Seán na Sagart

No account of Ballintubber’s history would be complete without mentioning the notorious priest hunter, Seán na Sagart – John of the priest.

His name was John Malowney. Tradition says he turned to priest hunting after being caught stealing a horse. Facing the penalty of hanging, Bingham, the Sheriff of Mayo, struck a deal with him the night before: his freedom in exchange for an annual “rent” – the head of a priest.

In the Penal Times, driven more by politics than religion, teachers, priests, and bishops had bounties on their heads. Seán was reputed for capturing numerous priests, shielded by soldiers wherever he went.

Despite his efforts, Seán couldn’t locate two priests in the area. Resorting to trickery, he feigned illness to lure his sister Nancy, claiming a desire for confession and forgiveness before facing his maker.

When Nancy summoned Fr Kilger, Seán, hidden dagger in hand, fatally stabbed the priest during confession. The next day, as they brought Fr Kilger’s body for burial, the other priest, disguised as a woman, attempted to bless the grave. Recognizing him, Seán pursued Fr Burke, injuring him but was thwarted by a peddler, John McCann, who intervened, allowing the priest to escape.

The soldiers discovered Seán’s body the next day, burying him in Ballintubber’s graveyard. However, locals, at the priest’s behest, retrieved Seán’s body from the lake, reburied it in the graveyard, but facing north, contrary to tradition. An ash sapling grew from his grave, splitting it in two.

Today, the “Seán na Sagart tree” stands in Ballintubber Abbey’s grounds as a reminder. Go ndéana Dia Trocaire ar a anam.