The Real Captains of Early 19th Century Ireland

In Michael Martin’s confession, he stated that at age 16 (1811) he joined “the United Irishmen, or, as they were more generally termed, the Ribbon-men.” Martin drew a direct line between the secret society he joined and the United Irishmen that led the Irish Rebellion of 1798. The political goals of the 1798 Rebellion were somewhat different than those of the later group that Martin joined, which at the rural level fought against tithes, onerous rents, and capricious evictions. The Ribbon-men were organized into local cells, with raiding actions led by “Captains.” Their object was to raise monies to both arm themselves and to redress the grievances of their oppressed neighbors. In Martin’s experience, younger members of the Ribbon-men were little more than petty criminals, committing robberies unsanctioned by their seniors, and keeping the spoils for their own carousing.

These Captains often adopted menacing aliases, employed to help hide their identity (though a few went by their own name.) Almost without exception, the only time their names appeared in publications (books or newspapers) was after they had been captured. A few of them are listed here:

Feb 1791: Francis alias Captain Logan, the leader of a gang of robbers, was captured by police at his lodgings in Dublin.

Aug 1795: John Magee, alias John Stout alias Captain Stout, placed on trial in Galway for recruiting locals to the cause of the Defenders (an allied group with the United Irishmen).

Mar 1799: Andrew Lee, alias Captain Whack, tried for robbery. Acquitted after a witness against him changed his testimony.

May 1805: William Carr, alias Covreen, alias Captain Carr, hanged at Castlebar for being a rebel, highwayman, and murderer. Carr killed another rebel, Captain Slash.

Feb 1810: Thomas Halloran, alias Captain Hawk, arrested at Annacotty by the High Constable of Limerick for a series of robberies.

Oct 1810: Luke Williams, alias Captain Dasher, charged with treason, robbery, and felony is lodged in the Limerick jail.

Jan 1811: Gorman, alias Captain Fearnot, arrested by the High Sheriff of Limerick and charged with robbery and felony.

Oct 1815: A threatening placard signed by Captain Fearnot, Captain Midnight, and Brigadier General Outlaw was placed on the door of Kildysart Chapel, County Clare. It threatened anyone paying tithes or (Anglican) Church taxes.

Oct 1815: Patrick Cunningham, alias Captain Midnight, committed to jail in Galway for murder, burglary, and other outrages. [Note: likely a different Captain Midnight than above.]

Jul 1818: Anthony Gallagher, aka Captain Gallagher, found guilty at Castlebar for robbery and burglary. Sentenced to death.

Aug 1820: Murtagh (Murty) Gibbons, aka Captain Thunderbolt, sentenced to transportation to Australia. [Note that “Thunderbolt” Gibbons was guilty of crimes in Galway. He does not match Michael Martin’s “Captain Thunderbolt” in name, origin, or range of operation [Gibbons was from Tiaquin, Galway; and was active after Martin indicated that John Doherty had left Ireland.]

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