The men who hunted Catholic priests for a British bounty
History The Priest Hunters Colin C Murphy O'Brien Press, €12.99, pbk, 368 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
Anyone interested in our violent past will realise how it has been formed by the great religious upheavals of Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries. The invasion and conquest of Ireland by the English Crown, coupled with the then conversion of this monarchy to the breakaway or Protestant tradition of Christianity, while the Irish stayed loyal to Rome, made for a combustible combination that has resonated right down to the recent Troubles.
Land and religion were the great issues at the heart of the division in our history and the struggle for political independence.
With the recent retreat of Catholicism from our lives, we tend to forget just how bound up the Catholic faith was with our national identity and our sense of survival.
Colin Murphy's new book is a reminder of that. By closing in on the specific phenomenon of priest hunters – men who hunted down the then outlawed Catholic clerics for a British cash bounty – he illuminates the whole picture of what was going on in the island during the time of the Penal Laws. Some revisionist historians have recently suggested that the Laws, which basically forbade any manifestation or display of the Catholic religion, were only haphazardly applied.
But this was far from the case. They were laboriously applied with all the vigour that one would expect of an expansive English colonialism.
Also, the agony was often worse, in that things might temporarily improve, such as with the Restoration of 1660, and the accession of playboy King Charles II, but then resume their grimness again, with another stiffening of the Crown's rule.
But it was not a colonial project without serious challenges and Murphy describes how the natives did all they could to keep their faith alive and protect their persecuted clergy, despite hunger, torture and execution from the invaders. Essentially, pride was all that the downtrodden natives had left, and that sense of dignity was manifested in their religious faith. Catholicism and an imprecise but growing Irish nationalism thus became inexorably linked, in a way that in subsequent centuries became hard to unravel.
From our childhood history books, we know the story of this 'faith of the underground' – the priest holes and Mass rocks for illegal open-air worshipping. But we do not know much about the priest hunters, who, for profit and ambition but also for sheer sadism, tried to discover the whereabouts of Catholic clergy and hand them over. Obviously, they created great bitterness in the community and it is a tribute to Murphy's focus and style that he manages to write a whole book about their activities and effect, although much of it is unremittingly gruesome and cruel.
We read about tyrants like Barry Lowe, a former Cromwellian and Anabaptist, who tied a priest behind his horse and dragged him through the undergrowth. Or men like John Garzia, who had fled the Spanish Inquisition to come to Protestant Ireland and who had apparently thereafter sought personal revenge by hunting down priests.
The story of the past is one that can be told in many ways. There is room for – and indeed a crying need for – the more vivid novelistic approach, which brings history alive. And this Murphy has done in a compelling, gripping and often disturbing book.