The Bold Outlaw Naoise O'Haughan
IF Sherwood Forest has given Nottingham its Robin Hood so too has the Antrim Hills and the Divis Mountains given Belfast, the bold Naoise O’Haughan, our own Robin Hood, an old ballad of him declares....
“‘Tis of a famous highwayman a story I will tell,
His name was Naoise O’Haughan, in Ireland he did dwell.
And on the Antrim Mountains he commenced his wild career,
Where many a wealthy gentleman before him shook with fear.”
Naoise O’Haughan, or Nessy O'Haughan, was born in 1691, a fearful time for Irish people, for this was the period immediately following the victory of the Dutchman, King William of Orange over the English Catholic King James, who had fought a battle at the River Boyne a year earlier. Hordes of William’s followers roamed the land killing and looting those they felt were not sympathetic to the Protestant principles of William.
Shane O’Haughan, Naoise’s father and his mother reared their family near Braid, at the foot of Slemish Mountain, they lived as tenants in a small holding belonging to O’Hara, a local wealthy landlord, who owned land throughout the parishes.
In the early 1700’s O’Hara’s men came to evict the O’Haughan family, a terrible part of the persecution visited on many a family in those times. The sight of their mother and father being roughly manhandled by the bailiffs was just to much to bear for the O’Haughan sons, Shane Og, Naoise, Robert, Denis and an adopted son Philomy. A fight broke out in which Shane Og killed one of the bailiffs and from that instance the O’Haughan boys became outlaws, ‘Raparees’, Irish patriots on the run.
Moving their parents to safety among sympathetic Presbyterian families, like the Graham’s of Glenwherry, who provided ‘Clachan’ dwellings built on their own land, ruins of one exists to this day at Kerny Hill on the land of David Graham, at Glenwhirry. These Graham’s, ancestors of my own, were supportive in sheltering Naoise and indeed Henry Joy McCracken after he went on the run following the Battle of Antrim in 1798. Naoise and his brothers took to the hills and reeked havoc on the desolate homesteads of those who they felt ‘lackeyed’ to the wishes of the landlords. Many acts of great kindness are recorded of the gang giving their stolen money to poor Presbyterians and Catholics alike to pay arrears in rents to avoid eviction. Most likely it was through this loyalty of many people around Ballynure, Raloo, Rashee, Umgall that O’Haughan’s gang evaded capture for so long.
It would appear that Denis, the adopted son, went off on his own, for soon after he was captured in Carrickfergus when he was spotted wearing the coat of a man he had robbed there just hours before, He was hanged at the nearby gallows.
It was in Glenwherry that Naoise and his band of brothers carried out their ‘Robin Hood’ activities for many stories exist of how they robbed local rich landlords and gave the money to the poor tenants to help pay their ever increasing rents.
It was one of the O’Haughan’s own kinsmen, his wife’s brother, a James McKinstry from Glenhead, although he is mentioned in the ballad as having taken part in the raids, it was he who ultimately betrayed Naosie‘s brother, Shane Og. It appears Shane Og was arguing with McKinstry and inferred that the McKinstry‘s, ‘ sprang from beggars base and wandering gypsy brood ’. The ballad relates of a raid when Naoise and his band, hopelessly outnumbered were being pursued by Redcoats and local lackeys, among whom are mentioned, Beggs and Craig, two families still linked to the area to this day. The Beggs were related to ‘Beggs The Glenwherry Poet’ whilst the Craigs built one of the first schoolhouses in the area. When Naoise got to the hills they turned and fired point blank at their pursuers causing them to panic and flee back down the mountain, an old ballad describes well the event....
“The bold Naoise O’Haughan, and Shane Og, the tory;
Little Owen Murphy and his younger brother Rory;
Randal Dhu Agnew, McKinstry and Maginnis,
Though half the Braid pursue, Make good the upper Tennies.
The last man in the rear had barely cleared the clachan
When a bullet grazed his hair,‘Twas the burly Naoise O’Haughan.
“Stand comrades now.” he cried “Why flee ye in such a hurry?”
“Let’s tame the Begg’s pride, and cowe the Craigs of Skerry.”
“Range round your chief, my men, they are but shabby fellows;
We’ll fight them one to ten, ere we swing upon the gallows.”
With that whizzed through the air, a bullet from the Callin
Which carried off the ear O’ singing Robin Allen.”
Naoise and his band of wild raparees continued to torment and rob the rich but being so hopelessly outnumbered, and by the betrayal of lackeys and paid informers one by one they were captured. John McCrea, of Ballynure, received £5 for the capture of the brave Randal Dhu Agnew in 1717. Randal was taken to the Gallows Green at Carrickfergus and hanged, as was Shane O’Haughan earlier . who had been ‘sold ’, informed on, for £10 by his brother-in-law ‘White James’ McKinstry
The rest of Naoise’s men had to keep their heads down, Toal, Magennis and Rory Murphy left the country to escape capture but Naoise alone carried on and there are any stories of his brave escapes from capture by the redcoats, one goes...
“a troop of o mounted Recoats were sent out from Carrickfergus Castle to capture Naoise, They eventually espied him near his hiding place at Knockagh Mountain and made chase. His own chance to escape now lay in his speed of foot, So he gave his pursuers a smart race across the moors at Straid and reached Ballyboley Hill. There by coincidence he came across his brother Denis, also on the run. Seeing his brother was exhausted Denis sized the situation up quickly, He whistled to Naoise who fell flat into thick bracken and heather. Denis then waited for a few moments on the horsemen who came over the hill and made off as if he was the original fugitive. A fresh O’Haughan was more than equal to the tired horsemen and thus both escaped capture by the Redcoats ”.
On another occasion near Ballyeaston, again being pursued by the Redcoats, Naoise came round a sharp corner, out of sight of his tormentors, and seen a gang of farm workers carrying bags of grain. He picked up a bag and walked with the workers, the Redcoats came on and rode straight by. They never realised that one of the workers was the fugitive they were chasing and so Naoise escaped again.
Soon after this Naoise moved to the Divis Mountain range, and stopped around Ballyutoag where he took regular shelter. He continued to roam and raid around Ballymagarry, Ballymurphy, Ballyhill, Hightown Hill and Craigarogan. No doubt he would have been offered shelter among the good folk at Springhill Clachan, at the head of the Mountain Loney. A Clachan, by the way, was a nestling of a few houses built closely together. The present day Springhill housing estate was named from this old community.
Before long Naoise O’Haughan encounters and close escapes were becoming more regular as the Redcoats closed in on him. Nessy often hid out at the caves below the Hatchet Field on the Black Mountain. His last recorded chase occurred one day along the Belfast Hills with the enemy close behind him. They thought they had him cornered when he came on the banks of the six mile water at a spot too wide to jump and too rough to swim, but Naoise took one wild leap and managed to clear the river landing safely on the other bank, leaving his pursuers stranded behind him.
Nothing more was heard of Naoise, it was as if he had vanished of the face of the earth. Then one day, on a military Barracks Square, where some soldiers were betting on who could jump clear over two horses, the bet was won by an English soldier. The wage was increased and a challenge went out to any one present to attempt to jump over three horses. No one came forward, there were mutterings that it would be an impossible task. Suddenly another soldier, an Irishman, stepped forward and said he could jump over three horses. To everyone’s amazement he took a running jump and cleared the horses easily and to much applause he collected his bets. But not everyone was applauding, an officer stepped forward and pointing at the victor he said, “Arrest that man, I have only ever seen one man capable of such a jump, and he was an Irishman too, that man has to be Naoise O’Haughan ”. The officer had been the officer in charge of the Recoats in the pursuit of Naosie when he escaped by making his daring jump over the River Lagan. And so our bold rebel lad was finally captured and brought to Carrickfergus Castle where he was sentenced to die. Naoise was hanged at the infamous Gallows Green, his head cut off and placed on a spike near that of his brother’s Shane Og, who had been hanged two years earlier in 1718. Folklore has it that a wren had built a nest in the skull of Shane, it also claims that Naoise and his party had secretly buried their loot, gold and jewellery, along the Belfast Hills and most has never been uncovered. One box of loot was however found some years later and it is said there was enough money that the farmer was able to build himself a new farmhouse.
Highwaymen or pad robbers are written into English history as mere robbers, but here in Ireland the Highway men more often had a political agenda, had a quest for justice, and rare are the stories of them robbing the ‘common folk.’ and often enough the poor benefited from their acts. Many are the stories of rapparree leader, Captain Lightfoot, then there was Captain Gallagher, a Mayo Highwayman who reeked havoc on the upper crust of society. Whereas the English Highwayman Dick Turpin stole sheep and sold them to the butchers to sell on as meat, the Irish highwaymen more often stole cattle, butchered them and in the middle of the night left huge parts of the carcass’s outside the doors of the homes of peasant people. To put a wedge between the people and the rapparee highwaymen the English soldiers would burn down or evict a family who were known to have accepted such meat as ‘gifts’, in the end often enough the poor people were so frightened to touch the meat that it lay rotten in front of their houses whilst the family was near enough starving to death.
In my opinion one of the greatest rapparree’s was Thomas Archer, a United Irishman from Ballymena.Thomas Archer was born in Castle Street, Ballymena, and in due time he was apprenticed to the trade of shoemaker. After serving his allotted term he enlisted in the Antrim Militia, thus getting a training which served his purpose when he became an insurgent leader. Archer was somewhat short in stature, strongly built, and of dark complexion. There was no real fighting in Ballymena, though there was a reign of terror led by yeomen and English military after the unsuccessful 1798 rebellion. Some of the most violent proceedings which characterised the outbreak occurred around Ballymena and it was well known that the bold Thomas Archer had played more than his share in the rising, in fact at one point he was joined by the gallant Rody McCorley, who later was to be hanged on the bridge of Toome, and who also was on the run following the rebellion.
The English authorities long kept a watchful eye on the doings of the man, but the difficulty experienced was the getting of reliable information as to where he might be surprised. Everyone knew that the life of even a suspected informer would be in imminent danger, while that of a known one in case of failure of justice was certain to be taken, But eventually the hour, and testimony came. One of those whom Archer placed implicit confidence, and to whom he doubtless spoke freely and confidentially of his doings, was James O’Brien, of the Star Bog, about a mile and a half from Ballymena, whose house he used to frequent. There he believed he was secure- at least as secure as he could be. But O‘Brien, who was a chandler by trade, proved to be a treacherous friend, Since handsome rewards were given to those who placed leading insurgents within the power of the authorities., O‘Brien was induced to enter into a conspiracy or the betrayal of his friend. With a view to this end, arrangements were made with a shopkeeper residing in Ballymena, to the effect that when he received a half crown bearing a secret but perfectly understood mark, no matter by what means conveyed, such was to be regarded as indicating that Archer was under O’Brien’s roof , that circumstances were favourable to his capture, and that the said shopkeeper should at once forward the half crown to the Military authorities. Accordingly, one evening after darkness had set in, a woman, totally ignorant of the plot, presented for purchase of goods at the shop referred to the half crown bearing the mark agreed up, which was immediately forwarded to its intended destination. In less than half an hour a Military contingent, under the charge of Captain Dickey, was on the move in the direction of the Star Bog, and to James O’Brien’s house there, for the purpose of making Archer their prisoner, The man appears to have been in the habit of sleeping without undressing, with loaded arms by his bedside, so as to be ready for an emergency. On the night in question he was suddenly awakened by the son of O’Brien, who was unacquainted with the plot, exhorting him to fly for his life, as soldiers were approaching the house. At once realising his danger, Archer rose, seized his pistol, and fled, when a bullet followed him from the Military, which struck and wounded, though it did not disable him. Notwithstanding this mishap, Archer succeeded for a time eluding pursuit, and baffled all efforts at capture. After fruitless searches in different parts of the neighbourhood, the movements of a water spaniel which accompanied one of the Military attracted special attention. It soon became evident that the dog was aware of the presence of something unusual, and which the soldiers were not aware of, being at the time by the side of a deep hole in a bog. The restlessness of the spaniel led to closer investigation, when the dim outline of a suspicious object was observed in the distance, which, on further research, proved to be the head of the hunted outlaw just above the surface of the water, with his hand raised about to fire his pistol but it refused to respond to the fall of the trigger! O’Brien had added insult to treachery by wetting the powder and putting a nail in the touch-hole of his victim’s weapon; consequently Archer found himself completely at the mercy of his captors. He surrendered only when he could not help himself. The man was at once conveyed to Ballymena, bitterly regretting that he was then in the power of a man whose life he could have taken on three separate occasions Archer was subsequently tried by court-martial, found guilty of seditious practises, and condemned to be hanged. The sentence was carried out with some attendant circumstances calculated to excite terror in the popular mind. It was at first decided that he suffer on the Moat, but in deference to Archer’s own wishes, a tree standing near was decided upon, and he was conveyed there on a car. When all arrangements for the final scene was completed, he attempted to address the multitude who had gathered to witness his last moments. He said, “If all had kept their secrets in their breasts as I have done” - when a dozen muskets were levelled at him, and cries of “Silence”, “Drive on the car”, arose from those assembled to see the dread sentence fulfilled. He met his fate with an unsubdued spirit. His body, after hanging a sufficient length of time, was taken to a building in the Castle demesne, where it was disembowelled , and then hung in chains on the Moat. When time had bleached the bones, and when the country had become quiet, and a quieter spirit prevailed, it was felt that the spectacle might with propriety be removed; and so a number of young men took upon themselves the responsibility of procuring a coffin, in which they placed the remains, and surreptitiously buried them in the parish churchyard.