Redmond O’Hanlon is a legendary figure in Ireland, and is often described as the ‘Irish Robin Hood’. His ancestors had been a powerful family up until the 17th century, when their land was taken during the Catholic uprising and the Cromwellian invasion.
O’Hanlon grew up in poverty with a belief that he and the Irish peasants were entitled to a better standard of life. He became a highwayman and gained notoriety by charging landlords protection money to prevent any thieves stealing their livestock.
The landlords were issued a pass by O’Hanlon, to be shown to anyone who tried to rob them. If the thief disregarded the pass and robbed them anyway, then O’Hanlon would ensure the livestock was returned. Repeat offenders would be killed by O’Hanlon, who because of his aristocratic background, became known as the Count.
This was a lucrative business and several respectable landowners and authority figures had fine working relationships with the Count. He dispersed the money among Irish peasants to make sure they could afford their rent and buy food.
He wasn’t without enemies though. There were many landowners and businessmen that refused the Count’s protection services. They quickly found their livestock being taken.
Hunts of outlaws by local families were commonplace, and the Count was always the most wanted prize. He often fitted his horse with shoes facing backwards, to confuse pursuers, and he wore a reversible coat, so he could appear as a red coated army official at any moment.
On one occasion, he was chased to the shore of Carlingford Lough, and left with no choice but to swim the estuary to escape. His pursuers sent a wild dog into the water to catch and kill him. The dog caught up with him and an epic battle took place in the sea, with the Count eventually drowning the dog and swimming to safety.
The Count made an enemy of Father Edmund Murphy when he threatened to tax the livestock, and then murder, any parishioners who attended his masses, after the priest had ordered all to denounce the Count and his followers.
Father Murphy began plotting the Count’s downfall, but was enraged when the local British officials refused to help him, as they were happy with the agreements they had in place with the Count.
One of the Count’s longstanding enemies was Henry St John. He owned much of the land that had previously been owned by the Count’s ancestors.
He also evicted the Count’s clan from their homes once he was granted the land. St John refused to pay taxes to the Count, and had his livestock stolen and his rent collectors robbed on a regular basis.
The two men had a deep hatred for each other, and this was made worse when St John’s son died during a hunt for the Count.
This feud resulted in St John being kidnapped by the Count’s men, with the plan to hold him for ransom. However, a gunfight between the Count’s men and St John’s family ensued, and St John was killed. It is unknown for sure if he was executed by the Count’s men or hit by friendly fire from his own family.
Reverend Lawrence Power, an associate of St John’s, requested aid from the Lord Deputy of Ireland in bringing an end to the Count’s reign. He also named all the aristocracy and British officials who he believed to have deals with the Count.
The Count fled to Donegal to visit his family and allow the heat to die down over St John’s death. Legend has it, he also had a brief relationship with St John’s daughter.
In 1678, several Catholic priests were arrested and charged with treason, after a false allegation had been made that they were planning a massacre of Protestants. The Count was offered a pardon from all his crimes by the Anglican Bishop of Meath, Bishop Jones, if he testify against the Catholic priests.
Several of the priests in question had previously denounced the Count and his men, and ordered their parishioners to have no dealings with them. Despite this, the Count refused to falsely testify against them, saying that ‘no offer could induce him to betray an innocent man’.
Two years later, the Duke of Ormonde set out to end the Count’s reign. He recruited Anglo-Irish landowners William Lucas and his uncle Sir Toby Poyntz, both of whom had a long standing arrangements with the Count. They contacted the Count’s step-brother, Art, who also worked as his personal bodyguard.
Art was offered a full pardon for his crimes at the authority of the Duke of Ormonde, if he killed the Count. Art agreed to this and shot dead his step-brother on 25th April 1681. The exact details of the murder are unknown, with two differing accounts.
It certainly took place in County Down. One version says that Art shot the Count while he was sleeping, another after the two men had been in discussion about their futures.
Either way, after he was killed the Count’s head was cut off and displayed on a spike over Downpatrick jail to serve as a warning to other outlaws.
Count Redmond O’Hanlon has gone down as a legendary figure in Irish history. He took on the British landowners after his family had their land taken from them, and reigned supreme. An uncatchable outlaw, who evaded capture with cunning and charm, only to meet his end after being betrayed by his closest ally.
The Count has been the figure of several books, documentaries and songs in the years since his death. He is also honoured by the County Down Gaelic Football team, who are named The Redmond O’Hanlons.
Here is a YouTube video from threelegsoman, with a performance of the Tommy Makem song about Count Redmond O’Hanlon.