intercession for their requests. He is after all “One of our own”. His feast is celebrated annually on October 25th.