The bandit who escaped ‘the Devil’s Claws’ – Shane Crossagh O’Mullan

THE barren and lonely Glenshane has witnessed innumerable battles between native Gael and invading Briton over the long centuries of Ireland’s troubled history – but there was one man who would become so famous he would lend his name to the very land itself.

Tuesday, 5th February 2013, 3:19 pm


The ‘Glen of Shane’ is so-called because of the exploits of a Shane Crossagh O’Mullan - a ‘rapparee’ who vowed to “walk the ladder to the gallows-top” before he would submit to the “tyranny” of the King, who ambushed a general on a mission to apprehend him and stripped him of his fine clothes, and who eventually did “walk the ladder to the gallows-top” in Londonderry, where he was hanged to death in 1722.

Shane Crossagh’s execution can be found amongst a list of the most significant events in the 400 years since Limavady was granted a Town Charter in 1613, produced in draft form by the local council recently.

The ‘rapparees’ (from the Irish ropairí, plural of ropaire, meaning half-pike or pike-wielding person) were irregular Gaelic fighters who waged war on the Jacobite side during the Williamite war. Others were defined as ‘social bandits’ – people who operated as outlaws under the new order in Ireland but who were supported by their own communities.

It is the latter category into which Shane Crossagh fits. According to what has been written about Shane, both ancient and modern, he appears to have been a man profoundly motivated by both personal loss to the incoming planters and to a general sense of grievance towards the new order imposed after the defeat of King James I. Shane stole from those whom he believed took “the sweat of the poor man”, who robbed him “of the fruits of his industry.” Shane Crossagh O’Mullan stole from the landlords.

A manuscript which would now be around two centuries old, itself quoted in a hundred years old historical work by a Rev. J McKeefry, recounts the conversation Shane had with his father before embarking on a life of banditry – stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

His father, a schoolmaster, was put off a plot of land in Faughanvale; the parish where the modern day village of Greysteel now lies.

In ‘Shane Crossagh, the County Derry Rapparee’ by J. M’Keefry, published in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland over 100 years ago, the author spells out Shane’s background: “Crossagh’s father held a farm in Tullanee, Faughanvale, on the Grocers’ estate. In his house the bailiff’s son was insulted; and Mullan, it is said, was soon evicted.

“He strayed about the district and kept one cow to help sustain his young family. His son Shane was found cutting grass on the old homestead, and to escape punishment the whole family retreated to the mountains above Claudy, and settled at Lingwood.”

Interestingly, Rev. McKeefry adds: “Along these hill-sides were many who were disaffected to the government because their fathers had been driven forth to make way for the planters.”

Amongst these “disaffected” young men whose fathers had been driven off the land, Shane Crossagh would become a hero to the local population as he gathered a band of warriors around him and took from the rich planters what had been firstly taken from those such as his father.

His life of outlawry appears to have begun when he was accosted by two Britons.

Indeed, the text quoted by McKeefry in his 1902 work on ‘the County Derry rapparee’ recounts in the poetic and romantic language of the time – most probably translated from Gaelic – how Shane Crossagh O’Mullan came to lead the life of a bandit.

The Rev. McKeefry writes: “Soon Shane gathered around him a gang of desperadoes, some of the them greedy for plunder, others for vengeance. Their usual retreat was in the grove of Lingwood.

“One day walking here, he left his pike in a furze bush, and returned to his house for a gun to shoot some partridges. He saw two young men approach, and as they came near they rushed at him and secured him as their prisoner. ‘Bad enough Shane, ‘as I had appointed to meet a friend, and I find it hard to leave my bottle of good poteen I had to treat him.’

‘Let us have it, and we will not put you in irons.’ Shane agreed, and they went with him to the hiding place. Shane soon found, not the bottle, but his pike, and rising suddenly with it, disarmed and hunted his captors. He returned him, and found there his father, Dominic the schoolmaster, Roddy the soldier, and Parra Fada or tall Paddy. In a few pages still extant of a manuscript written almost one hundred years ago, kindly lent to me by Mr. Philip Kerlin, of Garvagh, is preserved the following discussion which we may term the ‘Philosophy of the Rapparees’.

His father asked Shane where he had been. ‘In the Devil’s Claws,’ said Shane; ‘and I got free by threshing two strong rascals, and taking these pistols from them.’ What a pity the avenues of promotion are closed against such as you: you would be a credit to your country were it not that fierce faction feuds are constantly ruining us.’

‘Master, you have a hard tongue.’ ‘Tis my language you mean; my tongue is as soft as yours.’ ‘Indeed, Shane,’ Dominic continued, ‘I would advise you go to the magistrate and get his pardon, for if they make another attempt to take you, and you resist, then you will become an outlaw, and what will become of you?’

‘If I were you,’ said Roddy, ‘I would take to the hills, and live on the wealthy budachs (victorious).’

‘In other words, be a robber,’ said Dominic. ‘It is no robbery to take back some of the illgotten gains from the wealthy. By what authority,’ continued Roddy, ‘do these landlords rob us of our money and lands?’

‘By the authority of the law,’ said Dominic. ‘Who made these laws but the landlords themselves.’ ‘Some king gave them grants of the land’, replied Dominic. ‘That king, then, you make a robber, for what right had he to give what was not his own?’

‘It is my advice,’ said Dominic, ‘that we should submit to what we cannot mend.’

‘I will walk the ladder to the gallows-top,’ said Shane, ‘before I submit to such tyranny.’

Parra Fada then promised to take the hills with Shane, and Roddy approved, saying, ‘if he had a regiment like the two of them, even the strongest fort would fall.’ Dominic, shocked at the Rapparee’s conduct hurried from the house.”

A further insight into the ‘philosophy of the rapparees’ is also given by McKeefry when he tells the tale of Shane’s conversation with a young landlord whom he intended to rob: “Early in his career Shane visited the district of Maghera where, in the twilight, meeting a gentleman (probably Mauleverer), he presented his pistols, and said: ‘Stand, you robber, and deliver up some of what you rob the people of.’ ‘I am no robber.’ ‘I thought you were a lawyer who lived by robbing the public.’ ‘I am not a lawyer,’ replied the gentleman. ‘Oh, then, if you be an owner of the estates. I have a regard for you, but if a lawyer you must give up your money.’ ‘I am a landlord.’ ‘Then you are the very robber I want, for you take the sweat of the poor man, and you rob him of the fruits of his industry.’

‘Do you mean my tenants who pay me for my land?’, said the other. ‘Your land!’, said Shane; ‘pray who gave you the land?’

‘My father.’ ‘Who gave it to him?’ ‘He purchased it from the owner, and the king gave it to that owner.’ Shane, however, forced him to give up his purse containing £20, and had gone a few yards when he heard the click of the landlord’s pistol. He bounded over the hedge, and shouted: ‘You prepare for battle after you are beaten – it is then too late.’

That night Shane came to a poor man’s house and found the family in great distress. Their only cow was impounded for tithe. Shane generously gave them four pounds to relieve their present wants.”

It is not for his philosophy that he gained his fame, however, since there were many of the “disaffected” young men whose fathers had been driven forth from the land – it was his deeds that made Shane so famous.

Aside from the ambush of General Napier and his troops near Feeny, one of Shane’s most famous deeds was perhaps his ‘Leap’ to escape a military detachment marching him in chains to await his trial.

A set of stones still lie in a bleak and desolate area in the townland of Carntogher, near Maghera, to mark ‘Shane’s Leap’. Here, he was being lead in manacles by ‘a party of military’ after being apprehended in Maghera for robbing a landlord, a rector and an agent. In the 1902 ‘Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland’, Rev McKeefry writes: “ He was handed over to be lodged in Derry Jail, to await his trial, to a party of military who were on their way from Belfast to Derry. On the top of Carntogher mountain the soldiers rested; and Shane asked them to take off his manacles, and he would show them three leaps that would astonish them. Three heaps of stones still indicate the length of these leaps.”

Despite his feat of athletic prowess and his ability to yet again escape from ‘the Devil’s Claws’, his name rings down through the ages primarily for his audacious ambush of a General who had been travelling with one aim – to apprehend the County Derry rapparee and bring him to justice.

The story goes that General Napier had been spending the night in a public inn “between Dungiven and Carntogher” and had heard about the already famous exploits of Shane Crossagh and his band of rapparees. The General “freely expressed his contempt for the magistrates of the district for not clearing it of such wretches.”

However, “Shane heard all, and vowed he would make the general feel his vengeance should he perish in the attempt. He calculated the distance the general would likely travel, and arranged to test his valour when darkness was setting in.

He selected a long narrow bridge on a road passing through a bog. He arranged the turf on the banks of both sides of the high road in large piles, so as to convey the impression that armed men were sheltered behind them.

As soon as the general came to the bridge his horse fell under him, shot down by Shane. The troopers, in alarm, gathered round to defend their commander. ‘Surrender, I’m Shane Crossagh,’ re-echoed through the glen.

‘Ready, boys,’ he roared out to his imaginary followers behind the heaps of turf; while at the same time he threatened instant death to the first soldier who would attempt to use his arms. He demanded the sword from Napier, and forced him to order his men to pile their arms, and to submit to be tied with ropes, two by two.

His fellow rapparees seized all the arms and money, while Shane proceeded to don the general’s uniform.”

Local tradition has it that the General was profoundly uncomfortable at having to wear the comparatively ragged clothes proferred by Shane, and pleaded to Shane with flattery for his bravery and manliness. Unfortunately for Napier, Shane Crossagh was unmoved, and instead offered only the cutting and eloquent put-down: “On the old caubeen must go for it’s the man that makes the general and not the clothes.”

The General and his men were marched to the Diamond, where, Shane offered himself to the mercy of the local magistrate, pleading that no harm had come to any of the men - remarkably, a defence apparently accepted by the magistrate.

The scene of Shane’s victory lies about a quarter of a mile from Feeny, at the bridge still referred to as ‘the General’s Bridge’.

He lived many years drawing ‘black-mail’ from locals, an assurance that none would come to any harm under Shane’s protection. Indeed, the one murder attributed to the famous bandit with any certainty was another rapparee who broke Shane’s pledge of protection to a local man under his protection.

He was eventually to face the consequences his schoolmaster father had warned him of and fulfil his pledge to “gladly walk the ladder to the gallows top.” Shane, and his sons, were hanged to death in the Diamond in 1722.