Eugene Dunphy examines the impact of the Penal Laws in one Irish county


The destruction of churches and monasteries throughout Ireland by Cromwell’s New Model Army left Catholic priests and friars without a pastoral base. Consequently, many priests donned disguises, took to the roads, and celebrated the Liturgy at secret ‘Mass Houses’ or at secluded stone altars, ‘Mass Rocks’.

Those found celebrating Mass had effectively signed their own death warrant, as was the case with Fr. Nicholas Mayler who on Christmas morning 1653, was shot dead by Cromwellian soldiers as he celebrated the Liturgy at a Mass Rock in Tomhaggard, County Wexford.

From 1695 to 1728, a series of statutes were issued against the Catholics of Ireland, and it was not until the latter part of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth that Dublin Castle, the seat of English power in Ireland, saw fit to ease up on the implementation and enforcement of these ‘Penal Laws’.

In the early 1700s, ‘proclamations’ issued against practicing clergy offered rewards of £100 for the apprehension of a bishop, £20 for a priest, and £5 for a trainee priest.

The money certainly caught the attention of John O’Mullowney, a convicted horse thief from County Mayo who became such an effective assassin of clergy, he acquired the moniker Seán na Sagart (‘John of the priests’).
Tradition has it that O’Mullowney died in 1726 and was buried in or around Ballintubber Abbey, but according to a lengthy Wexford People article from October 1889, he was found with his throat cut at the crossroads in Leachestown, in the parish of Mayglass, Wexford, and was buried at that spot ‘without stone or other mark to indicate his grave’.

Another priest hunter, ‘Mr. Farley’, carried out his stock-in-trade near Baldwinstown Castle. It is said that Farley was killed by the rapparee (highwayman) Redmond O’Hanlon, and that he was buried on the road leading from Ballycogley to Kilmore, ‘at a slight curve on the junction of the townlands of Moortown Great and Tullabards’, his resting place becoming known as ‘the priest-catcher’s grave’.

When accomplished priest hunter Edward Tyrrell went to the south-east in 1712, he spoke of his ‘disappointment’ that the magistracy of Wexford were reluctant to help him seek out his prey.

But it seems that Tyrrell had better luck in Clonmel; there he uncovered the whereabouts of Cardinal Thomas Hennessey, who had recently returned from Europe.

Writing to his paymasters (‘your excellencies’) at Dublin Castle, Tyrrell cited the Cardinal’s name as well as the names of his supporters and sympathisers, and urged the authorities to send to Clonmel ‘as many men as may be sufficient’ for their apprehension. Tyrrell himself fell foul of the law in May 1713, when he was executed in Dublin for the crime of bigamy.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own