Ballyadden Church, Laois, Ireland

Ballyadden Church, also know as Ballyadding, is a small late medieval church of which scant history is known however it is the final resting place of the infamous Highwayman and Rapparee Cahir na gCapall (Charles of the Horses).

Born Charles Dempsey in the townland of Lea in the early 1700s, his father had been an irregular with the army of James II, after the fall of Limerick and the Treaty of 1691 he had moved to a small farm in the area. Dempsey had several sons two of which became highwaymen, Cahir/Charles and Luke. A third brother named Daniel had been heading for a life in the priesthood but when he became aware of the amount of money his brothers were making through horse rustling he decided to join them. Daniel was of great assistance to Cahir as he could write and speak English, Cahir understood English but could not read or write and spoke mainly in Irish. Cahir had been well known as an excellent horse rider from a very young age. By the age of 12 he was already catching horses and was known as a horse whisperer, a skill which people said was granted to him by a witch from Monaghan.

As an adult Cahir became well known throughout the country and took on apprentices to learn his skill of horse-thieving, these apprentices paid Cahir a fee for his knowledge. Dempsey also had many ‘spies’ throughout the country who informed him of any forthcoming sales of horse or cattle. The stolen horses were mainly sent to Ulster and Scotland to be sold at fairs, some were traded with the advantage being the horse received this way was far easier to sell openly, an early form of money laundering if you will! On many occasions Cahir would have a stolen horse hidden and then receive a substantial amount of money for its safe return from the rightful owner, careful to not be implicated in anyway in its disappearance! Cahir and his brothers built a substantial fortune from the horse and cattle rustling and the odd mail coach robbery. However Cahir was soon caught and imprisoned in Naas Gaol after one of his apprentices informed on him to avoid prison time. Cahir in turn turned informer and gave the names of prominent outlaws in every county in Leinster, by doing this not only did he free himself but also incarcerated his enemies. He was also careful not to betray any of his own comrades
Cahir’s freedom did not last for long as he was imprisoned for stealing a stallion, remarkably the night before his case was to be tried he had one of his own men replace the stallion with a mare of similar markings this when it was discovered the horse was a mare and not a stallion the case was thrown out and Cahir avoided the gallows. Soon after this he was out one day near Lea Castle when a local sheriff spotted him and pursued Cahir into the ruins of the old castle, Cahir climbed the stairs of the castle on the horse and jumped out of a window onto the bawn wall, the horse was killed immediately but Cahir managed to crawl to the bank of the River Barrow and swim to safety on the other side, the scene of this daring jump is still known as ‘Cahir na gCapall’s Lep’ .

The attempts to catch Cahir in some sort wrongdoing were increasing and he was at risk of exposure from some within his gang. The Dempsey brothers started to notice that their escapes were getting tighter and suspected one of the gang was feeding information to the authorities. When the outlaws discovered who had betrayed them the gang wanted him dead, however Cahir went for a quite brutal punishment, knowing that his traitor could not read or write he cut out his tongue so he would no longer have anyway to communicate.

The authorities continued to pursue the Dempseys and Cahir and Daniel were taken into custody at Maryborough (now Portlaoise) Gaol. Bizarrely Hector Graham of Lea castle on which Dempsey’s farm was situated stood as a character witness for the brothers and they were released, however after this a dispute arose between Graham and Dempsey and Cahir’s aged parents were evicted from their farm. Cahir vowed revenge and placed stolen horses at Lea Castle, he informed the authorities and Graham was arrested, only barely avoiding the gallows. Graham vowed to have his revenge and joined forces with the local sheriff to organise a group of men to track the Dempsey’s every move. Once Cahir was spotted committing a crime the group pursued him relentlessly, eventually capturing him and his brother in November 1734. They were first brought to Naas Gaol but then to Maryborough and stood trial in August 1735. A large list of charges were put against Cahir and Daniel and both were eventually found guilty and were sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. Cahir and Daniel’s bodies were handed back to his family and Cahir was buried in an unmarked grave in the east end of the ruined church at Ballyadden. Cahir’s name lives on in folklore and song and a wood near Monasterevin is known as Cahir na gCapall’s wood as it was said to be a favourite hiding place of the outlaw.

It is believed the church was destroyed by Cromwellian Forces and was certainly in ruin by the time of Cahir’s death, there are many burials in the graveyard from the 1700s including the graves of a James and Laurence Dempsey circa 1741, who may have been brothers of Daniel and Cahir.

Alot of the information gathered for this article came from the excellent book, The Irish Highwaymen by Stephen Dunford, would wholeheartedly recommend getting a copy.

GPS: 53.10662, -7.11435

3 thoughts on “Ballyadden Church, Laois, Ireland

  1. Wonderful storytelling that really energizes your photography with a sense of history! It’s arresting to imagine the more hair-raising biographical details play out in the gray landscape you’ve captured in pictures.

    • Thank you Tiege, the highwaymen of Ireland has always been one of my favourite topics.

      • I agree it’s a fascinating subject, and one with very deep roots in Ireland. The legendary Finn McCool is referred to as a wandering outlaw as far back as the 7th century! I’ll have to check out the book you recommend.

        Looking forward to more of your work, it’s always inspiring to see these olden monuments up close and personal.

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