The Original Captain Thunderbolt

Michael Martin stated that he first met John Doherty, aka Captain Thunderbolt, in July 1816. However, seventeen years earlier, a different man who went by that alias was executed in Macroom, Cork County (about 100 miles from Martin’s Kilkenny County). His name was John Duggan, and his case was so infamous that it is likely that whispered stories about this Captain Thunderbolt persisted for decades.

In early 1799, John Duggan was part of a militia party of about 15 United Irishmen that raided the mansion of Colonel Hutchinson, a magistrate and landlord who resided about a mile from Macroom. The party was led by John Duggan’s uncle, Malachi Duggan, and included other Duggan family members. Their plan was to plunder the household, but not to injure the inhabitants. Among the raiders was Hutchinson’s gamekeeper. Colonel Hutchinson was at home when the men broke into his house, and recognized his gamekeeper as being among the group. Upon that recognition, Malachi Duggan ordered the gamekeeper to shoot Hutchinson.

The crime was reported in newspapers all over Ireland, and both the Belfast and Dublin papers named John Duggan as one of the party’s captains, and indicated that he went by the alias Captain Thunderbolt.

The story of the crime and the treachery involved in the capture of the raiders was so sensational that Charles Dickens edited an article about it in his magazine All the Year Round in October, 1862–fully 63 years after the events. Dickens, of course, was English, and would have had little sympathy for the murderers of Hutchinson or their cause; and few qualms over the punishment they received. What fascinated Dickens was the brazen betrayal involved.

The brutal administration of justice may, as Dickens claims, discouraged rebel activity in Cork in the short term. In the long term, it must have created nothing except hate toward the oppressive authorities:


“Though it is now sixty years ago, there are travelers yet alive who, going by stage-coach from Cork to Tralee, have seen the eight skulls that were stuck on spikes on the roof of the market-house in the town of Macroom, in the barony of Muskerry.

“People did not like to talk about the skulls. When questioned, the country people said “they were the murderers of Colonel Hutchinson;” but no more could be got out of them. The skulls were a source of disgust and horror to the inhabitants of Macroom, and to all the country round. They had not been subjected to any previous process, as was usually the case with the horrible remains of traitors’ heads and members, ordered to be exposed. These heads had been put over the market-house at Macroom just as they were struck from the bodies to which they belonged.

“Above one of the heads there was nailed a hand, severed at the wrist, and the sight of the half-bleached skulls was hideous. They cowed the people, and struck more fear of the law into their hearts than as many regiments of dragoons. That part of the country, for many years after the event that gave rise to this spectacle, was the most peaceable district in Ireland. The fate of the ‘murderers of Mr. Hutchinson’ was a very effective terror to evil-doers. But who were they and what was the story? Here it is: for though people would not tell it, it is on record in the criminal trials.

“Mr. Hutchinson was an amiable and worthy man, who lived at a house called Codrum, about a mile out of the market-town of Macroom. It stood in its own plantation, on a rising ground, with a lawn before it, dotted with ornamental trees, and adorned with fair beds of flowers. Colonel Hutchinson was a man of property; he belonged to what was called a “new family” but he was much respected by the neighbouring gentry; the poor people were fond of him, for he was an excellent and charitable man. In 1782, he had held a commission in the Irish Volunteers, and when they were disbanded the title of ‘Colonel’ was allowed to most of the officers. Colonel Hutchinson’s sister resided with him, and he had one man-servant. Although he was popular, he was nevertheless an active magistrate, and had been so, in the famous year ’98; but no harm had ever been done to him or his property. It was his habit to sit up reading late at night, and the light in his bedroom could be seen at all hours. He was known to have much valuable property in the house; but he took no extra precaution.

“One morning, early in the summer of the year 1800 [sic, 1799], the neighbourhood was thrown into commotion by the report that Colonel Hutchinson had been murdered in the night. Some labourers passing to their work saw the large kitchen window, in the front of the house, completely smashed. Going up to learn what had happened, they found the shutter broken in, the front door open, and the body of Colonel Hutchinson lying dead and stiff at the foot of the stairs, with a wound through his heart. Shot dead, as was supposed.

“None of the inmates could give any account of the matter. Miss Hutchinson could only say that she had been awakened by the noise of the kitchen window being smashed in, and the sound of several persons rushing into the house. In her fright she left her bed and hid behind a large press, upstairs in a garret, and had not ventured out till long after all was quiet. Reen, the man-servant, stammered and looked exceedingly guilty; but could give no information. He declared he was very deaf, and had not heard anything whatever during the night; that he had been, besides, fast asleep. Of course, he was an object of suspicion, and was taken into custody; but nothing could be got out of him. All the neighbouring gentry belonged to the yeomanry corps Catholics as well as Protestants and they bound themselves by an oath not to rest until the murderers were dis-covered.

“A reward of three hundred pounds was offered for any information that could lead to their detection. One remarkable thing was, that, although a handsome looking-glass had been broken, and some furniture pulled about, nothing had been stolen. Suspicion at last fell on a man named Malachi Duggan. He was a farmer of the better class; superior to the common peasantry in education and intelligence, as well as in position. He bore, however, a very bad character. In appearance he was the type of a ruffian; of gigantic stature, and strong in proportion; his countenance was brutal and ferocious, with a dash of cunning which made it more repulsive; oddly enough, he was in great request in the neighbourhood as a juryman! People who had a cause in court used to bribe him to be on the jury, and if he were satisfied with the amount, he, possibly, also bribed the summoning officer. He then always either tired out, or bullied, or over-persuaded, his fellow jurors. When the officers went to his house, accompanied by several magistrates, they found him at home. He made no attempt to escape, but treated the charge lightly. One of the magistrates advised him to give orders about his farm, as he would be away a long time.

“‘Sure it will not be more than a couple of days, at furthest,’ said he.

“‘It will be more than two days, or two weeks, or two years,’ said the magistrate.

“Malachi shrugged his shoulders, ordered his nag to be saddled, and he cut a long willow switch for the purpose of urging on his horse. He did not seem to attend to anything passing round him, but rode on in silence, with the end of this rod in his mouth. He continued to bite it, and when he and his escort arrived at Macroom, a distance of only three miles, the willow switch was bitten to within an inch of the end. He had been considering. He offered to turn informer if he might be assured of the three hundred pounds offered for reward. His offer was accepted, and Malachi Duggan stated that on the night in question fourteen men, under his orders, assembled and went in a body to attack Codrum, with the intention of plundering whatever they could carry off, but without any design to harm Colonel Hutchinson. Colonel Hutchinson was sitting up reading as usual, and, on hearing the noise of the window smashed and the shutter broken in, he immediately came down stairs to see what was the matter. He found the hall filled with men, some of whom were armed; amongst them he saw his own gamekeeper, named MacCarthy, and incautiously exclaimed:

“‘Are you here, MacCarthy?’

“Malachi Duggan, the captain of the gang, at once called out:

“‘MacCarthy, do your duty.’

“The gamekeeper raised his gun and fired. Colonel Hutchinson fell dead. The sight of his dead body struck them with panic, and they hastily left the house, taking nothing with them. Malachi Duggan gave the names of all the men who had been with him. The magistrates and gentry immediately began a strict search, but the criminals, as soon as it was rumoured that Malachi had turned Informer, took to the hills and concealed themselves, all the country people of course assisting and aiding them. The county of Cork was at that period under martial law, and the Cork yeomanry were a formidable body. They were determined that the murderers of Colonel Hutchinson should not escape, and they hunted down all the peasants suspected of giving them shelter. One day they were on the track of some of the murderers; but the inhabitants of a mountain hamlet had aided their escape. Prompt measures were taken on the spot. The cabins were searched; every article of furniture was dragged out, piled in a heap, and then set on fire; the wretched owners standing round, not daring to say a word. One of the soldiers, separated from the ranks, searching an outhouse, found a feather-bed carefully concealed. He was dragging this poor bed to share the fate of the rest, when the captain, a man of humanity, cried out:

“‘No, gentlemen; these wretched people have suffered enough; let us leave them at least this bed.’

“As he spoke, a ball whizzed past, grazing his ear. Turning round, a puff of white smoke was seen over the brow of a hill behind them. Immediately, he and two other gentlemen galloped to the spot, feeling sure they had come upon the criminals. They, however, found only two peasants, who had no connexion with Duggan or his gang. They belonged to the village, and, exasperated at seeing the destruction of their goods, had fired the shot. They were immediately seized, and dragged to the prison of Macroom. They were tried, not for firing on the yeomanry, but for helping and hiding the murderers, and they were condemned to be transported. Their trial and sentence made a great sensation. When they were on board the hulks, all their relations and friends came in a body to the court-house, and offered, if these two men were restored to their families, that the whole country should join to hunt down the murderers and give them up to justice. After some consideration this offer was accepted.

“The men were pardoned, sent back to their homes, and the people of the county began to keep their word. The murderers now led the lives of hunted wolves, and endured fearful hardships. Winter was approaching, and they did not dare to enter a cabin; every one was against them. Two contrived to escape to America; but the others wandered about amongst the mountains of Glenfesk, hiding under rocks, not daring to kindle a fire. At length the people pretended to become friendly to them: some villagers invited them to come to a supper in a barn, where they declared they would be safe. The men, more than half-famished, came down from the mountains, but refused to enter any building, lest they should be surprised; they sat down on the ground and began to eat voraciously. The peasants fell upon them, disarmed them, and gave them up to justice. The trial came on.

“Malachi Duggan swore to them all, gave a circumstantial account of the murder, and seemed utterly callous to his own infamy. One of the men was his own cousin, named John Duggan, a stone-mason. This man was not destitute of the family cunning; he declared that Colonel Hutchinson had not been shot at all; that if the body could be seen, it would be found that the wound had been made by a sharp instrument, and that the end of his chisel would fit the wound; therefore, all that Malachi swore about discharging the gun was a lie. This circumstantial statement rather shook the jury. The body was disinterred and examined. Three bullets and a brace of slugs were found behind the heart. This at once settled the matter. The prisoners were all sentenced to be hanged, and their heads to be exposed on spikes round the market-house MacCarthy, the game-keeper, as the man who fired the shot, was to have his hand struck off and affixed above his head.

“The prisoners were to be executed at Macroom, and they were conveyed from Cork in an open cart: the hangman–a hideous person–clothed for the occasion in bright green, with a belt on which was printed, in large letters, ‘Erin go Bragh’ to show what Erin go Bragh principles led to.

“The priests were removed from the criminals when they had performed about half the journey, in order that the people, seeing them die without the consolation of religion, might be struck with greater awe. One of the criminals was quite a young boy, cousin to the gamekeeper. He protested he was innocent, and that the worst thing he had ever done was stealing some hens’ eggs from his mother. It was the general impression that he was innocent, but that Duggan had sworn against him, in order not to leave one of the family alive, who might take revenge upon him. When the cart and the wretched men arrived at a grove of trees at the entrance of Macroom, they were halted. A beam was laid between two trees, and two of the men were hanged, one at each end: their companions looking on, and the people standing by in silence. When all had suffered, the hangman proceeded to carry out the remainder of the sentence, though even his callous feelings revolted against it, and he required copious draughts of whisky to carry him through it. The sight of eight heads struck a great deal more terror into the people than the execution.

“As for Malachi Duggan, the captain of the gang, and treacherous informer, he received the three hundred pounds promised, and returned to his farm. The neighbouring gentry endeavoured to countenance him, but he was quite brutalised, and had no feelings of shame. The first day on which he appeared in Macroom, he looked up to the heads and said, ‘Ho! ho! some of my soldiers are up there, set in array. It is the best place for the rascals.’

“He survived the trial many years, and died in his bed at last; but his memory is held, even yet, in the deepest execration, in that part of the country. Of this there was a curious instance not more than twelve or fourteen years ago. A gentleman living in the neighbourhood, some distance from Cork, had several servants. One of them was a very nice young girl, named Duggan, a far-away cousin of the horrible Malachi. There was a dispute about some trifling matter, and one of the other servants said to Duggan, ‘We shall really, miss, be obliged to call you Malachi.’ The poor girl did not answer a word, but that very evening left her place and set off to walk home to Cork, a distance of five-and-twenty miles, so disgraceful was the imputation of belonging ever remotely to the treacherous informer.”

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