Sean Na Saggart - The Priest Hunter

John Mullowney got his sobriquet (translated John of the Priests) from all the priests he hunted and turned over to the authorities in Penal Days in Mayo.He was born in or about the year 1690 in the townland of Skehannagh in the parish of Ballintober. In his early manhood he was noted for two vices, drinking and stealing horses. For the latter crime he was sentenced to death in Castlebar. The Grand Jury however, seeing what character John was made of, did a deal with him. Provided he joined the ranks of the priest hunters he would escape the gallows. This John agreed to do.

John flourished during the dark era of the Penal Days. In 1709 an Act was passed whereby every priest had to take the Oath of Abjuration which simply meant that they recognised the Protestant Queen Anne as Queen of England (and head of the Anglican Church) and not any Roman Catholic Stuartpretender. Failure to comply with this Act meant at least transportation or life. Out of an estimated two thousand priests in Ireland at that time, only thirty three priests adjured.

From 1710 until his death in circa 1726 John was very active in central Mayo. The rewards were high, an Archbishop or Bishop was worth £100, a priest £20 and a monk or Jesuit £10. John was able to keep his drinking habits going from his earnings and he earned the reputation of being the most active priest - hunter in the west.

He was welcomed by some of the Protestant gentry and was a regular visitor at Newbrook House in Robeen, then the residence of John Bingham. In 1715 he gave testimony at Castlebar before the Grand Jury on the whereabouts of the Vicar General of Tuam Diocese, Francis Bourke and James Lynch, Titular Archbishop of Tuam. The document bore a cross (i.e. 'x') for his signature. He is believed to have killed at least one priest during his career. After saying Mass near a cavern at Pulnatheacken a Fr. Andrew Higgins was killed while trying to escape from the priest hunter. It is generally accepted that Sean na Saggart died in a wood near Partry (close to the present Garda station) and was in fact killed by the priest he was pursuing - Friar David Bourke.

Sean na Saggart was buried in the graveyard of Ballintober Abbey. An old ash tree, which legend has it, never blossomed, marked the site of his grave for a century and a half but which has now disappeared.

by Eamon de Burca (from South Mayo Family Research Centre Journal 1987)

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