The Legend of Binion Sands

Binion Bay lies just beyond Clonmany and a mile or two from Ballyliffin in County Donegal. It's a scene of wild Irish beauty but for centuries there has been another side to this enigmatic place. You see Binion has harboured tales of tyrannical landlords, sinister happenings, a ghost or two, and even a mermaid thrown in for good measure. Yet in such a mysterious setting one legend stands out above all others. It's about a tenacious family, a sensational row with a bishop, and a secret mi

On the night of Friday 23rd July 1915, there was one of the strangest sights you might ever see in the graveyard of St Mary's Church in the Donegal village of Clonmany. There, in secrecy, and by candlelight, a plain black coffin was lowered into the earth. It was the remains of the formidable Fr Edward Loughrey PP, a stalwart priest of the Derry diocese; a man who caused a sensation in his own times and who was a true son of one of the most resolute and legendary families ever to grace these parts, the Loughreys of Binion House.

Just outside Clonmany looking down across Binion Bay you can spot Binion House sheltering behind a scattering of trees not far from the beach. The dwelling lies under Binion Hill (The Little Peak), a shoulder of grey rock that reaches out dramatically into the ocean and seems split in two by a great stone wall that wriggles its way up the hillside.

The sheer isolation of the place brought thoughts of the famous novel 'Lorna Doone' into my head and oddly enough the townland known as Doonally (Dunally) is nearby.

Binion Bay is flanked to the east by Ballyliffin strand and to the west by Tullagh Bay. Familiar landmarks are Dunaff Head, Suil Rock and Glashedy Island. An ancient signpost on Clomany Bridge near the ruin of Straid Protestant Church tells you that Derry is 19 miles away (that's old Irish miles of course – it's nearer 24 in today's miles).

So what was behind Father Loughrey's clandestine burial at Clonmany in 1915? To unravel the mystery I had to re-trace his last journey piece by piece and therein lies a weird tale.

He died on Tuesday 20 July, 1915, in Dungiven parochial house. Two days later Bishop Charles McHugh travelled out from Derry to preside over his Requiem Mass at St Patrick's Church in the town. However, the bishop was in for a shock - Fr Loughrey's remains had vanished! In fact they were on the train on their way into the Waterside station in Derry. The label on the plain black coffin simply read - St Mary's Chapel, Clonmany. The coffin had no name plate and no mountings.

In a life of bold, if not brash confrontations, Fr Loughrey's last gesture was his biggest - a snub to his bishop that was well planned in every detail, even to having his favourite horse Black Tom draw his remains the short distance to Dungiven railway station.

It is quite possible that the late Fr Loughrey and the bishop passed each other on the way, for the train route was much used in those days. Whatever the case, the next we hear is that while the Requiem Mass was progressing in Dungiven, Joe Loughrey, a Derry solicitor and brother of the priest, collected the remains and brought them to St Columb's Church, Waterside. After Mass the following morning Joe travelled with the coffin on a horse drawn hearse all the way to Clonmany – a difficult, all-day journey in those times.

Conflict with the Bishop

You couldn't dispute the achievements of Fr. Loughrey. A man of great intellect, he had been a builder of churches and schools, a defender of people’s rights, a supreme orator and a friend of all religious traditions. For many, Edward Loughrey could all but walk on water. However, his tendency to be single - minded and outspoken meant continual brushes with authority and as a result he was often at the centre of controversy.

Quite simply he would not tolerate interference in anything he did and it was this side of his unshakable nature that eventually led to the unbelievable battle with Bishop McHugh.

The conflict arose over an incident in Dungiven Boys’ School in 1907. In the resulting dispute and with his brother Joseph’s support, Father Loughrey refused to budge in what soon became a war of attrition. In the end, getting no satisfaction from Bishop McHugh, he left him with the parting salvo – ‘ My Lord – I desire to respectfully inform you I go now to Rome to lay my complaints in proper hands [i.e., with the Pope]…’

The drama was followed eagerly day by day in Derry and the surrounding parishes. It was the sensation of the times – a priest might disagree with the bishop but to go over his head to the Pope was unheard of.

In the end Fr Loughrey lost control of his schools and I believe it shook his Loughrey pride to the foundations. His way of responding was to plan the secret removal of his remains to his birthplace at Clonmany (and of course Binion) rather than let others – his adversaries - put the official seal on his ministry. The message was that the Loughreys will have their way in the end.

So where did such haughtiness come from? Well perhaps it was always in the blood but surely Binion House and the nearby mysterious sands helped shape the unflinching Loughrey temperament. There is a beautiful but raw wildness hereabouts, where at times you have to set your face into a bitter northerly wind whipping in from Malin Head.

Young Loughreys would have been toughened with swimming in the sea in all weathers, wandering the shore and labouring on their farm. No doubt their imaginations were fired by the stories of the colourful characters and many strange happenings in these lands they were heir to.

Weird Tales

Clonmany is a delightful but melancholy place. Tradition says that you can meet a mermaid on Binion sands, and frequently encounter long dead souls coming and going on the lonely paths around the beach.

Under Binion Hill, so the story goes, a piper entered Poll an Phiobaire (The Piper’s Cave), the cave that some say has no end. Off he went playing a special air, ‘Girls will be old women before I return.’ And that was the last that was ever heard of him.

It’s said that you can hear music come in on the breeze when the fairies rest on Glashedy Island en route to their summer pastures and others with out flinching will tell you that Connla’s crock of gold is hidden somewhere inside the cliffs of Binion.

But I suppose the Binion legend really begins in the late 1700s when Michael Loughrey, a bright and handsome lad, was adopted by an English family called Buchanan, who owned Binion House and much of the land around Clonmany.

Michael helped in his father’s tavern in Moville and made such an impression on the Buchanans that they took him to live with them in England and brought him up as their son. Then in 1814, the Buchanans passed everything to Michael Loughrey at a nominal amount.

Loughrey was a man of many hues. From what we know of him he had a very resolute nature. He was also shrewd and thoroughly Anglicised but more especially he was a devout Catholic who suddenly found himself with a vast amount of land in an area where landlordism had a bad name and Binion was at the centre of it.

Binion House, which Loughrey then rebuilt, had originally been the home of Colonel Daniel McNeal, a defender of Derry in the siege of 1689 and later a fighter at the Battle of the Boyne. McNeal, regarded as a tyrannical landlord, was notorious for abducting girls in the vicinity. In order to placate the local families he would allot them a rood of land – thus you often find what is known as a McNeal Rood on the way from Clonmany to Ballyiffin. McNeal was to perish in 1709, suffering an awful death at the hands of local men in retribution for his villainous ways.

Next came the Buchanans and the after them Michael Loughrey. In time his children began to grow up at Binion. Michael’s marriage produced seven boys. Two died fairly young but of the others three were to contribute to the Loughrey legend - John, Joe and Edward. The latter two we have already encountered, and while they were stirring up folk in Derry, John, the eldest son, was doing likewise in the land around Binion Bay, driven on by the Loughrey flinty and steadfast nature.

In competent Loughrey style John built the modern village of Clonmany in 1850 but then proceeded to alienate his tenants with disputes that raged during the Irish Land Wars of the 1870s. Then John Loughrey met a strange fate, being gored to death by his own bull in 1901 – an event greeted with delight in Clonmany and celebrated in song throughout his own lands.

Later Loughreys displayed much talent, having among them surgeons, engineers and a famous cellist. A daughter of the famous Irish sculptor John Hogan and his Italian wife Cornelia Bevhiari married into the family and later still the Grant family became custodians of the estate.

Binion House

The dwelling itself has the style of an Irish manor house. Warm and comfortable, it has that well lived-in feeling you often get in older buildings. I could easily imagine the strong-willed, immovable Loughreys going about their business in earlier times around this solid old residence. Even as a priest Fr Loughrey came back to Binion to work the farm. So his heart was in this place, which was always there to give him time out from those fierce Loughrey battles.

And when Father Loughrey was no more those battles continued. Solicitor Joe Loughrey’s daughters were the famous Derry dog breeders familiarly known as Bird and Dill. This Waterside-based pair were the darlings of Crufts. In the dog world you daren’t argue with Dill Loughrey, who maintained the supremacy of the Scottish Deerhound over its Irish counterpart the Wolfhound – there were many bitter rows about this. And in Derry, members of the local kennel club went in fear and awe of the Loughreys, even to the point of standing to attention when the pair withdrew from meetings.

By the 1970s the Loughreys had gone from Derry but the Binion ties exist to this day – as do the many memories of this formidable family. In the lands of Clonmany – the Meadow of the Monks – I often wonder if any of the early Loughreys are among those ghosts said to haunt the local paths.

And is McNeal’s ghost also hereabouts? On the night he died in Binion in1709 it was said that devil tore a wall out of the house as he made off in haste with the unfortunate creature’s soul.

You couldn’t imagine that happening to any of the Loughreys. As for the redoubtable Father Edward you’d never even know he’d been buried here for part of his plan requested that his name would not even be recorded on the Loughrey gravestone at Clonmany.

His wishes were adhered to but the Binion legend still lives on.