The Seán na Sagart Tree

sean a sagert 3No history of Ballintubber would be considered complete without a mention of the infamous priest hunter, Seán na Sagart, which translates to “John of the priest.”

His given name was John Malowney. Tradition has it that he turned into a priest hunter after being apprehended for horse theft. The punishment for this ‘offense’ was hanging. However, on the eve of his scheduled execution, Bingham, the Sheriff of Mayo, struck a deal with him: he would secure his freedom in exchange for an annual payment, which amounted to “a priest’s head.”

This era marked the Penal Times, when individuals were targeted more for political reasons than religious ones. Teachers, priests, and bishops had bounties on their heads. It is recounted that Seán was responsible for apprehending numerous priests and enjoyed the protection of soldiers wherever he ventured.

While two priests resided in the vicinity, Seán could not locate them. He resorted to subterfuge. He approached his sister, Nancy, feigning that he was on his deathbed and desired to confess his heinous deeds and seek forgiveness before meeting his Maker.

Eventually, Nancy was convinced and summoned the older of the priests, Fr. Kilger. However, as Fr. Kilger leaned in to hear his confessions, Seán treacherously stabbed him in the heart with a concealed dagger. The following day, they brought Fr. Kilger’s lifeless body to the cemetery for burial, and the other young priest, disguised as a woman, came to bless the grave. Seán recognized him, but before he could execute his sinister plan, the young priest, Fr. Burke, fled. The pursuit persisted throughout the day until, near Partry, in Hession’s field, the priest stumbled. Seán hurled his dagger, striking the priest in the leg and incapacitating him. Seán was poised to deliver the fatal blow when a peddler named John McCann, who had been trailing them, intervened. He instructed the priest to remove the dagger from his leg, and in turn, he confronted Seán with his own blade.

The soldiers discovered Seán na Sagart’s lifeless body the following day and interred him in Ballintubber’s graveyard. However, local residents removed his remains from the grave and cast them into the nearby lake. The fleeing priest later ordered them to retrieve the body from the lake and bury it in the cemetery.

They indeed recovered the body and laid it to rest in the graveyard. However, they did not bury him facing east, as customary for all others awaiting Christ’s glorious return from the East. Instead, they buried him facing north, where the sun never rises. Over time, an ash sapling sprouted and grew into a tree, eventually splitting his grave in two.

That very tree can still be found standing in the grounds of Ballintubber Abbey today and is known as the “Seán na Sagart tree.” Go ndéana Dia Trocaire ar a anam.