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The legend of Red Charlie Kavanagh


Cahir Ruadh Caomhánach, known in English as Red Charley Kavanagh, of theline of the Garyhill Kavanaghs, became a legend in his own lifetime. Red Charlie was from Ballaghmore, in present day Co. Carlow, and is recorded as being alive in 1590. He was the son of Donal of Kilmoglise and Garryhill and great-grandson of Murrough Ballagh Caomhánach, founder of the Garyhill and Ballyloughan septs of the Clan.

Red Charlie has been described as an Irish Robin Hood. his good and brave deeds have become part of the folklore of the Wexford side of the Blackstairs mountain range where he was forced to hide from the English. He spent his life harassing the forces of the crown and most particularly the English settlers and their strongholds. His favourite pastime was to attack these settlements when defenders were few, and on his return to his hideout he would share his spoils with his fellow Irish he met along his way. This ensured their help in eluding his pursuers, and endeared him to those he helped. His misdeeds, save the one which was to cause his downfall, are not recorded, but this one caused his undoing and probably his death. His problem was his fondness for the ladies, one lady in particular, whose heart was beating, not for Cahir Ruadh, but for her childhood sweetheart.

Cahir Ruadh with Brian MacCahir Caomhánach, Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne and others were in revolt against the English in 1572. After considerable fighting all the leaders submitted except Cahir Ruadh. He chose the life of a raparee or freebooter and made his home in the wilds of the Blackstairs on the Wexford side away from his home on the Carlow side. His den was just bellow Scollagh Gap, an extremely inaccessible place in those days. Before his freebooting days his home was at Ballaghmore in Fortha, Co. Carlow. His son seems to have submitted to the crown and was given tenure of the lands which were finally confiscated in 1641 fromhis grandson Owen MacDomhnall Kavanagh for his efforts in the 1641 rebellion. The lands were never again restored to a Kavanagh.

Many legends of the freebooters (most of whom were those clansmen dispossessed of their lands because of opposition to the English) are known to us through Irish folklore and preserved through the oral traditions of the period. The story of Red Charlie was preserved for us through the books of Patrick Kennedy (1801 - 1873) Ireland's foremost folklorist who was born in Kilmyshal, the burial place of the Clomullen Sept of the Kavanaghs. As a point of interest Kennedy is regarded as the most accurate recorder of folklore most especially for the area he was born and lived in, Kavanagh Country. The legend of Red Charley if faithfully recounted as told to Kennedy by his grandmother who would have heard it during her childhood in the 1750's.

The legend of Red Charley may be read in Kennedy's book "The Banks of the Boro" first published in 1867 with a recent reprint in 1989 due to the efforts of the Patrick Kennedy Appreciation Society who encouraged the reprint by Duffry Press Enniscorthy.

Michael Kavanagh

This article first appeared in the Clann Chaomhánach Annual for 1995