Saturday 20 July 2019

Heretic was burned at the stake

■ A man being burned at the stake for martyrdom in circumstances similar to those suffered by Black O'Toole.
■ A man being burned at the stake for martyrdom in circumstances similar to those suffered by Black O'Toole.

DURING Easter 1327, a Wicklow man named Adam Dubh (the Black) O'Toole was burnt at the stake outside the walls of Dublin on Hoggen Green (now the College Green area close to St. Andrew's Church). The penalty imposed on Adam was extraordinary, as the burning of people in medieval Ireland was a rarity. Indeed, Adam's crime was equally extraordinary. His was heresy.

Although the execution of Adam would become notorious, we know very little about the man himself. The contemporary accounts of his execution tell us that he was the son of Walter O'Toole. This Walter was important among the O'Tooles as evidenced by the fact that he had a charter of English law and liberty, while he was the only O'Toole included on the jury to investigate the archdeaconry of Glendalough in 1299. That Adam came from noble stock seems to be confirmed by Holinshed's Chronicle (written in the 1600s), describing him as a gentleman of the O'Tooles.

Even so, very little is known of Adam's upbringing. Walter probably sent the young Adam to be educated by the church, as an Adam O'Toole appears as part of an ecclesiastical community in south Wexford during the early 1300s. It was probably then that he received his first teachings in theology. By the 1320s, however, Adam seems to have broken away from the established church. This may have been for many reasons. Increasingly, the church in Ireland had become enveloped in a struggle for control between the Irish and English nations. Also there was considerable frustration among the Irish at Pope John XXII's failure to chastise Edward II of England for the behaviour of the English in Ireland.

Against this background, Adam began preaching among the Irish of the Wicklow mountains. Clearly he had become extremely radical in his views, denouncing the See of Rome as false. The subjects of his sermons can be deduced from his own evidence of 1327. Interestingly, there appears to be echoes of Catharism in his beliefs, as he denied the Incarnation of Christ.

He also held that there could not be three persons in the one God.

Scandalously, he further claimed that the Virgin Mary had been a prostitute - asserting also that the resurrection of the dead and the scriptures were little more than fables. Nonetheless, Adam's views garnered a considerable following among the Wicklow Irish - contributing to their increasing attacks on the Pale. By early 1327 Adam's preaching had come to the attention of the church and the Dublin government, leading them to seek his arrest as a disturber of the peace.

Upon his arrest, Adam was tried for heresy and refused to recant, denouncing the beliefs of the church before rejecting the authority of the pope. His clerical judges pronounced him a heretic, sentencing him to burn for his heresies. With co-operation of the civil authorities, the sentence was carried before large crowds in April 1327.

Even though the heretic was consigned to the flames, Adam's legacy remained. For between 1328 and 1333, the justiciar of Ireland wrote to Pope John XXII that Adam's heresy was evidence of Irish depravity, claiming that because of his perverse doctrine '.. many souls among the Irish were lost and damned'.