Redmond O’Hanlon – A formidable 17th Century Outlaw

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Count Redmond O'Hanlon
Count Redmond O’Hanlon

Count Redmond O’Hanlon

Redmond O’Hanlon (Reamonn O’hAnluain) was probably the most successful outlaw in Ireland in the seventeenth century. He operated in Counties Armagh, Down, Monaghan and Tyrone for over 20 years and was the scourge of local authorities and landlords. Stories of his adventures have passed down through the centuries in daring tales and rousing ballads.


Fall of the O’Hanlons

Redmond was born around 1640 into the O’Hanlon clan of Orier in County Armagh. This noble Gaelic family had been impoverished due to the frequent wars in Ireland. Sir Oghie O’Hanlon had had his lands ‘regranted’ to him by the English queen Elizabeth l.

However, when his son rose in revolt against the English in 1608, during the failed Cathal O’Doherty Rebellion, the majority of the estate was handed to Sir Oliver St John, Deputy of Ireland. The O’Hanlon’s were reduced to owing a mere fraction of the worst land, of their previous property. St John proceeded to settle English and Scottish smallholders on the land.

County Armagh map from Count Hanlon's Downfall 1681
County Armagh map from Count Hanlon’s Downfall 1681

The Act of Settlement, 1642

After the Cromwellian conquest of the 1640’s, the O’Hanlon’s, along with other Irish landowners were evicted from their lands.

By the Act of Settlement of Ireland in 1652, passed by the English Rump parliament, any Catholic landholders who had not displayed loyalty to the English Commonwealth, were forced from their homes. These folk were repatriated to the poorest areas of Ireland or faced death or slavery in the West Indies. Hence the phrase ‘To Hell or Connaught’

“But for the great majority of the Ulster Irish, the plantation meant their degradation to the status of tenants-at-will on the lands which they regarded as their own. It was remarked by the Lord Deputy, Chichester, himself, at the very outset of the plantation, that many natives would rather die than be removed to the reservations assigned to them or seek new quarters elsewhere”

T W Moody Belfast Natural Historical and Philosophical Society Vol 1 11th February 1936

Although the Scottish Presbyterians of north-east Ulster had also supported the Royalists, the Act only applied to Catholics. Irish land in Catholic ownership was reduced to 8%

“…perhaps the greatest exercise in ethnic cleansing in early modern Europe”.

Elizabeth Sauer, quoting John Morill, in Milton, Toleration and Nationhood 2014

Redmond O’Hanlon

Early Life

It is believed that Redmond was the son of Loughlin O’Hanlon and was born in the townland of Aghantaraghan near Poyntzpass. This is a small village on the borders of County Armagh and County Down, in the historic barony of Orior Lower.

Although living in reduced circumstances, the young O’Hanlon was educated at an English school. This resulted in him being fluent in both English and his native Gaelic.

Redmond O’Hagan – Outlaw

Of the next chapter of Redmond’s life, little is known. It is said that he was witness to an altercation in which a ‘gentleman’ was killed. Fearing, as an Irishman, involvement in a prosecution in an English court, he fled to France. When a summons was issued for him to return to take part in the resulting trial, Redmond refused. For this he was outlawed.

In France Redmond joined the army. Here he honed his natural skills in the military arts and tactical organisation. He also gained a mastery of the French language. While in exile Redmond O’Hanlon, as an officer in the French army was awarded the title Count of the French Empire.

Return to Ireland

‘Count’ Redmond O’Hanlon returned to Ireland sometime in the 1660’s, when Charles ll was restored to the English throne. But there was to be no restoration for the Irish landlords.

With his inheritance gone, and officially an outlaw, Redmond took to the hills around Slieve Gullion in south Armagh and took up the life of a ‘tory’ or bandit. Redmond was joined by his brothers Edmund and Loughlin, whose futures had also been forfeited.

Before long the young O’Hanlon had attracted a group of followers, other dispossessed men who had no wish to serve as tenants on land that was rightfully theirs. Some of the most prominent gang members were Strong John McPherson, Shane Bernagh, John Mulhone, James Garreck, Henry Donoghen, the Napper and Patrick McTighe.

“English policy in Ireland from the middle of the sixteenth century to the Restoration settlement had effectively divorced law and justice in the minds of the Irish. The nemesis was that consciousness of injustice became a heritage of the Irish, that with them lawlessness did not necessarily bear any moral stigma. So long as that state of mind endured among such a people, toryism in one form or another would continue, and tories would be regarded as popular heroes rather than as criminals”

T W Moody February 1936

O’Hanlons ‘Clan’

O’Hanlon saw himself in the role of traditional clan chief rather than the leader of a single band of outlaws. He organised the men into groups responsible for different territories, with himself as overall commander. O’Hanlon was known to his men as the ‘Captain’.

“It was then that he used his military experience and training to devastating effect. He had a natural flair for leadership. Unlike many of his peers and predecessors, O’Hanlon did not insist on operations being carried out by one huge gang. He knew that it was impossible to feed, clothe and satisfy such a band, and realised the difficulties in moving such a force across country in secret”

Jim McCallen Stand and Deliver 1993

O’Hanlons Protection

In return for ‘protection’ from robbery, (these were lawless times), O’Hanlon extracted payment, known as ‘black rent’ from the English and Scottish landlords and merchants. If subsequently property was stolen, it was either returned or monetary restoration paid by the gang.

“This was a lucrative business and several respectable landowners and authority figures had fine working relationships with the Count. He dispersed the money among Irish peasants to make sure they could afford their rent and to buy food”

Travellers could pay for ‘passes’ to ensure their safety on the roads. Anyone who dared to rob those protected by O’Hanlon were found and fined. If they repeated the offense more than twice more, they were killed outright.

“If they paid, it was said that they would not even need to bar their doors, as no-one would dare rob them. A letter from the era states, that the criminal activities of the outlaw Count were bringing in more money than the King’s revenue collectors”

The Legend of Redmond O’Hanlon (
O'Hanlon Attacks
O’Hanlon Attacks

Wanted: Redmond O’Hanlon – Dead or Alive

O’Hanlon’s men continued to stop carriages on deserted roads and relieve the occupants of their valuables. Homes of landlords were also targets for the reparees (outlaws).

Redmond’s reputation grew. In 1674 Dublin Castle put a price on his head, dead or alive. However, O Hanlon continued to have the support and co-operation of the local folk and escaped capture or betrayal.

“The despoiled natives, eking a living in the bogs and barren hills, were with him in sympathy to a man, and would risk their lives to succour him. As someone has well and truly said: when, instead of fearing or hating an outlaw, the people fear for him, he sees with many eyes and hears with many ears”

Terence O’Hanlon, The Highwayman in Irish History, 1932

“’Before that time’, said he to me,

‘My fathers owned the land you see;

But they are now among the moors

A-riding with O’Hanlon.

‘Good night to you’ said I, ‘and God

Be with the chargers, fairy-shod.

That bear the Ulster heroes forth

To ride with Count O’Hanlon”

From The Ballad of Douglas Bridge

O’Hanlon’s Exploits

O’Hanlon has been described as a fair and loyal man, rather reserved by nature, though he did have a wicked sense of humour. He was always true to his word and expected others to be the same. He was generous to his men, his friends and to those in need.

The money he acquired he spent on the poor and on his network of spies and informers. He did not keep riches for himself, perhaps realising that in his career as a tory, he would not live long enough to enjoy them.

O’Hanlon practised temperance in all things. He avoided alcohol, drinking only water or milk. Avoidance of leaving himself vulnerable probably contributed to his longevity.

Loyalty to O’Hanlon

However, it is also noted that O’Hanlon at one point succumbed to a severe illness that left him incapacitated. Living in the wild hills of County Armagh, especially in winter, was conducive to colds and fevers. While he was nursed by villagers in a secure cottage, none of his men challenged his leadership and no-one sought to claim the reward money.

The Armagh Market Escapade

While his organisational skills and clear-headed temperament have often been lauded, Redmond did seem to possess a reckless streak. One market day, in the finery of a country gentleman, Redmond rode into the town of Armagh. Towards evening he entered the military barracks and, in his best ‘English’ voice hired some soldiers to protect him on his journey home, from the notorious criminal Redmond O’Hanlon.

As they travelled along the country road in the direction of Dundalk, the troops stopped at a local inn, the Four-Mile-House. Here, the disguised O’Hanlon, bought the soldiers some ‘liquid refreshments’. Continuing the journey at a pre-arranged spot, O’Hanlon’s men sprang from the trees, overpowered the so-called guard and stole their weapons and horses.

Disapproval of the Catholic Clergy

While O’Hanlon was popular with the poor Irish tenants, he was denounced by the Catholic clergy. One priest in particular, Fr Edmund Murphy in the parish of Killeavy, was vehement in his sermons against the outlaw and those befriending him.

In response Redmond announced that any person attending Mass at this church would suffer the loss of a cow. If the parishioner attended a second time another cow would be stolen, if there was a third occasion he would be killed.

When the threat was carried out, Fr Murphy moved to another area. However, he continued a campaign of hatred against Redmond which subsequently led him into abhorrent and disreputable involvement in English politics.

Confrontation with the Redcoats

Another story told of the ‘Count’ occurred near the Monaghan border. A temporary barracks had been erected by the authorities in an effort to secure an arrest. Redmond sent a small gang to the barracks, where they stole 18 horses. The alarm was raised and the soldiers set off in pursuit of the thieves.

The redcoats seemed to be gaining on the bandits, but at a chosen location, O’Hanlon and the rest of his men, surrounded and entrapped the military. Redmond could well have ordered his men to kill the enemy, instead for a sum of money and their weapons, the officer and his men were allowed to go free.

Reward for O’Hanlon’s Capture

This indignity and others, incensed the administration and the military. The reward money rose to £400, a fortune in those days. Outposts were set up throughout the hills and patrols of soldiers combed the area day and night.

There were also plenty among the English and Scottish settlers who made a good livelihood as ‘Tory Hunters’. These were men who sought outlaws and Catholic priests for the bounty on their heads, literally.

Once caught the prisoners would be killed and decapitated their heads presented to the authorities for the reward money. The Cootes family of Cooteshill in County Cavan and the Johnstons of Fews in the ‘highlands of County Armagh’, were infamous for their barbaric methods in the hunt for priests and outlaws. Even worse they, and others, were not above killing innocent Irish peasants and claiming they were ‘wanted men’.

“.. the natives, who never durst trust themselves with their houses nor homes since the death of a boy 15 or 16 years, who was killed lately near Newry, and his head sent for a Tory’s head to Armagh”

Captain Thomas Whitney 29th May 1681

Avoiding Capture

However, O’Hanlon was nothing if not resourceful. He paid well to be kept informed of the movement of the soldiers and was ever watchful of the English and Scottish landlords who desired his head on a spike. He employed various techniques to throw his enemies ‘off the scent’.

It is said on occasion he had the gang’s horses shoed with the shoe in the reverse position (so that any attempt to track them would travel in the opposite direction). Also, he and his men had jackets lined with red, so they could be turned inside out to resemble English soldiers.

“A shepherd who lived on Slieve Gullion

Came down to the County Tyrone,

And told us how Redmond O’Hanlon

Won’t let the rich Saxon alone.

He rides over moorland and mountain

By night till a stranger is found,

Saying ‘Take your own choice to be lodging,

Right over or under the ground’”

A verse from Redmond O’Hanlon by P J McCall
Escape to the woods
Evading Capture

Henry St John

One of O’Hanlon’s most implacable enemies was Englishman Henry St John. He had inherited the O’Hanlon’s traditional lands after the death of his father and great-uncle.

Perhaps a subconscious sense of guilt at having usurped the outlaw’s estate fuelled his hatred. Also, his 19-year-old son had caught a chill and died after a failed ‘tory hunt’.

In retaliation St John evicted any remaining Catholics on the estate and replaced them with Scottish Protestants. Large numbers of Catholics in the area fled to Donegal as refugees because of his harsh policies.

Whether still thinking of himself as clan chief or not, O’Hanlon’s sense of duty forced him into action. On 9th September 1679, his men attempted to kidnap Henry St John and hold him for ransom.

As often happens, things went askew. Some of the landlord’s Protestant tenants tried to intervene and in the ensuing melee St John got two bullets in the forehead. The rumour at the time was that St John had actually been shot by one of his own tenants who had come to despise him.

Whatever occurred O’Hanlon became the most wanted outlaw of the day. At St John’s funeral the Rev Laurence Power, rector of Tandergee, urged

“that local Protestants prove their racial superiority to the native Irish by rising up and destroying the reparees and Tories”

Rev Power, The Righteous Man’s Portion 1679

Consideration of ‘Retirement’

As time went on the life of an outlaw became more arduous for the middle-aged Redmond. He was now about 40 years old.

It is said he put out ‘feelers’ to those in high places who had some sympathy for his situation.

It is a strange but true fact that throughout his criminal career, O’Hanlon was on amiable terms with some of the gentry such as Sir Toby Poyntz of Poyntzpass, whose son Charles was in charge of the local garrison, and the Annesleys of Castlewellan.

O’Hanlon was promised a pardon if he would assure

“….the government of his reality in first bringing in or cutting off some of ye heads of ye principal Toreys, such are proclaimed or known to be such”

From a letter written by Henry Jones, Bishop of Meath

O’Hanlon declined to betray his comrades.

Offer of a Pardon

In 1678 the authorities approached O’Hanlon with the offer of a pardon. They were aware of the Catholic church’s antipathy to the outlaws and hoped to use this to their advantage.

A number of clergy had been arrested on the charges of high treason due to the false testimony of a certain Titus Oates. Redmond was assured of a full pardon if he would be a witness against Archbishop Plunkett.

“O’Hanlon refused. He protested that no offer could induce him to betray an innocent man, even though the man in question had on numerous occasions denounced outlaws: during the General Synod of the Irish Church in 1670, the Archbishop had ordered priests and preachers to warn all their people against ‘giving aid to Tories’”

Stephen Dunford, The Irish Highwaymen, 2001

Twenty-two Catholic clergy were executed at Tyburn. The last to die, by hanging, drawing and quartering, was the Archbishop of Armagh, now St Oliver Plunkett.

Renewed Efforts to Capture O’Hanlon

The Count continued his career of crime but increased military presence was making life more dangerous for O’Hanlon and his men. Local landlords banded together and hired a mercenary force at ninepence a day to hunt the reparees.

On one occasion the gang only escaped after a lengthy gun battle. Another time Redmond was stopped and questioned by some English soldiers. Only by speaking in French did he manage to convince the troops that he was a traveller touring Ireland.

“Slowly and inexorably the authorities were closing in on him. In all probability, men of O’Hanlon’s calibre fully realised how little chance they had of remaining free. It was always on the cards that the end of a rope on some gallows would be their ultimate destiny. They accepted that end as part and parcel of everyday life”

Jim McCallen, Stand and Deliver, 1993

The Duke of Ormond

While O’Hanlon’s escapades gained him followers and admirers it also, obviously, made him many powerful enemies. One of these was the wealthy landowner James Butler, the Duke of Ormond.

Since the Count had evaded capture by the usual means, the Duke decided on a more underhand plan.

He became aware of Art O’Hanlon, a foster brother of Redmond. Art was employed by Mr William Lucas of Drumintyne, but was also suspected of being a part-time reparee. Although the Lucas family were said to be on amiable terms with Redmond, they joined in the plot against him. Art was threatened with his own execution if he did not betray his brother.

Art left his job and joined the gang full-time. As a family member he was appointed one of Redmond’s body guards.

“As Lucas and the traitor plotted, Redmond continued his activities, never suspecting that his life-long comrade was to betray him”

Stephen Dunford, The Irish Highwaymen 2000

Betrayal & Death

On Monday 25th April 1681 Redmond was sleeping in a cabin at Eight-Mile-Bridge near Hilltown in County Down.

There were two guards on watch, William O’Sheil outside and Art O’Hanlon indoors. Art lifted his blunderbuss and in an act of stunning cowardice and disloyalty shot his sleeping brother. He then escaped through a rear door and made his way to the English camp.

One of O’Hanlon’s guards, O’Sheil, entered the cottage but the ‘Captain’ was beyond help.

With his final breath Redmond ordered his faithful friend that when he was dead to cut off his head and hide it from his enemies. With great sorrow O’Sheil followed orders and hid the head in a disused well.

When the soldiers, led by Art O’Hanlon, found the decapitated corpse they took it to Newry. But the death of “Arch-Traitor and Tory Redmond O’Hanlon” was not enough, a full-scale search was mounted until Redmond’s head was discovered. It was placed on a spike over Downpatrick Jail.

Art O’Hanlon was rewarded with a full pardon and £200.

Last Resting Place?

Redmond’s body was returned to his family and buried in the Catholic graveyard at Ballynabeck on the road from Tandragee to Scarva.

However, it is said that as the grave site was constantly desecrated by Ormond’s men the body was exhumed by the O’Hanlon family and reinterred in the family plot at Conway Cemetery at Letterkenny in County Donegal.

No one knows for sure Redmond’s final resting place. However, in August 1937 during excavation work in the Letterkenny cemetery an ancient horizontal gravestone was uncovered inscribed with the names of several O’Hanlon’s and their coat of arms.

“Few could compare to him as a highwayman. It is perhaps fitting that he has left us with a question which, so far, remains unanswered”

Jim McCallen, Stand and Deliver, 1993
Redmond O'Hanlon
Redmond O’Hanlon

O’Hanlon Remembered

Count Redmond O’Hanlon to many, both contemporaries and throughout the centuries, has been seen as a hero of the people. He has become a figurehead perhaps, of the dispossessed Irish.

Hero or villain, his name remains alive today when those of his persecutors are long-forgotten. Kept alive in song and story and in many Irish hearts.

“Twas back in 1681 that Count O’Hanlon died

And still along Slieve Gullion’s slopes they speak of him with pride

And anyone will tell you from Rathfriland to Forkhill

That in the silence of the night, you’ll hear him riding still”

Verse from The Ballad of Redmond O’Hanlon
Count Hanlans Downfall 1681
Count Hanlan’s Downfall 1681

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Tomás Ó Brógáin · 29 November 2022 at 7:23 pm

He was interred in the O Hanlon cemetery of Conwall parish CoI Church in Letterkenny plot 91. Can send you a pic if you want. Great article.

    P&P · 30 November 2022 at 6:29 pm

    Tomás it would be brilliant if you could send a photo for us to add in the article. We would mention you as the source of the photo of course.
    Thank you

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