Friar Hegarty’s Rock
“Stay, friend, tread light on this sacred sod,
From the poem ‘Friar Hegarty’s Rock’ by William Roddy (1882 - 1914)
Chilling tales of ghosts and ghouls are often associated with tragic events in history and Inishowen is no different with fireside accounts of ghostly visions told from Malin to Muff.
The eerie tale stems from a ghostly encounter in the early 1990’s and involves four young boys from the area. Shortly after their experience they met a friend and recounted what they saw as best they could. Drained of all colour, the friends, all in their early teens, found it difficult to spurt a legible syllable. White was not pale enough to describe their appearance and they trembled in a manner akin to a state of shock as they attempted to explain something they themselves could hardly believe.
The four lads, all from the Buncrana area, relayed how they had been quad biking along the coastal route that winds past Ned’s Point and on to the famous spot known locally as Father Hegarty’s Rock at Porthaw. Such means of entertainment is a dangerous activity at night, especially due to the fact that the narrow path runs so perilously close to the treacherous waters and jagged rocks of the Swilly below.
They had been travelling at speed along the famous walkway in what was already an irresponsible escapade – but, and so the saying goes, ‘boys will be boys’.
According to their account, the shiny steed stood magnificently in front of the boys, rising on its hind legs – as if to force the young bikers to stop in their tracks – blocking their path. Indeed the brightness of its white coat lit up the night and the boys were so startled that they came to an abrupt halt.
As it turned out the startling appearance of the white horse had actually "saved the boys" from an almost certain tumble over the precipice and likely serious injury, even death, according to those close to the story. The teenagers were so afraid after the experience that they found it difficult to talk about – but there was no doubt in their minds as to the ghostly origins of their "saviour" that night.
For those who don’t know the ‘history’, Friar Hegarty
was a Catholic priest who was beheaded at that particular Rock at a
time when Ireland was in the grip of anti-papist rule.
Although the Penal Laws (1698) had not been introduced at the time of the Friar’s death in 1632, their precursors, the two royal proclamations (1604 and 1611) had ordered that all Mass priests be banished from the country. As the story goes, the Catholic Friar, "who looked after his flock from Fahan to Desertegney", lived hidden in a cave or hut in the wooded Lisnakelly/ Porthaw Glen just a short distance from the beach.
But it soon came to light that not all of his flock were to be trusted and, according to tradition, it was the husband of his beloved sister who finally betrayed the local leader of the ‘banned’ church to the English authorities.
The British Army ‘Redcoats’ gave chase and as Friar Hegarty passed over the hill towards the cliff and the rock, where he was apprehended. There are variations of how he was actually caught (some accounts report that he actually jumped into the water and that the ‘Redcoats’ offered him pardon to come ashore, while others say he was struck off his horse by the soldiery).
As legend has it, upon decapitation the Friar’s head bounced on the ground nine times, leaving nine patches of earth where no greenery has grown since. Although faint, those patches of bare earth remain for all to see, talk about and explain as they see fit.
In keeping with the boys’ sighting of the steed it is thought that the Friar’s horse may have been white but little attention was given to it by storytellers throughout the centuries. Again little is known of the horse’s fate but it’s entirely plausible that it too met a grisly end at the rock.
by Ian Cullen
• back •