In the wake of the wars of conquest of the 17th century, Irish antagonism towards England was aggravated by the economic situation of Ireland in the 18th century. Throughout the century, English trade with Ireland was the most important branch of English overseas trade. The Protestant Anglo-Irish absentee landlords drew off some £800,000 in the early part of the century, rising to £1 million, in an economy that had a GDP of about £4 million. Completely deforested of timber for exports (usually to the Royal Navy) and for a temporary iron industry in the course of the 17th century, Irish estates turned to the export of salt beef, pork, butter, and hard cheese through the slaughterhouse and port city of Cork, which supplied England, the British navy and the sugar islands of the West Indies. The bishop of Cloyne wondered “how a foreigner could possibly conceive that half the inhabitants are dying of hunger in a country so abundant in foodstuffs?” In the 1740s, these economic inequalities, when combined with an exceptionally cold winter and poor harvest, led directly to the famine of 1740–1741, which killed about 400,000 people. In the 1780s, due to increased competition from salted-meat exporters in the Baltic and North America, the Anglo-Irish landowners rapidly switched to growing grain for export, while the Irish themselves ate potatoes and groats.
Peasant secret societies became common in 18th century Ireland as the only means of tenant farmers to redress grievances against their landlords. Such groupings went by names like the Whiteboys, the Rightboys, the Hearts of Oakand the Hearts of Steel. Issues that motivated them included high rents, evictions, enclosure of common lands and payment of tithes to the established Church of Ireland (most of the peasantry being Catholics). Methods used by the secret societies included the killing or maiming of livestock, tearing down of enclosure fences and occasionally violence against landlords, bailiffs and the militia. Rural discontent was exacerbated by the rapidly growing population – a trend that would continue until the Great Famine of the 1840s. Great economic disparities existed between different areas of the country,with the north and east being relatively highly developed and involved in export of goods, whereas much of the west was roadless, hardly developed and had a cashless subsistence economy.
Neddy Lohan was a captain of a group of Whiteboys in the Moylough area of County Galway responsible for rural unrest and violence. The Whiteboys were a secret Irish agrarian organisation in 18th-century Ireland which used violent tactics to defend tenant farmer land rights for subsistence farming. Their name derives from the white smocks the members wore in their nightly raids, but the Whiteboys were usually referred to at the time as Levellers by the authorities. The Levellers were a political movement during the English Civil War that emphasised popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance, all of which were expressed in the manifesto “Agreement of the People”. They came to prominence at the end of the First English Civil War and were most influential before the start of the Second Civil War. Leveller views and support were found in the populace of the City of London, and in some regiments in the New Model Army, and by themselves as “Queen Sive Oultagh’s children”, “fairies”, or as followers of “Johanna Meskill” or “Sheila Meskill”, all symbolic figures supposed to lead the movement. They sought to address rack-rents, tithe collection, excessive priests’ dues, evictions and other oppressive acts. As a result they targeted landlords and tithe collectors. Over time, Whiteboyism became a general term for rural violence connected to secret societies. Because of this generalisation, the historical record for the Whiteboys as a specific organisation is unclear.
They were opposed by Charles O’Rourke, a landlord based in Moylough, who arrested suspected members and engaged them in pitched battles. An ambush was planned by the Whiteboys, upon learning of his route on a given night. However, a young landowner named Brown was travelling the same road that night, and was killed in the belief that he was O’Rourke. He was well regarded by local people and the Whiteboys.
O’Rourke arrested several men, and upon the information of an informer, Seamus a’Burca, Lohan was sentenced to death for the crime. Prior to sentencing, Lohan was asked if there were any gentleman of the jury who could give him a character recommendation. Lohan pointed out a Mr. Blake of Garbally, Menlough. On being asked what he had to say about Lohan, Blake replied, “I never saw two dogs fighting, my lord, but Lohan would be the third.”
Lohan was taken from Galway jail to be hanged, as was custom, at his own door. He sat on his coffin on a cart on the way. At Turloughmore he recognised a friend called O’Shaughnessy and threw him his hat, exclaiming “I will you my old hat”. This was afterwards called Lohan’s Last Will and Testament.
Lohan was hanged in front of a crowd of hundreds at Cooloo hill, in sight of his house. Two of his sisters were present, and it was stated that they were never in their right mind afterwards. It was reported that one sister attended Blake’s house at Garbally and put a curse on it saying “May the sun never shine here at mid-day and may his blood be on its walls”. Many locals would say that a brown stain appeared on the gable wall afterwards and would always re-appear even after painting.
From the Connacht Tribune of January 1st, 1966 the following article is reproduced:
‘ Ned _Lohan, commonly called “Ned Mor” because of his great stature, was about thirty years of age at the time of his death. His great strength, his athletic feats on the hurling field, in tasting the weight, and in wrestling had won him the respect of his fellows and, when the need arose, they made him their leader in the newly formed branch of the Ribbonmen. ‘
The Ribbonmen Society was sorely needed in the Moylough area—Charles O’Rourke of Moylough Co. Galway, owned vast estates in the north-eastern part of the country and was vested with tremendous power by the authorities. He had his own barracks, prison, and cattle pound in Moylough and behaved like an oriental despot. During the ’98 Rebellion he scoured the district with his yeomen, seizing all he suspected of membership in the United Irishmen and lucky was the captive who escaped with only a flogging. Most of those taken were handed over to the military authorities for drumhead court martial. Many of them were acquitted because even the military, with minds inflamed after the rout at Castlebar, could find no evidence against them.
Young Lohan, then a boy of eight or nine years of age saw the terrible deeds of that period when O’Rourke and his yeomen burned the cabins of the people, destroyed their crops, and ill-treated every one they could lay hands upon. He never forgot the ”Year of the French” nor forgave O’Rourke for his part in it. When the year 1819 came, and with it the spate of evictions which were to make Ireland a land of sorrow Neddy was a married man with two children, supporting in addition his widowed mother and two sisters. He tilled a small patch of land and was also employed by Mr. Blake , landlord of huge estates in Garbally (Ballinasloe), Menlough, and Ballinasloe itself. By the standards of the time Neddy was “comfortable.”
Ned’s gaiety and sociability were his only faults. He was fond of the public-house and took part in the faction-fights of the time with gusto. He feared no man and his great strength and dexterity enabled him to lead his side to victory over the opposing faction. Little wonder that his parish adored him and his redoubtable black thorn stick. But faction fighting had to take a back seat when the evictions began and Ned threw himself with fervour into the work of organising the Ribbon-men. He was a stern disciplinarian who kept his men tightly under control and he enforced the weekly collection with a strong hand so that many murmured against the exaction. He went his way unheeding secure in the knowledge that only his Organisation could keep the landlords in check, and he kept in dose touch with the other leaders notably Anthony Daly of Seefin.
The newly-formed police force [was unable to deal with the warlike acts of the Ribbonmen and a Coercion Act was passed giving ‘the Government extraordinary powers and the country was placed under near Martial Law. The existing garrisons of military were reinforced and temporary garrisons were posted in disturbed areas. Charles O’Rourke was in his element. As the militia leader of his district he found himself once more the supreme lord and master of the people — and woe betide those who failed to bow to his will. As the work of the Ribbonmen had, of necessity, to be done under cover of darkness he instituted a system of night patrols of platoon strength and invariably led the platoon himself. The tramp of their horses’ feet struck terror into the hearts of the people who breathed freely each night only after the (patrol had passed. House searches, brutally carried out, were a frequent occurrence designed as much to strike fear into the peasantry as to secure evidence of membership in the Ribbonmen. The countryside groaned beneath the tyranny of O’Rourke. Something must be done to end the reign of terror.
In March 1820 Lohan decided that the tyrants’ career must come to an end and organised an ambush for that purpose. By now the patrol had fallen into the habit of taking a certain route each night and the ambush was laid in an excellent position. As luck would have it a young local landlord named Browne travelled the road that night. How the mistake was made no one will ever know but a shot was fired and he fell lifeless from his horse. The ambushers were appalled when the mistake was discovered as Browne had been a good landlord on excellent terms with his tenantry. Local tradition has it that a man named O’Kelly fired the fatal shot.
The killing caused terrific repercussions. Troops descended in force on the district. Raids and beatings were a commonplace. All suspected Ribbonmen were arrested and third degree methods used to gain information or force a confession. Bribes were offered freely to anyone who would give evidence, truthful or otherwise, to secure a conviction and at last a creature named Seamas a’ Burca offered to swear away the life of Neddy Lohan, the man O’Rourke desired most of all to be put out of way. He carried out the arrest in typically brutal fashion. The unfortunate man was dragged naked from his bed and forced to march nine miles in that fashion to the barracks.
Trial in Galway
The trial took place in Galway Jail before a. grand jury composed of gentry from North East Galway. There was a formidable number of informers of which the chief was Burke, locally remembered as Seamusthough a poem taken down from the lips of that great seanchaidhethe late Sean 0 Cheallaigh of Cloon, Claregalway, by his own son, Mr. Sean O,Cheallaigh, N.T., Craughwell, gives his name as Sean. In another version of the same poem, collected by an t-Athair P. Eric Mac Fhinn U.C.G., and published in “Gearrbhaile” we get the name other informers “Agus na Giblins ag an nGreen Table ag mionnu na h-eithigh orm le me crochadh.”
And the Giblins at the Green Table (i.e.the witness-stand) swearing the lies on me to hang roe.” In an otherwise similar line, unfortunately in an incomplete verse, Sean O’Cheallaigh gave: “Na Cosgraigh bhradaigh bhreagaidh bhi ag mionnu eithigh le me crochadh.” And so we find Burke, the Giblins, and the Cosgroves arrayed against Lohan. Burke swore that Lohan had confided in him and gave the alleged conversation in which Lohan told him of how the ambush was carried out, and had boasted of having shot Browne. O’Rourke could not stay out of the act and gave a lengthy account of Lohan’s activities, trying to prove by circumstantial evidence that he was the only one likely to have committed the crime.
Against all this Lohan could only protest his innocence and the result was a foregone conclusion. The jury found him guilty. It was customary at the time for the judge to ask those convicted of a capital offence if they had anyone to speak for them. If the testifier was of sufficient standing his “character” would carry considerable weight and reduce a death sentence to a sentence of transportation or local imprisonment. The judge accordingly asked Neddy if there was anyone on the jury who would give him a “character.” “Yes,” replied the unfortunate man. “My master, Mr. Patrick Blake . will give me a character.”
“Your Honour,” said that worthy. “I never saw two dogs fighting in the streets of Moylough but Lohan would be the third.” “God damn it, Lohan,” cried Burke of Derrymaclachlynn, who was also on the jury, “why didn’t you choose me to speak for you.” Kelly of Gallagh, representative of the O’Kelly’s . Kings of Hy-Many. sprang to his feet in the jury-box and cried out “What made you put your life in the hands of a b—— of a Blake?” The damage had been done, however. The judge assumed the black cap and sentenced him to death by hanging, the sentence to be carried out the next day.
Sat on coffin
Next morning a strong detachment of soldiers under their colonel marched out of Galway Jail. Between them was a horse and cart and on the cart a coffin, Sitting on the coffin, according to custom, was Neddy Lohan with shackles on his hands and feet to prevent his escape. Beside him sat the hangman. The sad procession proceeded briskly through the town and, although it was early morning, thousands of sympathisers lined the streets with cries of comfort for the prisoner mingled with execrations for his executioner.
Last long journey
It was a long and wearisome journey for poor Lohan, thirty jolting miles to Moylough with hands and feet so tightly tied that circulation was almost cut off. At every village a crowd had gathered to cheer him with its sympathy. At Turloughmore . a centre of the Ribbonmen, a tremendous throng among them was the local leader, O’Shaughnessy. He had been a friend and colleague of Lohan’s and was, not unnaturally, in dread that the latter might yield to blandishment and betray his former comrades.
Even in his desperate plight Lohan tried to set O’Shaughnessy’s mind at ease. Reaching up his manacled hands to his head he took off his hat and tossed it to his friend who had pressed close to the cart. In Irish he cried out to him: “I leave you my old hat by my last will and testament. May you live long to wear it.” O’Shaughnessy understood. Lohan would leave him his life, he would die in silence. The cart jolted on the weary miles to Cooloo Hill near Moylough. Legal custom in Ireland was that those convicted of “outrages” be hanged as near the scene of the crime as possible and on the most prominent place available.
“Justice must not alone be done but must manifestly be seen to be done.” And to hang a man on a high hill near the scene of his crime, near his own homeand in the presence of his friendsneighbours and confederates would show them, all of them, that justice had, indeed, been done.. The roads to Cooloo were lined with people who cried out their sympathy and encouragement and fell in behind the cart as it passed on its way. By the time it reached the hill over ten thousand people had congregated upon its slopes, staring up at the two-legged gallows under which the cart had been halted.
A line of soldiers with fixed bayonets fanned out on the summit to hold back the crowd. The hangman unshackled Lohan’s feet and he stood up in the cart. The noose was placed around his neck and the colonel approached the cart. “I am empowered to give you your freedom if you give me the names of your associates in your crime.” The crowd, in which stood hundreds of Ribbonmen, held its breath. Neddy looked at the sea of faces before him. He saw his distracted wife, Mairin, expecting her third child, standing with their daughters, Una and Peggy, beside her. He saw his two sisters weeping uncontrolably. He gazed away at his humble home where his aged mother lay prostrate with grief.
“Nothing to tell”
” I have nothing to tell,” he said firmly and a sigh of relief rocked the crowd. The priest who was present spoke to him for a few minutes in a low voice and stepped down from the cart The colonel stepped back. “Do your duty,” he cried harshly and the hangman whipped the horse which sprang forward, leaving Lohan dancing in the air. Jumping from the cart the hangman seized his victim’s struggling legs and hung from them, choking the life from his body. A cry of anguish came from the throng while the screams of Lohan’s sisters rent the air. They dashed themselves against the ring of soldiers in a vain effort to reach their brother. Kindly neighbours at length overpowered them and bore them away, never to recover their senses again; to live upon the charity of a pitying countryside.
Satisfied at last that Lohan was dead, the colonel ordered his body to be cut down. He then rode away at the head of his troop while loving hands laid the warm corpse in the coffin and carried it to his home to be waked. Thousands of people attended the funeral on the following day but no monument has ever been erected to the memory of this brave man who laid down his life for his friends and neighbours.
(The Connacht Tribune – January 1st. 1966)