Shane Crossagh – The Outlaw of the Glen
The Glenshane Pass
The Glen of Shane or as it is known today, the Glenshane Pass, which cuts through the Sperrin Mountains, is named after a popular local figure, Shane Crossagh. Shane an outlaw and rapparee was a hero to the people of Derry and Tyrone and tales of his daring adventures live on today.
“Two whole centuries have circled by since Shane Crossagh, at the head of his band, ranged the highways of Derry and Tyrone, yet a wealth of living folklore centres around his memory to this day”Terence O’Hanlon, The Highwayman in Irish History, 1932
Shane Crossagh’s Background
The Crossagh Family
Shane’s real name was John Crossagh O’Mullan. His father Donal Crossagh O’Mullan was a small tenant farmer, living in Tullanee, Faughanvale where Greysteel village is today.
The name crossagh means ‘pock-marked’ and probably refers to an earlier ancestor. It was a nickname applied to all the O’Mullans of that line to differentiate them from other O’Mullan families in the area.
As happened to many native families, the O’Mullans were evicted from their farm by a rack-renting landlord. They were forced to flee into the hills at Claudy above the Faughan Valley. They came to live at Lingwood, where a small settlement of other displaced families had grown up.
“Along these hill-sides were many who were disaffected to the government because their fathers had been driven forth to make way for the planters”Rev J McKeefry, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1902
The living here was tough, as the mountain soil was poor. The people survived on ‘stirabout’, a thin porridge, and any wildlife they could catch.
Shane never gave up hope of resettling on their farm and returned to it regularly, against the warnings of the authorities, to maintain the house and land as best he could. One such visit was to cost him dearly.
One day on the way to the family property Shane espied a partridge. Hiding his pike in a gorse bush, he ran towards home planning to fetch a gun. However, he was apprehended by two soldiers and accused of trespassing.
Outnumbered and unarmed he was forced to rely on his wits. He complained to his captors “It is bad enough that I can’t keep my appointment with a friend but I’d like to take the poteen with me if you have no objection?”
The soldiers tempted by the thought of the illicit alcohol, removed Shane’s irons and followed him to the gorse bush. Caught unawares when Shane produced a pike rather than a bottle, the soldiers dropped their weapons and ran.
Shane Crossagh, Outlaw
Shane now knew he was a marked man. He told his father about the incident describing it as being “..in the Devil’s claws” and that he had had no alternative but to threaten the soldiers. A few trusted friends met at the Crossagh house to decide on the best course of action. Dominic the local schoolmaster urged Shane to go to the magistrate at once in the hope of a more lenient sentence. Shane’s father Donal agreed. However, young Shane refused to countenance the idea of apologising.
“I will ask for no pardon. I did nothing wrong. I was looking after the family property that they took from us. It was they who were trespassing. It is our land”Shane Crossagh
Again the teacher tried to persuade the young man to hand himself over. He promised to speak on his behalf to the magistrate, but Shane was adamant
“Never! I will walk the ladder to the gallows before I submit to such tyranny. They will have to catch me before they put a rope around my neck. And before that happens, I’ll make them remember Shane Crossagh”Shane Crossagh
Man on the Run
So Shane headed to the hills before he put his family in any more danger. He was accompanied by some others from the village who also resented the loss of their lands to the Planters, including Paddy Fada and Roddy, a former soldier.
“No doubt the extreme poverty of their existence, as well as the sense of injustice long nourished and long endured, made Shane Crossagh turn to the roads for a livelihood. And when he did there was no dearth of followers”Hugh McVeigh, Irish News, 6th February 1959
The hills were covered with forests at this time and provided cover. Shane’s first den was said to be cut out of the turf at Craigbreac, a rounded room but with several escape routes. Later his main hide-out was on the mountain of Ben Braddagh, known for its steep and treacherous terrain.
The term ‘raparees’ refers to outlaws or bandits who are supported by their own communities. It seems Shane and his compatriots were often sheltered by the people in the locality and had a number of ‘safe houses’ such as the farm of Connolly Patchell.
The gang stole off the rich settlers and landlords and wealthy travellers on the Belfast to Derry Road. They also made their money by promising to ‘protect’ local businesses. For all their reputation as fearsome outlaws, Shane and his band were never accused of injuring or murdering their victims.
Indeed Shane acquired something of a ‘Robin Hood’ aura.
One day while in the vicinity of Maghera, Shane called at a lowly house to ask for something to eat. Its occupant, a widow, offered him some porridge and apologised for the lack of milk. It seems her cow had been seized that morning to pay the tithes that were due to the local Protestant clergy.
That night Shane paid a visit to the landlord, Mauleverer. He threatened to “… yoke him to a gig and drive him naked through the parish” if the cow was not returned. He also called on the Protestant rector and relieved him of £30. The poor widow received £10 of this.
“Shane listened to the widow’s tale, such tales he’d heard before
Said he ‘I’ll share your humble fare, please God will send you more’
Said Shane ‘Perchance the greedy brute some night will meet with me,
If he can run, then I can shoot’ said Shane the RapereeOne verse from the ballad The Widow’s Tale by James O’Kane of Gortinure, Maghera
Mauleverer and the rector were incensed and ordered the troops to search for this audacious outlaw.
After a night of pursuit Shane was caught. He was arrested, convicted and sent to Derry Jail. On Palm Sunday, guarded by a military escort, the prisoner began the long trek to Derry. By midday the party stopped on Carntogher Mountain for a break.
Here, the soldiers began a competition of racing and jumping. Shane persuaded them to allow him to compete. Once free of his manacles and shackles, he made a bid for freedom!
The soldiers took off in hot pursuit chasing the fugitive for 10 miles.
Shane swam the River Bann and hid in some bushes at Largy Braes. Rested, he then headed through Ness Glen and over Loughmore Mountain to Slaghtmanus. However, the soldiers, possibly fearing punishment for losing their prisoner, refused to give up and followed Shane to the fast-flowing River Burntollet. Shane had no option but attempt to leap the river. He was successful but the mighty jump left him with a broken leg. When the military arrived at the scene there was no sign of Shane and they assumed he had drowned in the treacherous current. The site of this event is still known as Shane’s Leap.
The Outlaw Returns
Shane Crossagh managed to make his way to a ‘safe house’ where he was tended until his injured leg had healed.
This ‘close call’ did not dampen Shane and his gang’s activities. They continued to harass and rob the well-off landlords who lived off the poor. All the outlaws now had a price on their heads. However, they made sure to share their plunder with the needy and to right wrongs perpetrated on the helpless.
Various stories of Shane’s compassion have been recorded – he gave £9 to a vulnerable family in Killycorr and robbed one well-off parish priest and donated the money to his struggling curate. To the McKenna family who had been thrown off their land, he presented £10, stolen from the agent who had evicted them. Crossagh and his men were regarded by the people as heroes and champions.
“Many similar acts of kindness are told of Shane in every district, and hence his name is spoken of as a hero of romance and chivalry, and his career furnishes most of the folklore of the county”Rev J McKeefry, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1902
The General’s Bridge
Another tale about Shane concerns the English General Napier. One wet and stormy night the group split up to find shelter. Shane and his two sons Paudreen and Rory and companion Paudreen McFaad went to an inn about a mile outside Dungiven. The establishment, Charlie Fowler’s Inn on the old Carntogher Road, was known to them. They were hidden in a small room above the bar. From here it was easy to overhear the conversations of the drinkers below.
By chance, General Napier and a contingent of cavalry en route to Derry decided to stop overnight at the inn. This must have caused some concern for the outlaws and the landlord! As the night (and the drink) progressed Napier was said to have denounced the local authorities for their failure to capture “…the Crossagh scoundrel”. He boasted that if he was in charge Shane’s head would be on a spike within the week.
Well Shane it seems decided that the English general needed a lesson in humility. The four men left the inn during the night and planned to ambush the troops on a long narrow bridge half a mile from Feeny. Along the sides of the road they set up sods of earth with sticks protruding from them. Then the men hid two at each end of the bridge.
In the pre-dawn light the general and his horsemen crossed the bridge. When all were on the bridge, Shane shot the generals horse from under him and ordered the soldiers to drop their weapons.
He gave orders to his ‘men’ to fire if the soldiers did not comply. In the gloom the mounds of earth appeared to be armed assailants so the soldiers and general handed over their swords and muskets. The horses were led off the bridge and the soldiers forced to strip down to their underwear.
Shane then made the general swop clothes with him. Tied two by two the embarrassed general and his men were marched to the walls of Derry.
The old bridge at Feeny acquired a new name that day – the General’s Bridge.
“One flash of his carbine – the General wheeled round.
And the steed and his rider both rolled on the ground;
His guardsmen they gaped with a panic-struck stare,
When the voice of Shane Crossagh roared loud in the air,
Surrender, ye knaves, to true knights of the pad,
The strong hand for ever – and Paudreen MacFaad”
“Now oaths wildly sounded, and pistol went flashing,
And horses high bounding, and broadswords all clashing;
The demons in plunder in glory did revel,
For Shane and stout Paudreen laid on like the devil,
Till at length fairly routed, the whole scarlet squad
Were tied neck and heels by bold Paudreen McFaad”Extract from an old ballad
Shane Crossagh Betrayed
However, as Shane’s bravado and reputation spread so did the determination of the authorities to capture him.
Folk who were suspected of aiding the highwaymen were thrown in jail and their families left to starve. The raparees did not want to put innocent people at risk yet their chances of survival depended on the help of the locals. Some of the gang had already been caught and executed.
It was a local weaver from Dungiven who finally betrayed Shane Crossagh. He allowed the magistrate to hide officers in his house and when Shane arrived he was captured. Some stories say this man had been a rival for Shane’s wife’s affections and had nursed a grievance against Shane for winning the fair maid’s hand.
The Fate of Shane Crossagh
Shane was taken to Derry gaol. Unfortunately when his sons Paudreen and Rory came to try to rescue him, they too were arrested and sentenced to death.
It is said that an Englishman from Devon, Henry Carey tried to intercede for Shane. This man’s life had been saved by Shane many years before. Apparently as the owner of Dungiven Castle, he inherited the privilege to pardon one criminal a year. Carey wanted to exercise this right on behalf of Shane Crossagh.
However, Shane would not accept the reprieve unless his two boys would escape execution as well. When this was refused the three men climbed the wooden steps and stood hand-in-hand on the gallows. Father and sons died on the scaffold in the Diamond in Derry in the year 1722.
Shane Crossagh Burial
Relatives from Tamnagh, Dreen and Ballydonegan claimed the bodies and they were buried in an unmarked grave in the old cemetery at Banagher near Dungiven.
Shane Crossagh Legacy
Jim McCallen in his book Stand and Deliver- Stories of Irish Highwaymen published in 1993, records the strength of feeling and admiration for the Crossagh men that existed at the time.
“In a letter written by William Nicholson, Protestant Bishop of Derry from 1718-1726 it is stated; ‘The present insolence of our Popish clergy is unspeakable. Our laws make it death for them to officiate, yet I am abundantly assured that very lately in my own diocese, four or five masses were openly said over the corpse of an executed robber, whose funeral rites were celebrated with as pompous and as numerous attendances as if the man had died a knight of the shire….”Jim McCallen, Stand and Deliver- Stories of Irish Highwaymen, 1993
The fact that Shane Crossagh’s name still remains today synonymous with bravery and justice reflects how popular a figure he was to the native Irish in those dangerous times.
It is not difficult when you are travelling the windswept Glenshane Pass in darkness to imagine a bold dark-haired, bearded highwayman riding through the glens!
Naoise O’Haughan , known as Ness or Neesy, was born in 1691 at Skerry in County Antrim and went on to become Antrim’s Gentleman Outlaw
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