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Monday, September 25, 2023

Irish outlaw’s treasure was never found but here’s how to get to his Waterford cave hideout

Commonly described as the Age of Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, the 18th century could also be labelled the ‘age of the rapparee’. This was the period when an abundance of wealthy British settlers arrived to build palatial mansions, some of which survive to this day.

This new ruling class lacked legitimacy among ordinary people, however, as many of these were Catholics who had been evicted from their land holdings. 

As the population of settlers increased in Ireland, there were growing numbers of well-to-do people undertaking necessary journeys on horseback or by carriage.

Such travellers were extremely vulnerable to attack since there was no police force in Ireland prior to the 19th Century. In such a fertile ground for lawlessness, every area had its highwaymen and outlaws who lived off rich pickings. 

Among the most famous were James Freney in Kilkenny, Eamonn an Chnoic in Tipperary, Redmond O’Hanlon in Armagh, and Willie Brennan in Cork.

Such anti-authority role models were much appreciated in times when ordinary people were oppressed and had little to lose from robbery. 

So, it is perhaps unsurprising, that many highwaymen achieved a cult status as anti-establishment, but resolutely upstanding rapparees. Indeed, some were elevated to quixotic, anti-British heroes celebrated in song and story.

One such was County Waterford-based rapparee, William Crotty. Born at Russellstown on the western edge of the Comeragh Mountains, he was reputedly the son of a poor farmer who had been evicted from his holding. 

Active during the early part of the 18th Century he was, unlike Eamon an Chnoic and Redmond O’Hanlon, not of genteel extraction and does not appear to have become an outlaw as part of an ideological opposition to British rule.

Details about him are a trifle hazy, but he seems to have become a highwayman simply because few other options presented themselves. If that is the case it was, initially at least, a successful choice. 

According to local folklore, he led a gang of highwaymen, who stole from the rich settlers but then distributed the taking among poor people.

With an unmatched knowledge of the Comeragh Mountains, he was adept at giving his pursuers the slip by hiding near a remote lake, to which he gave his name, and reversing the shoes on his horses to put pursuers off his track. 

At the spectacular viewing point above the lake, known today as Crotty’s Rock, the outlaw kept watch for redcoats moving towards him. In such an eventuality, plan B was a retreat to a claustrophobic cave on the opposite side of the lake, which could only be accessed by use of a rope.

The mouth of Crotty's Cave. Picture: John G O'Dwyer
The mouth of Crotty’s Cave. Picture: John G O’Dwyer

Unable to apprehend him, the British authorities resorted to bribing his close associate, David Norris. According to legend, Norris, having tipped off the authorities of his whereabouts, plied Crotty with whiskey to make him sleepy, before wetting his gunpowder and stealing his dagger. 

When soldiers arrived, Crotty was easy meat: inebriated and defenseless. He was put on trial at Ballybricken in Waterford City and found guilty. 

After being hanged, his head was cut off and left on display outside the county jail as a stark warning to other outlaws. Then, in a final melodramatic dénouement, his wife is reputed to have jumped to her death from the rocks above his hideout.

Robbing the rich to help the poor may have been Crotty’s modus operandi, but apparently, he also retained some of the cash to cover expenses. 

Local legend holds that this golden hoard still awaits a lucky finder somewhere amid the Comeragh fastness, while also maintaining that Crotty’s ghost is sometimes to be seen seeking the lost treasure.

When I first sought out Crotty’s Cave, its inaccessibility was emphasised by the fact that I failed to find it. Availing of local knowledge, I later uncovered its entrance in a small crag just above the lake. 

Immediately obvious was the fact that the cave is accessible without a rope, but it was also clear that all the advantages would lie with a defender.

The entrance requires an upward scramble through a narrow, vertical fissure, where an attacker would be extremely vulnerable to assault from above. 

Then, it was a tight squeeze down a passage before the cave turns sharply to reach a ledge, which could have made a rough sleeping place for the outlaw. 

Certainly, the idea that the cave would have been a hideout for Crotty had a ring of truth; desperate measures would have been necessary to avoid the hangman’s noose, and here was an ideal sanctuary for an 18th-century outlaw.

  • If you would like to visit Crotty’s Lake and Cave, the location is marked on the Comeragh 1:25,000 Scale Map, which is produced by East West Mapping.
  • John G O’Dwyer’s book, The Comeraghs, Galtees, Knockmealdown and Slieve Bloom Mountains, contains a full walk description for Crotty’s Lake.

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