“Oona More, a Legend of Kildare” was written for the February Session of Carlow College in 1865 by Rev. Patrick Fitzsimons, who had been ordained for the Kildare and Leighlin Diocese seven years previously. A member of Carlow College staff from his ordination until 1871, Fr. Fitzsimons was then appointed administrator of Tullow where he remained until his death on the 15th of January 1876. What connection, if any, he had with Inch or County Kildare, I have been unable to ascertain.
The ballad tells the story of Oona More, or more correctly Moore, who lived in Ballycullane, near Athy. In nearby Inch Castle lived the MacKellys or O’Kellys, either name is to be found in different versions of the ballad. In the best manner of Irish folk tradition, MacKelly was described as a tyrannical landlord, whose son Ulick had a brief relationship with the beautiful Oona More, a farm worker’s daughter. Later abandoned by her lover, Oona returned broken- hearted to live with her brothers in Ballycullane.
“Full many a hopeful promise to the maiden fair he gave,
He swore to be her guardian from that moment to the grave;
But his love tho’ warm was fleeting as an echo from the shore,
Not many a sun had risen ere he slighted Oona More.”
The plague commonly called the Black Death raged through Ireland and England in 1349, leaving over one million dead in its wake. It was to erupt periodically thereafter, and in 1439 made its appearance yet again amongst the Irish people. Ulick MacKelly from Inch Castle was struck down, and like all others similarly afflicted he was removed to a plague shed in the middle of the Kildare countryside. There he was to remain “so changed that those who shared his feast fled sickening at the sight.”
Not so, Oona, the girl he had spurned, who hearing of his plight hurried to the plague shed to be near her former lover.
“Three nights she vigil’d whilst the glow was fading from his cheek,
More soothing words than Oona’s were scarce angel-tongues might speak;
But all was vain, his hour was come, his eyes were closed in death,
And tended by that faithful one he sighed his parting breath.
That self-same hour died Oona, by the plague-shed’s cheerless door,
The carrion crow and raven o’er the lifeless bodies soar,
But yet they dare not enter, for since Oona pass’d away,
A snow white bird is resting there, and guards the door all day.
Next morn they burned the plague-shed, where the two lay side by side,
False Ulick and fair Oona, like a bridegroom and his bride;
And from the ashes of their bones which mingled with the clay,
Sprang seven fair trees of hawthorn, which are living there today.”
The legend of Oona More and Ulick MacKelly is in the best traditions of Irish folklore, and strikes a very responsive link with our hidden past. The remains of Inch Castle, which lie three miles to the north east of Athy, are those of a 15th century tower house. A substantial portion of the north east corner fell in 1896, carrying with it the original entrance and part of the staircase. The intervening years have not been kind to the old structure.
In the Dublin Penny Journal of 1835 the following lines appeared as representing part of a favourite wake song in the Ballycullane/Inch locality :
“On moonlight nights the shadow flits
across the furry moor,
And at the Moate in silence sits,
Until the midnight hour.
The bitterns only moan is heard
Along the boggy glade,
But the shadow still is feared
As Oona’s restless shade.”
The story of Oona More from Ballycullane is remembered even at the remove of over 500 years. Hers is a tale of love, betrayal and loyalty, so beloved of the folklorists and of the people from whom the story passed from generation to generation, until it found permanency in print with the pen of a Catholic priest in Carlow College 130 years ago.