As told in “Tales from the West of Ireland” by Sean Henry
The Irish highwaymen who lived mostly over the later half of the eighteenth century may be regarded as a more commercialised version of the Irish Rapparees. The Rapparees were mainly dispossessed landowners who had to make way for a newer set of Crown favourites and adventurers. This forced the dispossessed landowners to take to the woods and hills with as many followers as they could muster and wreak vengeance on the new set of landlords and other landowners. The Rapparees in their campaign against the new set of Planters and the English Crown flourished mainly from the collapse of the 1641 rebellion to the middle of the eighteenth century.
The highwaymen who followed them could be called more proletarian in origin and outlook. Many of them had gained a knowledge of firearms through membership at one time or association with English military or militia units. Some highwaymen carried out raids and holdups of mail coaches singly while other operated with a small band of followers rarely exceeding half a dozen. To the latter category belonged Captain Gallagher, the famous highwayman. He was a native of Bonniconlon but spent part of his youthful days with an aunt in the townland of Derryronane, Swinford, near the wood of Barnalyra.
When he decided on a freebooting career he picked three or four companions. Equipped with fast horses and the erratic blunderbusses of the period, they ranged over all east Mayo and parts of south Sligo and west Roscommon. In addition to the holding up and robbing of the mail coaches, they raided the houses of landlords and other wealthy people.
On one occasion, they raided the home of a particularly hated landlord in Killasser, and in addition to seizing all his silver and other valuables, they compelled him to chew up and swallow eviction notices he had prepared for half a dozen of his tenants. After some narrow escapes from the English soldiers, Captain Gallagher’s luck finally ran out. He was spending a quiet Christmas recovering from illness in a friend’s house in the parish of Coolcarney or Attymass among the foothills of the Ox Mountains. A jealous neighbour of his host, a man whom Captain Gallagher had formerly helped, sent a message to the commanding officer of the Redcoats in Foxford that Captain Gallagher was staying in a house beside his in Attymass.
The officer sent messages to the military stationed in Ballina, Castlebar and Swinford for assistance before attempting the capture. With a force of nearly two hundred men, the Redcoats surrounded the house. Being ill and in order to save his host and his family, the highwayman surrendered with out resistance. He was rushed to Foxford and after a hasty sham trial was sentenced to be hanged and taken to Castlebar to have the sentence carried out. Questioned before mounting the scaffold, the Captain asserted that all his treasure was hidden under a rock in Barnalyra. Hearing this, the officer in charge hastily carried out the execution and then dashed towards the wood of Barnalyra with a hand-picked squad of cavalry. Doubtless, visions of new-found wealth or rewards from the Crown helped to hurry them on. When they reached Barnalyra they found to their dismay not the few rocks they had visioned but countless thousands of rocks of all shapes and sizes. After some days’ search, all they found was a jewel-hilted sword.
Possibly the puzzle about the location of Captain Gallagher’s treasure may never be solved. Some people believe that his confession was made in the hope that he would be taken to Barnalyra to point out the rock in question. He knew that his companions were staying in a hideout on the Derryronane-Curryane border close to the wood and he may have had hopes of a rescue attempt by them.