I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Legend of Ireland's Highwaymen
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a bold outlaw named Captain Roger Gallagher stole from the wealthy English occupiers of his homeland. He achieved legendary status as a defender of the poor.
First Came the Irish Rapparees
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the English conquerors of Ireland confiscated land from their Irish farmers and gave farms to wealthy Brits. The new landowners charged Irish tenants rent to live on the land that formerly belonged to them.
The misguided plan was to anglicize the Irish who, having had their land stolen from them, were understandably not keen on the idea. Some of these people, robbed of their livelihoods, took to the hills and forests and the life of the brigand.
They were armed with a small pike called, in Gaelic, rapaire, from which the groups took their name. The Rapparees became skilled guerrilla fighters, launching surprise attacks on the English garrisons and then melting back into the Irish population to avoid detection.
They aligned themselves with the Jacobite (Catholic) rebellion against the Protestants of William III. The Battle of the Boyne in July 1690 put the Jacobites in flight, and the Rapparees were hunted down by Williamite troops. The few that avoided capture gave up their harassment of English forces and turned to the apolitical activity of bandits.
The Irish Highwaymen
The romantic notion of the highwayman is one who robs the rich but not the poor. That characterization doesn’t always hold up on close examination as some who followed the trade the out-and-out villainous thugs.
In death, Britain’s Dick Turpin acquired the reputation of a man who lived by a noble code of conduct. The truth is that “Dick Turpin was a ruthless gangster, a torturer of innocent victims, especially women, a horse thief, and a murderer” (Watford Observer).
So too, we have to be careful in not taking as gospel the mythologized stories surrounding Ireland’s highwaymen.
It’s not known when Roger Gallagher was born, probably in the late 1700s. He never seems to have entertained the idea of honest employment, having taken up the occupation of robbery in early adulthood.
He operated in County Mayo on the central west coast of Ireland. With a small gang, he raided mail coaches and ransacked the houses of the rich gentry. His activities were very popular with the impoverished common people.
Writing for the BBC, Ronan O’Connell notes that “After robbing mail coaches, they (Gallagher and his followers) spread their spoils through the community. They also tried to protect Irish peasants bullied by British landlords.”
One particularly obnoxious landlord lived in a posh house in the village of Killasser. Having stolen everything of value from the home, Gallagher and his roughnecks gathered a stack of eviction notices the landowner had drawn up. At gunpoint, the man was forced to eat all the notices.
Another story that makes the rounds is of a woman returning home after selling her last cow to pay the rent. It was getting dark when she encountered a man on the road. “Why are you in such a hurry?” asked the man. “I don’t want be out here in the dark for Gallagher to rob.” The man smiled, paid the woman the price of the cow, and the following month’s rent and said “Tell them that Captain Gallagher was not as bad a rogue as he was made out to be” (Mayo Ireland).
Read More From Owlcation
Gallagher on the Run
The locals showed their gratitude to Gallagher by giving him early warning of attempts to capture him. For two decades, he and his men eluded the police and English soldiers.
However, in 1818, the highwayman was staying in a house in Mayo, recovering from an illness. A neighbour tipped off the British, and a force of 200 was sent to capture Gallagher.
There was a hasty trial whose outcome and the verdict was decided ahead of proceedings. In a ploy to avoid the gallows, Gallagher told his captors he had hidden his treasure under a rock in a forest near Barnalyra. He would take them to the location, the condemned man promised, in exchange for his freedom.
They hanged him anyway and set off to the forest to dig up the booty. The soldiers arrived to find the wooded area covered with rocks and spent fruitless days turning them over.
Subsequent fortune hunters have been equally disappointed.
Many villains have, through the passage of time, been turned into folk heroes.
- During the second half of the 19th century, Ned Kelly was a cattle thief who killed a policeman in Australia. He was captured and hanged in 1880 at the age of 25. He is the subject of more biographies than any other Australian. He is a vibrant character from the country’s past that many still see as a champion of the common man.
- Attila Ambrus was a prolific robber of post offices and banks in Hungary in the 1990s. He was popular among his countrymen, who saw his exploits as taking money from corrupt elites, although he never shared his takings with the poor. He is currently held in a maximum security prison.
- It seems every country has its own “Robin Hood,” Germany's is Matthias Klostermayr of Bavaria. In the 18th century, he and his gang specialized in poaching and robbery and then graduated to murder. Even during his time of crime, he was the subject of folk songs; later, he was immortalized in plays, musicals, and books.
- Walter Earl Durand was a Wyoming outdoorsman who poached elk and shared the meat with poor people. In jail for the offence in March 1939, he escaped, killed two police officers, and fled to the mountains. A massive manhunt, that included actual artillery, gripped the news for ten days. There were a couple of encounters during which Durand killed two more officers. He emerged from the mountains to rob a bank but died in a gunfight as he tried to get away. A 1974 Hollywood treatment of his life portrayed Durand as a man fighting back against corrupt and oppressive authorities.
- Used as the archetype for the gentleman bandit, Robin Hood likely never existed; the name is probably a label put on all felons, something like John Doe. There probably were men like him who opposed rapacious monarchs and greedy barons by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. However, we have to banish from our minds the images of Robin Hood created by movies and television shows.
- “Irish Partisans: Rapparees of the Williamite Wars, 1689- 1691.” Ruairi Gallagher, undated.
- “Villain to Hero: The Highwayman Legend.” Watford Observer, January 30, 2002.
- “Captain Gallagher - Highwayman, Swinford in Co. Mayo.” Brian Hoban, Mayo Ireland, 2019.
- “ ‘Captain’ Gallagher: The Legend of Ireland’s Highwaymen.” Ronan O’Connell, BBC Travel, October 29, 2020.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on November 17, 2020:
Ruper, I loved this article. Even though they hanged him, I hope he got the last laugh since they tried forever to find his treasure! Love stories like this! Thank you for this article.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on November 16, 2020:
I found this an enthralling tale. I am always drawn to the stories of Med Kelly and Robin Hood type figures. They make history and folklore exciting. I can now add Captain Gallagher to that list.
Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on November 16, 2020:
Rupert, that is a heavy burden to bear. That you feel it is yours to bear is a sign of your humanity. I feel like that about my countries sins too. I know it is different with you because it is British to British, but I see your thought process. God bless you, I pray.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on November 16, 2020:
Ann and Rodric. Thank you. I was born in England and have to carry the infamy of what my ancestors did to the Irish. I once met the great Irish folksinger Tommy Makem and took the opportunity to apologize to him for the horrors my fellow countrymen had inflicted on his fellow countrymen. He was very gracious.
Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on November 16, 2020:
This is a great read as usual. I look forward ro reading your articles.
Ann Carr from SW England on November 16, 2020:
I enjoy reading your hubs about the lesser known, but equally disruptive, villains. Your research is exhaustive!