Friar Hegarty’s Rock

“Stay, friend, tread light on this sacred sod,
’tis the grave of a martyr a Priest of God.”

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.
But despite its popularity, authorities on the well known story of Buncrana’s beheaded holy man, Friar Hegarty, have never told of reported sightings of a spectre at the site where he was killed in 1632.
Yet one story warranting attention has come to light detailing strange goings on at the place traditionally known as Friar Hegarty’s Rock, a spot known to lovers of walking from far and wide.

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.
But it wasn’t simply the uncomfortable mixture of darkness and the thought of a watery grave which created the terrified expressions on the faces of youngsters.

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’.
As they approached the short stretch of path which runs dangerously close to the edge, with a sheer drop of about 40 feet onto the rocks below, the shocking sighting occurred. A ghostly vision of a white horse appeared, as if from nowhere.

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.
To their horror the wonderfully illuminated animal jumped off the edge towards the Swilly and the rugged rocks below. But it vanished all of a sudden and the youngsters, dumfounded, made a hasty retreat.

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.
Each of them is still reluctant to talk about the scary tale today but it remains a "vivid memory" for all involved. Needless to say quad biking at Father Hegarty’s Rock was not an activity they would engage in again. But the story has a very particular significance given its already spooky setting and the grim history of how the rock came to be associated with Inishowen’s most famous martyr, Friar Hegarty.

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.
The slaying of the friar at the hands of the British forces was extensively investigated by local historians through the ages and the story was set in print by a few, including the late Father John Fitzgerald, formerly of Buncrana.

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.
Each day his sister, who lived nearby, would bring him food and basic supplies to help make life more comfortable.
His devoted congregation kept his secret in the safest confidence as they knew the Friar was in danger of being deported or even having his life cut short.

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.
However, the good Friar got wind of the impending danger and was gifted a horse by the local families to help make good his escape. Fearing for his life, the Friar mounted and galloped off in the direction of his Mass Rock, where some have said a boat lay in wait to ferry him to the safety of Rathmullan. Indeed, along the path there is what appears to be the print of a horseshoe cut into a rock on the ground legend has it that mark was made by the Friar’s horse.

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).
Nevertheless, the local Catholic champion was forced to the ground by his military pursuers and beheaded by the sword.

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.
Yet another source of intrigue is the fact the rock itself bears a crack in the image of a cross and, although the geological make up of the stone may adequately explain the shape of the crack in scientific terms, there are some who believe in a more supernatural explanation.

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.
The story of Father Hegarty and the less plausible tale of the vision of the "life saving" white horse may not be related but both will give food for thought for the hiker who often treads the scenic coastal path in the twilight.
Indeed a trek along the famous walkway at that time of day is sure to stir the imagination, according to Fr. Fitzgerald in his 1982 publication ‘The Mass Rocks of Inishowen’.
“In that sacred spot at sunset there is great temptation for a student of history to duck the passage of time.”

by Ian Cullen
published first in the Derry Journal, January 10, 2003