John Mullowney (aka Seán na Sagart, John of the Priests) (1690-1726) was a bounty hunter who was tasked with hunting priests.
His name was John Mullowney (O'Mullowny) born in County Mayo, Ireland. He led a dissipated life of drinking and carousing, and in order to fund this lifestyle he became a thief. The law caught up with him after he stole horses, which in those times meant a death sentence.
Lucky for Mullowney, it turned out the Anglican-ruled courts were in need of a priest hunter, and someone of such low character was deemed the perfect person to carry out this mission. In exchange he escaped the hangman's noose.
The 1709 Penal Act demanded subjects of the land recognize that Protestant Queen Anne was the Supreme Head of the Church of England and Ireland. Priests especially were ordered to take the Oath of Abjuration and recognize her as such. If they refused they were sentenced to death.
Of 2000 area priests, only 23 had taken the oath, so Mullowney had plenty of work.
Not surprisingly, Mullowney outdid himself in hunting priests. One of his tricks was to pretend to be on his death bed, and when a priest was summoned to administer last rites, he would pull out a knife to force the man to return or kill him. Other times he would go into the confessional, and then kill the priest who sat close by to forgive him of his sins.
He became known as a demon of death, however despite his notoriety many priests did not know exactly what he looked like.
No doubt he was also spurred by the rewards he received which were rumored to be £100 for a bishop or archbishop, £20 for a priest, £10 for a hedge school teacher and £5 for a priest in training. Once he brought them back, if they refused to take the oath they would be executed. It turned out most of the time he would kill them ahead of time just to collect the bounty on them.
A rogue is a rogue, no matter how good he was in bounty hunting priests, but the copious amounts he received for his efforts were wasted on heavy drinking and expensive tastes, which had led him to a narrow escape from the gallows before.
Despite his services to the courts, he was extremely unpopular and hated by all, especially the Catholics. Some of the protestants received him at their house, including Mr. Bingham who was the Sheriff of Mayo. Rumors were that the heads of the executed priests were kept in the house's cellar. Another place where the remains of the murdered priests were dumped was a lake in the parish of Ballintubber.
He was the scourge of the area priests, and he had killed all but two of them, who lived in disguise.
He convinced his own sister, Nancy Loughnan, a devout Catholic that he was at death's door and that a priest should be brought to him. Father Kilger, one of the two remaining priests came in response to the summons, and for his troubles he was stabbed to death by Mullowney.
He knew chances were the last remaining priest would come to the funeral, so he lay in wait for him. This man was Friar Bourke, Father Kilger's nephew. Suspecting that Mullowney planned to ambush him, he brought two bodyguards, John McCann and Fergus McCormick. McCann had his own personal vendetta against Mullowney since one of his relatives, Father Higgins had been murdered by the bounty hunter.
Friar Bourke acted as a pallbearer, and as the funeral proceeded to the cemetery, Mullowney jumped from a behind a tree with a knife in hand, and chased the poor friar who fled towards the Partry mountains. Finally the friar couldn't run anymore, and in the struggle he stabbed his attacker, and then McCann arrived on the scene and finished the job of killing John the Hunter.
Stories are told that after Mullowney was buried in the cemetery of Ballintubber Abbey, however the inhabitants of County Mayo dug him from his grave at and threw him into Lough Carra. Eventually the body was recovered and buried in unconsecrated ground, facing north where the sun never rises. An ash tree was planted as a marker, which became know as the Hangman's Tree. It never bore fruit and after 150 years it was split in half.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer