The McCostigans were one of the old tribes of the Slieve Blooms and before the great changes of the mid 17th Century they had extensive holdings in Shrahane, Rushall, Garranbawn, Glenconra, Carrowreagh, Morton’s Grove, Mounthall. Their stronghold was in The Bárr, which is now surrounded by the forestry around Ballinrally and Derrylahan.

Like most of their fellow land owning Catholics, all of the Costigan territory was forfeited following the Cromwellian conquest. Despite the efforts of some members of the clan to convert to the Established Church they were left with nothing by the 1660s. One such displaced Costigan was Augustine (Ostickan) Costigan whose land fell into the hands of Charles Coote. After Augustine’s death, his eldest son, Laurence, made an attempt to retrieve their lands by the legal route. Needless to say, their chances were slim and his case at the Court of Claim was dismissed on 18 February 1663. Dismayed, Laurence opted to take to the Slieve Blooms and become a raparee, a rural rebel, attacking the new English planters. A great price was placed upon Laurence’s head and those of three of his brothers who joined him in exile; John, Florence and Gregory. 

The fugitive Costigans hid in homes and out in the open all over Camross as they evaded Coote’s forces. They had the support of the locals but it was not enough as Coote’s men picked off the brothers one by one. In a letter to a friend dated 15 June 1664, Coote wrote that two of the brothers had been caught, and one already hung. The second captured Costigan was executed shortly afterwards and another was killed by Coote’s forces a few days later. But one of the brothers evaded capture; Gregory. For over two years Gregory was a thorn in Coote’s side. Coote’s frustration at his inability to stamp out one of the last remnants of the Gaelic class became clear in the summer of 1666. One of Coote’s large tenants wished to leave the Kingdom and Coote would only grant him leave on one condition; ‘if he will bring in the head of the tory Costigan or some others of his party, we may be induced to grant him his Majesty’s pardon’.[1]

Despite Gregory’s demise not being recorded in officialdom, his fate is not left unknown. Far from it. The death of Gregory is one of the most infamous tales in the folklore of Camross, passed from one generation to another for three and a half centuries. The following account is a combination of three stories; two versions of the story were collected as part of the National Folklore Collection in the late 1930s. The stories come from M. Ryan, Carrowreigh, and Padraig Heffernan, a National School teacher in Camross. The other source is that of local historian Mick Dowling, which has been published in a number of publications, most recently in the 2015 book, Laois Folk Tales, by Nuala Hayes.

Sometime in the autumn of 1666, Gregory made his way to a shebeen ran by an old woman called Peg. The Shebeen was located at Peg’s Stile situated at the end of Drummond’s Hill. There, he met his good friend, fellow outlaw, and by some accounts nephew and/or godson, Sean Gearr. Gregory was comfortable in the company of his diminutive friend. He had to be very careful with the company he kept as Coote had a significant bounty placed upon his head and the prospect of turning him in would have appealed to many of the desperate poor of the mountains.

As the evening progressed, Gearr kept buying Gregory drinks and he refused to have Gregory return the favour. It was clear to any sober onlooker that Gearr was trying to incapacitate Gregory. Peg noticed that something was awry and as she handed yet another drink to Gregory she said the drink would be a very dear one for him. But Gregory did not take the hint as he downed another drink, and fell further into the arms of Bacchus. Gearr remained sober throughout and he was, no doubt, delighted that Gregory was falling for his trap.

They left the Shebeen with two bottles of poteen and made their way towards the back of Morton’s Grove and across through Clash moor out through Carrowreigh bog and into Gortnagloch. At several points on their journey Gregory was reluctant to continue. However, Gearr was determined and pushed him on. At Gortnagloch, soldiers appeared from behind bushes and surrounded the men and forced Gregory upon a stone.

One can only imagine the thoughts that must have been swimming around Gregory’s mind at the time he was seized by troops. The incident happened so quickly that Gregory, lost and confused in a stuper of Gearr’s making, possibly died believing that his luck had simply run out and that there was no one to blame but himself. They beheaded him there and then and allowed Gearr to run away. The stone upon which Gregory lost his head still bears his name, as does the field within which the stone had lay for millennia. It was said that up to the 1930s Gregory’s blood could still be seen there.

Gregory’s head was brought to Coote’s residence in Rushall Court and the soldiers demanded to see someone in authority to show them the evidence of their bounty. A mistress of Coote appeared on the scene and fainted with the fright of seeing the head of her lover’s enemy independent of its body. She miscarried the child in her womb and she was said to have returned to England and never returned to Ireland again.

It is said that Gearr was in dire trouble with Coote’s forces and that he bought his freedom by betraying Gregory. A few days after Gregory’s death, Gearr went to a wake in Camross. In attendance were some friends of the slain local hero. They suspected Gearr’s treachery and they seized him and brought him up the mountains to a bog. There are a few different versions of how Gearr met his final fate, none of which are very pleasant. One account states that they turned him upside down and put his head in a bog hole until he drowned. Another account stated that their fury was such, that they simply tore the man apart limb from limb. Another version states that he was beheaded with a hook and was buried in the peat.

The Costigan family survived the tumult of the 17th Century and as the 18th Century went on, they recovered some of their standing and by the 19th Century, had regained some of the land that the family had once owned and became a very prominent clan once more in the community. Some of them even curried favour with larger land owners and, in a move which would have certainly had Gregory spinning in his graves, became rent collecting agents for landlords. At the height of the famine one such rent collecting Costigan came to a few small holdings in Gortnagloch to demand rent. Some of the small farmers were unable to meet their payment and Costigan had them evicted on Christmas Eve, 1847, dooming them to an almost certain death. One of the farmers, who was also, ironically, a Costigan, though not closely related, was thatching his small home on the day of the eviction and he refused to leave. Costigan, the land agent, had this man’s leg broken. The small farmer’s mother, horrified by what she had witnessed, cursed the agent and said that there would come a day when there wouldn’t be a single Costigan living in the Slieve Blooms.[1] Indeed, this prophecy quickly came through. The two generations of Costigans in the parish following the famine contained a very high number of priests and families without sons. According to the 1911 Census of Ireland, Pat Costigan, Cloncully, was the only married male bearing the surname in the parish. When he died bearing only a daughter, Molly, the curse upon the family name came to its full fruition. Molly was my grandmother, making Gregory my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grand uncle.

[1] Interviews with Mick Dowling and Tony Scully, Slieve Bloom, From Father to Son (Roscrea, 2002), p. 144.

[1] The word Tory comes from the old Irish word tóraidhe meaning outlaw. The association between the British Conservative Party and the term stems from this period of time. Individuals who adopted a more conservative approach to the case of Charles II were derogatively called Tories. The name stuck, however, and the party that would go on to be led by the likes of Edward Bonar Law, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher would forever be known as ‘outlaws’ in the Irish tongue…