This past week, I was doing some research for a forthcoming book. I was intrigued to come across a reference to the fabled Irish highwayman Willy Brennan, about whom the famous ballad "Brennan on the Moor" was written. The origins of the song are disputed: versions exist from the early to mid 1800's stemming from Ireland, Britain, Canada and the USA. To set the scene, here's a recording from the 1960's featuring The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem. If you find the Irish accents a bit impenetrable, the lyrics are here.
Like many highwaymen and other "popular" criminals, folk tales grew up about Brennan's exploits. However, in his case, some of the folk tales appear to have been based on reality - he was quite the character.
One such tale comes from George Farmer, who served in the 11th Light Dragoons during the latter part of the Peninsular War. He later wrote a book titled "The Light Dragoon" about his service. An edition edited by George Robert Gleig is still available in print and e-book editions, and makes interesting reading for military history buffs.
In the early part of his military career, Farmer served in Ireland, where he was one of the troopers who escorted Brennan to his hanging. In describing the highwayman's career, Farmer tells the story of an encounter between him and two militia officers in the early 1800's.
Once upon a time, when the regiment of -------- Militia lay in quarters at Clonmel, two of the officers drove, in a one-horse chaise, to Fethard, where they bad engaged to be present at a public dinner that was to be eaten at the principal inn in the place. They joined the company as they had proposed to do, and sat till a late hour at night, when, their companions departing, they likewise ordered their gig, and walked into what was called the travellers'-room till it should be brought round to the door. There were several strangers in the room; one of whom, a well-dressed man, stood by the fire. But of these the militia officers took no notice, their heads, as it appeared, being filled with anticipations of what might befall on their way back to Clonmel. One, indeed, did not hesitate to express regret that they had sat so late.
"These are troublesome times," observed he; "and who knows but we may encounter Brennan himself?"
"What of that?" was the answer. "You and I are surely not afraid to encounter one man. We have a brace of pistols: only let the scoundrel show himself, and see how I'll handle him!"
The stranger who lounged over the fire looked up as these words were uttered, but took no notice of them. Only, when they quitted the apartment he withdrew also,--no salutation or mark of courtesy having passed between them.
The gig being by this time brought round, the two militia officers took their seats, and in high goodhumour and excellent spirits drove off. They continued their journey for a while without meeting with any adventure; till all at once, just as they bad reached a peculiarly dismal part of the road, a man sprang from one of the ditches, and seized the horse's head.
"I'll trouble you, gentlemen," said he, presenting a pistol towards them at the same time, "to alight. I should be very sorry to hurt either of you; but by my soul! if you don't do as I bid you, or try to open the locker, I'll blow your brains out in a jiffy. It shall be no joke to you, anyhow."
The officers sat stockstill, staring at each other, and not knowing what to make of it; but at last one, less flabbergasted than the other, exclaimed-- "And who the devil are you, that we should accommodate you in that manner?"
"Gentlemen," was the reply, "my name is Brennan."
There was magic in the sound of the word. Not another question was put, not another remonstrance offered, but, making all possible haste, both of them sprang to the ground, and stood as if waiting the bandit's further orders. Brennan, however, was by no means a sanguinary person; and in the present instance he had a whim to indulge as well as a booty to collect. He instantly assumed the vacated seat, and gathering up the reins, looked down upon his discomfited foes, and cried, "The next time you happen to make mention of my name, you'll probably treat it with more respect." So saying, he wheeled round, and wishing the militia-men good night, drove off.
A comfortless tramp these heroes had of it, over a dozen miles of muddy road, ere they reached Clonmel. They slunk quietly to their barrack-rooms, however, being extremely desirous of concealing their own shame, and Brennan's triumph from the knowledge of their brother-officers; and for a space of not less than six months they succeeded. But at the termination of that period, when the regiment stood under arms at evening parade, a boy entered the barrack-yard, leading in his hand a horse and gig, both of which were familiar to every one present. The boy walked up to the commanding officer and handed him a note, which he read with evident astonishment. This, of course, increased the curiosity of the rest, who gathered round their colonel, while our two chap-fallen heroes slank away, and took refuge in their own quarters. The colonel was desired to read aloud. He did so; and then the boy being questioned, the whole secret came out. Amid shouts of laughter from the audience to which he addressed himself, the urchin imitated Brennan's style of telling the story, and then, not without some substantial marks of the officers favour, he was permitted to withdraw. It is scarcely necessary to add, that the two worthies who, carrying arms, forgot at the moment of trial, to make use of them, never showed themselves again in the ranks of the -------- militia.
A character indeed! - and probably more deserving than most of his notoriety in story and in song.