If, as it has been described, the Church of Ireland was the Wild West of the Elizabethan Protestant Church, then Miler Magrath, Archbishop of Cashel, was its most notorious cowboy. In 1974 the retired Church of Ireland Bishop of Limerick, Robert Wyse Jackson wrote a biography of this, by modern standards, outrageous prelate. He was about as far as it is possible to be from our image of a bishop
In the 16th century the line between Catholic and Protestant was not yet as clearly drawn as it is today. The contest in Ireland between the English Administration and Rome for the allegiance of the clergy, and ultimately that of the people, was still very much alive.
In 1565 the Pope appointed Miler, who in early life had been a Franciscan Friar, as Bishop of Down and Connor. He soon changed horses, and three years later he was in London paying court to Queen Elizabeth who appointed him Protestant Bishop of Clogher. After a further year she made him Archbishop of Cashel.
Miler married Annie O’Meara, a devout Roman Catholic who never darkened the door of a Protestant church. All their nine children were baptised Catholic. A contemporary legend, written during his lifetime, recounts that Annie had periodic qualms of conscience. One Friday she is said to have refused to eat meat. When Miler asked why she would not eat meat with him she replied; ‘Because I do not wish to commit sin with you.’ ‘Surely,’ he replied, ‘you committed a far greater sin in coming to bed with me, a friar!’
Miler Magrath was born the son of an Ulster chieftain probably in minor holy orders, who was custodian of St. Patrick’s Purgatory at Lough Derg, then administered by the Augustinian Order. As a monk Miler is believed to have worked in the Spanish Netherlands before his appointment by the Pope to Down and Connor. It was largely while Protestant Archbishop of Cashel, an office he held for 51 years, that his reputation as an unscrupulous scoundrel and episcopal renegade rests.
For decades he charmed Queen Elizabeth, who apparently liked her men personable. As a native Irishman he was a useful spy for the Crown that was increasingly alienated from the population. One writer says; ‘sincere Protestants detested this bastard child of the Reformation,’ but to Elizabeth his services as a source of intelligence in the strategic border region of Cashel rendered him invaluable.
Miler was in fact what we would call today, a double agent. He pretended to persecute the Catholic clergy yet enabled many of them to escape. That he was entirely unencumbered by religious scruple is illustrated by the occasion of coming on a man dying at the roadside. He asked the man if he were a Protestant or a Catholic. On declaring himself Catholic, Miler administered the last rites of that Church.
His excuse for having a private army was to protect himself after the murder of Bishop Walsh of Ossory in his palace in Kilkenny. Like Pope Julius II, the Warrior Pope, earlier in the century, Miler was more himself when abroad on his horse dressed for battle than at home in his palace administering his ecclesiastical care.
He did, however, have good reason to need protection. In one incident an attacker had left him seriously injured on the road to Dublin. Even with his private army he was vulnerable. There was a famous affray at Lismore over the letting of a castle that Miler had bought from Sir Walter Raleigh, who complained that he was less than honest in his commercial transactions. Miler was attacked and beaten and was saved from being run through with a pike by his padded leather coat of mail. Just eighty at the time, he was a tough customer and above all a survivor.
Some canons of his diocese wrote to the Lord Deputy that the Archbishop used his army to terrorise clergy and laity alike. He strenuously denied this. Later Edmond Fleming, burgess of the city of Cashel compiled a ‘book’ of 40 accusations against him. One of these accusations was that he had scalped a man for demanding arrears of wages due to him. Miler’s defence was that he simply lopped off his locks in conformity with the Statutes of Kilkenny that forbade the wearing of long hair.
In contrast to the efficiency, conformity, order and discipline of seventeenth century Establishment bishops who were mostly English or Welsh, Miler was the last of the medieval bishops. One contemporary wrote, ‘people in his diocese scarcely knew there was a God. His cathedral was no better than a hog-sty.’ He kept for himself most of the revenues of his diocese and passed on to his clergy only a pittance.
Visitations to his diocese in 1604 and 1607 showed ruinous churches, ill-educated clergy guilty of neglect of duty, and above all as many as seventy parishes held in benefit to members of his family, including one to his widowed daughter and one to his daughter-in-law.
In his late eighties he flirted with returning his allegiance to Rome if his position as Protestant Archbishop were threatened. This was a subtle device that would stand to him if he were to come under sanction from either the Protestant or the Catholic side. Miler, the doughty old renegade, died aged 100. In conformity with the terms of his will a monument was erected to him in the Cathedral on the Rock of Cashel.