New book details the life and death of Cork-born dandy highwayman

Gráinne McGuinness hears about a new book devoted to a highwayman who became a ‘a hero of the poor and a scourge of the gentry’ in in seventeenth century across North Cork and South Tipperary.
New book details the life and death of Cork-born dandy highwayman

Ireland's highwaymen were fearsome and skilled adversaries for British troops, having frequently served time in the army. Sketch by Steve Dunford.

NEXT week, a special book launch, in aid of the Old Kilcrumper Graveyard Friends Association, takes place in Fermoy.

Writer Eugene Dunphy will launch his new book, Willie Brennan, Irish Highwayman: The True Story.

In the 1960s, Brennan OnThe Moor, the ballad sung by The Clancy Brothers, helped to raise Willie Brennan to national and international notoriety. Over the years, many myths and legends have built up around Brennan, so it can be difficult to differentiate the truth from the myth.

Mr Dunphy decided to delve for the truth and he spoke to The Echo ahead of the book launch. First, I asked him about highwaymen in Ireland.

“In the 17th century, Ireland had its fair share of ‘rapparees’ (sometimes called ‘tories’), Irish gentry who rebelled against the Crown having been dispossessed of their lands and status,” he explained.

“This rebellious tradition carried on right into the 19th century with what were then commonly known as ‘footpads’, ‘freebooters’, ‘highwaymen’, or ‘robbers’.

“As outlined in the book, some of these Irish highwaymen (like Willie Brennan) had once been soldiers in the British army but deserted, and since the sentence for desertion was certain death, Brennan saw ‘life on the renegade road’ as a preferable option.”

Mr Dunphy, who was born in Omagh, worked as a music teacher in Belfast. Since retiring he has written a series of articles, mostly on Irish history and Irish music, which have been published in magazines and journals.

So, what triggered his fascination with this particular highwayman, who was born near Kilworth?

“When I was growing up in County Tyrone, we had an old Dansette record player which regularly churned out ceili music, the songs of John McCormack, and a string of ballads by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem,” Mr Dunphy said.

Willie Brennan, Irish Highwayman by Eugene Dunphy.
Willie Brennan, Irish Highwayman by Eugene Dunphy.

“As a boy, I remember being captivated by the atmospheric lyrics and the galloping rhythms of the Clancy’s Brennan on the Moor, so much so that, 50 years later, I asked myself, ‘Where was Brennan born?’; ‘Why did he become a highwayman?’; ‘Did he operate alone?’; ‘Just who did he rob, and where did the robberies take place?’; ‘Who captured him, and where?’; ‘How and where did he die?’.

“Having consulted a large number of books from the 19th up until the 21st century, I discovered that his life and times have been the subject of much speculation, his surname usually being preceded by words such as ‘perhaps’ or ‘maybe’, or by phrases such as ‘rumour has it’ or ‘it is believed’.

“And so, in an attempt to set the record straight, I decided to go back to the original sources, and to write the true story of Willie Brennan (1784-1809).”

Mr Dunphy’s research revealed a man who, although he had a bounty on his head, was seen as something of a hero by the poor in the areas where he roamed.

“For the most part, Brennan carried out robberies with one accomplice, Paddy ‘the Pedlar’ Hogan,” Mr Dunphy said.

“When it comes to personalities, there seemed to have been a marked difference between the two men.

“Brennan was more altruistic in nature – indeed, some contemporary press reports suggest that he was a folk-hero in his own time, doing much to help those who were in financial distress, or had the prospect of eviction hanging over their heads.

“Hogan, on the other hand, was a stubborn, determined individual who seemed more interested in self-preservation than in providing social welfare!”

But Brennan’s good deeds weren’t enough to keep him safe.

In early 1809, a number of gentry from North Cork offered a substantial reward for his capture, the reward being soon added to by Dublin Castle.

“After numerous hot pursuits and narrow escapes, Brennan and Hogan were finally captured following a Wild West-style shoot-out,” Mr Dunphy said.

“It must be said that one of those involved in their apprehension, Private George Farmer, had the utmost respect for Brennan.

“If truth be told, Farmer saw him as an officer and a gentleman.”

But, for all that respect, Brennan’s fate was sealed.

“Brennan and Hogan were sentenced to be hanged in April, 1809, in front of Clonmel Gaol,” Mr Dunphy added. 

“On the day of their executions, a Saturday, Clonmel was thronged with people from all over Cork and Tipperary, the majority of whom held the condemned men in the highest regard.

“Fearing that there would be serious outbreaks of rioting in the town, Dublin Castle ordered that the town be swamped with infantry and mounted cavalry.

“After the executions were carried out, Brennan’s body was buried in Old Kilcrumper Graveyard.

“As for Paddy ‘the Pedlar’ Hogan, it’s not known what happened to his remains.”

Mr Dunphy noticed the ongoing work at Old Kilcrumper on Facebook and volunteered his skills to help raise funds for the work.

The proceeds of his book will support the continuing work at Kilcrumper Old Cemetery.

Willie Brennan, Irish Highwayman by Eugene Dunphy will be launched at Fermoy Youth Centre on November 12 at 7.30 pm, where the author will give an account of the life and times of Brennan.

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