Legend has it that when the Redcoats chopped off Father Hegarty’s head it bounced eight times along the top of the rock before dropping into the sea.
It is said that the marks of the bounce are still visible at Porthaw, a rocky promontory along the remote shores of Lough Swilly near Buncrana today.
Father James Hegarty, a native of Moville, purportedly had been conducting unlawful Catholic masses during the time of the penal laws when it was prohibited to do so.
In 1698, the British instated Penal Laws requiring all bishops, deans, vicars, friars and holymen to exit the country.
Should they return, a death sentence awaited them. Any secular priests were allowed to remain if they were registered, but a 1709 law forced an oath of abjuration upon any priest that did not want to leave the country.
Clergymen and their communities were subsequently forced to practice their faith in secret–a grave risk with a £5 reward for a priest’s head.
Opting to reject the anti- papalist law, Father Hegarty remained a parish priest in Fahan, Inishowen from 1704 until his death in 1711.
During the time, he lived in hiding in a small cave north-west of Buncrana along Lough Swilly.
Legend says that his sister would often pay secret visits to him and was the only family member who knew of his whereabouts.
When her husband, a rumored British-sympathiser, discovered Father Hegarty’s hiding place and was tempted by the lucrative £5 reward, he turned him in to the ‘Redcoats’.
When guards ambushed the fugitive priest during a mass, Father Hegarty fled to Lough Swilly on a horse that had been gifted him by local families and attempted to swim to the other side of the lough.
The guards tricked him into believing his life would be spared and persuaded him back on shore. Once on land, Father Hegarty was immediately beheaded.
Some say his head bounced eight or nine times off several rocks before landing, where the patches of land are said to show no signs of greenery since. His body was buried at the site of his death.
He is believed to have been the last priest to have been massacred under penal laws.
Another source of intrigue is that the rock itself bears a crack in the image of a cross.
The famous rock and the friar’s grave can be visited on the path of the shore walk between Porthaw and Stragill beaches, 2 kilometres from Buncrana.
Father Hegarty’s Rock