As Ireland prepares for its 100th anniversary of independence, a little-known robber – and rumors of his buried treasure – are being remembered in a remote corner of the country.
My mother first told me this story when I was three years old. Somewhere in the woods near her hometown of Swinford, Ireland, lay the treasure of a folk hero who gave power to the powerless. more than 200 years ago, when County Mayo in Ireland was patrolled by British soldiers, controlled by the English aristocracy, and plagued by poverty, a group of Irishmen launched an unconventional revolt.
They did not seek to end British rule or even reclaim their families’ lands. Instead, armed with bigots and intimate knowledge of the Mayo Mountains, marshes and rivers, these outlaws used surprise and force to recapture the wealth of the English landowners of Ireland. Like the Robin Hoods of England before them, they robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Irish legends soon developed their fierceness, ingenuity and generosity.
None of these highwaymen was bolder than Mayo’s Roger “Captain” Gallagher. As a young boy growing up in Australia, I cheered as my mother recounted the stories of him ambushing Ireland’s privileged British occupiers, winced when he was fired upon by soldiers, held my breath as he charged them on horseback and exhaled when he left them in his wake.
Gallagher’s tale offers a little-known example of Irish dissent against the occupying British
Now, as an adult, I realize that these stories reveal how my ancestors were conquered by the British, and that acts of rebellion give hope to this oppressed corner of the west of Ireland. As the Republic of Ireland prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Irish Free State and a century of independence from Britain in 2021, Gallagher’s story provides a little-known example of Irish dissent against the occupation of Britain.
Accompanied by my 72-year-old mother, I recently followed Gallagher’s footsteps in Mayo. From Attymass to Barnalyra, from Roosky to Lough Talt, we visited the places where Gallagher and his band of bandits tormented wealthy English landowners from the late 1700s until his death in 1818. It was a fascinating excuse to explore the verdant forests, pristine lakes and rugged hills of a county I lived in off and on for eight years. More importantly, it allowed me to bond with my mother and absorb her passion for Mayo’s wild landscape and rich history before I had to fly back to Australia.
Our hunt for the ghosts of Gallagher began in a place both my mother and I knew well. Surrounded by mountains, Lough Talt long’s glassy lake is one of our most treasured places in Mayo. It’s where we walked and laughed with our late father, whose death four years ago brought us even closer. Gallagher is partial to this lake as well. As we sat on the shore, with Oxon Hill peering over our shoulders, my mother explained how Gallagher and his men emerged from the nearby trees, guns cocked, and lifted mail carts filled with the valuables of local English gentlemen. Suddenly, the bandits resurrected.
My mother used Gallagher’s tales to connect me with my Irish heritage
Gallagher was such a big character that as a child I could see him clearly from Perth, 15,000 kilometers away. My mother used his story to connect me to my Irish heritage, and when she felt alone in her new home in Australia, she sent herself back to the wilds of Mayo.
Despite being the protagonist of many historical Mayo legends, there is surprisingly little public recognition of Gallagher today. There is no statue of him anywhere in Ireland. The printed record of his life is limited. I contacted almost every university history department in Ireland and found that no one knew anything about the man’s life. One of the very few experts to do so was Stephen Dunford, a historian and writer from Killala, a small Mayo village about 15 kilometers northwest of the old stomping grounds of Gallagher. Dunford wrote the definitive book on these bandits, The Irish Highwaymen, so named because the robbers usually attacked their victims as they traveled along the road.
Dunford told me that to understand Gallagher and his colleagues, you must first understand the environment and the times that gave birth to them. By the time Gallagher first raised his arms, Ireland had been under British occupation for 600 years. Memories of the atrocities of the mid-1600s are still fresh, when British General Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland to quell a rebellion there, and his troops probably slaughtered thousands of civilians – including women and children – in the process.
Under Cromwell, many Irish landowners were stripped of their property. Their farms were given to wealthy Englishmen who acted as landlords and required the Irish to live on the same land their families had lived on for centuries. The property went into the pockets of the English through rents and income generated by farming.
CAPTAIN GALLAGHER’S TRAIL
Follow in the bandit’s footsteps on a trip through County Mayo
Start your journey at one of County Mayo’s most beautiful lakes, Lough Talt, before driving south to Aclare. Then head west into the Ox Mountains to Roosky, where Gallagher often hid. On the other side of this range, you’ll reach Attymass, where Gallagher met his demise. Then head south to his birthplace of Ballycong.
From here, it’s a 20-minute drive south-west to Lough Conn and Glass Island, and then a 30-minute drive south-east, through the historic towns of Foxford and Swinford, to the Barnalyra Forest, where you can hunt for Gallagher’s hidden treasure.
According to Dunford, Mayo became one of the poorest corners of Europe and stayed that way for centuries thereafter.
“The Irish people knew why they were destitute, they knew exactly who to blame,” Dunford said. “The British were villains. People in Mayo, who had nothing [and] couldn’t even feed themselves properly anymore, were looking at their old homes and old land and then seeing Brits living in them. Then along came Gallagher and his boys, plundering the rich Brits and everyone loved it. Ireland desperately needed some heroes at that time, they needed something to believe in, and the Highwaymen gave them that.”
Robbing the powerful British was certainly a dangerous occupation. It earned the attention and wrath of the police, British soldiers and the armed mercenaries hired to protect these landowners. When pursued, Gallagher needed a place to hide, regroup and plan his next robbery.
“That’s a good place to avoid detection, isn’t it?” My mother told me, pointing to Glass Island in Connecticut Lake, one of Gallagher’s havens. Today, this narrow 13-kilometer-long lake is a popular swimming destination, and sometimes the temperature in Mayo can exceed 20 degrees Celsius. Memories of bathing here as a child, when I cowered from the cold, bring a smile to my mother’s face.
Dunford said that while Gallagher relies on shelters like Glass Island, he is not intimidated by his pursuers. Gallagher had the ability, drive and courage to survive his dangerous trade for 20 years. He and his cohorts received extensive military training, and, crucially, local support was linked to Gallagher’s impoverished upbringing in Ballycong, a small farming community in the shadow of Bull Mountain.
But according to Dunford, it was the generosity of the Gallagher gang that really earned the respect and loyalty of the locals. After looting mail coaches, they scattered the loot throughout the community. They also tried to protect Irish farmers who were being bullied by British landowners.
He was convinced to comply by the gun pressed to his temple
“Gallagher let an English landlord eat his eviction notice here,” my mother said as we drove into Killasser, the robber who stood up for dozens of Mayo apartment farmers who had been unfairly evicted from their homes. surrounded by gently sloping green pastures, Killasser boasts only one church and one pub It symbolizes the dozens of quaint, idyllic villages that dot Mayo County.
According to Dunford, while Killasser itself may not be great, what Gallagher did here was extraordinary. When he and his men raided the ruthless landowner’s lavish home, they found a pile of eviction notices, gathered them up and demanded that the British consume them. With the gun pressed to his temple, he was sure to obey.
Dunford said the roadblock bandits had a dual motive. First, their motive was to help the county’s poor residents. But they also knew the charity had won the allegiance of Mayo locals, who would warn them to hunt down authorities and provide them with a haven. Eventually, however, Gallagher’s fortune dried up in the perpetually rain-soaked land, and in 1818, hiding in a hut in Attymass, a picturesque village at the foot of Bull Mountain, he was discovered by a local loyal to the British and reported to the soldiers hunting him. Soon Gallagher was surrounded by 200 British warriors.
The lure of this concealed fortune continues to propel the legend of Gallagher
When he faced execution, Dunford said Gallagher made his last play. He told the soldiers about a pile of valuables he had buried in the nearby Banalera Forest and promised to reveal their location in exchange for his freedom. It didn’t work. As soon as Gallagher was killed, the soldiers came to Banalera and searched the land for days, but to no avail. Since then, many treasure hunters have entered those woods with lofty hopes, only to return empty-handed. This lure of hidden riches continues to drive the legend of Gallagher.
However, Gallagher is more than a cartoon hero or a colorful folk character; he is a symbol of Irish resistance. That’s what my mother reminded me of as we drove over Artimas and through Ruskie’s Pass, flanked by lakes, ridges and meadows so magnificent that it’s no wonder the Mayo people didn’t want them occupied. “This is your land, too-your past,” she said to me, her tone and expression so sincere that I accepted it as a plea to let Mayo stay with me after she left.
I held her hand to ease her fears. Mayo may not be my full-time home, but its imprint on me is permanent. So is Gallagher’s legacy. The strong winds of this county will forever carry the story of an outlaw who challenged the British, inspired Mayo and charmed an Australian boy sitting on his Irish mother’s knee.