Halloween Special: Crotty The Highway Robber

When you walk in an unfamiliar place in twilight hours and see a laminated sheet of paper pinned to the tree trunk, stop and read it – not just take a photo of it to read at home like I did on my first visit to Crough Wood. This might save you from trouble or perhaps unwanted ghost-sighting 😉 

After carelessly taking the picture, I walked out of the wood with intention to follow the loop trail and return to the same spot. The view was familiar – I have never been in the Crough Wood before but walking along the Mahon River I knew that I saw the towering rocky walls of Coummahon filling the skyline. I reckoned it would take me less than an hour to return. As it was getting darker, I had to adjust my camera settings. No one was around as far as I could see, but it was hard to tell was it a good or a bad thing. I couldn’t help feeling a little wary, for no reason. Probably it was the mist that began to form in the valley…

Everything went well, though. I hiked to the Magic Road, then to the Crough road and finally returned to the tree from which I started the hike. A little matter of walking to the car park through the dark woods along the loud river had to be addressed… 

The river distracted me, and I took a few photos of the ghostly looking waterfalls. When I returned to the car park, there was no other car but mine. 

At home, I downloaded my photographs and finally read the laminated message. No way… I should have stayed on the trail longer! I did some research, compared the information, checked out the maps. I got hooked on the legend and decided to visit the eastern slopes of the Comeraghs again to write my own version of the story. First I went on a hike to Kilclooney Wood and Coumshingaun Lake. 

Then I hiked to Lough Coumgaurha. It is what the map says. I was there many years ago, and I sure knew the name by which the lake goes in these parts of the world. The Crotty’s Lake. Here is the

                Story  of  Crotty  The  Robber

Waterford Quay was busy with the crowds heading to the gallows – near to where the present days Clock Tower is situated. This kind of entertainment stopped 30 years later when the executions were relocated to behind the prison walls, but in March 1742 the hanging and beheading of the notorious bandit William Crotty was a must to attend and discuss over a pint later.

His pregnant wife stood there and watched him die.

As if it wasn’t already enough to bear, she had to witness his head being displayed over the gateway of the county jail in Ballybricken as a warning to those wishing to follow in his footsteps.

“Crotty was decapitated, according to his sentence, and his head was placed on a spike over the gate of the county gaol, which was at a great thoroughfare, and often a resting-place for those who brought milk to the markets. In a few days the head became in a state of putrid solution, and began to distill drops of gore into the milk-cans, for some time before it was discovered, to the inexpressible disgust and horror of all who had been drinking the milk. The hair did not decay with the flesh – it grew on the bony cranium; and there for a long time the ghastly skull of this miscreant excited as much horror after his death as his cruel actions had during his life.”

Ireland Sixty Years Ago, by John Edward Walsh. Dublin, 1851

Crotty’s loyal wife Mary was refused a funeral, and his body was taken away to the City Infirmary and given for dissection. Thus ended the earthly life of a “most desperate and indefatigable” robber, whose name was a “word of terror” to such extent that he was even suspected of cannibalism by some. The name survived though – in legends and landmarks.

                                                                   

William Crotty was born in Russelstown, on the Western side of the Comeraghs, to a poor family evicted from their holding.  Becoming an outlaw was not a surprising career choice for a young man in his situation. As it came out, he was well suited for the job – his operations extended to Kilkenny and Tipperary over the years. He skillfully avoided capture by shoeing his horses backward, and his knowledge of the mountains helped him disappear in thin air right in front of his pursuers. 

 Crotty had a safe retreat – a deep underground cave near the foot of the rocky pinnacle at the Coumgaurha lake that could be accessed only by the means of a rope dropped down.  He used another cave at Coumshingaun lake for the stolen livestock. His observation point – the Crotty’s Rock –  commands the most expansive views of high roads from Dungarvan to Carrick and Tramore – no one would come close unnoticed. By 1739, Crotty had formed a small gang of accomplices. His operations flourished.

The legend says “he was the leader of a gang of highwaymen who stole from the rich to give to the poor, much in the same manner as Robin Hood”. It breaks my heart to tell you that it wasn’t the case.

I can picture that sad country and immensely poor people suffering consequences of British colonialism and religious defeat. My heart goes out to them. I can see how a daring young lad like William Crotty could have easily become a hero and brighten their day by sharing a shilling or a pint; mingling with them on a dance floor or a hurling field; hurting those who wronged them.

The gang was active for at least four years breaking in, murdering, stealing property.  After they murdered  George Williams, things went south very fast. Crotty’s most trusted companion and the mastermind behind most of their crimes Davey Norris realised that he would be better off giving evidence against his boss to authorities (who had already known about Crotty’s operations long ago). Then he would visit the cave and steal whatever was stashed there. Norris was illiterate and signed with a cross, but he sang like a canary selling Crotty and his other companions, and perhaps obtained pardon for his crimes as he was never arrested and eventually died in his bed. Some of his companions were hanged, like Crotty. Poor Thomas Mara was hanged after nine attempts. The rope got stuck. 

Norris and his wife continued to inform authorities about Crotty’s activities and whereabouts. There are different versions of his capture, but the only fact matters: Crotty The Robber was betrayed by the man he trusted most. 

They say Crotty’s wife, Mary, wrote this caoine after he was executed:

William Crotty I have often tould you,

That David Norris would come round you,

In your bed, when you lay sleeping,

And leave me here in sorrow weeping.

Och-hone, oh! 

Oh, the judge but he was cruel,

Refused a long day to my jewel;

Sure I thought that you would, may be, 

See the face of your poor baby, 

Och-hone, oh! 

Norris was afraid for his life. He filed sworn affidavit against Mary Crotty, and a large reward was offered for her apprehension. Determined not to be taken alive, the unfortunate woman threw herself down the Crotty’s Rock.

Mary has found peace, but William’s ghost now haunts the Comeragh Mountains. His ghost is known as Dark Stranger who “comes out of the mist, tall, dark clothed, moving purposefully, his footsteps making no sound.” The ghost can also be seen on a white horse. He would cross the Crough road and ride towards the Crotty’s Rock, Rathgormack and Carrignagower where his treasures lie hidden somewhere beneath a rock with a hoof mark. 

Happy Halloween, my dear friends! Stay safe and enjoy this mysterious season. Because of the lockdown we won’t have a chance to visit the Crotty’s land at night, as I hoped we would. 

Each location featured in this post will be presented as a separate hike in the nearest future. Have your boots and backpacks ready, my dear walking companions.

Meanwhile, you might also reread some of my previous Halloween stories:

Petticoat Loose,  Beresford Ghost,  Ghosts from the 1970’s and a grim Loftus Hall story.

  Have a fun weekend! 

86 comments

    1. Ah Rose, I don’t believe in that for a second! Scared of milk? After all your SlasherMonster experience? ❤
      Are you still blogging somewhere? I miss your poetry.

  1. BEAUTIFUL! Ha, what a brilliant treat your post is to read this evening. As always, your photos bring such quality to your surroundings, showing how wonderful nature can be ~ and your writing always adds to the atmosphere… and this one is simply awesome, so enjoyed it. A bit sad about his poor wife which also gives me the feeling Crotty would have been great to share a pint with, hear his stories, and who knows maybe ride with him 🙂 Of course, your 2nd to last photo made me smile… perfect! Wishing you well ~

    1. Thank you, Dalo! 😊 Crotty has been a candidate for my Halloween story for quite a while. No luck with meeting his ghost though, but there are many other creatures inhabiting Ireland, not necessarily the ghosts, so I hope for a new story next year.

  2. What a great post. Both photos and story. Yes, life was very hard then. Brutal. Many a young boy was sent to the penitentiary in Australia for stealing a loaf of bread…
    I thought this was past us, but lately I’m not too sure…
    I have found old negatives of Minette. Will try to scan them for a future post.
    Take good care of yourself Inese… Please do.

      1. You’re in lockdown again in Ireland aren’t you? That takes its toll too. Difficult to get out of one’s own head.
        Never mind. Enjoy your week-end my friend. 🙏🏻

  3. I seem to have missed this delicious adventure to William Crotty’s haunt. Even when you didn’t reveal the presence of a paranormal existence, I could sniff something amiss. I wonder if the Dark Stranger kept lurking at your back so as not to scare you and blow his chance of getting immortalised in your blog. His is a story of life gown awry for no fault of his own. He did pay the price of his deeds, although whatever happened to his wife was execrable.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Uma. I welcome the Dark Stranger to come out of the mist and show himself anytime 😊 Not scared a bit 😊
      There are very little records about his deeds preserved in archives (the only Assize record I mentioned in my blog, a tiny slice of the 6 month long hearings), so I don’t have an educated opinion besides that yes, a robber he was indeed. William Crotty’s image has been created over the centuries by the way people wanted him to be remembered – heroic or evil. My goal was to highlight two things: he was betrayed by his close accomplice, and the way he died was barbaric and inadequate.
      Stay safe, Uma. My heart goes out to your people.

      1. Yes, his punishment seems to be far crueler than the atrocities he might have perpetrated on his victims. The levels to which flocks of Sapiens can descend has been astounding since we moved further from being apes. As for betrayals by one’s own, nothing can be more painful and tormenting than that.

        Personally, we have had a surprise rendezvous with the execrable virus. We will survive for the while, we are a tribe of thick-skinned foragers.

        1. Oh I just read your story, Uma. What a scare! You take it easy with that foraging, man 😉 Rest is crucial when recovering from a virus, as is water and everything with vitamin C. Any persistent symptoms have to be addressed, just in case. I know, I know… Just worrying about you XX

  4. A story to give us the shivers for Halloween Inese! But a tragic tale of betrayal too, and I did wonder if somewhere Crotty was laughing at those drinking the milk his head had dripped into 🙂

    1. Thank you, John! I am planning to put up three blog posts about the locations I have mentioned in this tale. You are welcome to join the hike 😊

  5. I like much photographs taken in the late afternoon, when night is close. These are very moody, and fantastic odyssey of a man that outlived his corpse through legend, who knows the truth, let’s hope he was not an extreme man, as some robbers “progrese” to be, but just sad circumstances.

    1. Well, he was a bandit. But it is complicated… You can find more about the events in two old books if you follow the links. There is some truth, but only a fraction of it. The true man behind the story has been forgotten.

      I will start the Crotty hikes in mid November, starting with the Crough woods. The place is always dark because of the trees that obscure the sky. The main attraction is River Mahon – most of the pictures will be those from the tiny waterfalls.

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