With Halloween creeping around the corner, we just couldn't resist sharing a good ghost story, especially when the frightening tale is told from one of our favorite destinations.
My skeptical neck felt chilled and tingled. It was unusually cold in the pub and much colder than outside. I was pleasurably lost in the rural labyrinth that is Tipperary and needed directions. No better place to ask for directions than an Irish pub. “Spooky in here,” I said to the bar manager Vinny Murphy. “Some people say they’ve seen a ghost,” he replied. “I don’t believe in them,” Vinny added almost dismissively showing me his pictures of himself and some famous people who had just dropped into this horsey pub near the world famous Coolmore Stud. “I know what I felt,” I snapped even though I was surprised at the words coming out of my own mouth. I was truly spooked. The irony was not lost on me that they also run the town’s undertakers out of McCarthy’s Pub in Fethard.
So much seems to be haunted in Ireland it beggar’s belief. From castles, pubs, houses, ruins and even the hedges (filled with wailing fairy banshees) there always seem to be some story or rumour of some spirit afterlife activity.
Irish folklore is full of tales of the dead and undead. This is the land that sparked the imagination of author Bram Stoker who wrote Dracula. Since time immemorial we have been fascinated with our own mortality and the spirits of the Otherworld. In myth, fairies act as a conduit for the souls of those who pass through from this world into the Otherworld. They are particularly active during November, as it is the end of the spirit year and fairy funerals fill the narrow country roads with grass growing down the middle of them. It is no coincidence that Halloween and its Celtic equivalent of Samhain are celebrated at this time. The wailing banshee is a sidhe or fairy woman who brings portents of death. It can also be the deathly soul of a local tormented ghost. You might just be unlucky enough to hear one on your way home from an evening of craic (fun) and music in an Irish country pub. It is the most chilling sound you will ever hear. In the dark, on rural roads with no electric light, the healthy infectious Celtic imagination runs wild. If you stay long enough in Ireland you might just start believing yourself. Then again it might just be a cow in a field (well known for their convincing banshee impressions) or perhaps a northwind rustling through the leaves of a tree.
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Although seeing a banshee reminds us superstitious Irish of death, we are not all that morbid. Even if you ever attend an Irish funeral wake, you will quickly realise that a death is a good a reason to party as any. It is all done with the utmost reverence of course and it helps settle the deceased spirit. Even the most miserable person alive becomes a saint in the reveller’s eyes when they pass over to the other side.
Castles are great places for ghosts. At Ballygally Castle in County Antrim, a luxury hotel with all mod cons, they still retain the stark ghost room of Lady Isobel Shaw. This is in the original 17th century part of the building and you can stay in one of three original rooms here if you are brave enough. Lady Isobel wanders around the hotel and playfully knocks on the doors of guests while they are asleep. Also in Antrim, Carrickfergus Castle is the remains of the finest Anglo-Norman castle on the whole island of Ireland. Here the ghost of the innocent Buttoncap, a soldier who was wrongfully executed for killing an officer, roams the ramparts at night with his head in his arms. His wiser girlfriend hangs round the local pub, the Dobbins Inn.
They placate the ghosts at Leap Castle in County Offaly with music and dance. Widely acclaimed traditional musician, Sean Ryan, lives with his family in this most haunted of castles with a dark past of murder and intrigue. It was the seat of the ferocious O’Carroll clan and the ghosts are allegedly protecting some buried silver. Sean refurbished the ruin with his own hands and firmly believes the ghosts are now at ease with his family. They may have caused him to fall off a ladder when he was renovating the place, but now sure they live in harmony together and they like to hear a good tune. He plays a jig on his tin whistle while his dance champion daughter skips elegantly across the floorboards. Nearby the friendly ghost of a monk at Kinnity Castle predicts future events and cracks jokes with that luxury hotel’s staff.
Even the modern cities of Ireland have their own share of ghosts. Dublin’s famous Shelbourne Hotel has the ghost of little Mary who wanders the corridors late at night, but means no harm. Good-humoured Puck, the ghost of a jester, is one of the many ghosts that frequent Malahide Castle, which is just north of the city. Kilmainham Gaol is haunted by the ghosts of Ireland’s political past. It has a macabre history of cruelty and its cold dank corridors will make your spine tingle. In Belfast, a former cleaner who came to a tragic end by tripping over her mop haunts the Linen Mill at Belfast Flaxworks. In the haunted City Hall, at Halloween they tell stories of the local ghosts and ghouls.
Catherine McGlone’s spirit haunts Armagh City jail. In 1770, she was the last woman to be publicly executed in the mall in front of the jail. She was hung and then burned and her ashes were kicked about the place. This was considered at the time a punishment befitting her crime of drowning her illegitimate son in the River Callum. The Holy City of Armagh is also home of the Green Lady of Vicars Hill who used to boil children in her spare time.
There is no more eerie castle ruins than at Dunluce on the spectacular coast of North Antrim. Perched on an outcrop of white rock above one of the best beaches in the county, the castle is certainly in a dramatic location. In 1639, it was the scene of a great tragedy when part of the castle including the kitchens fell into the sea. Seven cooks died that night. You would want to be in the whole of your health to visit this place at night. Silhouetted against a full moon shining on a pale wild sea the ghosts of the dead nightly swirl around on the wailing winds that sweep around its walls.
Not all ghost stories you hear in Ireland are true and some have more than a touch of blarney. Some ghost stories are convincing; others you should take with a grain of salt. The telling of the story round an open fire is often more important than the truth. If a ghost story is worth the telling, then surely it is worth listening to.