When Margaret Bermingham was about twenty‑one years old, Parliament met in Dublin and passed the first in a series of laws which one day were to cause Margaret enormous emotional and physical pain, alienate her from her eldest son and ultimately lead to her death.
The Acts of Parliament passed in that year 1536, declared Henry VIII the only supreme head of the whole Church of Ireland. From then on anyone asserting the authority of the "Bishop of Rome" or even assisting those who were loyal to the Pope could be put to death.
The sixteenth century became a period of uncertainty and division in Ireland because of religious persecution during the reign of Henry VIII, the 'boy king' Edward VI and especially during the time of Elizabeth I. Elizabeth declared herself the 'Supreme Governor of the Realm", not only in spiritual but in political matters. From then on those refusing to swear an oath to her would not be allowed hold religious or political office.
It was to Dublin that Margaret moved in 1530 after her marriage at the age of 16 to Bartholomew Ball, a wealthy merchant and alderman. Before Elizabeth I had succeeded to the throne, and when such a thing was still possible, Bartholomew Ball, a Catholic, became mayor of Dublin, for one year from 1553 to 1554. Both Margaret and her husband were firm supporters of their faith and actively engaged in religious duties. She held Masses in her house, had her own chaplain with whom she studied catechetics and gathered together many like‑minded people in her home for study and devotion.
It may have been that while her husband was still alive, Margaret was allowed practice with a certain degree of immunity from the punishments normally inflicted on those who refused to follow the official line. After all her husband had held high and influential office. But in the late 1560's Bartholomew Ball died while Margaret was only in her early fifties. Now she was without her husband's protection and religious persecution increased as the century entered its last quarter.
Sometimes during the late 1570's Margaret Ball and a priest were arrested while Mass was being offered in her home. Both were imprisoned for a short time. This was her first taste of the place where she was to finish out her life.
Despite the harsh conditions of prison life, as soon as she was freed Margaret continued to live out her Catholic faith as if no restrictions were in place. The authorities became more vigilant following the rebellion led by Viscount Baltinglass and Baron Nugent in 1580. Many Catholic merchants had made supplies available to the insurgents and suffered imprisonment and death afterwards. Even against this background, Margaret may have been largely ignored by the authorities being a member of the ‘weaker sex’ as well as coming from such a wealthy family were it not for the political ambitions of her son Walter.
Walter Ball wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and become Lord Mayor of Dublin. To do this he would, unlike his father, have to renounce his Catholic faith and take the oath of supremacy.
His mother was truly dismayed when she heard of his plans and lost no time in assembling together in her home many bishops, priests and scholars in an effort to dissuade him. However, there were no arguments that could persuade him that his political ambitions were of little importance in comparison to his spiritual welfare. From that moment, he was his mother's enemy. She, however continued to invite him to her home to dine with her and any bishop or priest that she might be sheltering, still hoping for his reconversion. Through his mother’s contact he gained much sensitive information about wanted clergymen and it is thought that it was Walter who betrayed Archbishop Dermot O'Hurley after he arrived in Drogheda.
Immediately after his instalment as Lord Mayor in 1580, he had his mother and her chaplain arrested. Before her imprisonment, she was paraded through the streets of Dublin in a cart and subjected to the ridicule of the crowds.
Margaret Ball was then thrown into a prison cell in Dublin Castle. She could at any time, have secured her own release and returned to her home to live out her final years in comfort. Yet she chose to suffer and die in a prison cell. She refused, to her last breath to renounce her faith and take the oath. She died in prison at about the age of seventy, sometime in the year 1584.
Today, the cause of Margaret Ball has been accepted by the Roman Congregation for the cause of Saints. She is now Blessed Margaret Ball and her portrait hangs in the simple church dedicated to her in Santry on Dublin’s Northside.
by Annette Black