Naoise O’Haughan, Antrim’s “Gentleman Outlaw”

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‘Tis of a famous highwayman a story I will tell,
His name of 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’.

Traditional Ballad

Naoise O’Haughan Background

Naoise and his outlaws
Naoise and his outlaws


Naoise O’Haughan, known as Ness or Neesy, was born in 1691 at Skerry in County Antrim, 3 miles east of Ballymena and 22 miles north of Belfast. The parish lies in the valley of the Braid River. Ness was the eldest of three sons. His younger brothers were called Shane and Denis (some sources mention another brother Roger).

Difficult Years

Their father Sean came from a reasonably well-off farming family. However, in these Plantation times Catholics were forbidden to own land, so now Sean and his wife rented a small patch of poor ground north of Slemish and struggled to make ends meet. The O’Haughan sons plus their foster brother Philemy, often had to resort to poaching so that the family could eat. The boys understandably, were angry at this injustice and the loss of their lands.

As young men with no money or land the O’Haughan parents were well aware that their children had a hard road ahead of them and tried to prepare them by training and rather extreme exercise.

“To this end, as the story goes, the father and mother put their three sons through a course of training and this, it is said was the manner of it; setting the barn doors open, each, with a long stick, stood inside one of the doors and beat, as if using a flail, on the floor; they then caused their sons to run in one door and out the other, and he that was the fleetest got the fewest knocks. Thus, in this Spartan fashion, it is said, did they train the boys to be nimble and active”

Cathal O’Byrne As I Roved Out 1946
Barn training for the children
Barn training for the children

Naoise O’Haughan’s Outlaw Gang

One year the landlord doubled the barley rent. This was a severe blow to smallholders like the O’Haughans and their neighbours. Unable to pay, the bailiffs arrived to evict the family and throw their meagre possessions out onto the road. The young men reacted angrily and in the ensuing fight, Ness took an axe and killed one of the bailiff’s men.

Attack on the bailiff
Attack on the bailiff

Now as ‘wanted men’ the O’Haughan brothers had no option but to ‘take to the road’. With some others they formed an outlaw band and began robbing the English and Scottish settlers. They soon became notorious among the Planters for their night-time raids. For all their wrong-doing, Ness never allowed his men to injure their victims once they were subdued.

The People’s Outlaws

Many of the local people of County Antrim were sympathetic to their cause and Ness and his men knew only too well the plight of the poor.

On one occasion the tenants had suffered a particularly bad harvest. Notwithstanding this the landlord demanded full rent down to the last penny. Shortly afterwards the landlord’s agent/rent collector, found his house burgled. The next morning each tenant found a small bag of coins on his doorstep.

“Many acts of great kindness are recorded of the gang giving their stolen money to the poor Presbyterian and Catholic alike to pay arrears in rent 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”

Joe Graham, Rushlight Magazine
Naoise and his outlaws
Naoise and his outlaws

Arrest Warrant

On 16th January 1717 at the General Quarter Sessions of the Peace, at Ballymena, a warrant was issued for the bandits’ arrest.

‘We the Grand Jury present Sean Og O’Haughan and Neece O’Haughan, both of Braid and Daniel Roe McAuley of Ballymena in the barony of Glenarm to be notorious Rogues and Robbers out upon their keeping and not amenable to the law and refuse to be brought to justice’.

Grand Jury, Ballymena

Band on the Run

Capture of Gang Members

Rewards were offered for the capture of any of the young men. Two of the group, Rory Murphy and Toal Magennis, left the country. Randall Dhu Agnew was less fortunate he was captured and executed at Carrickfergus. The informant John McCrea received £5

Initially the youngest brother, Denis, did not join the exploits of the others. However, at some point he did become a member of the gang, though he did not make a very successful outlaw. After his first robbery it is said, he clothed himself in his victim’s apparel. When he went to town the outfit was recognised, he was arrested, tried and executed.

O’Haughan’s Continuing Exploits and O’Haughan’s Cave

A darkened hillside cave
A darkened hillside cave

The O’Haughan’s continued their work of robbing the wealthy and had many ‘close calls’ with the Red Coats. In the interests of safety the gang had various hideouts – in Magherabawn, King’s Moss near Ballyclare and Archy’s Bushes on the Knockagh Mountain. It is even thought that they carved out a hiding place under the cliff edge at Knockagh. This is still marked today on the Ordnance Survey maps as the O’Haughan Caves.

“There are no natural caves within this parish, and but a few of the artificial kind have been discovered. In the southern brow of the Knockagh hill, are three caves 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 known locally as O’Haughan’s Cave….brothers, robbers, who were long a terror to the neighbourhood”

Samuel McSkimin History and Antiquities of Carrickfergus 1811
O'Haughan's Cave near Knockagh Monument - copyright OpenstreetMap
O’Haughan’s Cave near Knockagh Monument – copyright OpenstreetMap
O'Haughan's Cave is on the cliff face above Greenisland
O’Haughan’s Cave is on the Knockagh Monument cliff face above Greenisland

The Death of Shane O’Haughan

In 1718 James McKinstry, brother-in-law of Shane O’Haughan, got in touch with the brothers. He told Shane his wife Jean was seriously ill. Ness and Shane left their hiding place to see the ailing woman, but it was a ruse.

Six men were lying in wait. Ness managed to escape but Shane was caught, tried and hanged. McKinstry was rewarded with £10 for his dishonourable act.

McKinstry’s actions resulted in him becoming a social outcast in the village. No matter what people thought of the O’Haughans lifestyle, betraying a family member was considered unforgivable. He was beaten and shunned by his neighbours. A thatcher by trade, no one would employ him and soon after he left the Braid. It is said that he died alone and in poverty and not even his family would attend his funeral.

Carrickfergus Castle from marina
Carrickfergus Castle Today

The Pursuit of Naoise O’Haughan

Carrickfergus Castle Dragoons

Ness, having watched his brother’s execution, was mad with grief and anger. His attacks on the Scots and English farmers and travellers grew more bold and reckless. A troop of mounted dragoons were sent from Carrickfergus Castle to capture this daring outlaw.

Carrickfergus Castle dispatched dragoons to capture Naoise O'Haughan
Carrickfergus Castle seen from Knockagh Monument

When Ness was recognised, the soldiers set off in pursuit, Ness on foot, knew the territory well and headed towards the little town of Belfast. His parent’s days of training standing him in good stead. He raced over Divis and the Black Mountain, and at that point thought he had lost his enemies however, at the Bog Meadows the soldiers began to catch up. Ness reached the banks of the Lagan. The dragoons spread upstream and downstream, Ness had no choice but to attempt to cross the 20ft wide river. With a mighty leap he jumped across and made his escape from the astonished soldiers.

It is said that an old man was ploughing land on the opposite side of the river and saw Ness jump. He declared that in all his long life he had never seen anyone make a jump like it. Ness is said to have laughed and said “That may well be so but no one ever took a 20 mile run at it before!

Naoise jumps the river
Naoise jumps the river

Squire’s Hill, Black Mountain and continuing escapades

Ness decided to stay in this area where he was less recognizable. He sheltered with an old man called Allison in his cottage on Squire’s Hill and in caves at Hatchet Field on the Black Mountain.

As a highwayman he robbed travellers from Templepatrick to Belfast and from the Cavehill to Carnmoney.

One tale has him awaiting traders travelling to the Lammas fair at Belfast. Ness tied and gagged the men at a spot called the Pedlar’s Grave close to the Crumlin Road. The site was subsequently renamed O’Haughan’s Hove. He relieved them off their money and then took their horses to the market and sold them too. On his return he untied one of his victims and told him to free the others as it looked like it was going to be a wet night and he was worried that they wouldn’t be discovered in time to escape a soaking.

Another story is told of the night Ness and his men set off to rob a man named Gilmore who lived near Roughfort on the Mallusk Road. Ness went ahead to reconnoitre. Listening at a window he heard the Gilmore family singing psalms and prayers. He returned to his fellows and informed them “they would do nothing there that night as Gilmore, at that moment, was better employed than they were” (Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out 1946)

Naoise O’Haughan – Wanted: Dead or Alive

Ness’s notoriety in the region was widespread and the price on his head was increased from £5 to £20 ‘dead or alive’.

In a bold plan and using a false name Ness joined the English army. With his regiment he was posted to County Louth. Ness got on well in the military as years of being ‘on the run’ had made him strong and quick-thinking. However, one day his confidence led to his downfall.

His company were competing against a rival company in a sporting event. One of the opposition managed to jump two riders sitting on their horses. Ness asked permission to attempt a greater challenge by jumping three riders and their horses. He succeeded and was the champion of his company. However, one of the spectators that day had been in the regiment of dragoons who had chased Ness and saw him jump the Lagan. He began to have his suspicions about this athletic young man and shared these with his captain. Ness was arrested and his identity confirmed by a birthmark.

Three Sisters Noose
Three Sisters Noose

The Execution of Ness O’Haughan

Ness O’Haughan was brought back to Carrickfergus and the ‘Rapparee of the Black Mountain’ was condemned to death. He was hung at the Three Sisters at Gallows Green in 1720. His head was placed on a spike beside the skull of his brother Shane.

Approximate location of the 'Three Sisters' gallows
Approximate location of the ‘Three Sisters’ gallows today

The Mystery of the O’Haughan’s Treasure

However, Ness being Ness, left a mystery behind. It was reported that on his way to the gallows, Ness managed to tell a friend the hiding place of his ill-gotten gains. Unfortunately they were overheard by a man named Jack Johnson, who rode to the spot, a cairn near Templepatrick, and found the treasure. He rode so fast that his poor horse died from exhaustion.

Alternatively, in F J Bigger’s telling of the event in 1895, Ness actually spoke to the crowd surrounding the gallows “Go to Carn Hill and beside the Hanging Thorn you will find a box of money buried beneath the spot from which you can see five castles, five loughs and five counties; from that spot take five jumps to the east and you will find a foalskin of gold”. Many raced to the location and Johnson did recover the box but the gold was never found.

Other versions of the story claim that Naoise O’Haughan’s treasure of golden guineas was never located and is still hidden somewhere in the townland of Ballyutoag between Legoneill and Templepatrick.

Naoise O’Haughan’s Legacy

While stories of Ness O’Haughan and his brothers vary a little in detail the basic tale is the same. He is described as a powerfully built, handsome man with thick black hair and a ready laugh. What all the sources agree on is his reputation as a ‘gentleman outlaw’.

“After all this time it is impossible to state exactly where legend ends and truth begins, but his ‘gentleman’ tag does persist, suggesting some truth in it. Travellers used the roads after dark at the great peril to their valuables, but many claim how impressed they were at the manners and courtesy displayed by the outlaw”

Jim McCallen Stand and Deliver: Stories of Irish Highwaymen 1993

Naoise O’Haughan was only 29 when he died. His life of adventure and daring beyond the law may have been forced upon him and seem larger than life, but it seems he grasped it with both hands!

“One day they will take me.
But I will surely leave them a story!”

Naoise O’Haughan

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