A priest hunter was a person who, acting on behalf of British forces, spied on or captured Catholic priests during Penal Times in seventeenth and eighteenth century Ireland.
After the English conquest of Ireland, the majority of the population of Ireland had remained Roman Catholic. Large areas of Ireland remained in the control of resisting Irish clans who found the Roman Catholic priests useful conduits for clandestinely obtaining supplies, information, and gold from outside, thereby maintaining their independence from central and especially Protestant authorities.
A 1709 Penal Act demanded that Catholic priests take the Oath of Abjuration, and recognise the Protestant Queen Anne as Queen of the United Kingdom and, by implication, of Ireland. Priests that did not conform were arrested and executed. This activity, along with the deportation of priests who did conform, was a documented attempt to cause the Catholic clergy to die out in Ireland within a generation. Priests had to register with the local magistrates to be allowed to preach, and most did so. Bishops were not able to register.
Priest hunters were effectively bounty hunters; in most cases the men were criminals who were forced into the position by the police force. Some were volunteers, experienced soldiers or former spies. They used numbers of informants within Catholic communities.
The reward rates for capture varied from £100-£50 for a Bishop, to £20-£10 for the capture of an unregistered priest; substantial amounts of money at the time. The work was dangerous, and some priests killed in defence. The hunters were outcast from their communities, and were viewed as the most despised class. Often when a gentleman informed on a priest, locals would effect revenge by burning his house and farmyard. The risks were the same for known informants.
The Penal law made fugitives of the remaining clerics, and they were forced to conduct ceremonies in secret, and in remote locations. Irish Catholics were never large Church goers, however night time worship at mass rocks became common. The attending priest would usually wear a veil, so that if an attendee was questioned they were able to say truthfully that they did not know who had said the Mass.
The distribution of Priest hunters was uneven; some local police forces chose to overlook both the presence of priests and their activity around mass rocks.
Perhaps the most notorious was Sean na Sagart from County Mayo, an alcoholic horse thief who took up the profession in return for a pardon from the hangman's noose, c. 1715. He was eventually killed by a priest he was pursuing, and his body was thrown in a lake. Later it was recovered and buried.
The term 'Priest hunter' or 'pursuivants' is also found in 16th century England, where fugitive clerics used priest holes to evade arrest.
- de Burca, Eamon. South Mayo Family Research Centre Journal, 1987.
- McGee, Thomas D'Arcy. "The priest hunter : a tale of the Irish penal laws", 1844.
- Power, Denis. Archaeological inventory of County Cork, Volume 3: Mid Cork, 9467. ColorBooks, 1997. ISBN 0-7076-4933-1