Black Francis – The Highwayman of Fermanagh & Donegal
Black Francis Background
Proinsias Dubh or Black Francis was a famous highwayman in the late eighteenth century. His daring exploits and ‘near-miss’ adventures have long been the source of folklore and stirring fireside tales.
Francis McHugh was born about five miles from the little village of Pettigo, on the border of Donegal and Fermanagh. It is in the townland of Cloghure, in the parish of Termonamangan. He got the nickname ‘dubh’ meaning black, from his jet-black hair.
The McHugh’s were small lease-hold farmers, having lost their land during the Plantation. Like many of the young men, Francis resented having to work for the landlord and pay rent for what was originally his own family’s property. This disaffection led many men to have a casual regard for the law, which was always weighted in the landlord’s favour.
Flight from the Family Home
Francis thought nothing of poaching on the landlord’s estate, catching rabbits or salmon to feed his family. He even stole chickens and ducks from the ‘home farm’. The local authorities began to suspect the young McHugh, but could never catch him in the act.
Soldiers were sent regularly to the family cottage to provoke and harass its occupants. One night, Francis’s temper got the better of him. Lashing out, he punched a soldier in the face. Knowing now that he was a ‘wanted’ man Francis had no option but to escape to the hills.
Life as an Outlaw
Living in the woods, Francis was obliged to rob in order to stay alive. He would watch for the landlords or their agents making the journey home after market day and relieve them of their gains. Over time his reputation grew and gradually other men forced on to the fringes of society joined him.
Francis had never planned this way of life, or to be a leader of such a disparate group of men, but he proved to be capable of the job.
Francis’s gang included Tom Acheson, James McQuade from Monaghan, Brian McAlinn from Fermanagh, Tarlach Muireas from Tipperary and ‘Supple’ Dick Corrigan. Their hideouts were in the upland area between Pettigo and Barnsmore in the Bluestack Mountains.
Francis was scrupulously fair, ensuring that he and his men got equal share of any booty. If disputes arose within the group, he held meetings where all grievances could be aired and a resolution reached by a show of hands.
Black Francis laid down only two rules – only the rich were to be targeted, and no abuse, physical or verbal, would be directed towards any woman.
Expansion of Outlaw Activities
Francis was a meticulous planner and could spend months reconnoitring before a raid took place. The band now started to attack landlords in their own homes, acquiring a great deal of luxury items such as silver ornaments, jewellery, cutlery and linens before disappearing back into the hills. It is said many of these items still remain hidden in forgotten locations.
Francis was described as an affable and articulate man. He was broadly built and stocky. His bushy beard was as black as his head. He inspired confidence and loyalty in his men and maintained many friendships even in areas where he was wanted as a notorious criminal.
One of the friendships was to serve him well. Although knowing his background, Francis was on good terms with the Acheson family of Grouse Lodge in County Donegal. (It’s not known if there was a connection to Tom Acheson who was a member of the outlaw gang).
The Acheson’s were a well-respected family and often got invited to social events held by the local gentry. It is said, Francis regularly accompanied them to these soirees under an assumed name. He must have been able to converse and blend in well. As the evenings wore on he was able to illicit information beneficial for his future activities. Knowing the number of servants, or if a family were away visiting would be crucial in determining the risk for further enterprises.
Black Francis Robbed
One night the audacious Francis and some of his men arrived at a house on the shores of Lough Erne. Francis was dressed in his finery and his men as servants. A gathering was taking place, and Francis explained to the host that he was a landlord from County Donegal, whose coach had lost a wheel. The carriage was actually hidden among the trees on the estate. The unsuspecting owner brought the ‘traveller’ in and it is said, Francis proceeded to entertain the guest with stories of his adventures.
While the party was so occupied in the dining-room, Francis’s men helped themselves to any valuables they could discover upstairs. This loot was then passed to their waiting comrades at the coach. When the thieves at last entered the dining-room to rob the guests, Francis was also ‘robbed’ in order to maintain his cover.
While Francis’s reputation as a repparee (bandit) spread and the reward for his capture increased, the local people continued to supply support and ‘safe houses’ for the gang. Black Francis was well-known for his generosity to the poor. Money and food were often delivered to those in need and many families escaped eviction due to gifts of cash from the highwaymen.
“Families opening their doors at night to an anxious knocking were often presented with a cow and a receipt for its purchase – with the compliments of Proinnsias Dubh. Others discovered in their barn, meal and sections of slaughtered animals which had mysteriously arrived during the hours of darkness”Jim McCallen Stand and Deliver 1993
Francis’s band were also known for impromptu visits to villages on fair days. Having posted guards around the perimeter, Francis and his men would arrive carrying jugs of poteen and a party would ensue!
Not all of Francis’s plans came to fruition. Often travellers would band together and employ the local militia to accompany them for protection. In such cases Francis deemed it too great a risk for his men to attack.
On one occasion he endangered his life climbing down a cliff to retrieve a bag of money only to find it was a decoy full of stones. He was lucky tro escape capture.
Another time a traveller on the Pettigo-Castlederg road refused to hand over his possessions. He launched an attack on Black Francis and the two grappled in a fearsome fight. When neither gained the ‘upper hand’, Francis is said to have stopped, shaken the man’s hand and sent him on his way.
The Raid on Lisgoole Abbey
Miss Armstrong Robbed
In the spring of 1780 McHugh’s gang mounted a raid on Lisgoole Abbey. This was a large two-storey Georgian house, set in extensive grounds, near Enniskillen in County Fermanagh. It was owned by Mr James Armstrong.
Due to prior information Francis knew the property would be largely empty. On arrival the band found two servants and the daughter of the house, whom they bound and gagged. Having cleared the house of valuables the band of tories (robbers) headed for home. However, en route, Francis noticed one of his gang was missing.
Returning to Lisgoole, he found the man about to attack Miss Armstrong (some sources claim her name was Miss Pugh). Francis knocked the man unconscious with butt of his pistol and apologised to the frightened woman.
However before he could make his escape, a party of soldiers arrived at the courtyard in front of the house. With the aid of Miss Armstrong, Francis and the unconscious man hid in a wardrobe in her room, until she had spoken to the captain and assured him of her safety. Miss Armstrong was obviously impressed by Black Francis’s courteous behaviour.
The Fate of the ‘Offender’
When darkness fell, Francis heaved his still unconscious companion on his shoulder, and left to join the others. As his horse had been confiscated by the military, he had to make the journey on foot. It was not until noon next day that they made the camp.
The waiting men, who no doubt had feared the worst, declared that the offender should be shot on the spot. Francis suggested that they should eat first, thereby allowing tempers to cool.
The outcome was that the man was told to leave the county. If he was seen again or turned informer, his punishment would be severe. The guilty man gratefully disappeared.
Betrayal and Capture
The authorities were incensed that Francis had again evaded capture. The reward money rose again. This was known as ‘head money’ as the head of the offender had to be produced before the bounty would be paid. Patrols were doubled and coercion and intimation fell heavily on the local people. For a time, Francis and his men moved location to Sligo and Galway. However, the gang were not familiar with the terrain and did not know the people, so despite the risks they felt happier in their own neighbourhood and soon returned to their old haunts.
Not many highwaymen live to a ripe old age and it was no different for Francis McHugh. He was betrayed by a man named Hilliard, who he thought was a friend. Hilliard was the manager of a local market. He had taken part in a few of the gang’s raids and had passed on pertinent information to Francis in the past.
It is said that ‘Supple’ Dick Corrigan had warned Francis of his suspicions about about Hilliard, but as there was long-standing animosity between Corrigan & Hilliard, Francis ignored the advice.
Black Francis and his band were captured near Irvinestown in County Fermanagh and taken in shackles to Enniskillen Jail. Hilliard as well as the reward/blood money, was granted a pardon.
The Fate of Black Francis
Confinement & Trial
Black Francis, still manacled, was placed in solitary confinement in a dark damp dungeon. He was detained here for over a month. For company, his jailers put an empty coffin in his cell.
The case was heard on 2nd May 1780. The judges were Baron Hamilton and Justice Lill. At his trial Miss Armstrong made a surprise appearance for the defence. She offered to pay reparation for McHugh’s robberies over the years. She also told the court of Francis’s commendable actions, putting his life in danger, to ‘save her honour’.
However, the outcome was always a foregone conclusion – Francis McHugh was sentenced to death.
The town of Enniskillen was flooded with people to await the public execution. Extra militia were drafted in, for fear of rioting. It is said that Francis spoke eloquently from the gallows and died with dignity.
Afterwards the crowd were silent, too shocked and saddened at the death of a man they considered a hero and one of their own.
“McHugh’s group supplied the poor by robbing members of the planter class, Protestant immigrants who acquired and settled on land which had been confiscated from Irish Catholics. McHugh gained a reputation for chivalrous behaviour during the commission of these escapades. For these reasons the people of West Tyrone and East Donegal came to regard the highwayman as a folk hero….”Eric Bryan, Ireland of the Welcomes, August 2020
When the body was released, the McHugh family took it by boat across Lough Erne to be waked in Bannagh. The coffin was then carried in a solemn procession and buried in an unmarked grave at Templecarne.
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