The Priest Catcher

A Tale of Divine Justice

CromwellAfter Oliver Cromwell’s ruthless attack on the Irish Catholic Population, every effort was made to ensure that the Catholic Mass and sacraments could not be celebrated by the faithful. The ‘Penal Laws’ introduced and enforced after William III’s victories, gave the persecution of Irish Catholics the protection of ‘Law’. As well as outlawing Roman Catholic religious rites, Catholic Bishops were banished from Ireland and Catholic priests had to register with the authorities to preach. All these actions by the English government made the practice of Roman Catholicism in Ireland both difficult and dangerous, and saw the creation of ‘Priest Hunters’. These were ruthless men who were paid to seek out and arrest unregistered priests and present them to the authorities, who would execute them in the most barbarous of ways. The following story is a tale about the fate that met one particular ‘Priest Catcher’ in the northern portion of the country.
Charlie McCann had been hunting down a large dog fox that had been preying on the chickens that he kept around his cottage, but he had lost its track and was angry that it had gotten away. On his way home he had been met Mrs. O’Brien and described to her the loss of his prey. While she too had suffered from the predations of the fox, Mrs. O’Brien was a woman who was always full of advice. “Charlie,” she began to say, “I think that bog, where your fox escaped, was the same place where a ‘Priest Catcher’ met his fate in the days of the Penal Laws.”
“By God, Mrs. O’Brien,” Charlie replied, “do you know that I have heard two different stories, and I have forgotten both. Perhaps, you could relate the story that you know?”
“I will to be sure,” replied Mrs. O’Brien. “There was once a poor priest, who was making his escape from danger as well as he could in those terrible times. He was terrified, tired, hungry, and filled with despair sore. As he was passing through Moneyreagh, he came across a small cabin that stood just off the side of the road and went inside, where he found a woman standing near the hearth cooking some food in a pot. Breathlessly he apologised for entering without invitation into her home and asked the woman if she could spare him something to eat, and somewhere where he could lie down for a while and get some rest. Poor though she was, the woman gave him the best of what she had, which was only a square of barley-bread, some milk, and some soup. In his hunger, the priest devoured what food he had and lay down in the cabin’s only bed, where he fell Cromwell 2asleep in a very few minutes. But, about an hour later, the woman’s husband came home and was quite taken aback to see a stranger in the bed. His wife immediately explained the entire story to him. the man’s head was filled with the silver coin given as a reward for handing in the priest, and in his greed, he decided at that moment to go and inform the local authority. Without any bye or leave the man rushed as fast he could to see the local magistrate, who lived at Derrymartin, while his wife watched in disgust. She knew, well enough, what was in his mind, but she never said a word in protest. Instead, the poor woman thought and prayed about what she should do until, finally, she decided that she could run over to the house of Mr. Whitten and tell him the entire story. She was sure that although he was Protestant, like herself, he was a kind-hearted man who would not hurt the hair on the head of a priest or a bishop. After telling Mr. Whitten her story he told her to awaken the priest and send him over to his house immediately, where he would be waiting for him at the hall-door, and try to get him into the house without anyone seeing him. He also gave her a large coat for the priest to put over his own clothes as a disguise.
“Well, everything turned out alright, and no one in the house knew of the priest being there, except Mr. Whitten and his wife, and one servant that they both knew they could trust with the secret. Mr. Whitten had every intention, as soon as nightfall came, to take the fugitive to a safer place. Well, the priest-catcher set out on the very same path as your fox to bring the information he had to the local magistrate. On his return home, just as he was passing near the bog that you mentioned, he saw a bull running at full-speed toward him from across the field. The attack was so sudden that the poor man had no means of avoiding the charge and, so, turning around he made for the bog, and within seconds he found himself up to his chin in the sludge. Down he went, there being nothing to which he could hold on to. Throwing up his arms, his hands slapping at the water for a moment, and crying out to God for forgiveness, he was sucked down, and no trace of him was ever seen again. Meanwhile, Mr. Whitten kept the fugitive priest in his house for several days and then helped him on his way. But he didn’t let him go empty-handed.”
Cromwell 3“I am sorry, Mrs. O’Brien, that the pathway across those lovely meadows has such a terribly dismal story associated with it. On the day of my first communion, some of my school friends and I myself went along that pathway to Derrymartin chapel. I remember seeing the fine and beautiful oil-paintings, one of which represented the ‘Nativity’, and another the ‘Healing the blind man’. There was also the style and beauty of the altar, which was so much better than any other altar I had seen. Father Prentice’s pleas to us about maintaining both piety and perseverance, gave us all a deep sense of prayerfulness and increased our faith that, indeed, the Lord was really present in the sacrament we were going to receive. It seemed in that moment to us, as children, that some presence converted the paintings, the altar and the sanctuary area into a paradise. It appeared to welcome us warmly and made us feel that we would have been glad to leave this world. But, unfortunately, all too quickly did life and the hardships of school return and cause that wonderful spiritual pleasure to vanish, causing reality to return. Nevertheless, Mrs. O’Brien, I suppose that the neighbours around him did not forget the great kindness shown by Mr. Whitten?”
“Indeed they did not,” Mrs. O’Brien told him, ” and they gave the same respect to all his descendants. In fact, it was because of this kindness that Tom Whitten’s life was later saved during the rebellion. Did you know that the old chapel where it all took place stood above the bridge yonder, between the river and the Killeagh road? Indeed, it’s not that long ago since I heard the old people talking about some of the ‘corner-boy ne’er-do-wells’ who would gather in an old dry sheugh outside the chapel to play cards during the Mass. They never moved until someone called to them that they better get up out of it because the priest was coming out. Now, wouldn’t their souls be in a nice state when the Lord would call upon them, and them not hearing the Mass with any devotion, and forgetting the struggle there was to keep the faith alive.”

An Gorta Mor -The Great Famine I

A Little bit of history to go along with the stories

Introduction

The “Great Famine”, or “The Great Hunger”, refers to a period of mass starvation, disease, and emigration that swept over Ireland between the years 1845 and 1849. Outside of Ireland, however, it is usually referred to as “The Irish Potato Famine” because over half the population on that island at that time were completely reliant upon this cheap crop for food, due to a number of historical and political reaons. It is believed by many that about one million people died in this period, while over a million more people emigrated to other lands. As a result, during 1845 – 1849 the population of Ireland suffered a 20% – 25% reduction in its numbers.

Irish Famine 2Undoubtedly the cause of the famine was potato blight, which was a fungus-like organism called ‘Phytophthora infestans’. This aggressive form of blight ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s. In Ireland it first appeared in 1845 and in that year ruined up to one-half of the potato crop that year, followed by three-quarters of the crop over each the subsequent seven years. The blight’s disproportionate impact on the Irish population is due mainly to the fact that one-third of that population was dependant on the potato crop for a range of ethnic, religious, political, social, and economic reasons. These reasons included land acquisition, absentee landlords, and the Corn Laws, all of which contributed to this natural disaster in varying degrees. Sadly, all of these things remain the subject of intense historical debate.

To give us a better insight into conditions existing within Ireland at this time we should look at how Ireland progressed after the ratification of the ‘Acts of Union’ in 1801. The main result of this ratification was that, henceforth, Ireland was governed as a colony of Great Britain until Independence was finally gained in the early part of the Twentieth Century. From 1801 onward the combined nations were known to the rest of the world as the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” Under this new political reality the British government appointed Ireland’s executive heads of state, giving them the title of the ‘Lord Lieutenant’ and the ‘Chief Secretary of Ireland.’ The people of Ireland could, nonetheless, elect representation to the parliament in London, made up of 105 representatives to the lower house, or ‘House of Commons’. These were accompanied by 28 titled landowners, who took their seats in the upper house, or ‘House of Lords.

It must be remembered, however, that the bulk of these ‘elected’ representatives were landowners of British origin and/or their sons, which left the majority of the Irish population unrepresented. The vast majority of Ireland’s native population were practising Catholics, who were foridden from owning or leasing land, voting or holding elected office under what was known as “The Penal Laws.” These were a series of laws that were imposed to force Irish Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters (e.g. Presbyterians) to accept the Anglican Church, which was the reformed denomination defined by the English state and practised by members of the Irish state established Church of Ireland. These discriminatory laws were not finally repealed until the passing of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Government of Ireland Act (1920).They had included –

  • The exclusion of Catholics from most public offices (enacted in 1607 and did not include Presbyterians until 1707.

  • Ban on Catholic/Protestant intermarriage (Repealed 1778)

  • Presbyterian marriages not legally recognised by the state.

  • Catholics forbidden from holding firearms, or serving in the armed forces (the latter rescinded by the ‘Militia Act’ 91793))

  • Catholics barred from membership of the Irish Parliament, or English Parliament (enacted 1652; rescinded 1662-91; renewed 1691-1829).

  • ‘Disenfranchising Act’ (1728) – excluding Catholics from voting until 1793.

  • Catholic Exclusion from the legal professions and the judiciary. (respectively repealed 1793 and 1829.

  • ‘Education Act’ (1695) – ban on foreign education (repealed 1782)

  • Catholics and Protestant Dssenters barred from entering ‘Trinity College Dublin’ (repealed 1793)

  • On a death by a Catholic, his legatee could benefit by conversion to the Church of Ireland.

  • ‘Popery Act’ – Catholic inheritances of land were to be equally subdivided between all an owner’s sons, with the exception that if the eldest son and heir converted to Protestantism then he would become the one and only tenant of estate, and portions for the other children were not to exceed one-third of the esstate. This ‘Gavelkind’ system had previously been abolished by 1600.

  • Conversion from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism was banned on pain of ‘Praemunire’ – forfeiting all property estates and legacy to the reigning monarch, and imprisonment at the monarch’s pleasure. Such converts would forfeit the monarch’s protection, and no injury, no matter how bad, could have any action brought against it nor any reparation demanded for it.

  • Catholics banned from buying land under a lease exceeding 31 years. (repealed 1778)

  • Catholics banned from having custody of orphans on pain of £500 being donated to ‘The Blue Coat Hospital’ in Dublin.

  • Catholics could not inherit Protestant land.

  • Catholics forbidden from owning a horse valued at over £5.

  • Roman Catholic lay priests had to register to preach under ‘The Registration Act’ (1704), but seminary priests and Bishops were not able to do so until 1778.

  • When permitted, new Catholic churches were to be built of wood only and sited away from main roads.

  • No Catholic was to publicly or privately teach school, or instruct young people, or be fined £20 and three months imprisonment for every such offence. (repealed 1782).

Although the ‘Penal Laws’ were, for the most part, repealed by 1829,Irish Famine 1 their effects on Irish society and its governance was still being felt in 1845 and the onset of the ‘Potato Famine’. The vast majority of the land, at this time, was owned by English and Anglo-Irish families. The majority, Catholic, population were reduced to working this land as tenant farmers who were forced to pay rent to the landowners, while having no rights over their home or leased land.

The ‘Potato Famine’ was a watershed in Ireland’s history, because its effects would permanently change this island’s demographic, political, and cultural landscape.For the native Irish who stayed and those who left in the resulting diaspora, the famine became a rallying call for ‘Irish Nationalism’ and those movements seeking independence from the British Crown. Relations between many Irish people and the Crown were already strained by the onset of the famine, but these realtions were to be soured even further. Both ethnic and sectarian tensions were heightened, and helped boost the ideals of nationalism and republicanism in Ireland and among the Irish who emigrated to the United States and elsewhere.