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Fr Hegarty - a martyr never forgotten 27.05.11

THE Bishop of Derry, Dr Seamus Hegarty will be the principal celebrant this Sunday at an open air mass at Fr Hegarty's Rock at 4pm to mark the 300th anniversary of the death of the martyred priest. In the following feature, the bishop's spokesperson, Fr Michael Canny, reflects on the story of one of Buncrana's most enduring historic figures.
The story of Father Hegarty’s Rock begins with the series of Penal Laws imposed on Ireland by the British. The Penal Laws were introduced into Ireland in the last years of the 17th century. The laws required all bishops, deans, vicars-general, and friars were to leave the country and if they returned, to be put to death. Secular priests at home could remain if they were registered. In 1709, however, they were required to take an oath of abjuration, which no priest could conscientiously take.
The enforcing of the various laws had a pronounced effect, disenfranchising the majority of the Irish population, in favour of the minority established Church of Ireland. Though the laws also affected supporters of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland their principal victims were members of the Roman Catholic Church, meaning over three quarters of the people on the island.
 Peter Gurrie from Fahan, tends Fr Hegarty's grave on the shore path between Porthaw and Stragill, Buncrana.
The Penal Laws reduced the Catholic population to dire poverty, but it also had the effect of strengthening their will to survive, and reinforcing their belief in the ‘old’ religion, their religion and the faith handed down by their parents and grandparents. If anything, the Faith of the people became even stronger, and only a mere handful of priests deserted the faith and their people by ‘conforming’.
It is believed that 400 priests had been deported by 1698, while there was no archbishop in the country from 1692 to 1714. Despite the fact that there was £5 reward for a priests head, the clergy survived, while the infamous ‘priest hunters’ frequently became the victims of revenge by the many Irish rapparees, (pike wielding persons) who at this time roamed the countryside. Mass was still celebrated at mass-rocks in the glens and woodlands, while fourteen bishops also managed to survive in disguise.
Father Hegarty was one of the priests that remained to serve his parishioners but unfortunately his faithfulness proved fatal. Father Hegarty was born in 1649 and was ordained in Dundalk in 1672 by Oliver Plunkett, Primate of Ireland who nine years later was executed on 1st July 1681. Father Hegarty was parish priest at Fahan from 1704 until his death in 1711. During penal times Father Hegarty lived in a small cave on the banks of the Swilly about two miles north-west of Buncrana and under the shadow of night did his best to carry out the ministrations of his religion for his community. Maghtochair, writing about Inishowen in the 1860s stated that Father Hegarty’s retreat was unknown to all save his sister, who lived with her husband and family nearby. For a considerable time, Father Hegarty’s sister used to bring provisions to him at the beginning of each day without her family questioning the object of her journey.
 Fr Michael Canny.
However, her husband eventually suspecting her mission followed her and so discovered the hiding place of her fugitive brother. Tempted by the reward he led a guard of soldiers from the garrison at Buncrana to apprehend his own brother in law.
When the soldiers came upon Father Hegarty, he putting his faith in God, plunged into the water with the resolve of swimming to the opposite shore. The soldiers did not want him to be drowned or be shot in the water for fear that the body would be lost and therefore they would have no evidence of his death – for this reason alone they coaxed Father Hegarty to the shore reassuring him that they would spare his life. However, their promises where empty. As soon as Father Hegarty reached the shore he was seized, his head cut off and his body buried on the spot where they committed the deed. To this day Father Hegarty’s rock and grave is visited by locals and many visitors to the area and despite the passage of many years, indeed 300, his name has not been forgotten.
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