Sean na Sagart

In the middle of Ballintubber cemetery stand the remains of a once mighty ash tree, beneath which lie the remains of one John Mullowney, otherwise known as Sean na Sagart, or John of the Priests, an infamous priest hunter from the Penal Times of the early 18th century. Mullowney had a reputation as a drinking man and a thief. Having been caught in the act of stealing a horse he was subsequently sentenced to death before the Grand Jury in Castlebar. Finding himself pressed by the moment, he agreed to assist in the enforcement of the so-called ‘Banishing Act’, which had been introduced by the British government in 1697.

This Act stated, in part, “All popish archbishops, bishops, vicars general, deans, Jesuit monks, friars and all other regular popish clergy and all Papists exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction, shall depart out of this kingdom before the 1st of May 1698. If any of the said ecclesiastical persons shall be at any time after the said 1st of May, 1698, within the kingdom, they and every of them shall suffer imprisonment, until he or they shall be transported beyond the seas; and if any person so transported shall return again to this kingdom, they and every of them shall be guilty of high treason, and suffer and forfeit as in case of high treason.”

As a means of further suppressing the Catholic clergy the later 1703 Popery Act was amended in 1709 to include an Oath of Objuration. This was intended to force the recognition by Catholic Bishops and priests the position of Protestant Queen Anne as head of the church in Ireland. Any who failed to comply were faced with deportation, with no prospect of return.

At this time John Mullowney joined the ranks of the much despised priest hunters and for 16 years plied his new trade, aiding in the capture of several members of the clergy and killing at least one, a friar by the name of Andrew Higgins who had been discovered and shot after conducting an outdoor mass at Pulnatheacken, close to the village of Aghagower.

At Higgins’ funeral, his nephew and fellow friar was acting as pallbearer. Mullowney, who had been tipped off, had been lying in wait. He sprang out from the undergrowth and grabbed Friar Bourke with the triumphant words ‘Ta mo chios iochtegan!’ which when translated means ‘My rent is paid!’. There ensued a struggle and the good friar fled the scene with Mullowney hard at his heels. The chase led to woodland at Partry where a confrontation took place. Mullowney, evidently anxious for his rent money, drew his dagger and wounded Bourke in the leg. In the course of the ensuing struggle Mullowney was fatally wounded.

After he was buried in the grounds of Ballintubber Abbey a number of local men disinterred his body and threw it into the lake nearby. Friar Bourke was having none of that, but made arrangements that Mullowney should be fished out and accorded a proper burial. This was done, though not in the normally accepted manner. He was buried facing to the north, that he might never again see the sun.

An ash tree later grew out of his grave, splitting it in two. It is said that this tree, the remnants of which can be seen to this day, never bore fruit. However, in September of 2021 a small number of ash seeds were seen growing on the branches. The tree is still known as the Sean na Sagart tree.