Tuesday 29 September 2020

The Martyr of Inishowen: Father James O'Hegarty


 Below is a paper from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record of 1904 detailing the sad case of Father James O'Hegarty, a priest from the Inishowen area of County Donegal, ordained in 1672 by Saint Oliver Plunkett and martyred in the early eighteenth century, a victim of the Penal Laws. The author is the then Bishop of Derry, John Keys O'Doherty (1833-1907), a man with a keen interest in the history of his diocese and who published a number of articles on its saints and martyrs. He was not the first Bishop of Derry to take an interest in Father O'Hegarty for his predecessor Edward Maginn (1802-1849) also researched this local martyr whose memory was kept alive in oral tradition. The photograph above, taken in September 2020, shows the memorial plaque and grave site dedicated to the priest. It bears witness to the fact that to this day he has never been forgotten in the locality where he ministered and died. The circumstances of Father O'Hegarty's betrayal by his own in-laws, the Doherties, also remained in popular memory. Bishop O'Doherty describes the poetic justice of their ultimate fate at the hands of an outlaw called 'Stumpy'. Interestingly, the attempts of the Doherty sponsor, Colonel Vaughan, to convert the locals are portrayed as 'souperism', something more usually associated with the Great Famine of the 1840s. Overall, it is the rich human drama, where the courage and selflessness of the priest contrasts sharply with the venality of the informers and the bad faith of those in authority, which makes the story of 'the Martyr of Inishowen' so compelling. Bishop O'Doherty both begins and ends his account with two familiar tropes of the period. He starts with the charge that the English surpassed Nero in cruelty and concludes with the romantic image of the windswept, wild and lonely grave site, a landscape which for people of this generation was synonymous with the 'Celtic church'. The martyr of the early eighteenth century is thus linked to the Church of his ancestors. The commemorative  plaque below suggests that Father O'Hegarty was not a secular priest but a member of the Dominican Order. I have not been able to confirm this and Bishop O'Doherty does not raise the issue in his article, but I will be looking at the fate of the Domincan community of Derry in future posts.



IN no time during the Penal days did the fire of persecution burn more fiercely than in the reign of Queen Anne, and the beginning of the reign of King George the First. No weapon that bigotry could invent was then left untried. The Papists, as they were termed, were subjected to every kind of civil disability; but it was on the heads of the clergy, in an especial manner, that the full vials of heretical wrath were mercilessly poured. Nero did not gloat with more inhuman pleasure over the agonies of the early Christians converted into living torches to light the darkness of Rome, than did our English rulers over the hanging, drawing, and quartering of Catholic bishops and priests both in this country and in England. The laws passed at that period, and preserved in the statute books, published by the Government itself, bear ample testimony to the horrors of the time. Even the eloquence of Burke failed to designate these enactments properly, for they seemed to be the product, not of ‘the perverted ingenuity of man,' as he mildly termed them, but the fierce onslaught of fiends upon the Church of God. As a sample of these laws we may take that passed in 1703, entitled 'An Act to prevent the further growth of Popery,' and followed immediately by another called, 'An Act for registering the Popish clergy.' It is with the latter we have principally to deal, as well as with another Act passed in 1709.

This Registration Act begins as follows: —
Whereas two Acts lately made for banishing all Regulars of the Popish clergy out of this Kingdom, and to prevent Popish priests from coming into the same, may be wholly eluded, unless the Government be truly informed of the number of such dangerous persons as still reside among us: for remedy whereof, be it enacted by the Queen's most excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords spiritual and temporal and Commons in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, That all and every Popish priest or priests, who are now in this Kingdom, shall, at the next general quarter-sessions of the Peace to be held in all the several counties, or counties of cities or towns, throughout this Kingdom, next after the feast of St. John the Baptist, which shall be in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and four, return his or their names and places of abode to the respective clerks of the peace in the several counties, or counties of cities or towns, in this Kingdom, where the said Popish priests shall dwell or reside, together with his or their age, the parish of which he pretends to be Popish priest, the time and place of his or their receiving Popish orders, and from whom he or they received the same ; etc., etc.
The second section of this Act provides that if any priest apostatize, 'he is to receive a pension of twenty pounds sterling yearly and every year, during their residence in such county, for their maintenance, till they are otherwise provided for'; this sum was to be levied off the county or district in which the said priest last officiated or resided, but the particular cruelty in this was, that the money was to be levied off Catholics only.

The third section ran thus: 
And it is further enacted by the authority aforesaid. That no Popish parish priest shall keep or have any Popish curate, assistant, or coadjutor. And that all and every Popish priest that shall neglect to register himself pursuant to this Act, shall depart out of this Kingdom before the twentieth day of July which shall be in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and four, on pain of being prosecuted as a Popish Regular clergyman: and that such Popish priest and priests that shall neglect to register him or themselves as aforesaid, and remain in this Kingdom after the said twentieth day of July, shall be esteemed a Popish Regular clergyman, and prosecuted as such.
The priests regarded this law of registration as a kind of toleration if not of protection, and believed that by complying with it they would secure peace to follow their sacred calling, and to minister to the spiritual necessities of their flocks. Little they dreamed it was a deep-laid plan to effect their ruin by giving them the choice of death or apostacy. Yet this was the dilemma in which an Act passed in 1709 placed them.

In obedience to the Government edict most, if not all, of the parish priests got themselves registered. Among the number we find the name of Father Hegarty, or O'Hegarty, the subject of this sketch. The list of those registered was 'Printed by Andrew Crook, Printer to the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty, on the Blind-Key, 1705. Dublin.' It has been reprinted more than once since as a literary and historical curiosity. We believe the last reprint of it was in the twelfth volume of the first series of the I. E. Record, under the auspices of its then Editor, the present Archbishop of Dublin. We there find: 'Registered at a General Sessions of the Peace held for the said County of Donegall, at Raphoe, the Eleventh day of July, 1704, James Hegarty, aged 55, residing at Gortergan, Parish Priest of Fawn, etc., ordained at Dundalk, in May, 1672, by Oliver Plunket, Titr. Primate of Ireland.' The Fawn, etc., of which he was parish priest was the united parish of Fahan and Desertegney; the Fahan being spelt in the registry as it is still pronounced. Fawn. Of his life and labours, as of those of his contemporaries, we know but little save what tradition has preserved for us. Even the names of those apostolical men are, for the most part, forgotten ; all that remains of them is the fruit of their labours — the living faith which they transmitted to us in spite of every persecution.

Fortunately, however, tradition in the case of Father Hegarty has been both clear and abundant, owing to the fact that many of his collateral relatives still reside in the locality, and have treasured up every item of information regarding him. Some of these, now far advanced in years, learned from their grand-parents, who were almost contemporaries of Father Hegarty, all the particulars of his birthplace, life, and cruel death. These traditions, given by persons in widely separate parts of the locality, agree most wonderfully, even in minute details. From these we learn that Father Hegarty was born in the very townland in which he was afterwards murdered; that he had a sister named Mary, to whom, on the occasion of her marriage with Thomas Doherty (the subsequent betrayer of the priest), her father gave a portion of his own farm as a dowry, and that of this marriage there were three sons born. The family resided on this small farm until they got a larger one adjoining from Colonel Vaughan, as a reward for betraying the priest.

This Vaughan came to Buncrana in command of the troops in 1707. No sooner had he taken up his residence than he began his work of priest-hunting, and of endeavouring to Protestantize the inhabitants of the locality. Owing to a variety of circumstances, but especially owing to the fact that the peninsula had never recovered from the desolation spread over it in the preceding years by Chichester and his agents, poverty something akin to famine prevailed in Inishowen, and materially assisted Vaughan in his missionary campaign. Like modern zealots, he believed the way to the souls of the people was to be found through their empty stomachs, he at once had recourse to the method of establishing soup-kitchens for the starving poor; not by any means as an act of charity for the famishing people, but as a means of perverting them from their faith.

None, however, were permitted to partake of this soup till they had publicly attended the Protestant church for three Sundays, and then they must take the broth or soup publicly on Friday — the only day it was ladled out to them. Those who consented to these terms were rewarded with money or lands, or both. Among the first to avail themselves of this offer were the brother-in-law of Father Hegarty — Thomas Doherty — and his friends, and ever after they and their descendants were known as the Friday Doherties. From their readiness in giving up the faith Doherty and his sons became favourites of Colonel Vaughan, and as the sons were stout, burly fellows, they became a kind of body-guard to him when he went into possession of the Castle of Buncrana, which, according to some, was built in 1713, or, according to others, a few years later. The result of this unhallowed friendship we shall see later on. When Colonel Vaughan made it known that, in addition to the Government reward, he himself would give both lands and money to anyone who would betray Father Hegarty to him, the offer was too tempting to be resisted by Thomas Doherty and his sons. On their return home to Ballynary, they talked freely over the matter, said as the reward was now so great there would be plenty to look for it, and the priest could not long escape. Such being the case, they said they might as well have it as some other, and they determined to secure it. The poor wife and mother, having heard their diabolical conspiracy, fell on her knees, and with streaming eyes begged of them not to imbrue their hands in innocent blood — in the blood of their own relative and God's anointed — but all in vain. She succeeded, however, in having word conveyed to her brother, who at once changed his hiding-place, and betook himself to that cave where he was afterwards betrayed, and where he met his doom.

We said above that the Act of registration of the parish priests had an object in view that the priests never anticipated. This became manifest in 1709, when the period of registration expired. An Act was passed in that year to the following effect: —
And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That all and every Popish priest and priests, who have been registered in pursuance of the said former Act for registering the Popish clergy, shall take the oath of Abjuration before the twenty-fifth day of March, one thousand seven hundred and ten, in one of the Four Courts, at Dublin, or at some quarter-sessions to be held for the respective counties, cities, or towns where such Popish priest or priests have been registered; and upon neglect or refusal, and after the said twenty-fifth day of March celebrating Mass, or officiating as a Popish priest, such Popish priest shall incur and suffer such pains, penalties, and forfeitures, as a Popish Regular clergyman convict by the laws and statutes of this realm is liable unto.
By this Act we come to see clearly the object of the registration of the clergy. It was not for the purpose of protecting them, or of giving them freedom in the exercise of their ministry, but of knowing for certain their whereabouts, that they might be at any moment seized and obliged to deny their faith, or to go to exile or death. It seemed a certain means of getting the country cleared of priests of every rank, for as the parish priests were forbidden to have curates or assistants of any kind, when they would go there would be no successors to take up their work, and the faith would then die out of sheer inanition.

The seeming protection given by the Registration Act was merely ' the protection that vultures give to lambs — covering and devouring them.' All the priests who had been registered in 1704 were now called upon to take the oath of Abjuration, or abide the penalties. That oath was similar in its tenor to the Accession Oath still taken by the Sovereign of these realms on coming to the throne. The person taking it had to solemnly declare: —
That I do believe that in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper there is not any transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, at or after the consecration thereof, by any person whatsoever; and that the invocation and adoration of the Virgin Mary, or any other saint, and the Sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous, etc.
And this was what the priests were called on to swear if they wished to be allowed to live in the land. If they refused to take this oath, they were at once to be treated as Regulars, i.e., to be transported, and, in the event of their returning, to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Moreover, the same penalties attached to a priest who dared to marry a Catholic and a Protestant together.

In this same year had been passed an Act offering a bribe of £50 to anyone who discovered and betrayed an archbishop, bishop, vicar-general, or other person exercising foreign ecclesiastical authority in this kingdom ; and what rendered this law particularly odious was, that the bribe or reward thus offered was to be levied off the Catholic people alone. Now since the Commons had declared ' that the prosecuting and informing against Papists was an honourable service,' it is not strange that spies, informers, and priest-hunters became at once numerous.
The priest-hunter had an infamous corps under his command [says Dean Cogan] designated priest-hounds, whose duty was to track, with the untiring and unrelenting scent of the bloodhound, the fissures of the rock and the caverns of the earth where the poor humble priest took refuge. Religion was now in a lamentable condition. The wretched mud-wall, thatched chapels of which the Irish Catholics were then glad to have the use, were levelled or closed over the whole kingdom. In cities and towns the Catholic clergy were concealed in garrets or cellars, and in the country districts they were hid in the unfrequented caves, in the lonely woods, and the ever welcome homes of the poor Irish peasant. During these storms of persecution the Sacraments were dispensed in the dead of night, and during the week-days word would be sent round the people where to meet their pastor on the following Sunday morning. The place of sacrifice was constantly being changed in order to baffle pursuit, and many a time, while the stars were twinkling, Mass was celebrated on the lone mountain or by the side of a ditch, while a few of the most active of the congregation kept vigil, lest the bark of the blood-hound, or the stealthy steps of a more remorseless enemy, the priest-hunter, would break in on the sacred ceremonies and subject the unfortunate priest to the dread penalties of the law. [Diocese of Meath, Vol.1, pp.266-267.]
Such was the life of Father Hegarty, and of his contemporaries.

In his letters to Lord Stanley, the illustrious Dr. Maginn, Bishop of Derry, thus expressed himself regarding this victim of persecution. Showing the immunity from crime, particularly the crime of murder, which characterized Inishowen, the Bishop says: 
The only one that tradition hands down to us is the murder of a parish priest of this union, and Dean of the diocese of Derry, Dr. O'Hegarty. He was dragged from a mountain cavern — his hiding-place by day (by night only could he appear in those times, commune with his flock, instruct the living, console the dying, and bury the dead) — and was butchered on a rock on the banks of the Swilly, which shall be ever memorable from this bloody tragedy. The perpetrator of this murder was a Captain Vaughan, the son of an English colonel who served in the army of Oliver Cromwell (as Carlyle would say) 'of blessed memory.' The good captain believed he was doing the work of God, when imbruing his hands in the blood of Popish priests, as many now believe they are doing the same holy work in calumniating them.'
Dr. Maginn had exceptional opportunities of learning all the traditions about Father Hegarty's murder. He came in 1806, when only four years old, to reside in Buncrana, where he afterwards became parish priest, and which, even when appointed Bishop, he held as his mensal parish till the time of his death in 1849. His uncle. Father John Maginn, had been parish priest of Fahan and Desertegney before him for a considerable period, so that the pastorate of the latter must have gone back to a time not far distant from Hegarty's murder, and when all the details were still fresh in the minds of the people. From his uncle and family, then, he could have learned the rank and character of the murdered man, the name and status of the murderer, and the circumstances that led to the barbarous tragedy.

It is not easy at this date to know whether there was any specific charge preferred against Father Hegarty, but it was enough that he had declined to take the oath of Abjuration, as happily the other priests had also done, and this made him liable, as we have seen, to transportation in the first instance, and to death if he dared to return again to the country. Besides, he was a dignitary, being Dean of the diocese, and we know that £50 was the reward for apprehending such as he. We are also to take into account that £50 at that period represented a much larger sum than at present.

In an interesting little book, compiled by the late Mr. Michael Harkin, of Carndonagh, published in Derry, in 1867, and entitled Inishowen, its History, Traditions, and Antiquities, an account is given of the scene and circumstances of the murder, which we have reason to believe is accurate, and which therefore we have pleasure in transcribing: —
In the village of Ballynary. about two miles north-west of Buncrana, on the banks of the Swilly, is a sea-cave which served as a hiding-place for a humble and zealous priest of the name of O'Hegarty. From this wild seclusion he was accustomed to steal, under the shadow of night, to carry the ministrations of his religion to the hearths of the faithful fishermen around the coast, and the hardy mountaineer further inland. His retreat was unknown to all save his sister, who lived with her husband and family in the above-named village. None of her family ever questioned her on the object of her journey when she departed from her cottage in the gray dawn each morning to carry him the provisions for the day. At last, her husband suspecting her mission, was led by curiosity to watch her unseen, and so became acquainted with the hiding-place of her fugitive brother. This, once known, he had not the fidelity to keep secret, for, tempted by the reward held out for such a discovery, he led a guard of soldiers from the garrison at Buncrana to apprehend the priest, his own brother-in-law, in that lonely dwelling. Often did the poor woman return that morning from the entrance of the rude domicile charging her brother to be wary, and endeavouring to cheer him with the hope that these ruthless times would pass away and be succeeded by others, when he could live in the habitations of men, and go abroad in daylight in the service of his Divine Master.

But the dawn was brightening, she might, if she remained longer, be discovered, and her object at least suspected. She received the usual parting benediction, and commenced her toilsome ascent, when, horror of horrors, there, full before her, were the soldiers descending by the same path to terminate that life which she had so long and so anxiously laboured to preserve. She called frantically to her brother that the guard was upon him. He rushed from the cave; above him were the soldiers, beneath the whole breadth of the deep-flowing Swilly, but deeming it the friendlier of the two, and putting his trust in God, he plunged into its depths with the bold, almost reckless resolve of swimming to the opposite shore. The guard, seeing they were in danger of losing the object of their pursuit, or fearing that if they fired and killed him in the water, they should have no evidence of the fact, called to him to return and they would spare his life, but no sooner had he gained the top of the precipice than they seized him, cut off his head, and buried his body on the spot where they had committed the deed.

His poor sister, the informer's wife, seeing all that had been done, became a raving maniac. Though fear of the soldiers' vengeance prevented the peasantry from marking his grave, yet was the memory of the place so engraven on their hearts, and carefully transmitted from father to son, that the villagers' children could at any time point out to the curious stranger that sad memento of the horrors of bygone days, under the name of Hegarty's Rock. Long afterwards, when civilization had made a proper impression on the governing classes, and when the disabilities imposed on the professors of the Catholic faith had been removed, two gentlemen, the Right Rev. Edward Maginn, D.D., and Hugh O'Donnell, Esq., M.D., visited the spot, and, with the view of testing the accuracy of the account, dug up the clay, and brought a portion of it for analysation to the College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, where Mr. O'Donnell was then studying. They afterwards raised a green mound on the spot, which now marks the place where the priest was interred.
We may add that the result of the analysis proved that human remains had been buried in the spot.

One statement in the foregoing narrative seems incorrect, viz., that the priest's sister, when she beheld the murder of her brother, became a raving maniac. All the traditions in the locality testify the contrary. When she beheld the atrocious murder committed before her eyes, and saw that the band of soldiers was led by her own degenerate husband, she is said to have fallen on her bare knees and prayed to God that she might not die till she had seen vengeance fall on that husband and his sons. That prayer or imprecation, coming as it did from her broken heart, did not go unheard. She separated from the family at once, and went to live with a family named McDonald, in Buncrana. These McDonalds were probably relatives, and they occupied the only two-storied and slated house in the town. Here she remained, spending her time in prayer, and in lamenting the fate of her murdered brother.

After the betrayal of the priest Tom Doherty and his sons became the henchmen of Colonel Vaughan, and the recipients of his favours. A gentleman at this time came from the neighbourhood of Maghera, in County Derry, on a visit to Buncrana Castle. When there he mentioned to Sir John — for it seems he was a knight as well as a colonel — that he was harassed incessantly by an outlaw known by the sobriquet of Stumpy, that all his efforts to capture him were fruitless, and that he was willing to give a large sum to anyone who would bring him to him either dead or alive. Colonel Vaughan at once offered to send him his servitors, the two young Doherties, guaranteeing that if anyone on earth could capture him, they would. Dazzled by the prospect of so great a recompense, they set out with their new employer, and after a few days waiting, they learned that their intended victim might now be caught poaching on the side of a neighbouring mountain. They started in pursuit of him, and as he threatend to outrun them, one of them fired, wounding Stumpy in the leg. Finding it impossible to continue the race, the wounded man threw himself between two ridges of potatoes, where one of the pursuers rushed up to seize him, but as he approached, Stumpy presented his pistol and shot him through the heart. The second brother, stunned by what had occurred, came forward to aid his brother, only to share a similar fate. News was brought to Buncrana of the sad death of the brothers, and the father started on horseback to meet their remains. There were no country roads then as now, and the father had to pursue a kind of bridle-path that went up hill and down vale. Going down a declivity towards a rivulet, the horse suddenly stopped to drink, throwing his rider forward on his head, and breaking his neck in the fall. When the cart containing the bodies of his sons came to the spot, that of the father was placed along with them, and from the second-storey window of M'Donald's house, the sister of Father Hegarty beheld the sad realisation of her prayer, for the vengeance of Heaven had fallen on the heartless betrayers of the outlawed priest — her brother. She lived for some years wholly devoted to prayer, and she obtained in the end, what her husband and sons did not — the grace of a holy death.

What a life of toil, of misery, and of danger did Father Hegarty lead! Wandering through the deep glens and rugged hills of the extensive district of which he had charge; lighted by the moonbeams, or groping his way beneath a starless sky, he went from cabin to cabin in sleet and storm to administer the Last Sacraments to the poor but faithful people, to baptize the little ones, to console the suffering and afflicted, or to offer up on a bare rock or bleak mountainside the Holy Sacrifice for the living and the dead. Well might he say with Saul of Tarsus that he was
In journeying often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers,in perils from his own nation, in perils from the gentiles, inperils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils from false brethren; in labour and painfulness, in much watchings, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.'' (2 Cor. xi. 26, 27).
A hundred years before, this fair and romantic region had been over-run by the sleuth-hounds of Chichester who lacerated the entire peasantry; but now the blood-hounds of Anne sprang at the throats of the priests in particular. They were to be exterminated, and the method adopted for their extermination seemed, according to human calculation, absolutely certain of success. No curates were permitted, nor assistants of any kind, therefore there would be no successors to the present parish priests. The parish priests had been registered and were consequently known, and by the Act of 1709 they were called on to take the oath of Abjuration; in other words, to deny their faith or else go into exile or suffer death. Under all these fiendish devices of our legislators nothing but a special mercy of God could have preserved the faith, and with St. John we may say, 'This is the victory that overcometh the world, our faith.' Between this Scylla and Charybdis was Father Hegarty placed. Had he taken the oath of Abjuration, had he been recreant to his God, and sworn that to be blasphemous and idolatrous which he knew to be sacred and divine, then he might have lived at ease, and enjoyed the pension that was wrung from the poverty of his down-trodden fellow-Catholics. But he nobly spurned the bribe, preferring to be ranked amongst the white-robed band described by St. John, and of whom the angel said to him: 'These are they who are come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.' (Apoc, vii. 14)

That Father Hegarty died for his faith and for his fidelity to the duties of his sacred calling, there is not the shadow of a doubt; and it was the death of martyrs such as he that strengthened the faith of the people, and encouraged them to cling the closer to the Rock of Ages.

No long procession or funeral pomp accompanied him to the grave; no solemn dirge nor swinging censer consecrated his last dwelling-place; but the waters of the Swilly for nigh two centuries have chanted their Miserere around his lonely habitation; and the breezes of that Lake of Shadows, round which for years he ministered, have ceaselessly sung their Benedictus over the ashes of him whom the vox populi has long since canonized as the Martyr of Inishowen.

John K. O'Doherty.

Irish Ecclesiastical Record, 4th series, Volume XV, June 1904, 482-492.
Father O'Hegarty is number 245 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs where he is described as a secular priest and tradition as the main source testifying to his martyrdom. 

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