Brian O'Rourke - Trial and Execution

Trial and Execution

O'Rourke was transferred to the Tower of London, where he was kept in close custody as legal argument began. Although treason trials in the Tudor period had more to do with political theatre than the administration of justice, the matter was not a foregone conclusion: there was a serious question over whether O'Rourke could be tried in England for treason committed in Ireland. The judges delivered a mixed, preliminary opinion, that the trial could go ahead under a treason statute enacted under King Henry VIII.

Meanwhile, articles had been framed at Dublin against O'Rourke with the reluctant aid of Bingham (curiously, he complained of being bullied into his testimony), and there was also an indictment laid by a jury in Sligo. These matters were transferred to England, where the grand jury of Middlesex found evidence of various offences of treason, the most substantial of which concerned the assistance given to Armada survivors, the attempt to raise mercenaries in Scotland, and various armed raids made by O'Rourke into Sligo and Roscommon. There was one further charge that related to an odd incident in 1589, when a representation of the Queen (whether a wood-carving or painting is not known) was said to have been tied to a horse's tail at O'Rourke's command and dragged in the mud. This was referred to as the treason of the image, but it has been suggested that it was merely an ancient new year's ritual, deliberately misconstrued for the benefit of the indictment process.

O'Rourke was arraigned on the 28th of October 1591 and the indictment was translated for him into Irish by a native speaker. One observer said he declined to plead, but the record states that a plea of not guilty was entered (probably at the direction of the court). The defendant was asked how he wished to be tried and answered that he would submit to trial by jury if he were given a week to examine the evidence, then allowed a good legal advocate, and only if the Queen herself sat in judgment. The judge declined these requests and explained that the jury would try him anyway. O'Rourke responded, "If they thought good, let it be so". The trial proceeded and O'Rourke was convicted and sentenced to death.

On the 3rd of November 1591, O'Rourke was drawn to Tyburn. On the scaffold Miler Magrath, Archbishop of Cashel, sought the repentance of the condemned man's sins. In response, he was abused by O'Rourke with jibes over his uncertain faith and credit and dismissed as a man of depraved life who had broken his vow by abjuring the rule of the Franciscans. O'Rourke then suffered execution of sentence by hanging and quartering.

In his essay on Customs, Francis Bacon refers to an Irish rebel hanged at London, who requested that the sentence be carried out, not with a rope halter, but with a willow withe – a common instrument amongst the Irish: it is probable that O'Rourke was the rebel referred to.

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