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Derry's greatest conman unmasked

Life and crimes of ‘Willie John’ revealed in BBC documentary

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Bernard Gallagher, aka Willie John

Bernard Gallagher, aka Willie John

Bernard Gallagher, aka Willie John

The scoundrel known as ‘Derry’s greatest conman’ is unmasked in a new TV documentary.

Bernard Gallagher, born in 1858 in the Rosemount area of Derry, became notorious in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as an accomplished and prolific fraud.

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MUGSHOT: There are numerous pictures of Bernard Gallagher after being apprehended, all adding to his mystique

MUGSHOT: There are numerous pictures of Bernard Gallagher after being apprehended, all adding to his mystique

MUGSHOT: There are numerous pictures of Bernard Gallagher after being apprehended, all adding to his mystique

He became widely known as ‘Willie John’ after posing as the long lost son of a widow in his hometown and his court appearances over the years became popular events as legend of the trickster spread.

The story of his life is the subject of a new BBC Irish language documentary, Willie John – Rógaire Mór Dhoire (The great rogue of Derry), fronted by presenter Dónall Mac Giolla Chóill.

After tracking down the prison records for ‘Willie John’ in the National Archives in Dublin, Dónall (below) told of his fascination at finally coming face-to-face with the famous fraudster.

“I had been hunting for this man for I don’t know how long. When I heard the story first I didn’t believe such a person ever existed but I found the evidence in the archives.” he said.

“It was there in front of my eyes, he looked like an old man who might be sitting in a corner in some bar and you might say to yourself that he could tell plenty of stories.

“He was always thinking ahead, he was always one step ahead of everyone else. People might think he should be wearing a pair of horns and that he would be fierce looking but he’s just a normal person.

“As the years went by he was just a little old man. Every year, year after year, there’s a new photograph of him in the archives as he got gradually older.

“It’s hard to believe that this man was so light on his feet going from town to town getting money, lodgings, food and drink as if he were related to half the parish.

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Dónall Mac Giolla Chóill traces the life and crimes of Willie John throughout Ireland in the BBC documentary

Dónall Mac Giolla Chóill traces the life and crimes of Willie John throughout Ireland in the BBC documentary

Dónall Mac Giolla Chóill traces the life and crimes of Willie John throughout Ireland in the BBC documentary

“But looking at him, I could see myself sitting and talking to him over a few pints and it might not bother me too much if he left without paying the bill.

“When you see him, there is something in his eyes over the years, looking at those pictures throughout his life.

“There is a light in his eyes, there is a liveliness of some kind.

“He was a person who was jumping off those pages which adds to the stories I heard about the scams he got up to all over Ulster and abroad as well.”

The BBC show documents the life and crimes of ‘Willie John’ including a 1922 heist which led a Protestant family in Letterkenny to enlist the help of the IRA in capturing him and returning their stolen property.

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Dónall Mac Giolla Chóill

Dónall Mac Giolla Chóill

Dónall Mac Giolla Chóill

At a time of widespread poverty and emigration ‘Willie John’ targeted families in remote areas and his favourite scams involved impersonating a long lost relative with tall tales from overseas.

In other elaborate ruses he took on the guise of an official claiming to bring good news about an inheritance from America.

By the early 1900s his court appearances were sensational affairs with large crowds gathering to catch a glimpse of the infamous conman.

He would often conduct his own defence and play to the gallery, sometimes pleading not be tainted by his “former character”.

‘Willie’ would eventually die in Derry’s poorhouse in 1922 at the age of 68, and after exploring his life Dónall is left wondering what might have been. He added: “Who knows what motivated Willie John, maybe he had no other choice in the Ireland of his day.

“Whatever drove him and in spite of his many flaws and weaknesses, it was fascinating to follow in his footsteps and get an insight into his escapades and into a community that is often ignored in mainstream histories.

“I can’t help wondering had he used his talents in a more positive way who knows what he might have been remembered for today.”

  • Willie John – Rógaire Mór Dhoire is on BBC Two Northern Ireland tonight at 9.45pm and will also be available on BBC iPlayer.

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