An Irish Highwayman
There had always been a long tradition of guerrilla warfare in Ireland since the time of the first Norman invasions in 12th Century. By the time of the Irish Confederate Wars of the 1640s, these native Irish foot soldiers were the mainstay of the rebel forces in Ireland and known to their enemies as ‘Tories’ (Tóraí or ‘Pursuers’). During the ‘Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland,’ they caused the English Parliamentarian forces a lot of problems by attacking isolated and vulnerable garrisons, tax-collectors, and supply columns. In a campaign of ‘hit and run’ tactics these guerrilla gangs would strike their enemies hard and then disappear into the countryside among the native people. Punitive expeditions were led against these groups of guerrillas that had now gained the name ‘Rapparees’, but these were less than successful at first. Parliamentarian forces did capture several strongholds, killing hundreds of guerrillas, and destroying food sources in a vain attempt to force the Rapparees into submission.
Native guerrilla forces were eventually defeated by forced eviction of all civilians from areas where they operated, and subsequently killing those civilians that were found within those areas. By April 1651, the Parliamentarians had designated many areas in the south of the country as ‘open areas’, in which any person found was open to being taken, killed, and destroyed as enemies, and their cattle and goods could be confiscated as being plunder from an enemy. In many of the large towns, including Dublin, the native Irish were expelled because it was feared that they were aiding their fellow Roman Catholic guerrillas in the countryside. Many of the captured ‘guerrillas’ were sold as indentured labour and sent to the West Indies and elsewhere. The last organised guerrilla bands eventually surrendered in 1653 and many of their number were permitted to leave Ireland to serve in the armies of France and Spain. Some refused to leave, however, and in smaller numbers continued their opposition to the new regime in more criminal ways. Moreover, their ranks were constantly filled by those native Irish whose land and property were confiscated under the ‘Cromwellian Plantation’.
These ‘Rapparees’ sought vengeance for being dispossessed of their property, which was then given over to the Protestant favourites of Parliament and the Crown. The dispossessed, like the guerrillas before them, were forced to take to the woods, hills and other remote areas, from where they could sweep down upon the new landlords with as many followers as they could gather. So, events would continue until the middle of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the ‘highwayman’. These criminal types came from among the native Irish and many of them had learned to use firearms and other weapons by serving time in the military or militia units. Some these highwaymen carried out raids and holdups of mail coaches singly, while others would operate with a small band that rarely exceeded half a dozen.
Born in Bonniconlon and reared by an aunt in Derryronane near Swinford, Captain Gallagher was one of the last of these infamous robber leaders in Ireland. In the West of Ireland, he was considered a hero and champion of the oppressed native Irish peasantry who had suffered serious injustice at the hands of the rich, Protestant landowners. They saw him as a romantic figure, like the legendary hero Robin Hood, and like Robin, when he took to his criminal career, Gallagher decided to pick three or four trustworthy companions to join him. Equipping themselves with fast horses and the firearms of the period, they rode all over east Mayo and parts of south Sligo, and west Roscommon. Reports of the state that Captain Gallagher and his small band were bold and utterly fearless, committing daring robberies on the public roads, in open daylight. The homes of the local gentry were plundered regularly, and there was no place that could be considered safe unless it was strongly guarded. Such was the notoriety of the man and his followers that their adventures are still recalled in the folk history of the region. Much is made within these accounts of his great generosity toward the poor peasantry and his amazing ability to evade and escape the ‘Redcoats’. Visitors to the region will find that some of Gallagher’s famous hideouts are still well known, such as ‘Leaba Rudaigh’ that lied in the Ox Mountains near Rooskey. Nearer to the town of Swinford people will tell you that he hid out in Ballylyra Wood, where his ‘Treasure’ is said to lie undiscovered, and close to the town of Pontoon, on Glass Island, he is said to have had another hiding place.
It was reported that on one occasion, Gallagher and his band raided the home of a landlord in Killasser, who was very much despised by his tenants. It is said that, in addition to seizing all his silver and other valuables, the gang forced him to eat and swallow several eviction notices that he prepared for his tenants. Another story tells of a shop in Foxford town that was being robbed on a regular basis and the shop owner could never discover the culprit at work, despite hiring a guard to protect his property. Captain Gallagher, we are informed, offered his services to the shop owner to capture the thief. Gallagher hid in a large chest in the corner of the shop and watched as the guard arrived and began to rob the store. Captain Gallagher leaped from his hiding place and captured the guard, who had been the thief all along.
Local folklore tells us that on another occasion a woman was coming home from the fair in Tubbercurry. The poor woman had sold her last cow so that she could pay her rent to the landlord and avoid eviction. But, as nightfall approached, the woman was passing through the ‘Windy Gap’ near Lough Talt when she spotted a strange shadow in the distance. As they met on the road, the stranger stopped and asked her where she was going in such a hurry. The woman told him that she was trying to get back to her own home before darkness fell because Captain Gallagher might rob her of what little she had. As the woman spoke the strange man smiled at her and proceeded to give her enough money with which she bought another cow, as well as pay her rent to the landlord. He then gently told her to go home and to tell all she met that Captain Gallagher was not the rogue that the authorities made him out to be.
Yet another tale speaks of an occasion when Gallagher, having been ‘set-up’ for capture, escaped through a window of a house just as a military troop, led by a local magistrate entered through the front door of the building. On reaching the ground, Captain Gallagher crept quietly around the house to where the magistrate’s horse was tied up, and, loosening it, he galloped off at full speed. The next day, however, Gallagher is said to have returned the horse, with his thanks, to the magistrate for allowing him the use of such a good beast when he most needed it.
It was precisely because of such escapades that a reward of 500 guineas was offered by the authorities for information leading to his capture. Not surprisingly, after some narrow escapes from the English soldiers, Captain Gallagher’s run of luck finally came to an end. His small of men band were arrested by the authorities near Westport in County Mayo, but Gallagher managed to escape on that occasion. Although he successfully evaded the English patrols for some time, he was finally apprehended by the authorities in the parish of Coolcarney or Attymass, which lie near the foothills of the Ox Mountains.
Local legend says that Captain Gallagher was spending a quiet Christmas in the house of an acquaintance, whom he had formerly helped, while he recovered from an illness. He was given a meal, which had been laced with something that caused him to fall asleep, and the family then got to work. They put him to bed in the ‘cailleach’ bed beside the fire, tying his ankles and wrists were with flax ropes. With Gallagher secured, a message was sent to the military stationed in Foxford, whose officer immediately sent messages to the military stationed in Ballina, Castlebar, and Swinford for assistance before attempting to capture the fugitive. With a force of almost two hundred men, the Redcoats surrounded the house and captured the infamous highwayman without resistance. Without much ado, Gallagher was rushed to Foxford where, after a hasty sham trial, he was sentenced to death by hanging and was taken to Castlebar for the sentence to be carried out.
Gallagher pleaded with his executioners to spare him and he promised them, in return, he would lead them to the hidden treasure that he had buried under a rock in Ballylyra Wood. His captors, however, did not fall for this ploy and the officer in charge quickly carried out the execution and then dashed towards the wood of Ballylyra with a hand-picked squad of cavalrymen. The vision of new-found wealth and rewards from the Crown helped them to hurry to the alleged hiding place of Gallagher’s treasure. But, when the soldiers reached Ballylyra Wood they found that there were not just a few rocks that they had envisioned, but countless thousands of rocks of all shapes and sizes. After searching for three days all they found was a jewel-hilted sword, but it is still thought that Gallagher’s buried gold is still buried in that wood, seven foot from the river beside a tree.
In 1818 Captain Gallagher’s execution was reputedly the last public hanging to take place on the famous hanging tree standing opposite Daly’s Hotel on the Mall in Castlebar. We are left with the following account of the execution taken from a late nineteenth-century author: “He died fearfully. He and his ‘Secretary’ (Walsh) having shaken hands and kissed on the gallows, were flung off together. Walsh died at once, but Gallagher’s rope broke, and he was precipitated to the ground; he got a glass of wine and was again shoved out on the trap-board by the executioner, seated like a tailor, his legs having been broken by the fall.”
Article by Brian Hoban; www.mayo-ireland.ie;
“Tales from the West of Ireland” by Sean Henry @ www.stand-and-deliver.org.uk