Urlaur Lake is a place I have visited many times over the years; just down the road it’s a wonderful place to go fishing, walking or even for a swim on warmer days. The majestic, ancient ruins of an early 15th century Dominican Abbey dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas stand right on the shore of this dark and peaty lake and although located off the beaten path its long history is well documented.
A tale of morality
Since discovering ‘Legends of Saints and Sinners’ a book of Irish Christian folklore, collected and transcribed by Douglas Hyde and published in 1915, this place has fired my imagination. ‘The Friars of Urlaur’ is dark yet amusing; a tale of morality which shows, according to Hyde, “how it was not in the power of anything except virginity itself to banish the foul and evil spirit which had invaded the peace of the friars”. Since reading this story and its fascinating preface I find that Urlaur though quite beautiful on a bright and sunny day, feels forbidding and a little eerie on any other.
A true story?
Here follows the original story as it appears in the book; to present a résumé would fail to do justice to the descriptive account transcribed by Hyde. Aside from the obvious moral to this tale, others are judged in its telling: “Seize the villain, seize him,” says the bishop. “You didn’t seize me yourself,” says the villain, “when I was your pet hound, and when you were giving me the meat that you would not give to the poor people who were weak with the hunger; I thank you for it, and I’ll have a hot corner for you when you leave this world.”
A true story passed down through the mists of time or propaganda against sin? Either way, this is one legend that lives on today in the folk memory of the people of Urlaur & neighbouring Tavrane.
The Friars of Urlaur
In times long ago there was a House of Friars on the brink of Loch Urlaur but there is nothing in it now except the old walls, with the water of the lake beating up against them every day in the year that the wind be’s blowing from the south.
Whilst the friars were living in that house there was happiness in Ireland, and many is the youth who got good instructions from the friars in that house, who is now a saint in heaven.
There used to be pipers, fiddlers, harpers and bards
It was the custom of the people of the villages to gather one day in the year to a “pattern”(1) in the place where there used to be fighting and great slaughter when the Firbolgs were in Ireland, but the friars used to be amongst the young people to give them a good example and to keep them from fighting and quarrelling. There used to be pipers, fiddlers, harpers and bards at the pattern, along with trump-players and music-horns; young and old used to be gathered there, and there used to be songs, music, dancing and sport amongst them.
But there was a change to come and it came heavy…
Some evil spirit found out its way to Loch Urlaur. It came at first in the shape of a black boar, with tusks on it as long as a pike, and as sharp as the point of a needle. One day the friars went out to walk on the brink of the lake. There was a chair cut out of the rock about twenty feet from the brink, and what should they see seated in the chair but the big black boar. They did not know what was in it. Some of them said that it was a great water-dog that was in it, but they were not long in doubt about it, for it let a screech out of it that was heard seven miles on each side of it ; it rose up then on its hind feet and was there screeching and dancing for a couple of hours. Then it leaped into the water, and no sooner did it do that than there rose an awful storm which swept the roof off the friar’s house, and off every other house within seven miles of the place. Furious waves rose upon the lake which sent the water twenty feet up into the air. Then came the lightning and the thunder, and everybody thought that it was the end of the world that was in it. There was such a great darkness that a person could not see his own hand if he were to put it out before him.
There was fear and astonishment on the friars
The friars went in and fell to saying prayers, but it was not long till they had company. The great black boar came in, opened its mouth, and cast out of it a litter of bonhams (2). These began on the instant running back-wards and forwards and screeching as loud as if there were the seven deaths on them with the hunger. There was fear and astonishment on the friars, and they did not know what they ought to do. The abbot came forward and desired them to bring him holy water. They did so, and as soon as he sprinkled a drop of it on the boar and on the bonhams they went out in a blaze of fire, sweeping part of the side-wall with them into the lake. “A thousand thanks to God,” said the Father Abbot, “the devil is gone from us.”
But my grief! he did not go far. When the darkness departed they went to the brink of the lake, and they saw the black boar sitting in the stone chair that was cut out in the rock. “Get me my curragh,” said the Father Abbot, “and I’ll banish the thief.”
They got him the curragh and holy water, and two of them went into the curragh with him, but as soon as they came near to the black boar he leaped into the water, the storm rose, and the furious waves, and the curragh and the three who were in it were thrown high up upon the land with broken bones.
There was hair on him from the sole of his foot to the top of his head
They sent for a doctor and for the bishop, and when they told the story to the bishop he said, “There is a limb of the devil in the shape of a friar amongst you, but I’ll find him out without delay.” Then he ordered them all to come forward, and when they came he called out the name of every friar, and according as each answered he was put on one side. But when he called out the name of Friar Lucas he was not to be found. He sent a messenger for him, but could get no account of him. At last the friar they were seeking for came to the door, flung down a cross that he had round his neck, smote his foot on it, and burst into a great laugh, turned on his heel, and into the lake. When he came as far as the chair on the rock he sat on it, whipped off his friar’s clothes and flung them out into the water. When he stripped himself they saw that there was hair on him from the sole of his foot to the top of his head, as long as a goat’s beard. He was not long alone, the black boar came to him from the bottom of the lake, and they began romping and dancing on the rock.
Then the bishop enquired what place did the rogue come from, and the (father) Superior said that he came a month ago from the north, and that he had a friar’s dress on him when he came, and that he asked no account from him of what brought him to this place. “You are too blind to be a Superior,” said the bishop, “since you do not recognise a devil from a friar.” While the bishop was talking the eyes of everyone present were on him, and they did not feel till the black boar came behind them and the rogue that had been a friar riding on him. “Seize the villain, seize him,” says the bishop. “You didn’t seize me yourself,” says the villain, ” when I was your pet hound, and when you were giving me the meat that you would not give to the poor people who were weak with the hunger ; I thank you for it, and I’ll have a hot corner for you when you leave this world.”
That is the reason they were called the “Deaf Friars”
Some of them were afraid, but more of them made an attempt to catch the black boar and its rider, but they went into the lake, sat on the rock, and began screaming so loud that they made the bishop and the friars deaf, so that they could not hear one word from one another, and they remained so during their life, and that is the reason they were called the ” Deaf Friars,” and from that day (to this) the old saying is in the mouth of the people, ” You’re as deaf as a friar of Urlaur.”
The black boar gave no rest to the friars either by night or day: he himself, and the rogue of a companion that he had, were persecuting them in many a way, and neither they themselves nor the bishop were able to destroy or banish them.
He would make an attempt to banish the evil spirit
At last they were determining on giving up the place altogether, but the bishop said to them to have patience till he would take counsel with Saint Gerald, the patron saint of Mayo. The bishop went to the saint and told him the story from beginning to end. “That sorrowful occurrence did not take place in my county,” said the saint, “and I do not wish to have any hand in it.” At this time Saint Gerald was only a higher priest in Tirerrill (?) but anything he took in hand succeeded with him, for he was a saint on earth from his youth. He told the bishop that he would be in Urlaur, at the end of a week, and that he would make an attempt to banish the evil spirit.
The bishop returned and told the friars what Gerald had said, and that message gave them great courage. They spent that week saying prayers, but the end of the week came, and another week went by, and Saint Gerald did not come, for “not as is thought does it happen.” Gerald was struck with illness as it was fated for him, and he could not come.
“I had the same dream too,” says every man of them
One night the friars had a dream, and it was not one man alone who had it, but every man in the house. In the dream each man saw a woman clothed in white linen, and she said to them that it was not in the power of any man living to banish the evil spirit except of a piper named Donagh O’ Grady who is living at Tavraun, a man who did more good, says she, on this world than all the priests and friars in the country.
On the morning of the next day, after the matin prayers, the Superior said, ” I was dreaming, friars, last night about the evil spirit of the lake, and there was a ghost or an angel present who said to me that it was not in the power of any man living to banish the evil spirit except of a piper whose name was Donagh O’ Grady who is living at Tavraun, a man who did more good in this world than all the priests and friars in the country.” “I had the same dream too,” says every man of them. It is against our faith to believe in dreams,” says the Superior, “but this was more than a dream, I saw an angel beside my bed clothed in white linen.” ‘Indeed I saw the same thing,” says every man of them.
“It was a messenger from God who was in it,” said the Superior, and with that he desired two friars to go for the piper. They went to Tavraun to look for him and they found him in a drinking-house half drunk. They asked him to come with them to the Superior of the friars at Urlaur. “I’ll not go one foot out of this place till I get my pay,” says the piper. “I was at a wedding last night and I was not paid yet.” “Take our word that you will be paid,” said the friars. ” I won’t take any man’s word ; money down, or I’ll stop where I am.” There was no use in talk or flattery, they had to return home again without the piper.
They told their story to the Superior, and he gave them money to go back for the piper. They went to Tavraun again, gave the money to the piper and asked him to come with them. “Wait till I drink another naggin ; I can’t play hearty music till I have my enough drunk ?”
“We won’t ask you to play music, it’s another business we have for you.”
O’Grady drank a couple of naggins, put the pipes under his oxter (arm-pit) and said, “I’m ready to go with ye now.” “Leave the pipes behind you,” said the friars, ” you won’t want them.” “I wouldn’t leave my pipes behind me if it was to Heaven I was going,” says the piper.
When the piper came into the presence of the Superior, the Superior began examining him about the good works he had done during his life. ‘ I never did any good work during my life that I have any remembrance of,” said the piper. “Did you give away any alms during your life ? ” said the Superior. “Indeed, I remember now, that I did give a tenpenny piece to a daughter of Mary O’Donnell’s one night. She was in great want of the tenpenny piece, and she was going to sell herself to get it, when I gave it to her. After a little while she thought about the mortal sin she was going to commit, she gave up the world and its temptations and went into a convent, and people say that she passed a pious life. She died about seven years ago, and I heard that there were angels playing melodious music in the room when she was dying, and it’s a pity I wasn’t listening to them, for I’d have the tune now!”
It was a woman we saw,” says the Superior, “she was dressed in white linen”
“Well,” said the Superior, ” there’s an evil spirit in the lake outside that’s persecuting us day and night, and we had a revelation from an angel who came to us in a dream, that there was not a man alive able to banish the evil spirit but you.” “A male angel or female? ” says the piper. “
It was a woman we saw,” says the Superior, “she was dressed in white linen.” “Then I’ll bet you five tenpenny pieces that it was Mary O’Donnell’s daughter was in it,” says the piper.
“It is not lawful for us to bet,” says the Superior, ” but if you banish the evil spirit of the lake you will get twenty tenpenny pieces.” “Give me a couple of naggins of good whiskey to give me courage,” says the piper. “There is not a drop of spirits in the house,” says the Superior, “you know that we don’t taste it at all.” “Unless you give me a drop to drink,” says the piper, “go and do the work yourself.”
The boar let aloud screech, and the rogue began dancing
They had to send for a couple of naggins, and when the piper drank it he said that he was ready, and asked them to show him the evil spirit. They went to the brink of the lake, and they told him that the evil spirit used to come on to the rock every time that they struck the bell to announce the ” Angel’s Welcome “[Angelical Salutation]. “Go and strike it now,” says the piper.
The friars went, and began to strike the bell, and it was not long till the black boar and its rider came swimming to the rock. When they got up on the rock the boar let aloud screech, and the rogue began dancing.
The black boar and its rider leapt into the lake and made for the piper
The piper looked at them and said, “wait till I give ye music.” With that he squeezed on his pipes, and began playing, and on the moment the black boar and its rider leapt into the lake and made for the piper. He was thinking of running away, when a great white dove came out of the sky over the boar and its rider, shot lightning down on top of them and killed them. The waves threw them up on the brink of the lake, and the piper went and told the Superior and the friars that the evil spirit of the lake and its rider were dead on the shore.
They all came out, and when they saw that their enemies were dead they uttered three shouts for excess of joy. They did not know then what they would do with the corpses.
The “Hole of the Black Boar” is to be seen still
They gave forty tenpenny pieces to the piper and told him to throw the bodies into a hole far from the house. The piper got a lot of tinkers who were going the way and gave them ten tenpenny pieces to throw the corpse into a deep hole in a shaking-scraw a mile from the house of the friars. They took up the corpses, the piper walked out before them playing music, and they never stopped till they cast the bodies into the hole, and the shaking-scraw closed over them and nobody ever saw them since. The “Hole of the Black Boar” is to be seen still (3). The piper and the tinkers went to the public house, and they were drinking till they were drunk, then they began fighting, and you may be certain that the piper did not come out of Urlaur with a whole skin.
The friars built up the walls and the roof of the house and passed prosperous years in it, until the accursed foreigners came who banished the friars and threw down the greater part of the house to the ground. The piper died a happy death, and it was the opinion of the people that he went to Heaven, and that it may be so with us all!
1. Urlaur ‘Pattern Day’ has been revived in recent years and is held every year on the 4th August.
2. A piglet or suckling pig
3. Residents of Tavrane still pertain to know the precise location of the locally named ‘Boar Hole’.
You can read this and other folktales in the original book
Read the original story in Hyde, Douglas Legends of Saints and Sinners
All images of Urlaur: Irish Dominican Photographers / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0