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The Waterford Latin teacher who was charged with being a warlock

Sinnott’s sideline in astrology brought him to the attention of the Holy Office

Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Patrick Sinnott was exiled from the city for two years. Photograph: Getty Images

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Patrick Sinnott certainly didn’t. In 1611, while working as a professor of rhetoric at the University of Santiago de Compostela – one of the world’s oldest operating universities – he was nabbed by the terrifying tribunal, arrested, accused of being a warlock, and put on trial for necromancy.

It’s an intriguing story. We think of emigration as a modern phenomenon, but in the 16th and 17th centuries many Irish people headed to continental Europe seeking respite from the constant battles, sieges and religious persecution at home.

In some cases they fled from the frying pan into the fire as this brought them into direct contact with the Spanish Inquisition.

Sinnott moved to Galicia in the 1590s, and settled in the town of Noya, where he taught Latin until he got a job in the humanities faculty at the University of Santiago de Compostela.

Established as a school in 1495, the college had been gradually loosening the bonds that bound it to the Catholic Church: with the help of Cardinal Juan Alvarez de Toledo it had started to incorporate a wider range of academic fields, including the emerging sciences.

When Sinnott arrived it was a volatile place, and he got into trouble before he even began his lecturing career. Objections were raised to his choice of poetry textbook. He chose Antonio de Lebrija, a Renaissance man whose interests went beyond Latin grammar to include botany and cosmology; his critics would have preferred him to schedule the work of a Jesuit named Bartolome Bravo.

Cash on the side

Despite mutterings to the effect that he was often late for lectures – and sometimes didn’t show up at all – Sinnott was promoted in 1616. His wages, however, don’t seem to have been promoted accordingly. In order to make a bit of cash on the side he began casting horoscopes for anyone who could afford his services.

At the time astrology was partly based on the interpretation of birth charts and partly a kind of counselling exercise in which the client was offered advice on medical, personal and business topics.

It was a sideline guaranteed to bring Sinnott to the attention of the Holy Office which, although it did permit the emerging science of weather forecasting, took exception to the art of predicting an individual’s future. This was regarded as a denial of human free will, and even – if the astrologer’s predictions were especially detailed – necromancy.

In 1622, Sinnott was denounced to the Inquisition by two of his clients. One reported that he had uncovered the cause of an illness; the second claimed that he had solved a crime, revealing the identity of the thief.

Shrewdly, Sinnott didn’t wait for the inquisitors to burst in through his livingroom door but went to the Holy Office and fessed up. He admitted to having worked as an astrologer but, in his own defence, said he had warned his clients not to take any of it too seriously. (Seriously? We love this man. Doctor, private detective and stand-up comedian. Why hasn’t there been a movie about him?)

Exiled from Santiago

He was convicted, given a severe telling off, and exiled from Santiago for two years. He was also forced to resign from his post at the university and was swiftly replaced – arousing suspicions that it was the Bartolomé Bravo brigade that had engineered the entire episode.

To modern eyes the idea that the activities of a Latin teacher from Waterford could threaten the fabric of 17th century European Catholicism is almost as ludicrous as the Monty Python sketches which pit three sinister, red-robed inquisitors against an inoffensive English couple.

However, the relationship between Ireland and the Inquisition, as played out through the large number of early emigrants to Spain, is fascinating and often surprising. It’s explored in the superb book Irish Voices from the Spanish Inquisition by Dr Thomas O’Connor from Maynooth University, which contains Sinnott’s and many other life stories.

If you know of an Irish connection which would interest readers of this column please email awallace@irishtimes.com with details of the story, as well as your contact address.