The seventeenth century was the golden age of the legendary county outlaws and bandits. Throughout the century the landed gentry of England and Scotland settled in Ireland bringing with them stores of money and weapons to build and defend vast estates throughout the country. Armagh had its share of planter settlers and with them came a mixed bag of petty thieves and notorious bandits determined to relieve the rich of their wealth or, in a more sympathetic sense, to survive, having been dispossessed of their land. Though they targeted the landed elite the agenda of these bandits was not to act as a figurehead for native Irish rebellion but to profit by imaginative thievery. One such outlaw of the Armagh County was Redmond O'Hanlon.
In the accompanying audio recording, Dr. Neil McGleenon, retired headmaster and local historian, talks about the 'raparee' Redmond O'Hanlon in the early seventeenth century.
Use the audio controller to listen to this talk, given in 2003.
Local tradition places O'Hanlon's birthplace in the vicinity of Poyntzpass near the present day Iveagh Lodge. Born circa 1640 supposedly he was the descendant of a family dispossessed of its estates by Oliver Cromwell. Details of his early life are lost to us although he was a footboy to Sir George Acheson of Markethill, but it was not until his adult life that he achieved notoriety. He was arrested early in life but bribed his way out of Armagh County Jail. According to a biography of the bandit published in 1681,
"Despairing of mercy or pardon, he resolved to abandon himself to all lewdness and to become a perfect Bird of Prey".
In establishing himself as a type of seventeenth-century godfather, O'Hanlon operated a system of 'guardianship'. Few could travel freely without a pass issued by the bandit and he placed a levy of 2s 6d on local farmers to ensure the safety of their animals. Such was his influence that most petty thieves did not interfere with those under the guardianship of O'Hanlon. When one dared to break this code O'Hanlon delivered him up to the authorities in the full knowledge the thief would be hung for his crimes.
On another occasion O'Hanlon, disguised as a country gentleman begged a military escort from the authorities because he feared his gold would be stolen by the outlaw. His request was granted and the party, accompanied by a number of militia, embarked on their journey. At an arranged point O'Hanlon's men ambushed the party and deprived the soldiers of their money, weapons, and even their clothes!
O'Hanlon's imaginative approach to thievery allowed him to evade attempts by the authorities to bring him to justice. Various attempts were made throughout the 1670's to apprehend the outlaw but to no avail. Though the authorities could make no headway one local youth managed to outsmart the bandit. The young man had been charged to bring a large sum of money to his master. Knowing O'Hanlon would covet the purse, the boy purchased an especially vicious horse and divided the money into two unequal amounts in two separate purses. As suspected, O'Hanlon crossed the boy and demanded the money at gunpoint. The youth threw the purse with the lesser amount of money into a marsh and told O'Hanlon to fetch it for himself. Seeing no other option, O'Hanlon went in search of the purse. While thus occupied the youth sprang from his horse, mounted O'Hanlon's fine animal and rode off with the greater sum of money intact, leaving O'Hanlon to make his way home on a vicious nag!
In 1679 Edmund Murphy faced charges of collusion with Tories (another word for outlaws). To save his own skin he agreed to capture O'Hanlon. He concocted an elaborate plan to have rival leader Rover O'Murphy ambush the bandit but Redmond heard of the plan and had O'Murphy killed. Landowners moved again to flush the bandit out but cutting down Glen Woods, O'Hanlon's hideout in Poyntzpass. It was all to no avail but as with many outlaws O'Hanlon met his end as the result of the treachery of one of his own lieutenants. At Hilltown in 1681 Arthur O'Hanlon fired a blunderbuss into the chest of his captain and foster-brother. Those loyal to their murdered captain removed his head to prevent it adorning the spike of the prison house but it was discovered some days later and placed on the spike at Downpatrick Prison. O'Hanlon's body was buried in an unmarked grave at Relicarn Graveyard in the Parish of Ballymore. The gravesite is approximately one mile from Scarva on the way to Tandragee but its exact location is unknown.
State documents preserved from the period indicate that at the time of his death O'Hanlon had a price of £200 on his head. For his part in the downfall of O'Hanlon, the treacherous lieutenant received only £100.
The famous writer Sir Walter Scott was so taken with the life of the bandit that he planned to immortalise him in a novel. Lady Olivia Sparrow of Tandragee compiled much work on the life of O'Hanlon but did not publish and her work was lost.
Bardon, J, A History of Ulster (Belfast, 1992)
Paterson, TGF, Harvest Home: The Last Sheaf A selection from the writings of TGF Paterson edited by E Estyn Evans (Dundalk, 1975)