Seán na Sagart- The Priest-Catcher
Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill
Eighteenth century Ireland was a turbulent time for Catholics and the Penal laws were strictly enforced. The laws had been introduced after the battle of the Boyne and were designed to establish economic, social and political supremacy of Protestantism by keeping Catholics in a state of incapacity. The laws hoped to eradicate Catholicism in Ireland within two generations and thus bishops and regular clergy were banished and no new priests were permitted to enter the country. The Penal Act of 1709 demanded priests take the Oath of Abjuration and recognise the Protestant Queen Anne as Queen of England and Ireland. Any cleric who refused was deported. Out of an estimated two thousand priests in Ireland at that time, only thirty three priests swore the oath. Despite the harshness of these laws the majority of the population remained Catholic and the mass was still celebrated, albeit at secret locations such as Mass rocks. It was not unusual for the priest to wear a veil while saying mass. Thus any mass goer could honestly say they did not know who had said the mass. While mass was being said someone kept watch for the soldiers and an escape route was always at hand. People were equally vigilant for the infamous and widely despised priest-catchers.
The most famous priest-catcher was Seán na Sagart. He was born John Mullowney in 1690 at Derrew, near Ballyheane in the parish of Ballintubber, County Mayo. Mullowney was by all accounts something of a scoundrel. His two passions were horse stealing and drinking. His former passion landed him in trouble with the law around 1715 and he came before a judge in Castlebar, almost certain to face the hangman’s noose. The authorities; however saw potential in him and realised a person of such low character was ideal for the purposes of priest hunting. Thus, he was spared the hangman’s noose on condition that he became a priest catcher it was not long before he became known as Seán na Sagart or John of the Priests.
Priest hunters or pursuivants as they were also known, operated in a similar way to bounty hunters. A Bishop was worth £100, a priest £20 and a monk or Jesuit £10.Some like Seán na Sagart had been coerced into doing so, others, former soldiers and spies had volunteered while others like the infamous Spaniard John Garzia in Dublin had been brought in from abroad. Though lucrative it was a risky business and heavily armed he was usually accompanied by a troop of horse. They were considered the lowest form of society and it was not unusual for a mob to chase them through the streets and beat them to death. The distribution of Priest hunters throughout the country was uneven and in some areas religious worship was overlooked, though Seán operating in Mayo could never be accused of being relaxed in his duties and his ill gotten gains were used to finance his heavy drinking and expensive tastes. Although he was held in poor regard some opened their doors to him and he was a regular visitor to Newbrook House in Robeen, near Ballinrobe in South County Mayo, the then the residence of John Bingham.
In 1715 Seán na Sagart gave testimony at Castlebar before the Grand Jury on the whereabouts of the Vicar General of Tuam Diocese, Francis Bourke and James Lynch, Archbishop of Tuam. The document bore a cross for his signature, suggesting he was illiterate.
If he could not catch a priest he killed him. It is not unknown how many priests he killed, but it is recorded that he shot a Fr. Andrew Higgins as he tried to escape from the mass he had been celebrating near a cave at Pulnatheacken. Seán gave evidence that he saw priests being ordained in Laukill Wood, Aughagower. According to tradition Seán arrested and killed priests and brought the heads into the Sheriff in Castlebar. It is also said that the heads were thrown into a little lake in the parish of Ballintubber - Burriscarra and that it is called "Loch na gCeann or Lake of the heads.
By 1726 priest hunting in places such as Dublin was a dying trade, but not so in the west where Sean was still plying his trade with a passion. He even used his own family to catch priests and once when he wanted to catch a priest in Ballintubber, he convinced his sister a widow and devout Catholic by the name of Nancy Loughnan that he was gravely ill and needed to confess before he died. A priest, Father Kilger was duly sent for and arrived in disguise. As the priest knelt by the bed to pray he leant closer to hear Seán na Sagart’s last confession the priest hunter suddenly jumped up and stabbed the priest in the neck. There was widespread revulsion throughout Mayo and everyone, including Seán na Sagart knew that the priest’s nephew Friar Bourke would be at the funeral in Ballintubber.
The friar was indeed at the funeral, acting as a pallbearer and was accompanied by two armed raparees, John McCann and Fergus McCormick, who acted as his bodyguards. At the procession reached Ballintubber a troop of redcoats was seen moving in and out sprang Seán na Sagart from behind a bush and grabbing hold of the disguised friar cried ‘tá mo chíos íochta agam’, (my rent is paid), in reference to the bounty he would receive. The friar managed to break away from him and ran towards the Partry mountains with Seán na Sag art in pursuit. The pursuit is said to have gone on for the greater part of the day. Exhausted the friar and the priest-hunter confronted each other and fought. John McCann had followed the pair and in the struggle the friar stabbed Sean na Sagart with his own knife, with McCann who was a relative of the murdered Father Higgins finishing the job.
Seán na Sagart was buried at Ballintubber Abbey, County Mayo. The locals took umbrage at this and they dug him up and threw his corpse into nearby Lough Carra. However, Friar Bourke, who later escaped to France with McCann, ordered the mortal remains to be reinterred, albeit in unconsecrated ground with the body facing north, where the sun never rises. An ash tree which never bore fruit and which became known as Seán na Sagart’s Tree, grew out of the grave until it split the gravestone one hundred and fifty years later.