The O'Cahans of the Roe - Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland

From Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland by Rev. Hugh Forde

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In the English State Papers of 1515 there is a report about Ireland which is still extant. In that report it is said there were more than sixty separate States, some as big as a shire, some more, some less. In them there reigned more than sixty chief captains, “whereof some call themselves kings, some princes, dukes, and archdukes, that live only by the sword, and obey no other temporal person but only him that is strongest, and every one of the said captains makes war and peace for himself, and holds by the sword and obeys no other person, English or Irish, except only such persons as may subdue them by the sword.” The country, it is said, was well governed under the native monarchs. Thus we are told of Brian Boru that under his rule equal justice was impartially administered; that he suffered no one to transgress the law. Warner, in his History of Ireland, describes the respect universally shown to the laws by the inhabitants by telling of a young damsel of surpassing beauty, robed in a costly dress, covered with jewels, carrying in her hand a wand, with a gold ring of great value fixed at the top, who wandered without attendants from the northernmost part of the island to the south, and that no one attempted, either in the face of day or under cover of night, to rob her of her honour or strip her of her rich apparel, or even steal her ring of gold.

On she went, and her maiden smile

In safety lighted her round the Green Isle;

And blessed for ever was she who relied

Upon Erin’s honour and Erin’s pride.

Among the Irish chieftains of the North the O’Cahans of Dungiven and the Roe stand out conspicuously. Dermot O’Cahan, an Irish prince, was possessed of broad and extensive domains, bounded by the Bann, the Foyle, and the Northern Ocean. One of his castles, in which he frequently resided, was built on a rock overhanging the river Roe, on the site now known as the Dog’s Leap, and nearly adjoining the Abbey of Drumachose. This prince had a lovely daughter named Finvola, and twelve sons, for whom he built twelve castles in different parts of his lands.

Archibald M‘Sparran tells how O’Cahan had frequent intercourse with the kings and princes of neighbouring nations, and with his daughter Finvola visited the Courts of Caledonia or Britain. I am indebted to his book for the narration which follows. On one occasion, returning from Caledonia with his son and Finvola, he was overtaken by a storm among the Western Isles, and nearly lost. They remained till the morning in distress, and then heard the rowing of a boat. In this boat appeared a young Highlander of bold and military carriage who begged them to come with him. They came to a neighbouring castle at the farther verge of the island. “You are now,” said the Highlander, “on the island of Islay.” And also said O’Cahan, “The castle you are escorting us to is the castle of MacDonnell, Lord of the Isles.” “The same,” said the stranger. They were unwilling to go. “I pledge myself you will be welcome,” said the stranger. They were met by the chief of the clan of MacDonnell arrayed in full military costume, and got a hearty welcome. O’Cahan and the lovely Finvola were prevailed on to stay a few weeks.

The time arrived too soon when the guests must return to Ireland, and young Angus MacDonnell sighed for Finvola. O’Cahan had ordered twelve castles to be built for his twelve sons, and wished to see how they were progressing. The monastery of Dooneven (Dungiven) was built by the ancestors of O’Cahan, and patronised by every succeeding proprietor. For the support of this monastery a voluntary allowance was given. Two men blindfolded started at the monastery, and as far as they could travel without falling was religiously set apart for the above purpose. One made two miles and then fell. The other made five miles, taking a westerly direction, until he reached a place called Com-Arg, where he also fell, this being the extremity of Dooneven parish. To the monastery of Dooneven were sent for education the youth of both sexes from the noblest families.

The first abbot who presided there was Paul O’Murray, a man deeply read in the learning of the times, and well acquainted with the Fathers. Under him were educated many of the Scottish MacDonnells, which was the principal cause of establishing a lasting friendship between them and the O’Cahans. The students here were daily instructed in the use of the broadsword and targe.

The universal pastime of those days was the pursuit of the hare, the stag, and the fox. It was the custom of the ladies also to join in the chase. Of all the favourite haunts of the stag in the country of O’Cahan, he chose the thickets overhanging the streams of the Roe, and, springing them, scaled the rugged heights of Ben Evenney. On one occasion the dogs found a wolf lying low. The dogs separated to right and left, and were bitten, but the wolf dashed on, and at last darted up the cliffs of Ben Evenney. The hunters thought it was the spirit of Ben Evenney, the guardian spirit of the O’Cahan family. “Who knows,” said O’Cahan, at the feast on the hillside, “that the wolf which we hunted to-day from the neighbourhood of Dooneven has been only our great friend in disguise?”


Angus MacDonnell came unexpectedly, attended but by one servant, and was warmly received by O’Cahan. He was coming on an embassy to ask the hand of Finvola, when he met Dermot O’Cahan and his men feasting at the foot of Ben Evenney. In a few days Angus delivered to the lady’s father a letter from the Lord of the Isles making a proposal for his daughter, and asking as a dowry twenty-four chieftains’ sons of the O’Cahans to be married to the daughters of as many chieftains of the MacDonnells. The contents of the letter were the subject of some days’ meditation. The marriage was then solemnised in the Abbey in presence of their friends and allies, who all came forward to greet the happy pair and bid a final farewell to Finvola, the gem of the Roe. The conditions on which Dermot O’Cahan parted with his daughter were that her remains when she died should be brought back and deposited in the old Abbey of Dooneven (Dungiven), the family burying-ground, These conditions being agreed upon, Finvola with her twelve maids and twenty-four gallant chevaliers set out for the Isles, leaving many a sorrowful heart behind them.

They lived happily together for many years, but at length Finvola passed away, and Angus, grieving deeply for her, did not wish it to be known to her people in the Roe. Yet Gramie Roe O’Cahan, the banshee and guardian spirit of the family, howled it through the rugged caverns of Benbraddagh, beginning at twilight and plying the doleful lamentations through the night. Sir Angus MacDonnell could see the splendour of the torches which illumined the Firth as the vessel of the O’Cahan approached the shore. When they landed a choir of females joined with Gramie Roe singing the death—song of Finvola, her beauty, her virtue, her high descent, asking why they did not bring her to the land of the O’Cahan, and not leave her among strangers.

The islanders, seeing the whole band surrounding the family burying—ground of MacDonnell, came swarming towards the mourners, and called aloud to prevent them raising the body. “Stand off,” said Turloughmore O’Cahan, who stood in the doorway of the cemetery with a ponderous sword in his hand, “stand off, thou faithless islanders, who can pledge your vows to-day and break them to-morrow. The man wears not tartan in Morven dare force this pass, otherwise he shall bite the ground under my sword.” “Who, proud Hibernian, art thou? ” roared a tall Highlander from Glengarry, who bore a broadsword and targe. “Who art thou, I say?” and rushing forward threw the targe and cut deeply at him with a lusty arm. “No strife, my friends,” said Sir Angus; “Finvola was honourably given to me. She came in love with me, and shall depart in the same. The fault was altogether mine, and if I have erred it was only through too much love.”

The clan O’Cahan halted with Sir Angus during the following day, and then sailed for the Foyle with the remains of their much loved Finvola. At the close of the voyage her body was borne to Dungiven and reverently laid in the old Abbey of Dooneven, the resting-place of the O’Cahan family.

No more up the streamlet her maidens shall hie,

For wan the cold cheek, and bedim’d the blue eye;

In silent affliction our sorrows still flow,

Since gone is Finvola, the gem of the Roe.

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