Gowan, John Hunter (1737?–1825), loyalist, was born near Gorey, Co. Wexford, son of John Gowan, lawyer and small landowner; his mother was a daughter of the Rev. William Hatton of Gorey and niece of Col. Henry Hatton, MP for Co. Wexford 1727–35. Inheriting the minor leasehold estate at Mount Nebo under Viscount Powerscourt, together with a small freehold estate in the vicinity, he made himself notable during the 1780s for the vigour with which he confronted an outbreak of Whiteboyism in north Wexford. His second name, which derived from the surname of a great-grandfather from Co. Tipperary, has mistakenly been taken for a nickname. He was presented at the spring assizes of 1785 for Co. Wexford with a silver coffee urn as a testimonial for his services to public order. Though of inferior rank among the county gentry and reputedly regarded as an uncouth misfit in such company, he received the commission of JP in the 1780s, probably as further reward and encouragement. If, as some sources suggest, he was elevated to the county grand jury, it must indicate either his possession of a large agency or his usefulness as a loyalist partisan in the increasingly bitter intra-county struggle between catholic and protestant gentry. In May 1793 he pursued three murder suspects to Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow, where they were taken prisoner. He enlisted in the Wexford militia in June 1793.
During 1796 he helped to form the Wingfield Cavalry, a partly mounted yeomanry unit, serving as captain under the notional command of Lord Powerscourt. Over the next two years this exclusively protestant unit engaged in a brutal campaign against the emerging United Irish network in north Wexford and south Wicklow. Though documentation has not survived, it is believed that Gowan was responsible for the establishment at Mount Nebo in late 1797 of one of the first Orange lodges outside Ulster. He may also have been involved in the foundation of lodges at Carnew, Tinahely, and Coolkenna, Co. Wicklow, some months later, and it is possible that he represented Co. Wexford at the inaugural meeting of the grand Orange lodge in Dublin (April 1798). It is likely that the proclamation in November 1797 of sixteen parishes in the north-east of the county (after a meeting of magistrates at Gorey) accentuated the violence of yeomanry harassment. In January 1798 Maj. Joseph Hardy recommended that Gowan's unit be permitted to operate in south Wicklow. Gowan may have played a role in the manufacture of the ‘test-oath’ crisis by means of which Wexford yeomanry units shed catholic recruits – he was certainly eager at this time to communicate information in respect of disloyalty in various corps.
As the military's terror campaign was stepped up in late spring 1798, Gowan's unit became known as ‘the Black Mob’. Few of their house-burnings, floggings, half-hangings, and killings have been recorded except in folklore, but there is little reason to doubt the basic veracity of such accounts. His family were said to have taken part in preparing pitch-caps, his daughters ‘making what they called asses’ crosses’ on the scalps of the unfortunate suspects (Byrne, 257). Having cut down a local blacksmith outside his forge on 21 May, he rode into Gorey with the man's finger on the tip of his sword. He was probably present at the torture of Anthony Perry (qv), United Irishman, in Gorey market-house on 21–3 May. The Black Mob carried out a number of arbitrary killings as news of the Leinster rising reached the area (24 May). After the desertion of Gorey by its inhabitants (28 May), Gowan occupied the town. Having been reinforced by units of the North Cork militia, the Wingfield Cavalry and others marched towards a rebel force on 1 June, defeating a poorly armed group under Fr Michael Murphy (qv) at Ballycanew. Gowan escaped capture on 4 June when surrounded by rebels at the battle of Tubberneering. On 6 June, while a large rebel army lay in and about Gorey, Mount Nebo was destroyed by fire. Gowan was one of four county magistrates stated to have ‘committed the most horrid acts of cruelty, violence and oppression’ (Musgrave, 794) in an insurgent proclamation printed in Wexford town on 9 June. About 22 June, rebels found the mangled remains of women and children near Gorey, and judged his unit to be responsible for the atrocity. Acting as scout for the army of Lt-gen. Francis Needham on 30 June, Gowan inadvertently encouraged a troop of cavalry to advance into an ambush at Ballyellis, having underestimated rebel strength. That day the Wingfield Cavalry was said to have cut short a lodge initiation in the ruins of Mount Nebo to run down and kill a number of rebels deceived by their plain clothing. Reprisals taken by the Black Mob in the aftermath of the rebellion in late 1798 and during 1799 were savage. During early 1799 Gowan was confined under charges that he and his men were responsible for up to thirty-four murders in this period, but the prosecution did not proceed. As a ‘distressed loyalist’ he was awarded £2,044 in compensation for damages suffered during the rebellion, with which he constructed a new dwelling. His later years were troubled by a stormy family row between legitimate and illegitimate sons over their relative shares of the inheritance. This resulted in two court cases in the years after his death on 25 May 1825. Much of his career is shrouded in myth and supposition.
He married Francis Norton of Ballinacoola (d. 1796); they had three sons and nine daughters. With his second wife, Margaret Hogan of Hollyfort, he had two daughters and two sons, including Ogle R. Gowan (qv), founder of the Orange order in Canada.