Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Séan na Sagart.

Here is a story that has a connection to County Mayo. It’s about one of the vilest men County Mayo ever produced and his name was:


Séan na Sagart.

Who was Séan na Sagart?

He was born in 1690 in Derrew, near Ballyheane, County Mayo and his real name was John Mullowney.  Mullowney was a notorious horse thief and drunkard, a violent man who had absolutely no morals whatsoever, a truly despicable character.  He was arrested for horse stealing and sentenced to death by the Grand Jury in Castlebar. The case came to the attention of Bingham, another man of low character and high station, the High Sheriff of County Mayo and realising just how low this man would stoop he saw in him the potential to offer him a deal. If Mullowney agreed to join the ranks of the priest hunters then he would be spared the hangman’s noose. There was one condition; he would have his freedom provided he paid a certain rent each year-a priest’s head”. Mullowney agreed and before long he had gained a new name, that of Séan na Sagart or John of the priests.

The Penal Act of 1709 demanded that Catholic priests take an Oath of Abjuration recognising the right of the protestant crown of England and today it would be the same as swearing allegiance to the crown. In effect it denied the rights of James II and the Stuarts or other Catholic claimants to the crown of England. All clergy had to recognise the Protestant Queen Anne as Supreme Head of the Church of England and Ireland, any cleric that refused was sentenced to death or transportation for life by the Protestant controlled judicial system.  Out of an estimated two thousand Catholic priests in Ireland only thirty three took the oath. The law hoped to eradicate Catholicism in Ireland within two generations and bishops and clergy were banished and no new priests were permitted to enter the country, in this way the protestant ruling class believed they would gain complete control over the political, economic and social systems of Ireland

Mullowney was to prove to be extremely efficient in his new role and received £100 for the capture of an Archbishop or Bishop, £20 for a priest and £10 for a monk, a Jesuit, or a hedge school teacher an extraordinary amount of money at that time and money that Mullowney used to fund his habits of drinking, womanising, and newly found expensive tastes.  In common with today, wealth was the key that opened the doors to society and it wasn’t long before he became a welcome visitor to the homes of certain members of the Protestant gentry.  In fact he was a regular visitor to Newbrook House near Hollymount, Claremorriss then the residence of the Lord Clanmorriss of the Bingham family, a close relative and neighbour of another Bingham, Lord Lucan. The Bingham’s hated the Catholics and the peasant class who they regarded as one in the same and supported the actions of Mullowney and his like.  It has been suggested that Bingham was Mullowney’s paymaster and that the heads of his priest victims were kept in the cellar of Newbrook House.  It has also been suggested that some of the heads were thrown into a little lake in the parish of Ballintubber; it now bears the name Lake of the heads.

There is an interesting story concerning Mrs Bingham, she is said to have employed a priest as a butler and footman. One day the Bingham’s had urgent business in Castlebar but when they got into their carriage one of the horses refused to move. Mrs Bingham must have been feeling a certain amount of guilt because she insisted it was because of the murders carried out by Séan na Sagart that the horse wouldn’t move. She made her husband promise that Mullowney would not be allowed to murder any more priest. As soon Bingham promised the curse was lifted and the horse is reported as happily trotting all the way to Castlebar. However, I don’t think the promise of the Bingham’s amounted to much as Mullowney carried on his wicked trade.

He truly was an evil man and he even used this as a way of catching those unfortunate priests who felt that there is a little good in everyone. One technique was to pretend to be sick, bedridden and close to death, Mullowney would call for a priest to confess his terrible sins and when the priest arrived Mullowney would grab a hidden knife from under the blankets and attempt to stab and kill the priest.  This technique was to eventually lead to his demise.

 Mullowney wanted to catch a particular priest in Ballintubber, It is said that he convinced his sister Nancy Loughnan who was a widow and a devout Catholic that he was gravely ill and desperately needed to confess his sins before he went to face his maker. The priest, Father Kilger was quickly sent for and he arrived dressed in disguise. As he knelt by the bed of Séan na Sagart in order to hear his confession the priest hunter jumped up and stabbed the priest in the neck killing him. 

Everyone in County Mayo hear of this and there was widespread anger and revulsion and everyone knew that Father Kilger’s nephew Friar Bourke would be at the funeral, exactly what Séan na Sagart wanted. The friar turned up as expected and took his place as a pallbearer; he wasn’t stupid though because he had brought two bodyguards with him for protection, John McCann and Fergus McCormick.  As the funeral procession arrived at Ballintubber a bunch of Redcoats blocked their way and from out of the bushes jumped Séan na Sagart.  He grabbed the friar roaring “My rent is paid” probably referring to the money he would collect for the friar’s head. The friar broke free and ran off towards the Partry Mountains hotly pursued by the priest hunter. 

It was said that the chase lasted most of that day and eventually came to an end in a wood near Partry.  The friar who was exhausted at this stage fought with Séan na Sagart and in the struggle the friar stabbed Séan with his own knife. McCann who by now had reached the pair grabbed the knife and finished the job so ending the career of Séan na Sagart, priest hunter. The year was 1726.

Mullowney was hated with a vengeance by the people of County Mayo, it is said that his body was tossed into Lough Carra. However, the parish priest ordered the body to be retrieved and it was buried in un-consecrated ground near Ballintubber Abbey. The locals had the last word though because they buried the corpse facing north where the sun never rises.