No other parish documented in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs is so rich in legend and lore as Desertoghill, and within it Desertoghill Old Church (said to have been founded by Columbkille in the fifth century). This church has it all; nocturnal disturbances, holy wells, kneeling stones, remarkable burials and larger than life characters in the form of two watchmen with wolf dogs who guard over the parishioners. And is if this were not enough, ‘it is in a dreary bleak situation at the edge of a bog and appears to be decaying fast’. In the tradition of so many churches in this county, it is said that this church was originally begun at Moneydig, but that ‘. . .the masonry raised in that place during the day was always pulled down at night, which discouraged the builders so much that they ceased building there’. Not far from the church is a holy well dedicated to St. Columbkille and on the north side of the church there is a stone called ‘St. Columbkille’s stone, with the impression on it believed to have been produced by the saint’s knee’. This stone, the memoir tells us, was stolen by one miscreant parishioner, who after the theft ‘. . .could find no rest by night’ till he replace the stone.
Perhaps the most macabre of all the stories associated with this church and graveyard is that of the ‘tragic death’ of a child by its father. Add to this gruesome tale the detached and impassive tone in which the memoir writer relates the story and the result is chilling; ‘In the churchyard there is a tombstone on which is engraven a cock and a child, of which the following is the particulars: as Thomas Dunlap was chopping sticks, a cock came in and flew upon the dresser and tossed some delf from off the dresser. When the father enraged, turning round, threw the hatchet at the cock, which struck the child and knocked out its brains, the cock immediately ran in and commenced picking the brains of the child, and which was the occasion of the engraving on the tombstone. The stone is at the north side of the old churchyard with the epitaph: ‘Here lyeth the body of Archibald Dunlap, who departed this life January 23rd aged 2 years 1779’.
The memoirs reveal one further fascinating detail about this parish – that it was plagued by wolves, and that it is in part due to this fact that the parish derived its name: ‘In ancient time the people resorting to the old church of Desertoghill were very much disturbed by the wolves that infested the country . . .on sundry occasions of the people assembling to midnight mass on Christmas days, the wolves made sudden and unexpected attacks on different persons. Particularly on some women who were unable to defend themselves, till they were nearly destroyed by these animals. It was necessary to have watchmen with wolf-dogs to guard the county. Consequently, a watch-house was erected by the congregation a little beyond the old church near St. Columb’s well, in which two men with wolf-dogs were stationed to guard the congregation. One of these wolf hunters was a gigantic man and of great courage, by name Toughill.’ This Toughill, it is said was a huge and impressive man, and though other came after him, none so colourful as he. It is believed that through time this man became known locally as Desert ( a reference to his life and work in the parish) and that eventually the place was partly dedicated to his name, ‘and called Desert Toughill, and gave name to the parish, which is said to have been originally Desert only.’