McDermott was the Chieftain of Moylurg, a Celtic Kingdom in North Roscommon. He had a beautiful daughter, Úna Bhán, – so named because of her long blonde hair. His neighbour was Tomás Láidir Costello, a good and sincere man, handsome and strong.
Úna Bhán and Tomás Láidir fell in love and wished to marry but McDermott would not allow the marriage because he believed Tomás Láidir was not good enough for his daughter. Tomás Láidir was banished from the area and McDermott had Úna Bhán confined on Castle Island, Lough Key, then called “The Rock”, which was located in the centre of McDermott territory.
Úna Bhán went into a deep melancholy and was dying of grief. Tomás Láidir, hearing of the situation went to see her and when he left, vowed that if McDermott did not send a message for him to return before he reached the river, he would never go back. The messenger was sent, but did not reach Tomás Láidir until after he had crossed the river. Being a man of honour Tomás Láidir was unable to break his vow and did not return.
Úna Bhán died of a broken heart and was buried on Trinity Island, an island on Lough Key. In his grief Tomás Láidir used to swim to the island every night to keep vigil at her grave. Eventually he developed pneumonia and realising that he was dying requested that McDermott allow him to be buried beside Úna Bhán. His request was granted and thus the two lovers were belatedly united.
Tradition says that two trees grew up over their graves, entwining together to form a Lovers Knot, standing guard over the site.
‘Úna Bhán Song’
O fair Úna, ’tis ugly, this lying upon you
On a high, narrow bed among a thousand corpses;
If your answering shout does not come to me,
O stately woman who was always without fault
I will not come to this town ever again, but for last night and tonight.
O fair Úna, O blossom of the amber locks,
After your death because of bad advice;
Look, my love, which of the two counsels was better,
O bird in a cage, when I was in the Ford of the Donogue?
O fair Úna you left me twisted up in grief,
And why would there be in you a desire to make much of it forevermore,
O girl with pretty, ringleted hair, on whom the molten gold grew?
I would prefer being with you to the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven.
O fair Úna, said he of the crooked skiffs,
Your two eyes were the gentlest that were ever put in a head,
O little mouth of sugar, like new milk, like wine and like beoir,
O lovely, nimble foot, you would walk without pain in a shoe.
O fair Úna, you were like a rose in a garden,
And you were a golden candlestick on the queen’s table;
You were a melody, and musical, when you walked the road before me,
‘Tis my sorrowful loss of the morning that you were not married to me.
O fair Úna, it is you who deranged my senses;
O Úna, it is you who came firmly between me and God;
O Úna, o fragrant bough, o curly ringlet of hair,
Wouldn’t it have been better for me to be without eyes, never seeing you?
My visit to the town last night was wet and cold,
And I was sitting up on the edge of the bed by myself;
O brightness without gloom, to whom many were not betrothed, but I was,
Why do you not proclaim to me the coldness of the morning?
There are people in this world who hurl contempt on an empty estate,
Full of worldly wealth themselves, although it does not last forever;
I would not complain of lack of wealth nor lament lack of land,
But I would rather have Una than two sheep.
Stand and look, is my great love coming?
She is like a snowball and bees’ honey which would freeze the sun;
Like a snowball and bees’ honey which would freeze the sun,
My treasure and my darling, ’tis a long time I’ve lived without you.
O Úna, maiden, darling, and golden teeth,
O little honeyed mouth which never uttered an injustice,
I would have preferred to be in bed with her, kissing her continually,
Than to sit in the Kingdom of Heaven on the throne of the Trinity.
I passed through my friends’ town last night,
Yet I found nothing with which to cool or wet my mouth;
The graceful girl, glum and with madder on her fingers, said,
Thrice woe is me, that I did not meet you in solitude.
Images | McDermott’s Castle, Castle Island, Lough Key, Co Roscommon | Max Malloy Photography