Niall Ó Ciosáin on the Context of Michael Martin’s Confession

Irish scholar Niall Ó Ciosáin, a professor of history and philosophy at National University of Ireland, Galway, was asked to assess Michael Martin’s confession in relation to other accounts of 18th and 19th century Irish outlaws. Martin’s confession is not well-known in Ireland, so Dr. Ó Ciosáin brought a fresh perspective to an examination of the text:

“Martin’s confession is very reminiscent of one of the classic Irish criminal lives, The Life and Adventures of James Freney, first printed in 1754 and reprinted many times, usually as a chapbook. Freney, like Lightfoot, was from Kilkenny, and he had a horse called Beefsteaks, as did Lightfoot. The mixture of highway robbery and housebreaking is similar, but I can’t see for the moment that any of Lightfoot’s stories derive from Freney.  

“The story about lending a farmer money to pay tithes and then robbing the money back from the tithe-collector (p.58) is found two other Irish criminal lives, those of Captain Power and Redmond O’Hanlon, both of which feature in the classic Irish compendium of criminal biography. This was A Genuine History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Notorious Irish Highwaymen, Tories and Rapparees, also known as The Irish Rogues, a collection whose earliest surviving edition dates from 1747. According to Daithí Ó hÓgáin in his discussion of these lives, this story is an international migratory legend. (Ó hÓgáin, The Hero in Irish Folk History (1985), 178-192) 

“The other narrative that came to mind, possibly first published around 1820, is The Life and Adventures of Jeremiah Grant. Grant was hanged in 1816. This is also a mixture of housebreaking and burglaries in the same geographic area as Lightfoot – Waterford, Kilkenny, Kildare and up to Drogheda. Again, though, I can’t see any obvious borrowings by Lightfoot.  

“The writing style of the Lightfoot narrative is different to either Freney or Grant. It is quite plain and matter of fact, whereas Freney and particularly Grant are more ‘literary’, mock-heroic for the most part.

“The geography of the narrative is plausible enough, although the distances covered are sometimes very large. The one slip I noticed is placing Dungarvan in Co. Cork (p.33), although that’s not a huge mistake as it’s in Waterford, an adjoining county, about 30 km (20 miles) from the border with Co. Cork. 

“There’s one other aspect of Lightfoot’s narrative that to me adds to its plausibility, and that’s the references to the Irish language. The mixture of languages that is described in his first encounter with Doherty (p.21), the use of Irish for secret Ribbonmen communications (p.73) and for talking to Irish soldiers in Salem (p.95), all these are things that suggest a narrator who was born in an area that was bilingual. County Kilkenny was such an area around 1800. “

(The page references are to the 1926 Wayside Press reprint edition.) “

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