During the Penal Times in Ireland (17th and 18th century), Catholic priests were banned from the country. Still, priests managed to sneak into parishes to celebrate Mass at secret locations such as at Mass rocks. It was the job of certain parishioners to act as “scouts” to ensure that the priests entered and exited the parishes safely without being captured by soldiers or priest hunters. One such scout was the legendary “Supple” Matthew Gallen of Donaghmore Parish (Killygordon) in County Donegal. This brief story of Matthew Gallen was written in 1934 by Reverend Walter Hegarty C.C. of the parish in his weekly column on the history of Donaghmore in the Derry Journal. It goes as follows:
SUPPLE MATTHEW GALLEN
Rev. Walter Hegarty, C.C.
Derry Journal – April 6, 1934
…This leads us to the story of Supple Matthew Gallen, which I got from Jas. MacLaughlin of Tievbreac, who got it from John Mongan of Ballymongan. This John was the last great storyteller of that district. He was a basketmaker by trade, and, like the old tradesmen, liked to stay a week or two at every house he visited, and the neighbours gathered in to hear his tales.
When the Gallens were driven out of their ancient homeland across the Finn, they came to live in Meenreagh on the Mourne water, and there Matthew was born. His people were active, but he surpassed them all, so that in early manhood he won the title of Supple Matthew. In those days, brave men were needed to guard the priest, Matthew set him himself as the priest’s runner. He would hang about the headquarters of the priest-hunters and find out if they were possessed of the information where Mass was to be said. If they headed out in the proper direction, by taking nearcuts he could outpace their horses and give warning to the Mass hearers. If the pursuers were rather close at hand, he would assume the part of a priest, probably by a borrowed cloak, let himself be seen, move off slowly at first so that his enemies might take up the trail and then with windings and turnings ever faster and faster, he outwitted them all. One such run was told to me by Patrick Crampsie, a feat probably of Matthew’s, which began at the Carran, went up and across the hill, then down again and over the Finn.
There came a close Sunday morning. Mass was to be very far away, near a holy well, but word had reached the persecutors and they made out. Matthew knew how little chance he had of being there in time, but with superhuman effort, he accomplished the feat, shouting a warning and threw himself down on a stone ditch. The laity scattered and as the priest turned to go, he saw Matthew lying. He went over to warn him that, as a marked man, he had better be moving, touched him on the shoulder and found he was dead.
“Minshe Finn” in the Ballintra area is the place it is said that his earthly life ended. If anyone can give any information about this hero of Meenreagh, I should like details. I wished to get the story written up by one of our well-known writers, but it was held up by expecting further news. Meanwhile, Jas. MacLaughlin has been seeking a fresh source, an informant whose profession takes him round a little after the style of John Mongan.