Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The O'Haughan Brothers: Outlaws on the Commons Cattle Trail

There is a cave called "O'Haughan's Cave" at the foot of the Knockagh cliffs above Greenisland, just west of the town of Carrickfergus. This was one of the hideaways of a band of outlaws led by the O'Haughan Brothers who had terrorised the lowland farms around the Commons of Carrickfergus in the early 18th century.

They operated from caves and hideaways in the mountains until, one-by-one, they were captured by soldiers and hanged at Gallows Green near where the above photo was taken at the Troopers Lane end of Carrickfergus. Miskimmon's "History of Carrickfergus" describes three caves in the southern brow of Knockagh as,
"cut out of the rock, which, from the difficulty of ascent to them, appear to have been intended as places of refuge ... The most western of these caves is locally known as O'Haughan's Cave. Eneas O'Haughan was one of four brothers, robbers, who were long a terror to the neighbourhood. They ascended and descended by the Deer's Lane to the house of a Mrs. Jacques".
The Knockagh escarpment is a clear boundary between the the highest and poorest land of the Commons of Carrickfergus to the north-west, and the West Division of the County of Carrickfergus with it's coastal plain sweeping down to the shores of Belfast Lough at Lower Greenisland to the south-east. Above the Knockagh, the Commons were unenclosed in the 1700s when the O'Haughan Brothers were operating. At one end of the Knockagh cliffs is a narrow gap which is the only access up onto the commons from this western section of Carrickfergus County.

The O'Haughans were frequently chased by troops from the Garrison at Carrick up "Trooper's Lane" onto the Commons though the Stoney Glen, but then they would seem to mysteriously disappear when they backtracked in a circle down the Deer's Lane to hide in the caves underneath the Knockagh - from where they could watch for the troops returning to the town.

The map of this part of the Commons boundary shows how O'Haughan's Cave was accessed from the Commons, remembering that it was in the early 1700s when these events were unfolding, and the Commons wasn't divided into fields until after 1870.


About 1710, John O'Haughan, a hill farmer was living near Braetown at the head of the Glenwhirry valley north of Ballynure, close to the Carnalbanagh Hills where the Portglenone to Larne cattle trail approached Kilwaughter and Larne. This was the home territory of the O'Haughans as far back as 1669 when we find a Donel Oge O'Haughian and a Neese O'Haughian living there in the
Hearth Money Rolls of that date. By 1900 almost all of that family were living in the Ballycarry and Eden area of east Antrim, and using the spelling "Hawkins". (Interestingly enough, the 1901 census reveals a number of Catholics with the name "Haughan" living in Belfast - but in east Antrim the more numerous Hawkins were all Presbyterian).

Back about 1710, John O'Haughan was being evicted by his landlord for non-payment of rent when the bailiff was killed by one of his four sons. These four brothers - Roger, Eneas, Shane Oge and Neese O'Haughan went on the run,
along with a foster brother Phelimy, and they joined an outlaw band of "freebooters" led by a "Captain" McAllister, himself from near Ballynure.

Not long after the O'Haughan brothers joined the outlaw band, Captain McAllister was captured by troops from Carrickfergus and executed. Neese O'Haughan was unanimously chosen leader in his stead, and they raided - almost always at night - farms and houses not only around the Commons and the mid-Antrim valleys of the Braid and Glenwhirry, but occasionally ventured as far as Ligoniel on the northern outskirts of Belfast, hiding out when necessary on Divis, the Black Mountain or the back of Cave Hill .

Of course, the gang only resorted to caves when being pursued, and after a successful night they frequented shibeens in clachans (farm villages) like Raloo north of the Commons where they would divide their spoils, keeping their hosts sweet with 'gifts' of rustled livestock. The exploits of the gang soon became the stuff of 'Robin Hood' - type legend, and their number included (according to one ballad): "The Boul Neese O'Haughin, and Shane Og the tory, Little Owen Murphy, and his young brother Rory. Randal John Agnew, M'Ginty, and M'Ginnis, tho' half the Braid pursue, made good the upper Teenies ". In a previous post I made mention of the Steel Boys raids from the Commons in the 1770s: "Among those convicted in 1770 was a Paddy McKenty of Raloo, who almost certainly was from the same family as the ancestors of the modern crime writer Adrian McKinty mentioned in my last posting". Adrian, who now lives in Australia, commented on that post to ask if I was saying that his great-great ... great grandfather was a cattle rustler. Hmm!
No, but it is worth noting that a McKinty/McGinty was a member of the infamous O'Haughan band of outlaws in the 1710s!

When Neese O'Haughan was captured and executed, his brother Shane Oge became leader of the outlaw gang. In 1843, a folk poet from Ballynure (Samuel Turner) published a detailed account of the exploits of this gang along with a lengthy poem about "The betrayal of Shane Oge" which inevitably ends with the capture of Shane Oge. He describes elsewhere in his book how Shane Oge had, on becoming leader of the gang, "stood at the entrance of a cave at the Knockagh, and witnessed the procession that accompanied his brother to the fatal gallows at Carrickfergus".

Stories of the O'Haughans "robbing the rich to help the poor" became almost as numerous as their and legendary as their cleverness in outwitting their military and bounty-hunting pursuers. Numerous escapades are detailed in Samuel Turner's book: Gleanings from Ballyboley Braes: Career of The Freebooters Ohaughin, and Poems, (Ballymena Observer, 1843). One example of a chase of Shane Oge O'Haughan by dragoons from Carrick up to the Knockagh Cave is given in this book as follows:
On another occasion the “fogies” – as the old pensioners then doing garrison duty in the Castle of Carrickfergus were called – were ordered out to beat up his haunts about the Knockagh, and if possible to secure him. They accordingly sallied out one fine morning, and advanced cautiously and steadily till they had reached a place called Archy’s Bushes, at that time a favourite retreat for Shane Oge and his companions. Here they distinctly observed the object of their search apparently fast asleep on a ledge of rock which overhung the precipice, and looking on him now as good as taken, they dismounted from their horses, and stole forward on tip-toe to make him their prisoner. But the wily Shane Oge was not thus to be caught napping, for coolly waiting till they came within a few yards, he started up, emptied the contents of a pistol into the body of the nearest horse, slid down the precipice, and was out of sight in an instant. The fogies were thunder struck at his sudden disappearance, but thinking it impossible he could escape them, and that he must be hidden somewhere near, they commenced a strict and active search among the tangled masses of brambles, stunted bushes, and underwood with which the spot abounded, in hopes to make out his whereabouts, till convinced he was not there, they took a wider range and had at last the pleasure of lighting upon his trail. By this time, however, Shane Oge was far a-head in the direction of Glenwherry, and, owing to his having taken the precaution of choosing the worst and most impracticable paths for horsemen, it was not till they had come in sight of Ballynure that they once more caught a glimpse of the object of their pursuit. He was yet a long way off, however, and breathless and worn out by the length of the run, was straining every nerve to reach the crest of the hill at a little distance before him, when a shrill peculiarly modulated whistle struck upon his ear. The meaning of this friendly recognition he well knew, for on reaching the top of the eminence he at once threw himself flat on his face among the tall and luxuriant heather, and awaited the result with the greatest composure. It is here necessary to say that his brother Philemy, being prowling about in that direction, had witnessed the chase from the time the horsemen emerged from the Commons above Straid, and divining the cause, had awaited patiently till Shane Oge came within ear-shot and then intimating to him by the whistle to hide himself, and diverging considerably to one side so as to draw the soldiers off the direct line of pursuit, lest they might stumble on his brother in his hiding-place, he folded his arms and stood ready to shew himself to the fogies as soon as they topped the eminence, fully determined on having a new run with them over the mountains and mosses on his own account. In this he was fully gratified, for they no sooner observed him standing, as if merely drawing his breath for a moment before attempting the ascent of a somewhat steep acclivity in front, than they gave chase, little thinking they had started a fresh man, and one too that was no less swift of foot than his brother. Onward and onward they went over rock and scaur, through long heather and bog hole and quagmire – the crafty Philemy all the while never seeking to damp the ardour of the pursuit, by getting too far ahead – till he reached the old Deerpark at Glenarm, when, thinking he had done enough, he vaulted lightly over the boundary wall of the enclosure, leaving the tired and out-manouvred fogies to retrace their footsteps as they best might to Carrickfergus, crest-fallen and dispirited at the ill success of their hard day’s run.
Another story worth quoting is how Shane Oge spared a farmer in Bryantang at the Ballynure end of the Dalway Cattle Trail when he came across him at prayer:

Having heard of an old man in the neighbourhood of Ballynure named Scott, who lived almost alone and was reputed to be very rich, Shane Oge and his associates resolved on paying him a visit. Meeting therefore by appointment one evening at his residence, and reconnoitering the premises they soon found it would be no difficulty to effect an entrance; and once inside there was only a grey-haired old man and a helpless old woman to oppose their ransacking the house. Directing his companions therefore, to keep out of the way till they got the signal to advance, Shane Oge stepped up cautiously to the door, to listen if all were quiet, just as the voices of the inmates were raised aloft in prayer and praise to their Creator, before retiring to rest. He stood riveted to the spot while the good old man implored the Divine protection through the dark and silent watches of the night – heard him praying fervently for his enemies – the widow and the fatherless, the poor, the sick, the aged and the infirm, the household outcast and the wanderer, who had none on earth to help them, and knew not where to lay their head – till at length touched with compunction at what he was about to do on the unsuspecting and pious old man, he withdrew from his position at the door, as silently as he had advanced, and, beckoning on his companions, told them what he had heard, and that he had come to the determination of retiring from the place immediately and leaving him unmolested. This the others strenuously opposed, but on Shane Oge telling them flatly and plainly that the good old man was in the service of his Maker while they were in the service of the devil, and threatening them with his severest and unabated displeasure should they ever at any time from that night forth dare to molest, even to the value of a single cabbage stalk, about the premises, they at length, slowly and gloomily withdrew, muttering curses, not loud, but deep, on the sudden and unaccountable tender-heartedness of their once fierce and unscrupulous leader.
If these tales of outlaws on the Commons cattle trail don't resonate with an American connection, then I don't know what would - not even the Andrew Jackson homestead beside Dalway's Bawn.