One of Ireland’s most enduring legends tells us of how O’Donoghue, who was once Lord of the Lakes of Killarney, Ross Castle, and the surrounding lands, can be seen each May-morning upon a white horse gliding over the three lakes.
He is accompanied by unearthly music, and attended by an army of otherworldly beings who stew May flowers in their wake, including youths and maidens who moved lightly and unconstrained over the watery plain.
The following account of the origins of his May-morning visitations on the Lakes of Killarney was provided by the folklorist and antiquarian Thomas Crofton Croker in his Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, 1825-1828:
“In an age so distant that the precise period is unknown, a chieftain named O’Donoghue ruled over the country which surrounds the lovely Lough Lean, now called the Lake of Killarney. Wisdom, beneficence, and justice distinguished his reign, and the prosperity and happiness of his subjects were their natural results. He was said to have been renowned for his warlike exploits as for his pacific virtues; and as a proof that his domestic administration was not the less rigorous because it was mild, a rocky island is pointed out to strangers, called “O’Donoghue’s Prison,” in which the prince once confined his own son for some act of disorder or disobedience.
His end – for it cannot correctly be called his death – was singular and mysterious. At one of those splendid feasts for which his court was celebrated, surrounded by the most distinguished of his subjects, he was engaged in a prophetic relation of the events which were to happen in ages yet to come. His auditors listened, now wrapped in wonder, now fired with indignation, burning with shame, or melted into sorrow, as he faithfully detailed the heroism, the injuries, the crimes, and the miseries of their descendants. In the midst of his predictions he rose slowly from his seat, advanced with a solemn, measured, and majestic stride to the shore of the lake, and walked forward composedly upon its unyielding surface. When he had nearly reached the centre, he paused for a moment, then turning slowly round, looked towards his friends, and waving his arms to them with the cheerful air of one taking a short farewell, disappeared from their view.
The memory of the good O’Donoghue has been cherished by successive generations with affectionate reverence: and it is believed at sunrise, on every May-day morning, the anniversary of his departure, he revisits his old domains: a favoured few only are in general permitted to see him, and this distinction is always an omen of good fortune to the beholders; when it is granted to many, it is a sure token of an abundant harvest, – a blessing, the want of which during this prince’s reign was never felt by his people.”