Brennan on the Moor

Posted: November 14, 2013 in Folksong, History, Irish ballads
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The capture and hanging of an Irish outlaw

One morning in late March 1809 in the Irish town of Clonmel in County Tipperary, the outlaw William Brennan was standing on a cart that was taking him to the gallows. He “gazed cheerfully round him… recognizing in the crowd several of his friends, perhaps followers, he nodded and smiled to them gaily.” When the cart was pulled away, and he and two others fell, there were “yells, more loud and terrible than men ever utter.” Brennan was loved by the Irish and songs are still sung about him to this day.

Not Brennan but another Irish ‘Rapparee’ called Randal

William Brennan was a famous Irish outlaw and highwayman at the turn of the nineteenth century. Outlaws, often called ‘tories’ or ‘rapparees’, were generally loved and supported by the Irish poor. The British tried in vain for years to capture Brennan. They did eventually succeed and he was hanged. It is thanks to the numerous versions of the Irish folk song or ballad, Brennan on the Moor, that his exploits and memory have been preserved – not only in Ireland and Britain, but to a surprising degree in North America as well. Yet like other outlaws, such as Dick Turpin, Jesse James and Ned Kelly, to name but three, his real life and death have become obscured in half-truths and legend.

Being a lover of folksong, I had a passing familiarity with Brennan’s ballad, but then quite by chance, and while researching the seemingly unrelated topic of the Peninsular War, I stumbled across what is probably the only eyewitness report of his capture and death. The discovery was the memoirs of Private George Farmer, entitled The Light Dragoon, which originally appeared in a serialized form in 1844. George Farmer is I would suggest a reliable witness He actually participated in Brennan’s capture and was present at his death. His story clears away a lot of historical fog, but I also think it is also a tale worth telling for its own sake.

Ray Cashman, in his book The Heroic Outlaw in Irish Folklore and Popular Literature, provides us with a little background on Irish outlaws:

As a symbolic figure in Irish folklore and popular literature, the outlaw embodies folk morality in conflict with the self-interest and inequity of the state. In the aftermath of British colonization, the Irish outlaw is represented as more than a criminal. He provides a hero through whom ordinary Irishmen and women can vicariously enjoy brief victories, and imagine their collective dignity in the midst of political defeat and its consequences. Legends, ballads and chapbooks portraying the outlaw are the products of hard-pressed people representing themselves to themselves, reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses, and contemplating issues of morality and justice.

The ballad Brennan on the Moor is one of the most famous of these outlaw ballads. It exists and is sung in many versions. While it only started to be printed in the mid-nineteenth century, the ballad had clearly been developing orally before. As far back as 1824, Thomas Crofton Croker commented:

It is not unusual to hear the adventures and escapes of highwaymen and outlaws recited by the lower orders with great minuteness, and dwelt on with a surprising fondness.

Here is one of the commoner renditions of Brennan on the Moor, printed as a ‘broadsheet’ in the 1840s:

                  BOLD BRENNAN ON THE MOOR

It’s of a fearless highwayman a story I will tell,
His name was Willie Brennan in Ireland he did dwell.
And on the Livart mountains he commenced his wild career,
Where many a wealthy gentleman before him shook with fear.

Chorus: Bold and undaunted stood brave Brennan on the moor.

A brace of loaded pistols, he carried night and day,
He never robb’d a poor man upon the King’s highway;
But when he’d taken from the rich like Turpin and Black Bess,
But he always did divide it with the widow in distress.

One night he robb’d a packman, his name was Pedlar Brown,
They travell’d on together till the day began to dawn;
The pedlar seeing his money gone, likewise his watch and chain,
He at once encountered Brennan and robb’d him back again.

When Brennan seeing the pedlar was as good a man as he,
He took him on the highway his companion for to be,
The pedlar threw away his pack without any more delay,
And proved a faithful comrade until his dying day.

One day upon the highway, as Willie he sat down,
He met the Mayor of Cashel, a mile outside the town;
The mayor he knew his features, I think, young man, said he,
Your name is Willie Brennan, you must come along with me.

As Brennan’s wife had gone to town, provisions for to buy,
When she saw her Willie, she began to weep and cry.
He says, ‘Give me that tenpence?’ as soon as Willie spoke,
She handed him the blunderbuss from underneath her cloak.

Then with his loaded blunderbuss, the truth I will unfold,
He made the mayor to tremble and robb’d him of his gold.
One hundred pounds was offered for his apprehension there,
And with his horse and saddle to the mountain did repair.

Then Brennan being an outlaw, upon the mountains high,
Where cavalry and infantry to take him they did try;
He laughed at them with scorn, until at length, ‘tis said,
By a false-hearted young man he was basely betrayed.

In the county of Tipperary in a place called Clonmore,
Willie Brennan and his comrade they did suffer sore;
He lay among the fern which was thick upon the field,
And nine wounds he did receive, before that he did yield.

Then Brennan and his companion knowing they were betray’d,
He with the mounted cavalry a noble battle made;
He lost his foremost finger, which was shot off by a ball,
So Brennan and his comrade they were taken after all.

So they were taken prisoners, in irons they were bound,
And conveyed to Clonmel jail, strong walls did them surround;
They were tried and found guilty, the judge made his reply,
‘For robbing on the King’s highway, you are both condemned to die.’

Farewell! Unto my wife, and to my children three,
Likewise my aged father, he may shed tears for me;
And to my loving mother, who tore her locks and cried.
Saying, ‘I wish Willie Brennan, in your cradle you had died.’

By around the same time, i.e. the mid-nineteenth century, the ballad had already spread to North America. John McElroy recounts how he heard it sung in 1864 in a notorious Confederate prison camp called Andersonville. While in Canada the “old buffalo hunter” E. B. Osborn related how it was sung on the prairies by Scottish buffalo hunters.

Yet despite the wide-spread fame of the ballad or song, we know surprisingly little about the life, capture and death of Brennan – at least not with any degree of certainty. We will skip over Brennan’s early life; we don’t even know for sure where he was born. It has been reasonably suggested that he was born near “Killworth, some two miles north of Fermoy, in County Cork”, and that he took to his life of banditry after his family were evicted from their home. While telling us nothing about his birth, George Farmer’s memoirs can help us clear away a number of the uncertainties surrounding Brennan’s life, particularly his capture, trial and death.

A private in the 11th Light Dragoons like George Farmer – Brennan was in the 12th!

As a young man of 17, George had enlisted in London as a private in the 11th Light Dragoons – a regiment that was then serving in Ireland; trying to suppress Irish sedition as well as chasing outlaws such as Brennan. In preparation for joining the regiment, he was sent to a barracks in Maidstone in Kent. It was here that his real education began. He recalls:

For the first time in my life … I acquired some knowledge of the darker shades in human nature.

In his over twenty years as a Dragoon, which took him through Portugal, Spain, France, Germany and the Low Countries all the way to India, and saw him fight in many important engagements, including the Battle of Waterloo, George would get even more experience of the “darker shades in human nature.” But first he had to get used to army life:

My extreme youth… exposed me to many and great temptations. The same circumstances laid me open to chicanery and deceit on the part of those around me; and I lament to say that I became victim as well of my own folly as of the knavery of others.

He was robbed, preyed upon and bullied; an experience all too familiar to army recruits over the centuries. His particular ire is reserved for a certain Corporal Gorman, who was “of the sort of land-sharks out of which the staff of the recruiting department used long ago to be formed.” During the men’s long trek from Maidstone to Holyhead, where they were to take ship for Dublin, Corporal Gorman fleeced them of their sign-on pay and half their daily ‘walking-money’. Eventually, after being ordered to repay the money, he did so, but only in part, and took off as soon as they reached Dublin.

George and the other recruits arrived at their regiment’s headquarters in Clonmel at “a moment when both town and country rang with the exploits of two celebrated robbers, called, respectively, Brennan and Hogan. Brennan, as all the world knows, was originally a soldier… unless my memory be at fault… in the 12th Light Dragoons, from which regiment he deserted in consequence of some quarrel with one of the officers …”

Now it has often been suggested that Brennan had been a soldier, though never ‘proved’ beyond a reasonable doubt. Only in one Scottish version of the ballad is it said, “the first of my misfortunes was to list (sic) and desert.” Farmer’s statement can’t completely prove the assertion, but he does specifically say that Brennan’s army service was “known to all the world”, and it seems that this service was in the 12th Light Dragoons while George Farmer himself was in its sister regiment – the 11th! So maybe we should accept his word.

Most variants of the ballad recount how Brennan had a partner; he’s usually referred to as the Pedlar or the Pedlar Brown. Supposedly they tried to rob each other, but seeing themselves to be kindred spirits, they joined forces. But if we are to believe Farmer the peddler’s real name was Hogan and, not just that, he is later mentioned by his full name: Paddy Hogan. Once again I think we can have some confidence here. Farmer’s testimony isn’t just hearsay; he took part in the capture of both Brennan and Hogan and witnessed them hang together.

So Brennan became an outlaw and highwayman. Farmer even tells, in a very similar vein to the ballads, how Brennan and Hogan had fought and then become ‘partners in crime’. It such a good tale it’s worth quoting at length:

Of Hogan I am unable to say more than that common report spoke of him as a peddler, whose brave resistance to Brennan’s attack originally won for him the friendship of the outlaw. It is said that the bandit fell in with his future associate one day when the pressure of want was peculiarly severe upon him. He had alighted, for some purpose or another, when the peddler came up; and, not anticipating any resistance, he carelessly desired the latter to render up his pack. But the peddler, instead of obeying the command, closed instantly with his assailant. A fierce struggle took place between them, neither having time to appeal to the deadly weapons with which both, it appeared, were armed.

“Who the devil are you?” said Brennan at last, after he had rolled with his antagonist in the dust till both were weary. “Sure, then, I didn’t think there was a man in all Tipperary as could have fought so long with Bill Brennan.”

“Och, then, blood and ouns!” exclaimed the other, “if you be Brennan, arrah! then, aren’t I Paddy Hogan? and if you cry stand to all the world in Tipperary, sure don’t I do that same to the folks in Cork?”

This was quite enough for Brennan. He entertained too high a respect for his own profession to exercise it in hostility towards a brother of the order; so he struck up, on the instant, an alliance with the peddler, and the two thenceforth played one into the hands of the other.

Others have suggested that the “pedlar” name had been imported into the ballad, as it evolved, from the earlier Robin Hood and the Bold Pedlar, which might also have partly inspired it. But maybe not from what we read above?

Farmer continues his tale. In the tradition of all good outlaws:

He was never known to rob, or in any way to molest, a peasant, an artisan, or a small farmer. He made war, and professed to make war only upon the rich, out of the plunder taken from whom he would often assist the poor; and the poor in return not only refused to betray him, but took care that he should be warned in time, whenever any imminent danger seemed to threaten. The consequence was, that for full five years–a long space of time for a highwayman to be at large, even in Ireland–he continued to levy contributions upon all who came in his way, and had always about him the means of satisfying his own wishes.

There were lots of narrow escapes, feats of daring and, sometimes, semi-comical exploits. But the British wanted Brennan badly:

Large rewards were offered to any persons who should betray him: and day and night the magistracy of the counties were abroad, with dragoons at their heels, striving to intercept him.

It was perhaps inevitable that one day Brennan’s luck would run out.  “A gentleman riding along the high-road” saw two men creeping though a gap in a hedge; he guessed that it might be Brennan and his accomplice, the ‘peddler’, and reported his suspicions to Lord Caher, who immediately dispatched a mounted troop of the 11th Light Dragoons and some local militia to investigate. George Farmer was “one of the mounted detachment” that went to find him. Our broadsheet version of the ballad mentioned that it was a “young man” who betrayed Brennan, but many later versions, perhaps typically, say it was a woman. George’s eyewitness account certainly clears this up.

Arriving on the scene, the Dragoons see that near the hedge a new house is being constructed. The troops cordon off the area and start to close their noose. But when they arrived at the house and searched it, “they found it empty.” Farmer continues:

One of our men suddenly exclaimed, “You haven’t examined the chimney; you may depend upon it you’ll find him there.” It was no sooner said than done; for the speaker sprang from his horse, ran inside, poked his head up the kitchen chimney, and in an instant withdrew it again. It was well for him that he did so, for almost simultaneously with his backward leap, came the report of a pistol, the ball from which struck the hearth without wounding anybody. It is impossible for me to describe the scene that followed. Nobody cared to get below the robber; nobody fancied that it would be possible to get above him; and threats and smooth speeches were soon shown to be alike unavailing to draw him from his hiding-place. But the marvel of the adventure did not stop there. While a crowd of us were gathered about the house, some shouting on Brennan to surrender, others firing at the top of the chimney, a sort of salute which the robber did not hesitate to answer,–one of the Sligo men suddenly called out from the rear, that he had pricked a man with his bayonet among the gorse. In an instant search was made, and sure enough there lay Brennan himself, on his back in a narrow ditch, with a brace of pistols close beside his feet, of which, however, he did not judge it expedient to make use. He was instantly seized, disarmed, and put in charge of a sufficient guard; while the remainder of addressed ourselves to the capture of his companion, concerning whom we could not for an instant doubt that he was Hogan.

Caher Castle where Brennan and Hogan were held before they were taken to Clonmel for trial.

So this is the real story of how the famous Irish outlaw William Brennan and his accomplice Paddy Hogan ‘the peddler’ were captured. Brennan, it seems, surrendered “serenely”, but Farmer tells us that Hogan resembled a “wild beast”, refusing to surrender from his chimney refuge until his ammunition ran out. Even after he was obliged to surrender, he answered Lord Caher’s question as to why he had put his own life and that of others in danger, when the odds were so hopeless, with “silence”.

The prisoners were led under heavy guard to spend the night at Caher Castle. The next day they were conveyed to Clonmel for trial.

No Irishman wanted to testify against them, yet their trial with swift. Farmer tells us that as “the robber was so far in the right … nobody could be persuaded to swear to his identity.” So with only the testimony of one Quaker who, while he couldn’t be sure, “believed” that it was Brennan who had robbed his carriage, Brennan was convicted and sentenced to death. Hogan was “on some such evidence … in like manner convicted.”

Bearded men wept in the court-house like children. There were groans, deep and bitter, rising from every quarter; and more than one, especially among the women, fainted away, and was carried out. Meanwhile the troops, anticipating an attempt at rescue, stood to their arms, and the whole night long the streets were patrolled; but no disturbance took place. After indulging for an hour or two in useless howling, the crowd melted away, and long before midnight a profound calm pervaded every corner of the town.

Brennan and Hogan were hanged with a mysterious third man

When the morning of the executions arrived, huge crowds had gathered. The British were fearful of violence and soldiers escorted the cart carrying the prisoners and watched the crowd for trouble. This, it seems, was enough to prevent the Irish, who revered Brennan, from rioting. Brennan gazed “cheerfully round him, while Hogan “never bestowed upon any of the throng one mark of recognition, nor once addressed a word to his fellow-sufferer.” Just before the cart was pulled away, Brennan turned to Hogan and offered him his hand, but Hogan, “turned aside with undisguised contempt and loathing.”

Thus ended the lives of the Irish outlaws William Brennan and Paddy Hogan. Along, it seems, with a rather mysterious third person:

A young man, found guilty of forcibly carrying away a girl from her home and the protection of her parents, was the same day executed in pursuance of his sentence; and he chose to die in a garb which excited not only our surprise, but our ridicule. He came to be hanged in a garment of white flannel, made tight to the shape, and ornamented in all directions with knots of blue ribbon, rather more befitting a harlequin on the stage, than a wretched culprit whose life had become forfeit to the offended laws.

Who this person was we will likely never know; but it is interesting to note that in one of the most accurate early accounts of Brennan’s death, published in 1884 by the Dublin University Magazine, it was said that Brennan died “together with an accomplice, called ‘the White Pedlar’!

On April 8, 1809, the Lancaster Gazette reported:

Brennan and his associate, the Pedlar, after a short trial, have been capitally convicted at the Clonmel Assize.

For George Farmer, however, it was just the beginning. After more than twenty years of fighting for King and Country throughout Europe and India, he eventually came home and left the Dragoons. One day in 1840 he walked into the London office of a certain Rev. George Robert Gleig and showed him the journals he had written during his service. He complained, says Gleig, of his poverty “as many of his class are accustomed to do.” But Gleig found the story “sufficiently interesting to warrant its insertion, as a series of papers, in a professional magazine.” And thus, with the good offices of London publisher Henry Colburn they were published in 1844 as a serial in twenty-seven parts; under the title The Light Dragoon. Rev. Gleig reports:

Mr. Colburn has remunerated the old soldier well.

We can only hope so.


George Farmer (ed. G. R. Gleig). The Light Dragoon. Henry Osbourne, London, 1844. (Here) ; Juergen Kloss. Just Another Tune (Internet: ); Ray Cashman. The Heroic Outlaw in Irish Folklore and Popular Literature. Folklore, Oct 2000;  Graham Seal. The Outlaw Legend: A Cultural Tradition in Britain, America and Australia. Cambridge and New York, 1996.

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