Collier The Robber

Talk to Navan and District Historical Society on 20 Feb 2014

by Brendan Matthews


Collier spent much of his time in County Meath and Tubberorum Lane off Ludlow Street, Navan.

Sources are: The State of the County Papers 1796-1831, Preston Papers, Viscount Gormanston in the National Library, Drogheda Newsletter, Drogheda Journal and Drogheda Argus.

13 Aug 1849: Michael Collier died from cholea in Edward Reilly's pub opposite the Post Office, in Drogheda.  Within a month on 15 Sept 1849 there was an ad in a paper about progress of a publication on the life and adventures of the late Michael Collier to celebrate the Leinster Highwayman embracing to connect those individuals,  civil and official who came into contact with him, compiled with care and undoubted authority on official documents from all information on the subject to enable the author John Atherton of 52 West Street, Drogheda, to make it as correct as possible, will be acknowledged with thanks to prevent the public being imposed by any spurious editions.  This work will not appear until the 5th October next. (1849).  The book did not appear on the 5th October.  It took another few months for the book to appear on the 5th January 1850.  It was another advertisement in the Drogheda Argus of the 5th January 1850 stating the book is now being published.  A second edition was published in the mid 1940s.

Within a couple of weeks of Collier dying, John Atherton who worked in the Drogheda Argus went on to be editor of the Drogheda Conservative.

The reason may be that many of Collier’s gang were hung because he became an informer to the crown an 'approver' as they called informers and that is the reason Collier got away from hanging at the end of a rope or being transported.

From 1850, the book being just out, those tales would have been told around the firesides.  The Knights of the Road who take shelter in the limekilns to get heat in the winter would go sleeping on top of the limekiln.  Two Knights of the Road were breaking into a house on the North Road, Drogheda.  One time in 1874 they were found dead by workmen the following day when the gases from the limekiln killed them.  One of the Knights of the Road had a copy of “Collier the Robber” along with a book called “The Siege of Athlone” which were placed in the pocket of the man found dead.  The tales that are in this book are the tales that most of the people would have heard about Michael Collier, about how farmers in the field would protect him by him climbing into a box or a sack of potatoes and the soldiers would ride on.  He would put dummies in the ditch when he held up the coach letting on that his men surrounded the coach.

There are a lot of hidden inconsistencies in Atherton’s book when you go to look at the facts of Michael Collier.  There are no dates, times, places within this book.  The way which Atherton goes on to call the gentry is wrong such as Mr. C. or Mr. B. or Mr. P.  This is strange because if Collier had robbed Lord Gormanston, there would have been public knowledge of these gentry who were robbed.  As soon as they would have been robbed there would have been advertisements in the local paper looking for Colliers capture with substantial rewards.

In the first few pages Atherton states that at the time that Collier ended up in 1849, going into a solicitors office in Drogheda every now and then, a respectable solicitor, and that went on because he was afraid he was going to be done on the charge of bigamy.  He had married his first wife in Drogheda.  She had ended up in the Drogheda workhouse and then he had married a second time in Navan, a widow.  The woman in Drogheda was now playing games with him.  He was afraid and in fear of this bigamy charge that was before him.  This was weeks or months before he passed away in August 1849 and that is why he went to the solicitor and this solicitor got tales off Collier.  He was the main person who supplied Atherton with the story.  Bigamy was a crime under Section 57 of the Offences Against the Person Act which only came into existence in 1861.  So that does not stand up in the book.  A charge of bigamy was the last thing in Colliers mind to upset or worry him considering what he had done on the road.  I’m sure he would have cared less if he married a thousand women

These are the first few pages and following on from that Atherton speaks of the coaches that Collier robbed. These were the mail coaches from Dublin to Drogheda.  The book speaks of the coaches Collier robbed in the village of Naul on the boundary of County Meath and County Dublin.  Naul village where the coach passed through was where Collier was born.  Taylor’s and Skinner’s map of 1777 shows the milestones of the old coach road to Drogheda going through Beamore, Cooper Hill, Dardistown Castle, Bellewstown Hill, The Naul village, Ballybohan to the back of what is now Dublin Airport, St. Margarets, the Boat Inn, into Phibsboro and then into the Church St, Dublin.  That was the very old coach route from Drogheda to Dublin carrying  people from Dublin to Drogheda or onto Belfast or Newry at the time Collier was operating.  The other road had opened between 1777 and 1785 which was the new coach road from Drogheda to Dublin which went out past Julianstown and Gormanstown, Balbriggan, Balrothery, Naul to Dublin.

Atherton writes about a woman who was on her knees in front of a highwayman near Nobber.  Collier came along and saved her from passing over her money and her purse.  She was a poor woman that Collier saved, by telling that the other highway man robber had no brains.  Collier gave her the money back.  When the woman went onto Kells she reported what had happened.  Atherton says that both Collier and the other highway robber were picked up and subsequently brought to Trim Jail and at the court case the woman gave evidence against both of them.  She said that she didn’t get all her money back.  A story about a woman did take place in the case of a woman called Brigid Ellis.  That was in a coach coming from Dublin to Drogheda which was stopped outside Drogheda at Smithstown.  Collier and his gang in July 1812 was involved and Brigid was in that carriage and she did go to court afterwards to identify Collier.  She said that she thought that she was going to be killed by Collier’s brother in law, the red headed fellow she called him.

Atherton’s book has no dates in it.  From other sources I will talk about Michael Collier, who he was, where he came from and what his game was all about.  The period that he operated was the early 19th century and he was born in the latter 18th century.  Here are just a few pictures that I’ll just go through for a few minutes.  They are from sources from police records in the Kings Inn in Dublin.  They are the state papers from Sir Robert Peel who introduced the first Police Force into Ireland long before he introduced it to the London Metropolitan Police.  He introduced the police into Ireland.  The first Police Act against crime in  Ireland was done in 1814 by Robert Peel.  He was only about 27 years of age.  He had a hatred for Collier.  He was actually an MP for Cashel in Tipperary.  He introduced the first police force in Ireland at the time and that was to do with highway robbery, the burning of farmsteads, houses, the maiming of animals.  Here’s where the Ribbonmen and the Defenders played a role in operating these nocturnal activities as well as lots of things.  This is the period that Collier’s information comes from in these documents so I’ll just run through them briefly.

1812; Collier who has long since infested the counties of Louth and Meath has been arrested by Captain Fox in Church St., Dublin. Although several of the inhabitants of that neighbourhood were repeatedly called upon to offer their assistance not one gave the least aid.  The above mentioned Michael Collier was charged with divers offences.  In the newspapers of the day, the gentry who lost cattle are giving rewards for up to £50 for Michael Collier.  Considering that the average weeks wage was 2 ½ shillings a week which works out at about £6 a year that’s 8 years or more wages.  So this is a description of Collier being arrested in Church St., Dublin.  He was arrested at 12 o’clock in the day trying to flog these cattle which he robbed in the Meath and Drogheda area.  Adverts were already placed in the paper for weeks in advance looking for people to hand up Collier and his gang.  Collier the noted daring robber, whose depredations has caused alarm in the neighbouring counties of Dublin, Wicklow, Meath and Carlow and who stood returned to prison committed for trial.   An approver on the part of the crown is to appear as witness and he is going to give evidence at the forthcoming assizes in December 15, 1808.

Robbery of the Galway mail

We have great pleasure in stating that several of these ruffians were taken on Friday evening last about 3 miles from the place where the robbery was committed.  This was out near Clonard in County Meath.  One of the gang has turned King’s evidence.  Collier we are sorry to state was not apprehended.  This is about the Galway coach and it’s a letter from a person in Clonard to the police at Trim.

My Dear Sir,

I have the painful information to communicate to you that the Dublin Galway mail was attacked last night near the turnpike at Cappagh Hill by a gang of eight or ten men who fired from behind a wall and shot the guard Geoghegan and wounded a passenger who sat beside the coachman Bermingham.  I wrote off immediately to Mr Wainwright at Trim or in his absence to the officer commanding the troops.  I hope some steps may be taken to stop the ruffians in their way to their old haunts in County Meath as there is no doubt of it being Collier’s gang, the name of Collier being called out many times during the robbery.

This is a report of a robbery that Collier did on his own.  It’s in a Drogheda paper on 13 November 1812.

On Monday last at the hour of two o’clock in the afternoon as Robert Young, Esquire, Rogerstown near Ardee was returning from the fair at Mullaghagher, he was attacked by the notable gang of Collier who after seizing his horse’s bridle demanded the money.  Mr. Young struggled for some time to get away.

Another report in the Drogheda Journal of 22 March 1814 says that at half past eleven o’clock the Down coach conveying the mail from Dublin to Drogheda was attempted to be stopped by a number of armed men at Greenhills, Julianstown.  The coachman whipped his horses and the guard fired a shot and shots were returned by villains.  The other coach was about one hundred yards behind and the guard of it became alarmed, prepared his arms, took a deliberate aim and he certainly killed or wounded one man.  Several shots were fired at the second coach but without doing any injury to the passengers.  It is stated that the noted Collier the Robber was with this gang.

A letter to the Freemans Journal expresses anger that Collier is allowed to do as he will, night and day, on holding up coaches. He has infested the neighbourhood of Meath and Drogheda for the past eighteen months up to 1813.  It included robbing the Newry coach on the 6th July last at Smithstown when he obtained at least £2,000 in notes.  Yet no extraordinary effort has been made by either the Government or the Post Office in apprehending Collier and save the country from a heavy loss.  He has been regularly outlawed and a reward of £500 offered by proclamation for his apprehension and still he is free.  One hundred pounds is offered for his gang which is ridiculous as Collier the Robber could well afford to pay three times as much as a bribe.  Any man could dispose of risks to risk his life for a paltry sum.  Every entry between the Metropolis and the County was greatly suspended - because they did actually suspend the mail at the end of 1812 and 1813 because of Collier and because of the coaches that were robbed including the Galway, Limerick, Cork, Belfast and Derry mail.  Collier done each of them along with his gang.

This report from the Drogheda Newsletter of 1812 refers to one of Colliers gang.

Last Wednesday evening a man named Horgan was found murdered in a field near Knocknagin in County Meath.  It is stated that he belonged to a band of villains headed by the notorious Collier.  They suspected Horgan of giving information against the gang to have them apprehended.  They invited him in a field and there they shot him.  His brother, who was also in the gang surrendered himself and has given information against one of the murderers who is now in custody.  It is said that also Collier attended the Bellewstown races but we do not believe this.

This is from the Police of the Kings Inn Division, Dublin.  It is about two other highway robbers.

Yesterday, John Harpur, alias John Lynch, alias John Cooke and Peter Edwards, alias Peter Sheridan were brought before the magistrates of this office for further examination relative to the robbery of a Mr. Green who they stopped on the road between Finglas and Ashbourne on Monday evening last.  It goes on to talk about what they have done.  In the course of the robbery John Harpur cried out that he was Collier the Robber and that he would blow out Mr. Green’s brains.  So here there is someone purporting to be Collier.

This report is dated 20 June 1814 from the Drogheda Newsletter.

We are authorised to state that one of the stewards at the Bellewstown Races has received a letter from the noted Michael Collier desiring him to make it public that he will not only abstain from committing any depredations himself at the races but as far as in him lies, he will protect the persons and the properties of those who attended the races during the ensuing week.  Here Collier is looking for protection money.

This is a description of Collier from 1813.

I will pay the sum of £50 to any person or persons who shall within six calendar months from this day, apprehend and lodge in any of his Majesty’s jails in the United Kingdom, Michael Collier, a notorious highway offender who has committed various robberies in the Counties of Dublin, Meath and the County of the Town of Drogheda.

Given under my hand at Drogheda, this, the 14 Day of July 1813, by Brad Smith MB.

The said Collier is about five feet eleven inches high, swarthy complexion, black hair, and black eyes.  Is an active, well mannered, good looking fellow about 27 years of age.

This is a description of some of Collier’s gang from the head office of the Dublin Police, January 1809.  Wanted posters were in the newspapers.

Joseph Grimes 5 foot 8 inches high, stout and well made, very dark complexion, short nose, round face, aged about 27 years.

William Loughran, also called 'the Bolger', 5 feet 9 inches high, of slender make, fair complexion, long visage, has a club foot and age about 22.

Brian Loughran, also called 'the Hookie', 5 feet 3 inches high, sallow complexion, dark hair, has two club feet and stumbles in walking, age 26 years. The two Loughrans lived in the same village as Michael Collier.  Descendents are buried in Ardcath graveyard.

Michael Webb, 5 feet 7 inches of slender make, dark complexion, round face much marked by small pox, about 24 years.

Edward Clarke, 5 feet 4 inches high, stoutly made, fair complexion, much freckly in the face, grey eyes, long visage, aged about 26 and is remarked for being inflicted with a rupture.

The Hookie Loughran’s lament.   (Hoookie was the bloke with the two club feet.)

The lament finished;

'Farewell to all the strong lads from Navan to Duleek,

And every cabin, field and ditch where the redcoat foe did sit,

For we did sit with pipes a lit, and many a yarn was told

By the outlaw Michael Collier, none braver nor more bold;

Farewell to you strong lads and him that rode the hill;

The music of the Boyne so sweet, I recollect it still.

My heart is always with you though my back is forced to turn;

Adieu to you stout Collier, swordsman that I mourn.'

After Collier was convicted in Trim there was a report dated 22 April 1817.

Collier the noted highwayman arrived in Cork on Wednesday last and was safely lodged in the county jail.  We understand he is to be transported for life.

There is a report from 1821 that John Brett, an old offender, found guilty of burglary and robbery of the house of Patrick Keegan of the Haystown in County Meath, recruited several comrades of the notorious Collier.  He was so daring as to make the practice of walking throughout the county of Meath in the open day, armed.

In 1823 there were more daring highway robberies which come down to us today as being the work of Michael Collier.  But this was the work of another gang that was led by Patrick McCormack and two Donovan brothers, a Flood, a Coffey, a Reilly, and a Guerin.  They were from the Garristown area of north County Dublin.  They operated on the Derry mail around the Nine Mile Stone, Kilmoon.  People in later years were telling tales and these tales were attributed Michael Collier from around 1823.  This was a different gang led by Patrick McCormack.  Atherton in his book makes the difference between McCormack’s gang and Collier the Robber’s gang.

There are facts from contemporary documents along with Colliers’ obituary which appeared two weeks after his death.  This was in the Drogheda Argus 15th September 1849.  It goes on for three columns.  The obituary differs from Atherton’s book.  It’s more to the truth.  It speaks about how Collier killed his gang member Woods.  After they had had the house of the gentry, a man called Ennis of Claristown House, Julianstown, Woods had attacked a maid.  Collier did not like that and there was a row after they had raided the house.  It ended up when Woods said he was going to inform on Collier.  A row broke out and it was the only time that Collier was supposed to have shot anyone in his life.  Atherton mentions Woods, the obituary and some of these tales in his book.  But there are no dates in the book.  A lot of the material comes from the various sources already mentioned.

Collier was born at Lisdornan between the hill of Bellewstown, on the east side from the racecourse, and Julianstown, in 1780.  He died in Drogheda in 1849, 69 years of age.  At that time there were about 20 houses and 120 people in Lisdornan.  On the M1 motorway, travelling south, after the toll bridge, you go under a bridge and that is the bridge that links part of the old coach route from Drogheda to the Naul village.  As you go under the bridge Collier’s house was in a field as you pass under.  Police reports in 1812 and 1813 say he was 27 or 28.  That would mean that he was born in 1785 or 1786.  In the late 1700s there were the Enclosure Acts when villages were wiped out.  Hedgerows were planted by the British Government.  Many people lost their houses.  The Industrial Revolution begins, you have the French Revolution and the American War of Independence.  This was the Georgian Period with fantastic mansions being built across the country and parks and canals.  On the one hand you had the gentry who were very wealthy and on the other hand you had a rising population all but starving, going into an Industrial Revolution.  You had two ends of the scale here that Collier was born into.

There was the 1798 Rebellion and Naper Tandy and his family lived in the big house in Lisdornan which was knocked down in 1947.  He was part of what became Cairns Brewery in Drogheda.  He lived there with his wife who is buried in the nearby Church of Ireland graveyard in Julianstown.  Naper Tandy is buried in France.  Several other people in that area had taken part in the 1798 Rebellion.  A monument was erected in 1998 to the Croppies.  If Collier was born in 1780 he would have been the right age to be a Croppy Boy in 1798 at 18 years of age, with his height and without fear.  If he was born around 1786, that would have explained why he had not anything to do the Defenders of the 1798 Rebellion as he would have been only 12 or 13 years.  The first instance found of Michael Collier was that of horses being robbed in 1807.  You could not own a horse worth more than £5 under the Penal Laws or it could be taken from you.

The Defenders had originally started in the Armagh area but were active in North Leinster including Meath, North County Dublin and County Louth.  They were an agrarian secret society.  They also wanted civil and religious liberty.  They numbered hundreds around the Drogheda area.  Their opposite number were the Peep O’ Day Boys in the Armagh area, the forerunners of the Orange Order which was formed in 1795.  Other groups of agrarian secret societies followed the Defenders in the 1800s out at night maiming and killing animals, setting farms on fire, attacking people coming to and from market days and robbing them.  They were called Ribbon Men in the Drogheda area and north County Dublin and numbered hundreds.  The Drogheda newspapers are full of the activities of what they were doing at night, beating people up, stopping people on the road and robbing them and attacking people coming to and from markets. I n the Drogheda area they were also known as Stick Men and had about 200 members and in north County Dublin they were the Billy Smiths.  They carried a short stick up their sleeve.  They were easily able to retrieve it to beat people.  They had secret codes like the Freemasons.  When they greeted one another they would touch their cap by putting their hand across their face and tilt the cap in a particular way.  They would also touch their finger to the back of the cap or hat and bring it down on their forehead.  They had certain movements, to salute one another from a horse by bending down one or two digits of their fingers which would indicate that they were a member.  They had a council in almost every parish like an army council, to staff and plan these depredations.  The Billy Smiths in north County Dublin used to meet in the Phibsboro area and come down to Garristown.  In one instance the army had to be called out to the hill of Bellewstown to deal with a battle between 400 Ribbon Men and Billy Smiths.

Collier was arrested by Mr. Fox in 1808 in Dublin.  He called out for people to help but everyone turned a blind eye and walked away.  He was lodged in prison and charged and by 1809 he is gone.

The book The Highwayman of Irish History, published by Gill and Macmillan in 1932 mentions that Collier lived in Tobberorum Lane off Ludlow Street, Navan. Tobberorum Lane stretched down to the River Boyne up to 1980.  He lived close to W. F. Wakeman, the famous antiquarian and member of the Royal Irish Academy.  Wakeman said that he came across an old police constable book many years after Collier died and that in the book was the confirmation that Collier was an informer.  Wakeman said he found this diary given by an RIC Head Constable from County Meath.  In it said “came to see- £1 for sundries- 15 shillings to Collier for secret information.  Wakeman states that is what he read in the diary.  It’s hard to believe considering the amounts of money that Collier was pulling off the coaches.

The Royal Irish Constabulary did not exist at the time when Collier was doing his robberies around 1807.  Collier goes missing from 1808 after his charge in Dublin.  It must be at this time that he was sent overseas and it is at this point that he joined some branch of the British Army.  In 1812 he is back in County Meath in Dunshaughlin, Trim, Navan, Nobber and Drogheda.  His gang start calling him Captain which may be an indication of what Atherton had said, that he would join the army, that he became a Captain in the army.  Collier is then over and back to England between 1812 and 1816.  He went to Dumfries in Scotland and this is stated at a court case in Trim.  He is back and forth as the information gives.  He is doing tremendous robberies between 1812 and 1814.  He has Louth, Meath and north Dublin ravaged.  There is not so much about him for 1815. T here is a mention of his gang and that Collier was with them and then he is finally arrested in 1816 at a public house near Gormanstown.  This was called the Green Hills Tavern and he was arrested there.  He was trying to extract money from the owner, a Mr. Byrne.  In court it is stated by Collier’s brother that Collier was back from Drumfries to get money off Byrne because Byrne was holding money.  Patrick Collier, Collier the Robber’s younger brother, at the court in Trim that the reason he came back was that Byrne told him he would pay him five hundred pounds he owed him.  He had him set up for Lord Gormanston and his troops to show them where to collect Collier when he got there and this they done.  They did collect him and arrested him in 1816 at Gormanston. They brought him and lodged him in Trim.  There is the following letter:

From; Sir Robert Peel to 12th Viscount Gormanston, Jellico Preston: He thanks Preston for his recent apprehending of the noted Collier and he said: I am giving £60 for his men as a reward.

Collier was left in prison until 1817.  Then he is sentenced to transportation.  He ends in Cork in April 1817 when it is said: the noted Collier we believe is going to be transported for life.  Had he been born around 1775/1776 that would have been perhaps the time limit for such a daring robber as it is for any notorious character.  They had a very short life span on the road.  He didn’t go on with his depredations into the 1820's.  There is no mention of him after 1821.  The last of his gang members including Brett who is arrested in 1821 and Patrick McCormack and his gang were all hung at Trim after 1823 for their robberies.  They stated that they used to hide their booty in the same place as Collier.  So it looks as if Collier only operated from 1806 to 1817.  It appears the Collier was transported to the West Indies according to Atherton and that he had a farm in South Carolina after he escaped.

He did certainly come back to Ireland at some stage in the later 1820s or 1830s.  He had a public house in Ashbourne and he seemed to be doing well off the back of the gentry.  Perhaps he was protected in many ways, that is why he turned an approver.  Anyone who was an informer at that time would filter down through the people.  Collier was loved throughout the counties of Kildare, Meath and Louth.  He was still loved by the people and a lot of the gentry.  Perhaps it was what the Ribbonmen and Defenders were up to, perhaps he didn’t like what they were doing.

It was noted in his obituary, that he was asked would he sit down and tell his life tale.  He refused because he didn’t want it to be a bad example to the youth.  He was asked to sit down for a painting by Bernard Tomelty, the Drogheda painter who did some religious paintings and painted some of the mayors of Drogheda.  Collier refused, he was a shy bloke.  Most of the things we hear are tales and legends and are blown out of all proportion and they gather momentum as time went on.  It is easy today to tell where Collier lived.  When you come through the toll bridge on the M1 motorway going north to south you go under a bridge.  Collier’s house was just on the right hand side.  From the village of Lisdornan, just two fields up was Collier’s house.  Ruins of it stood up to the early 2000s.  His younger brother, Richard Collier, also was deported for life in the first week of March 1834 for highway robbery between Plattin and Duleek.  He was sent to Australia where his descendents still live.  A few years ago a Nicholas Collier got in touch.  Patrick Collier who gave evidence in Trim in 1817 was passed by the prosecution.  Was he in fact involved in one of the robberies between 1812 at Smithstown outside Drogheda?  He was asked by the prosecution was he involved.  No, he replied, because I was at that time lying in jail, the old jail in Drogheda for a highway robbery.  This was the younger Patrick Collier who was still running the farm in 1849 in Lisdornan.

The folklore tales of 1937 have tales about Michael Collier.  There is some truth in them.  This is a poem from Collier’s time.

Collier was a robber,

Collier was a thief,

Collier came to my home

And stole a piece of beef.

I went to Collier’s house

And Collier was in bed,

So I lifted up his teapot

And struck him on the head.

Drogheda jail was in James Street beside the site of St. Mary’s Church. The Colliers were not poor because their father, also Patrick, had a bit of land.  When Collier the Robber died another Patrick was running the farm and was renting 5 acres of land.  So he seemed to get a kick out of what he was doing.

Collier was buried in Chord Road Cemetery, Drogheda on 13 August 1849 age 69.  There is no headstone.  He was buried at night because 1849 was horrific with cholera.  The newspaper obituary says the six people carried his coffin including the nurse who attended him.  She went to the petty session court two weeks later looking for her money back, three shillings and six pence for medicinal attendance to the late Michael Collier.  She was refused.