By Ed Hannon

When we think of the term ‘highwayman’ the names of the heroic Robin Hood and the infamous Dick Turpin immediately spring to mind. Dashing, daring characters who survived from the proceeds of robbing the rich but never the poor as they travelled from town to town. During the 17th and 18th centuries the raids of highwaymen was a serious social problem throughout Ireland and England and one of the most infamous Irish highwaymen was Patrick Fleming. To understand why Fleming became such a cult hero, inspiring the ballad ‘Patrick Fleming was a Valliant Soldier’ and also according to Alan Lomax the inspiration for ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ we must first understand why these men,who were in many regards dangerous killers, were seen as icons.

The history of a ‘dispossessed native Irish’ that lived in the woods and mountains can be dated back to the 16th century when Irish irregulars or foot-soldiers were known as ‘ceithearnaigh choille’ or ‘wood-kerne’. During the Eleven Years War these guerrilla fighters became known as ‘tories’ from the Irish word ‘tóraidhe(tóraí)’ meaning ‘pursuer’. In the 1690s Irish fighters who fought on the Jacobite side of the Williamite War were known as ‘rapparees’ from the Irish ‘ropairí’ meaning ‘half-pike’ or ‘pike-wielding person’. Though the landscape of Ireland leant itself towards this type of warfare and the romantic ideals this may conjure up it also provided scope for widespread lawlessness and robbery on the highways of Ireland and it is with this practice that Patrick Fleming was concerned.

Fleming was born in Athlone, the son of a tenant farmer and the eldest in a family of nine children who all lived in a one room cottage. When Patrick was thirteen he found employment with the Countess of Kildare who hired him as a a ‘foot-boy’. Despite the Countess’ attempts to educate Patrick he was too ‘insolent’ for education and was soon fired. He soon found work as a domestic in the home of the Earl of Antrim, however his lawless behaviour only hastened to the annoyance of his fellow servants. The Earl was a devout Catholic and a priest resided in his home as chaplain and confessor, the servants were required to pay great respect to this priest. The Newgate Calender tells us how Fleming came to be discharged of his duties, ‘one day he happened to find the holy father asleep in some private part of the house in a very indecent pose, whereupon he went and got all the family to that place, and showed them what he had discovered as a revenge upon the parson, who at that instant awoke’. Before Patrick left the neighbourhood and headed to Athenry he robbed the Earl of money and a silver plate to the value of two hundred pounds.

In Athenry he laid low for twelve days before making his way to Dublin. He stayed in Dublin for six years and was involved with gangs of housebreakers, according to the Newgate Calender Fleming, was concerned in more robberies than had ever before been committed in that city in the memory of man. As Fleming became more well known he knew it was time to leave the city and he embarked to the countryside to begin his career as a highwayman. His chief haunt was the Bog of Allen, and he quickly became notorious in the counties where he stalked his prey, murdering several people with increasing barbarity when they resisted his demands. He assembled a gang and moved to the Barnesmore Gap, a mountain pass in Donegal, it was reported that here he robbed one hundred and twenty five men and women in just a few days. No-one was to be pardoned or spared by Fleming and his men and among the principal persons whom he stopped and robbed were the Archbishop of Armagh and the Bishop of Raphoe, in one coach and the Archbishop of Tuam and Lady Baltimore, with her four year old son in the second. Fleming took the child and demanded ransom money in twenty four hours or else he would ‘cut the young puppy’s throat and make a pie of him. From the Archbishop of Tuam he got one thousand pounds.

After this high profile robbery Fleming fled to Munster but was apprehended here for robbing a nobleman of £250 and committed to Cork prison. Fleming knowing he would be hanged for his offences found means to squeeze up a chimney and by removing some obstacles escaped the gaol.

Despite almost being hanged Fleming continued his villainies and over a couple of years was suspected of murdering five men, two women and a fourteen year old boy. He wounded many others, in particular, Sir Donagh O’Brien, who tried to resist Fleming and had his nose, lips and ears cut off as retribution.

In April 1650 Fleming’s good fortune came to an end when he was duped by the landlord of a house where his gang went to drink. The landlord sent word he was there the Sheriff immediately assembled a strong guard and beset the house. Fleming and his bandits attempted to fight back but their guns had been soaked by the landlord during the night thus rendering them useless. Flemming and fourteen other men were taken to Dublin and executed.

In the years after his death Fleming and other highwaymen were the focus of a book ‘Irish Rogues and Rapparees’ which was commonly found in hedge schools, this book cast no moral judgement on the actions of the highwaymen instead they were seen as ‘objects of interest and imitation’ according to JE Walsh. ‘Patrick Fleming was a Valliant Soldier’ was written sometime in the 17th century and in the early 1900s American Folklorist Alan Lomax highlighted to the similarities between the story of Patrick Fleming and the folk song Whiskey in the Jar however we can never be certain of this, all we do know is that on Wednesday the 24th of April 1650 Patrick Fleming was hanged in chains on the high road to Dublin, a criminal was killed but a legend was born.

Visions Of The Past