The Dargle valley, in Co. Wicklow, is said to be haunted by the spirit of a young girl who fell to her death on the eve of St John’s Day when her romance ended in tragedy.
Legend has it that the ghost of the sorrowing girl flits along in the shape of a white fawn forever seeking her wronged lover through the surrounding woodlands, not far to the south of the old village of Enniskerry
It was the custom, throughout the country, for bonfires to be lit at sunset on St John’s Eve. The fire had to be tended till long after mid-night. Prayers were said, to obtain God’s blessing on the crops, then at the peak-point of summer bloom.
Young people thought that jumping through the flames would bring health and long life to them. They were then protected from accidents, ailments, epidemics and the effects of witchcraft or the evil eye, it was said.
There were those who claimed they could tell by the demeanour of a jumper whether they had been false, or true, to their beloved.
But a leap of a different kind was to be the cause of endless wandering by a sorrowing soul
The Dargle River rises high up in the hills between War Hill and Tonduff, and tumbles along through rocky streams, before passing through a winding narrow gorge.
About midway down the glen stands a huge mass of rock projecting at a great height over the river.
From this point, a lover’s eye could see every part of the glen below, where at intervals the river broke over fragments of rock that had detached from the cliffs above and remained where they had fallen.
In mid-summer, the air is full of bird-song.
Two storytellers recorded what happened here; though they differ slightly in their telling , for no two storytellers ever tell the one story in the same way.
Patrick Kennedy said that Mary, a capricious damsel of the neighbourhood, showed some particular interest in one of her suitors, whose name was Edward. This, while she was secretly attracted to another man of the area.
A besotted Edward displayed too much devotion to her, and paid too much attention to her slightest wishes, for his own good, for he found himself being asked to go hither, thither and yon to fetch and carry for her, for the slightest reason.
On one fateful day, she expressed a desire for a certain kind of necklace that could only be had from the city of Dublin, some miles away.
Naturally, Edward said he would at once start to Dublin for it.
Mary told him not to tire himself with a double journey there and back; he should not think of returning that day.
She saw him off with great solicitude and anticipated gratitude for the necklace she coveted so much.
Her effusiveness proved to be her downfall, for the lovelorn Edward was so anxious to delight his lady love with the ornament for her fair throat, and to display his own zeal, that he did not allow himself the indulgence of staying overnight in Dublin.
He knew, as he left for the city that he would return that same evening, the better to surprise his true love. Days were at their longest and he would return while it was still bright.
Late on the same evening a returned Edward was hurrying along the bank, high over the Dargle, towards Mary’s house, when on a mossy hillock nearby he discovered her; listening with loving interest, to the discourse of the secretly-favoured rival.
Her suggestion that he remain overnight in Dublin was exposed now as an artifice to keep him away so she could enjoy the attentions of his rival in love, and still welcome Edward’s return on the following day with her prize.
Edward drew out the necklace from the safekeeping of his grey coat pocket, where he had made sure many times that it was safe on the journey. He approached the spot where Mary and the other man lay on the lush green grass of summer.
The man was oblivious to Edward’s approach. But, a startled Mary sensing his distraught approach, could only watch as Edward laid the shiny necklace on the grass before her, his false love.
He said nothing.
In dreadfulness, she watched him retreat to the edge of the nearby overhanging rock. She heard him plunge down, smashing through bushes and shrubs in his deathly descent to a sudden and dreadful halt below; when even birdsong seemed stilled.
Others heard the commotion and flocked about in efforts to recover his broken body from the swirling brown mountain water. But his spirit was departed.
In the end, his broken form was recovered and carried to church and thence to the graveyard to be buried.
Mary deeply mourned the loss of her lover, for she had never intended her actions to have such repercussions.
No matter how she employed herself in the long days and weeks after the tragedy of betrayal, discovery and death, the dismal tolling of the funeral bell for her shattered lover never left her ears.
She took to haunting the fatal spot where she had been discovered and where her mortal eyes had last seen the living Edward before his tumble from the high rock. She was quite beside herself with grief.
And who is to deny what happened next, or say it is untrue?
For Mary began to see the ghost of Edward beside the rock above the waters below. No others could see him, but Mary insisted she could.
It was not long before she began to believe that Edward was calling to her from the opposite side of the ravine, she said.
Discommoded with grief and overjoyed at their imminent re-union, Mary sprang from the identical spot as Edward had done, She leapt from the steep jagged outcrop of south-facing rock above the glen.
She perished, in her turn, as her mortal body fell to the unforgiving stones below.
Her spirit is seen there on the eve of St. John’s Day traversing the fatal locality in the form of a milk-white fawn, according to Kennedy.
The spirit of Edward is not seen, according to the story, so perhaps they have not yet been reconciled.
A more modern writer, the late John J Dunne, said Mary heard a church bell pealing the death of her lover on Midsummer’s Eve, a night that now brings their phantom reunion.
Every Midsummer Eve, her ghost is said to appear in the Wicklow glen, eternally seeking the young lover she betrayed, according to Dunne.
He said that Mary was faithless to her Edward, giving her attentions instead to another young man who had come to woo her with dash and charm.
However, when she was singing a favourite song to please the new man, she heard the distant toll of a church bell, unmistakeably signifying a death and a consequent burial.
The young expect death the least and on inquiring for whom the bell tolled, the young woman was horrified to discover that Edward, stricken by her unfaithfulness, had died of a broken heart.
Overcome by remorse, she left her new admirer to his own devices.
She hurried to the graveyard where they had buried the youth who had died of unrequited love for her.
Having missed his sorrowful interment, Mary spent that first night sitting in Wicklow mountain rain at his freshly covered graveside, weeping and softly calling his name. She returned on each succeeding night, and continued a lonely vigil, until daylight returned at morning.
Her mind collapsed with the strain and guilt of all that had happened. She confided to her distressed family that Edward, her lover, had risen from the grave and walked with her through Dargle glen, promising to meet her once more at his graveside and to take her to a place where they would be together, forever.
This announcement was treated with horror by Mary’s family who moved immediately to confine her to her home.
But a lover’s determination will surmount all challenge. Mary managed to escape her detention. Although followed at speed by her horrified brother, her hurrying path took her to the river and its high rock above, before anyone could come up on her.
May was seen to climb up the huge crag above the Dargle river where she paused for a moment before plunging into the laughing tumbling waters below.
Perhaps, she was lured to her death by the phantom of her rejected lover. Perhaps her belief was confused by her tortured imagination. Nonetheless, whatever she saw was real enough for an otherwise healthy woman to pitch herself onto the unyielding rocks below to end her own mortal life, forever.
According to Dunne’s telling of the story; the spirit of the unhappy girl, each year on the anniversary of that night, revisits the height above the river in the shape of a white fawn, dashing forward and backward and disappearing into the shadows of the woods.
Eternally seeking forgiveness of a wronged lover.
While one teller says it is St John’s Eve and the other Midsummer’s Eve, the stories are essentially the same even if the sightings are separated by some days.
Perhaps, the spirits of the Wicklow lovers were united in the waters of the Dargle, as it made its way to the Irish Sea. Perhaps they reached the ocean never to return.
Or, perhaps Edward never called to Mary across that chasm. Perhaps her guilt and her grief drove her into eternity on a warm summer’s night in County Wicklow from the rock they now call Lover’s Leap.
For love is a strange and a wonderful thing. Spirits of love foregone flit through the soft darkness of a Wicklow night, endlessly twisting and turning in the eternal search for true love.
Extracted from Wicklow Folk Tales © Brendan Nolan
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