Bandit Country

By John Graham

Count Redmond O’Hanlon was the original Irish bandit. He gave ‘Bandit Country’ its name and his ghost still rides those dangerous highways of South Armagh ... or so they say.

Crossmaglen, the small village that is known globally, a village in Ireland that is known as much for the prowess and success of its footballers as for any other reason. But it is also known as the village in Bandit Country, the name given to the rough terrain that surrounds this border enclave.

For many people, this name is only associated with that area in recent times but that is far from the truth, that area of South Armagh that borders on Monaghan has been known as Bandit Country for centuries as the following tale of one of the most famous highwaymen of all time will show. All counties have their famous place names so too they all had famous highwaymen, rapparees or Tories as they were also known. These are names that ring with romance and danger and the stories abound of these dashing heroes willingly risking life and limb to help the poor and the downtrodden.

Often they had slightly more mundane reasons for their activities but ultimately they grew out of a need, a need that the country had at that time, in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, for heroes. Life for the native Irish at that time in our history was miserable, often brutal and the introduction of the penal laws spelled the end for a whole way of life.

All counties had their own adventurers and depending on your point of view they were either brave highwaymen or blackguards, Dudley Costello was known as The Scourge of Mayo, The three Brennans, Patrick, Tall James and Little James and another Brennan, Willie, probably no relation, whose deeds are remembered in that famous Irish ditty, Brennan on the Moor, Captain Power, the Genteel Robber who operated in Munster, Daniel “Galloping” Hogan from Tipperary, Edmund O’Ryan, “Ned of the Hill”, Big Charlie Carragher, from South Armagh, Captain McNamara of Cong in County Mayo, Shane Crossagh, the Derry outlaw, William Crotty, the Comeragh Highwayman, Captain Jeremiah Grant and one of the most famous of them all and a man who helped earn the Bandit Country title for South Armagh, Count Redmond O’Hanlon, the Irish Scanderbag.

The story of Count Redmond 0’Hanlon is one that has been handed down over the generations and no doubt some of his activities in the 1660’s have been embellished a little but he was by any standards Ireland's most celebrated highwayman.

The title was no affectation as up until the plantation of 1609 his family had ruled large tracts of land in what are present day Armagh and part of North Louth. His date of birth is given as both 1640 and 1620 but there is no doubt that he was born at Pontzpass in County Armagh midway between Newry and Portadown. The fortunes of the family had changed over the years and when Redmond was born his parents had been reduced to living on a very small portion of the land once ruled by his ancestors.

Despite their state of near penury they still found sufficient money to have Redmond sent to England for what was then a classical education and he became fluent in French but more importantly in English as that language was not generally spoken by the native Irish and that knowledge of the English language was to serve him well in future years.

When his education was complete he returned to Armagh and was employed as foreman by the Acheson family of Markethill but later had to leave their service as a result of a misdemeanour, attempting to sell a stolen horse.

When he judged it safe to return home he then took up a position as a collector of poll taxes, an occupation that, at that time, could be very dangerous, but it was an experience that was to later prompt him to offer protection services to people in the South Armagh area.

Having joined a uniform religious organisation, Redmond went on to become a minister of that church and later married a very rich lady although shortly afterwards he lost both his wife and his fortune too, his wife dying and the fortune lost on gambling.

Around this time in the early 1640’s the Irish chieftains in Ulster, Connaught and Leinster were beginning to form into an organised group to try and recover lands which had been taken from them in the plantation so Redmond joined the forces of this new Confederation and fought in the battle of Benburb in 1646 under the command of Owen Roe O’Neill.

Even after the death of O'Neill, Redmond continued to campaign but when the insurrection petered out in the mid 1660’s he joined the mass exodus to the continent where he joined the French army and so distinguished himself that he was awarded the title Count of the French Empire, one of the highest honours that could be bestowed at that time.

At this time, around 1653, while Redmond was winning accolades in European wars the remainder of the O’ Hanlon lands was being confiscated by Cromwell and settled by his parliamentarians as a result of the family’s open support for the Confederation, something that was to lead directly to O’Hanlon's later life of crime. No evidence exists as to the exact date when O’Hanlon returned to Ireland but it is possible that it was around 1660, and discovering, as did many others, that there was no general restitution of confiscated lands he felt he was left was no alternative but to take to the hills and highways in order to right the wrong.

At first the outlaw operated around Slieve Gullion and the hills of South Armagh near Forkhill, Mullaghbawn and Lislea and extended his operations to running a “protection racket” where he demanded of the settlers that they “each paid him half a crown per annum” and for this sum his contributors “lived in perfect security requiring neither bolt nor bar.”

When the final disaster of the Cromwellian wars overtook the Catholic landowners the most active young men did not all go into exile but some remained and formed themselves into groups under the leadership of some local chieftain and waged guerrilla war on those who had dispossessed them. This was the perfect platform for Redmond O’Hanlon and his operations in this regard led to him being described as “the scourge of the military”. He got ready support and formed his men into military style companies and widened his “theatre of violence and terrorism” to include the English and Scottish settlers in counties Down, Monaghan and Tyrone.

He gained the increasing support of the population and as his fame and notoriety spread throughout the land tales of his exploits were even recounted in a French Gazette as he became a truly romantic figure. He thumbed his nose at the authorities and continued to attack British troops that were stationed in a series of outposts between the borders of Armagh and Monaghan.

It is said that history repeats itself and Bandit Country can really attest to this as the British army barracks of recent times, indeed some still exist, that marred much of South Armagh's beautiful scenery can be interpreted as eerie echoes of the military outposts erected in Redmond's time. Folklore records that there were more than a dozen of them thrown up at remote sites throughout the country and from these daily patrols went out to scour the countryside in search of the outlaw but to little avail.

By this time the plantation landlords of Ulster had had a belly full of the outlaw and in 1675 they came together and employed a group of 40 hand-picked mercenaries who were to each receive the then princely sum of “nine pence per day for a period of three months” in the hope that they would rid the country of the O ‘Hanlon gang but by the end of the summer of 1675 their “tour of duty” was over and they left without their prize.

Further efforts were made to secure his arrest by the offer of generous rewards with one such proclamation in 1676 offering a “100 pounds bounty for his head” but even that or the proclamation that “four men from the locality would be transported to the plantations in America should the outlaws guilty of outrages not be apprehended within 28 days” had no effect. Nevertheless a massive military operation was now in place in Ulster and it was proving ever more difficult for the outlaw to remain one step ahead of the law. The net however was closing and one incident which led to the death of Henry St. John was to eventually lead to O’Hanlon's downfall.

By this time the outlaw’s family had been forced to leave the Armagh of their ancestors and flee to County Donegal where they “purchased a house and business premises in the town of Letterkenny,” which Redmond visited in the summer of 1680. In the spring of 1681 the plot that was to eventually lead to his capture was put in place when the Viceroy of Ireland selected one of his Dublin spies and ordered him “to find an army man in the Armagh area with the credentials to carry out a dangerous undercover task”. The chosen man was Lieutenant William Lucas of Drumintine near Newry and by buying the loyalty of one of Redmond's personal bodyguards the plan was put in place and it came to fruition on April 25th when Redmond O’Hanlon, accompanied by Art O’Hanlon and William Shiels, his bodyguards, set out for Hilltown in the Mourne mountains.

The purpose of their journey was to ambush the local landowners and gentry as they returned home from the fair in Banbridge laden with money and purchases and escorting their prize animals. The outlaws arrived early in the afternoon and decided to snatch a few hours sleep and when Art, who had accepted the bribe, saw Redmond O’Hanlon asleep he simply shot him dead. Hearing the shot William Shiels rushed inside but was knocked unconscious. Lieutenant Lucas, who had been hiding nearby then appeared with a body of men as the sound of the gunshot had been the signal he was waiting for. Lucas drew his sabre, deciding that the head alone would be sufficient proof that the outlaw was dead and that the Viceroy's orders had been carried out.

Art O’Hanlon, despite his treachery, showed that he had some humanity left as he buried his foster brother’s headless corpse in the little Catholic graveyard in Ballynabeck on the road from Tandragee to Scarva. Lucas took the head of Redmond O’Hanlon to Downpatrick and had it spiked on the gates of the jail, the traitor Art O’Hanlon collected his 200 reward and a pardon for his part in the murder while Lucas was rewarded with a promotion.

Tradition has it that when news of the killing reached him Sir John Coynyngham dispatched an escort of troops from Letterkenny to accompany the O’Hanlon family as they went to exhume the body and bring it back to Donegal for burial in the Conwall parish Church. In the 1930’s a worn and weather beaten tombstone was discovered at Conwall parish church bearing the O’Hanlon Coat of Arms indicating that this could be the final resting place of the outlaw, Count Redmond O’Hanlon “who banked his treasure in the hearts of the people and whose ghost,” local folklore claims, “is still seen riding the highways of Armagh and south Monaghan.”

Taken from Monaghan's Match
December 2003