Brennan, William (d. 1840), highwayman, was born at Raspberry Hill, Co. Waterford. In the late 1830s he was working at Kilmurry House, Co. Cork, the property of a Mr Grant. Caught while attempting to steal a watch, he became an outlaw, raised a gang, and based himself in the Kilworth mountains of Co. Cork. In his short career Brennan and his gang ranged over Cork, Tipperary, and Waterford, committing numerous burglaries and highway robberies. Estate rent collectors were among his favourite targets, and it is also believed that he once robbed the mayor of Cashel, Co. Tipperary.
He became a folk hero and was the subject of the popular ballads ‘Brennan on the moor’ and ‘A lament on the execution of Captain Brennan’. It was claimed that Brennan (seen as a ‘Robin Hood’ figure) robbed the rich and gave his takings to the poor of his locality, and that ‘blood never sullied his exploits’. When the brutal realities of rural crime in Ireland during this period are considered, it would seem unlikely that he was such a benign figure. There would appear, however, to have been a level of popular support for his activities, and stories abound of how he was rescued from law officials by local people: on one occasion while he was under arrest, a servant-girl at an inn brought him a firearm to help him escape. He was eventually captured, tried, and executed at Clonmel (1840). His body was returned to his family for burial in a niche in the wall of the old parish church at Kilcrumper, Co. Cork; it was reported that the funeral procession was over two miles long.
His place in Irish folk culture was guaranteed by the appeal of the ballads based on him. ‘Brennan on the moor’ was popular at country fairs and market days till the 1880s, and a version of the song was found in Scotland at the end of the nineteenth century – a good example of the migration of a folk ballad.