Remembering Priest-Catchers

“To the citizens of Dublin — Catholic and Protestant — the priest-catcher was the lowest form of life. Once a priest-catcher had been identified, he could never again walk the streets without grave risk to his life.”

So says this article by Frank Hopkins in Ireland’s Herald newspaper about the last of the notorious Irish “priest-catchers” — informants in the 17th and 18th centuries who were paid by the British-controlled, anti-Catholic government of the day to hand over underground Catholic priests and bishops for arrest and prosecution.

The article chronicles the exploits of a Spaniard named John Garxia, “who arrived in Dublin in 1717 and immediately set about infiltrating the Catholic community here,” Hopkins writes.

“He posed as a priest and stayed at the Franciscan friary of Adam and Eve on Merchants Quay,” the article recounts. “The present day Adam and Eve church takes its name from the Adam and Eve tavern on Cook Street where the Franciscans once held secret Masses. Catholics posing as drinkers would be admitted by a guard on giving the password: ‘I am going to the Adam and Eve.’”

Garxia’s infiltration efforts were highly successful, leading to the arrest of six Catholic priests and Archbishop Edmund Byrne of Ireland. The archbishop was treated relatively kindly by authorities, but the six priests arrested with him were convicted and sentenced to be transported out of the country.

Informing on Catholic clergy didn’t profit Garxia in the long run, however. He was targeted for retribution by street mobs and complained in a letter to the Lord Justice that on one occasion he was “insulted, beat and much abused” before barely escaping with his life.

“With the increasing toleration of Catholics by the authorities and constant harassment by the inhabitants of Dublin, Garxia realized that his days were numbered and he left Ireland in 1723,” Hopkins’ article concludes.

The tale of the last priest-catcher might sound quaint and even amusing today. But it should remind us that the Church survived and later flourished again in Ireland only because of the bravery and loyalty of both clergy and lay Catholics in the face of intense persecution.

Their faithful witness remains a powerful testimony to contemporary Catholics, in Ireland and elsewhere.

— Tom McFeely

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