Claude Duval by William Powell Frith, 1859-1860 (Manchester Art Gallery)

gentlemen of the road

Our Arts Correspondent Emmet McGonagle finds out about infamous Highwaymen, including our own notorious Cushy Glen…

Respected local historian Dr Rob Curran provided an audience of enthusiasts with a unique insight into the lifestyle of a highwayman at his informative talk at the Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre on 29 October. Images of men in three-pointed hats and fancy coats were quickly diminished by tales of ambush, robbery and murder.

The first highwayman mentioned was Claude Duval – a simple stable boy who grew to pursue a treacherous life. Duval was a Robin Hood-type character, famed for the theft  of fifty guineas from Squire Roper, Master of the Royal Buckhounds. He was found guilty of six robberies and executed. Duval became the embodiment of rebellion and romance, and was famously written about by William Pope. In spite of his dangerous livelihood, Claude Duval established the idea of highwaymen being ‘the gentlemen of the road’.

Another highwayman deemed a poacher, a burglar, and a murderer, was Richard Dick Turpin. Turpin was famed for his alleged two hundred mile horse journey from Kent to York as an alibi after a robbery. From this event, Ainsworth romanticised Turpin to appear to be a rebellious yet understood character. Stories about Dick Turpin have since then been the subject of a Penny Dreadful book, a film and a television series.

Even though highwaymen are portrayed as loveable rogues who dramatically jump over rivers to escape the wrath of the law, the life of a highwayman was by no means as dramatic as it seems. In spite of common belief, highwaymen didn’t wear fancy clothing, nor did they wear masks. Highwaymen lived in caves and abandoned housing in an attempt to find shelter; and, due to their title of ‘outlaws’, learned to trust no one so as to not be sold out by others. The fact that heroes were too trusting of those around them added to the romanticism of life on the highway.

Irish highwaymen were said to be some of the most dangerous of their type in Europe, with at least two famous highwaymen from each county. Although some moved to England to pursue their endeavours, most stayed close to home to reap havoc upon those who stood in their way. One of the most renowned Irish highwaymen is Richard Power, whose adventures inspired Thin Lizzy’s infamous ballad ‘Whiskey in the jar’.

In spite of relentless support, the romantic image of highwaymen was changing. Dr Curran described the changes of image through three different eras: the Costello era, the Freney era, and the Brennan era. This era is home to Limavady’s most notorious highwayman Cushy Glen. Glen was part of the army in Derry, and left with the army’s cook to live on the Murder Hole road between Limavady and Coleraine. His tactic was to go into pubs to overhear who was passing on the Murder Hole road, and inspect how much money they were carrying. Business was frequently carried out in pubs, and so the amount of money being carried made the area opportune for Glen. When his victim left the pub Glen would wait in front of them on the road, and while they were passing, he would shoot the horse, cut the victim’s throat and loot the body. Glen was shot by a potential victim before he had the chance to use his blade.

Even though the history of highwaymen entails brutal stories of misanthropic murderers and ruthless robbers; the image of a men jumping defiantly over rivers after a triumphant heist will always sweeten the reality of the life on the road. After all, everyone loves a hero.

Image: Claude Duval by William Powell Frith (1859-60, Manchester Art Gallery)

 

This entry was posted on November 2nd, 2013 at 4:13 pm by Desima

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