Priest hunts in Ireland

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXI

"By a similar process of reasoning," observes Mr. Prendergast, "it is proved that the Irish have caused the ruin, the plundering, and the desolation of the country, from the first invasion, for so many ages." And this is undoubtedly true; for if there had been no Irish, no Irish could have been plundered; and if there had been no plunder, there could not have been the misery of the plundered. The number of wolves to be destroyed may be estimated from the fact, that some lands valued at a high rate were let for a stipulated number of wolves' heads in lieu of rent. But the wolves were more easily got rid of than the priests.

The priests were accustomed to be persecuted, and accustomed to be hunted. They came to Ireland, as a general rule, with the full knowledge that this would be their fate, and that if they ended their lives, after a few years' ministration, by hanging, without any extra torture, it was the best they could hope for, as far as this world was concerned. Some, however, would have preferred the torture, expecting an additional recompense for it in the next. But there were parts of the country where it was incomparably more difficult to hunt out a priest than a wolf; so the Government gave notice, on the 6th of January, 1653, that all priests and friars who were willing to transport themselves, should have liberty to do so for twenty days. But the priests and friars had no idea of leaving the country. They had gone abroad, at the risk of their lives, to fit themselves in some of the splendid continental colleges for their duties, and to obtain authority to administer the sacraments; they returned, at the risk of their lives, to fulfil their mission; and they remained, at the risk of their lives, to devote them to their own people, for whose sakes they had renounced, not only earthly pleasures and joys, but even that quiet and peaceful life, which, as Christian priests, they might have had in foreign lands.

The people for whom they suffered were not ungrateful. Poor as they were, none could be found to take the proffered bribe. Long lists may be found of priests who were captured and executed, and of the men who received the rewards for their capture; but you will not see a real Irish name amongst them; you will perceive that the priest-catchers were principally English soldiers; and you will remark that the man in whose house the priest was discovered generally shared his fate. But it was useless. They were hung, they were tortured, they were transported to Barbadoes, and, finally, such numbers were captured, that it was feared they would contaminate the very slaves, and they were confined on the island of Innisboffin, off the coast of Connemara. Yet more priests came to take the place of those who were thus removed, and the "hunt" was still continued.

The number of secular priests who were victims to this persecution cannot be correctly estimated. The religious orders, who were in the habit of keeping an accurate chronicle of the entrance and decease of each member, furnish fuller details. An official record, drawn up in 1656, gives the names of thirty Franciscans who had suffered for the faith; and this was before the more severe search had commenced. The martyrdom of a similar number of Dominicans is recorded almost under the same date; and Dr. Burgat [7] states that more than three hundred of the clergy were put to death by the sword or on the scaffold, while more than 1,000 were sent into exile.


[7] Dr. Burgat.—Brevis Relatio. Presented to the Sacred Congregation in 1667. Dr. Moran's little work, Persecution of the Irish Catholics, gives ample details on this subject; and every statement is carefully verified, and the authority given for it.