A Tale of Divine Justice
After 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 asleep 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.”
“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.”