Redmond O’Hanlon

by Richard Marsh

The N1 between Dundalk in the Republic of Ireland and Newry in Northern Ireland, a distance of 15 miles (24km), runs through a narrow, claustrophobic glen called the Moyry Pass. Also known as the Gap of the North, it is infamous as a place of ambush and defence in legend and history. It was one of the favourite haunts of the notorious and elusive 17th-century highwayman Redmond O’Hanlon (c. 1641-1681), of whom it was said: “There was plenty of him where he could be spared, and the greatest possible scarcity where he was wanted.”

The O’Hanlon family lost their property near Slieve Gullion, next to the Moyry Pass, in the aftermath of the 1641 rebellion. Redmond was accused of being present at the killing of a gentleman and he went on the run to avoid arrest and was outlawed. So he became a rapparee, forced to live outside the law of an oppressive government.

O’Hanlon was riding along the Moyry Pass looking for prey when he came across a pedlar who complained that he had just been beaten and robbed by “that damned rogue of a Redmond O’Hanlon”. Indignant that someone would rob in his name, O’Hanlon caught the robber, put him into the hands of the pedlar, made the pedlar promise to prosecute him, and wrote out a sort of citizen’s arrest document called a mittimus, which read:

“By Redmond O Hanlon, in loco of one of his Majesty’s justices of the peace for the said county [Armagh], but chief ranger of the mountains, I herewith send you ... etcetera.”

This “gave rise to as pleasant a fit of merriment in court as ever happened upon such an occasion, the judges and everyone else laughing till they were ready to burst, at the conceit of Redmond acting the justice of peace.”

One day, dressed as usual in the garb of a well-to-do gentleman, O’Hanlon requested a squad of soldiers from Armagh to accompany him, as he was carrying a significant amount of money and was worried that Redmond O’Hanlon might rob him. He led them to a place where he had stationed some of his gang, and then told the soldiers that he felt he was past the point of danger. He paid them off and asked them to fire their weapons to celebrate the success of their task. They fired repeatedly at his request until they had exhausted their ammunition. Then O’Hanlon called for his men, who robbed and stripped the soldiers.

But events didn’t always turn out the way O’Hanlon planned. A Dundalk merchant who was owed £200 (about £30,000 in today’s money) by a merchant in Newry was looking for a way to get the cash through the Moyry Pass without it falling into O’Hanlon’s hands. His young apprentice, a picture of slow-witted innocence, volunteered to collect it. The merchant had serious doubts, but the boy said the boss could cut off his ears if he failed. The merchant agreed, and the boy asked him for a bag of forty shillings worth of ha’pennies (half pennies), which he put into both ends of a sack so he could sling it over the saddle. The merchant offered him a good horse, but the boy selected the most decrepit old nag he could find, so lame with osteoarthritis that he could hardly go a mile an hour, and would not allow either horse or man to come near him. The apprentice was the only person he would allow to handle or mount him.

The boy set off for Newry with the bag of ha’pennies tucked inside his shirt, and before long he met up with Redmond O’Hanlon dressed as a gentleman and mounted on a fine horse. The rapparee greeted the boy in a friendly manner and asked him his business. The boy told him, and O’Hanlon asked when he planned to return to Dundalk.

“About this time tomorrow,” the boy said ingenuously.

O’Hanlon gave him a penny to drink his health and warned him not to discuss his business with strangers.

The following day, the boy collected the £200 in notes and sewed them safely inside his waistcoat, slinging the bag of ha’pennies over the saddle. On his return through Moyry Pass, O’Hanlon met him and asked if he had the money with him. The boy said he had it in gold coins, and indicated the bag of ha’pennies.

“If you let me look at it, I’ll count it to make sure it’s all there,” said O’Hanlon.

“It’s all there,” said the boy. “I counted it myself. And besides, I promised my master that I wouldn’t let it into anyone’s hands but my own.”

O’Hanlon demanded that he give it to him. The boy refused, saying his master would think he took it himself. O’Hanlon produced a gun and threatened to shoot if the boy did not hand it over.

“I can’t do that. I told my master that he could cut my ears off if I didn’t bring the money back.”

(The boy probably knew that O’Hanlon prided himself on the fact that he had never killed anyone.)

O’Hanlon approached to try to grab the sack, but the boy’s horse lunged and kicked out at him, forcing him to keep his distance.

The boy threw the bag of ha’pennies over the hedge into a bog saying, “If you want it, then follow it.”

O’Hanlon dismounted and tied his horse to a tree. When the rapparee was well inside the bog, the boy jumped off his old nag and onto O’Hanlon’s fine fast horse and galloped to Dundalk.

The honest merchant advertised the “found” horse. No one claimed it, but he received an unsigned letter stating that the owner of the horse made a present of it to the boy “in reward for his cleverness and ingenuity”.

Although O’Hanlon was credited with many cunning and lucky escapes, he met his end at the hands of a trusted kinsman tempted by the £400 reward offered by the government.


A World of Tricksters

© Richard Marsh 2020

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