Living and Dying for the Faith

Margaret Ball (Bermingham) laywoman, died a martyr in Dublin Castle in devastating circumstances, probably in 1584.

Margaret Ball is the sole woman among the seventeen Irish martyrs, and hers is probably the most extraordinary story of all. She bore twenty children, two of whom became Lord Mayors of Dublin, and it was Walter, the eldest and the most successful, who condemned his own mother to her pitiful, slow death in prison.  

Self-preservation, long a characteristic of the rich and influential, in this Ireland of torn loyalties, had never been a respecter of familial ties. Neighbour had betrayed neighbour, cousin had betrayed cousin, brother had betrayed brother, and now a son betrayed a mother, who forgave him to the end. 

A cynic might say that any woman who brings twenty children into the world is looking martyrdom in the face most days of the week, but Margaret Ball’s pathetic death stands in stark contradiction to her very promising start in life as the well to-do daughter of a country squire. The precise date of Margaret’s birth is not known, but it was probably sometime in 1515 that she was born into the Bermingham family of Corballis, in the Barony of Skyrne, County Meath. Her home was near the legendary Tara, seat of the High Kings of Ireland. It was a rural area about twenty-five miles from Dublin, but within 74 the 17 Irish Martyrs the Pale. 


Her parents, Nicholas and Catherine Bermingham, were members of the gentry, so young Margaret enjoyed a sheltered life of comfort and privilege. She appears to have been very well-educated and to have received a strong spiritual formation. The family was a religious one and later, when all such families were forced to choose between Crown and Pope, the Berminghams became synonymous with opposition to the Tudor government’s harsh enforcement of State Protestantism. But all that still loomed only vaguely in the future when Margaret danced and played her way through a trouble- free childhood. 

She married in 1530 when she was still in her mid-teens, though whether it was a love match or an alliance between a family with status and a family with money is not known. In any event, it guaranteed her a wealthy life and a prominent place among Dublin’s best known and most influential citizenry. Her husband, Bartholomew Ball, was born in Balrothery in north County Dublin but raised in Dublin city from the age of seven. He was one of Dublin’s most prominent and prosperous merchants. Given his status at the time of the marriage, it seems likely that he was considerably older than his wife. 

On their wedding day in 1530, Margaret and Bartholomew probably knew very little and cared even less about the controversy raging in England over Henry VIII’s attempts to extricate himself from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Margaret was no more aware of the fact that she was entering a marriage which would ultimately cause her martyrdom than was Sir Thomas More, who as newly appointed Chancellor only a few months earlier had opened the English Parliament which was to decree his death.  


Margaret and Bartholomew had twenty children, but in those days of high infant mortality only five survived into adulthood, Eleanor, Katherine, Nicholas, Thomas and the notorious Walter. Margaret herself seems to have come through these pregnancies relatively well. To have survived them at all showed a remarkable constitution, and it is sadly ironic that having struggled through a succession of pregnancies and infant deaths to what should have been a very placid old age, Margaret faced the most cruel challenges of her life long after her family was reared and enjoying success. 

She and her husband shared thirty-eight years of marriage, during which they were respected and powerful citizens of Dublin who took a very active role in the commercial and political life of the city. Bartholomew became both bailiff of Dublin in 1541, and later Mayor of the city in 1553. The political temperature rose steadily during those years and as it did Margaret’s own family, the Berminghams, became deeply embroiled in the Pale’s growing disenchantment with Tudor rule.  

Bartholomew died early in 1568 leaving the new Widow Ball well provided for. She could easily have faded from view, passing her days happily conforming to the new Protestantism, or at least not openly challenging it. But Margaret came from a family whose adherence to the Catholic Church never wavered. She had a streak of independence and a fearlessness which set her off down the path of recusancy, fully aware that she was pitting herself against the law of the land. 

Unshakable Faith

Margaret was a talented and energetic woman whose being revolved round an unshakable faith in God and a life filled with prayer. She loved young people and she loved her Faith, and she brought both together in a sincere desire to share her gift of Faith with the young people of the Pale who were being subjected to such mixed messages about Church, state and faith.  

Margaret’s message was straightforward, the Mass was the centre, the core of her life and the Roman Catholic Faith was her road to God. Whatever the politicians might will or decree, she was determined to use her wealth and her intellectual and spiritual resources to fight them every inch of the way. The recusant families struggling to hold on to their Catholic faith were under enormous pressure inside the Pale. The temptation to conform to Protestantism dangled before them, promising security and access to continuing privilege. 


As the screws tightened and the penalties for failing to conform bit deeper and deeper, the faith and courage of the recusants was tested daily. Margaret Ball felt keenly that those who, like herself, were determined to resist the encroachment of force-fed Protestantism needed to support each other in practical ways. She opened a school for the children of Catholic families and it soon became a popular centre of learning, as noted for its high level of scholarship as for the piety of its students. Children travelled long distances to Widow Ball’s school drawn by her reputation for instilling virtue, spirituality, and fidelity to the teaching of the Catholic Church.  

Where many of the gentry played down their recusancy, Margaret did not. Her school, which catered to the children of recusant families, operated openly. Priests on the run often used her home as a place of refuge. They were welcomed, given food and shelter, and allowed to celebrate Mass there, despite the grave penalties which such actions could bring down. Margaret’s elevated status in the Pale provided virtually no immunity from prosecution and she had several skirmishes with the law, none of which intimidated her in the slightest. Sometime in the late 1570s, while a fugitive priest was saying Mass in her home, the house was raided and Margaret was arrested.  

Her good standing in the community was not sufficient to keep her out of jail and she spent a brief uncomfortable time there. Some of her friends among the nobility, by dint of pressure and the judicious application of money to the right people, managed to have her released. The brief spell in prison did not inhibit Margaret. She continued as before, keeping an open door to priests.  

Her biggest disappointment in life was her eldest son, Walter. Most mothers would have been proud to have a son who followed his father into the office of Lord Mayor of Dublin, as Walter did in 1580. However, Walter converted to Protestantism and became a zealot. He was adamant that his mother was wrongheaded in her loyalty to Rome. Margaret was dismayed that her son had turned his back on the faith of his ancestors and embraced the state religion which his family had resisted at great personal cost.  

She never missed an opportunity to surround him with committed Catholics in the hope that he would join the recusants, among whom was his own younger brother, Nicholas. Nothing she tried had any effect. Walter remained as staunch a Protestant as she was a Catholic. Both of them were to have their respective faiths sorely tested. It was the year 1580 and the Pale was a hotbed of Reformation and Counter-Reformation intrigue. The Baltinglass uprising had fuelled panic in the administration. There was a morbid fear that the Pale would erupt into a general, widespread rebellion. The atmosphere was combustible. 

Walter Ball, Mayor of the capital city and a much respected business man, had taken the momentous step of alienating himself from his family and their faith. He was now a fervent Protestant and a supporter of the Crown. From the moment of his conversion until his death, Walter never wavered in his wholehearted commitment to Protestantism and his seething aversion to Catholicism, which he regarded as little more than superstition. He embraced all the popular Protestant causes, becoming particularly associated with the movement to found a Protestant university in Dublin. 


When the University of Dublin (Trinity College) was founded in 1592, Walter was listed among its patrons and he received special congratulations from Queen Elizabeth for his contribution to the new university. When the new college opened its doors, Walter’s two sons were among its first alumni. The stoutly Protestant ethos of the college continued well into the twentieth century, and although it lifted its ban on Catholic students, as late as the 1970s, Catholic students still had to ask permission from the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin to attend the “Protestant university”.


Walter’s younger brother Nicholas was no better. He too was a very well-known businessman in the Pale, yet he sided with his mother. Walter felt that his position was critical. He needed to prove to his newfound colleagues and to himself that he was truly a reformation man. The best way to do that was to make an example of his mother. Walter had been appointed to the court of high commission, which investigated cases of alleged recusancy. It is not known for certain how Margaret fell foul of the authorities, but it is possible that she was asked to appear before the commission to answer charges of harbouring priests or facilitating the celebration of Mass.  

Because of her previous entanglement with the law, the court was unlikely to be merciful to her. There was a bitter war going on for hearts and minds and the schism in the Ball family was a potent symbol of what was happening throughout the community. With Walter’s firm support behind them, the authorities were now in a powerful position to show just how much they meant business by strictly enforcing the law against one of the Pale’s best known dissenters.  

Margaret was taken from her home and dragged through the streets strapped to a contraption known as a hurdle, a wooden sled-like frame used to drag convicts to the gallows. She was imprisoned in Dublin Castle where conditions were squalid. This time there was no prospect of release. One can only imagine the internecine feuding which her imprisonment must have provoked between Nicholas and Walter, but the latter grew more resolute in his view that Margaret’s fate was entirely her own fault and that she could easily redeem the situation by abandoning Catholicism. The Widow Ball had never known poverty. 

She had never gone hungry or been forced to live without basic home comforts. Now in her late sixties, she was to spend her remaining years in conditions of appalling dirt and neglect. She prayed her way through it and through the squalor-induced illness, which took a heavy toll on her body, though not her spirit. She was not at all concerned about herself or anxious to obtain her freedom. Her sole anxiety was for her son Walter and his bitter opposition to the Catholic Church. She prayed constantly for his conversion. The days and weeks became years, yet Margaret faced each dreary day with the same resilience. 


In 1582, her other son Nicholas became Mayor of Dublin, but there was virtually nothing he could do to save her. The case was too notorious for the authorities to simply change their minds. If Margaret was to be freed, then she would have to change her mind. Margaret knew well that the doors would open and her warm comfortable life of privilege would embrace her again if she would just surrender her Faith, but even as she grew physically weaker, ravaged by disease and hunger, she found strength to say no and to keep on saying it until the end. Worn out by the misery of prison life, she finally died, probably sometime in 1584.  

Shortly after her death Nicholas became a member of Parliament and both he and Walter continued to prosper in their different spheres. Two wealthy, powerful and influential brothers, not at all the kind of men whose mother would be expected to die from the effects of malnutrition and hardship in a dank, damp prison cell. Hers was a slow tortuous martyrdom, a daily grinding down of the body in the hope that the mind and spirit would collapse too. But mother and son were cut from the same cloth. Neither gave in.  

Walter lived for his faith; his mother died for hers. The recusants of the Pale cherished her memory and from the moment of her death she was seen quite simply as a martyr whose deep, boundless love of God and her unflagging forgiveness soared above the hatred and sectarianism of the times, giving strength to those still fighting for the right to believe and worship as they chose. 

Extract taken from Mary McAleese’s book, The 17 Irish Martyrs. Available now at 

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