The Legend of Lisnahuncheon


Last year, I covered a story, from the early summer of 1909, which involved two folk from Belfast going on a walk around Portglenone.

In the article, and in the follow-up comments, on that story, reference was made to the Bullock’s Track.

Brian Cassidy commented that:

The bullock’s track refers to a former standing stone on Lisnahuncheon hill, on our family’s farm.

It may have been a way marker for the ancient road from Belfast to Coleraine, which passed nearby, and traces of which are still visible in the landscape.

It was supposedly overturned by treasure seekers in the early 1800’s, and local legend has it that those that did all died within a year. Local legend also mentions the bull chasing those responsible.

The stone now lies horizontal in a hollow, and this is the magic stone that is mentioned in the poem.

The healing pool that is mentioned relates to a cavity in the stone which resembled a bullocks hoof (hence the name), superstition had it that the water which collected in it cured a range of ailments such as warts by dipping fingers/limbs into the rainwater that had gathered. The cavity is now concealed on the underside of the slab.

Lisnahuncheon townland Ireland Lisnahunshin
Lisnahuncheon townland (or Lisnahunshin)

The Bullock’s Track — The Legend of Lisnahuncheon

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across an old local newspaper article, from late 1951, which referenced the Lisnahuncheon legend of the bullock’s track.

The newspaper columnist tells of his interactions with an old local called Tom Dempsey. The reporter says:

My first meeting with old Tom Dempsey, took place many years ago.

I was young, romantic, and intensely interested in the various types of character that appeared from time to time in the office and boiling-house; coming from various regions hitherto unknown to me, even by name – bringing with them the atmosphere of the moss and the mountain, suggested by their ways the freedom of open spaces, talking of strange legends, rare pieces of local history, and giving expression to many sorts of quaint scientific and theological beliefs.

Old Tom was shrewd, well-read after a fashion, and argumentative. He knew his Bible, in a way, and could repeat from memory, with great satisfaction to himself, the names of the jewels that garnished the foundations of the wall of the Heavenly Jerusalem, as we find them in Revelation xxi 19-20, and he was credited with having, on one occasion, confounded a local preacher of some pretensions, by asking him to kindly explain Isaiah LXV, 20, “There shall be no more hence an infant of days.”

Tom lived on good terms with his neighbours, though he did have a keen eye and sharp tongue for any of their customs, (when they) did not accord with his own beliefs.

All the same, he was, like them, a firm believer in the supernatural and a storehouse of the folk-lore of the district in which he lived.  A favourite natural history story of his, concerned a stork (Tom always insisted it was a stork), which happened to be blown into his neighbourhood by a contrary wind, and made the greatest mistake of its life, by allowing itself to be shot.

Old Tom was a good storyteller, and it was from him, that I first heard about the legend of the Bullock’s Track.

Of all his stories, it is the one I remember the best.

Many years ago, so runs the tale, there stood near the top of Huncheon Hill, adjacent to the present residence of Mrs. John Greer, a large pillar stone.

A Little on John Greer

At this point, let me add a little additional research on John Greer.

John, who was the son of William and Jane Greer, had lived at house 6 in Lisnahunshin.  He had inherited the house and farm from his parents.  These were farming people.  John (who, by the way, had a sibling, William James) married Jane Sands, in 1st Killymurris Presbyterian Church in 1909.   

john greer portglenone

John passed on in 1945. His wife survived him for another 25 years. The remains of James and Jane Greer lie over in 1st Killymurris Presbyterian churchyard. Jane had erected the headstone after her husband’s passing. It says:

Erected by Jane Greer, Lisnahuncheon. In memory of her beloved husband John Greer, who died 26th July 1945 aged 79 years. Also Robert Greer, died 23rd August 1892 aged 21 years. Also the above named Jane Greer, died 15th Jan 1970, aged 85 years.

Stone Monuments

The ancient practice of erecting large stone monuments was quite common.

There are many references to it in ancient texts.

Standing stones, such as the one to which the Bullock’s Track belongs, are also fairly common.

There is said (according to a local newspaper) to be a small one built into the ditch, only a few yards from Cullybackey bridge. 

There is also a granite column, some twenty feet high, near the small town of Naas, in County Kildare.

OK, back to our story. The newspaper columnist goes on to recall more about this stone at Lisnahuncheon, as told to him years before, by Old Tom Dempsey.

Tom emphasised that this was no ordinary stone.  It was noteworthy. When you saw it, you didn’t forget it.

On it’s narrow crest, there was a small depression, such as might have been made by a fairy hoof.  In this little cup, said Old Tom, lay a tiny pool of water, all the year round, whether it be summer or winter.  The water that gathered in this depression was capable of healing human ills.

Old Tom Dempsey, being a biblical scholar, compared the mystical powers of the contents of the tiny pool, to that of the Pool of Siloam (from which Jesus treated the eyes of the blind man, and made him see again).

This stone pillar had stood in Lisnahuncheon, on this lonely hillside, longer than any local in the area could ever recall.  It’s great age, and the reports of it’s magical waters, had meant it was held in high respect.

The local reporter then goes on to recall what Tom Dempsey had told him, about how the stone was toppled:

But youth is ever venturesome and not always respectful to the monuments of olden times. Would it not be possible to overturn the stone and spill the magic water? So questioned a few young men, as in the eerie gloaming of a summer day they gathered around the mystic stone, and seizing it with their united strength toppled it to the ground.

Then as they stood around the fallen giant, awe-stricken at what they had done, and the dusky mantle of night wrapped itself still closer around them, louder and louder came the tramp of hoofs, nearer and nearer comes a form out of the darkness, at first a faint blur in the general gloom, but in a moment galloping past in a whirlwind of infernal suggestion, a huge black bull, the very devil himself.

raging angry bull

The perpetrators of this piece of vandalism were thoroughly scared.

The curse of the stone seemed to be upon them, for we are told, ere six months had come and gone, not one of them was left to tell the tale.

But old Tom told it and averred that the water still remained in its accustomed place.

Poor old Tom, he has long since gone to that land of spirits in which he believed so firmly, but the great stone still lies prone on the hillside and there is now no water in the Bullocks Track.

Canon O’Laverty and the Stone’s Dimensions

However, the Reverend Canon O’Laverty, is less romantic about the stone.

He speaks of it’s dimensions, in his reference to the Portglenone parish, in the third volume of ‘Down and Connor’ during the 1880s.  He says:

This stone gets its name from a cavity in it resembling a bullocks hoof.

It was overturned about fifty years ago (i.e. 50 years before 1884, the date of publication of the book) by treasure seekers.

It is a block of an irregular triangular shape, five feet eight inches long, three feet in width and two feet thick.

Sundry virtues according to the usual Irish superstition were supposed to in the water which lay in the bullock’s track.

A local poet, describing a trip to the area during the 1800s, tells the stone’s story in verse:

And still are shown the storied haunts
Of fairy, witch and ghost.
The Bullock’s Track, that sacred stone
Or ancient finger post.
This stone bore on its mossy crest
A hollow, small and round.
Where every day throughout the year
Some water might be found.
Till once, upon a summer eve,
Some reckless youths did try
If they could overturn the stone
And leave the basin dry.
So in the ghastly gloom of night
The stone was overcast;
When, lo! the devil, a huge black bull,
Appeared and galloped past.
A terror-stricken crowd that night
Fled homeward mighty fast,
And death had claimed them every one
Ere half a year had passed.
Yea, they all sickened one by one.
Without apparent cause;
Yet still the water lingers there,
Defying Nature’s laws.

 

Trudger

"I have spread my dreams beneath your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

11 thoughts on “The Legend of Lisnahuncheon

  1. Interesting! Old Tom Dempsey is a distant relation of mine. If I’m reading my family history correctly, we are both descendants of Robert Dempsey (d. 1864 in Lisnahuncheon) and his wife Mary Johnson.

    1. Hi Susan. Wow, that’s wonderful to be able to nail down who Tom Dempsey was.

      There cannot have been too many Tom Dempsey’s in this small area.

      So I bet your distant relation is the one and same, Old Tom Dempsey.

      It would be wonderful to learn more about Tom.

      1. I have several Tom Dempseys in Lisnahuncheon. One was born in 1881 and another in 1863. And yet, another was born in 1892 and his son in 1922.
        If the newspaper article was written in 1951 and he is referred to as “old”, I would guess that he is referring to the one born in either 1863, or 1881.

  2. The one born in 1881 died in 1926- so I guess that rules him out. The one born in 1892 I don’t have a death date for. I don’t have a death date for the one born in 1863 either. Alas…..

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