TRUE GHOST STORIES FROM
DUBLIN AND EASTERN IRELAND
Kathfarnham Co. Dublin
The Black Cat of Killakee
In 1968 Mrs Margaret O’Brien and her husband, Nicholas, purchased what was then a derelict building intending to turn it into an arts centre. Several workmen lived on the site during renovation, and they soon grew used to eerie sounds and uncanny happenings.
But, when a large feline appeared mysteriously before them and then suddenly vanished, the builders became decidedly uneasy and the legend of the black cat of Killakee was born.
Mrs O’Brien thought the stories nonsense to begin with, but then she too saw the creature and, as she put it, "began to understand the fear."
The first time she crossed its path; it was squatting on the flagstones of the hallway just glaring at her. Every door in the house was locked both before and after its sudden appearance and subsequent disappearance.
But it was the painter, Tom McAssey who had the most famous confrontation with the mysterious creature. In March 1968 he and two other men were working in a room of the house, when the temperature began to drop alarmingly. Suddenly the door swung wide open and a hazy figure appeared in the darkness. Thinking it was someone playing a joke he called out "come in, I can see you."
But all three men froze in terror when the reply was a low, angry growl. Moments later they fled the room slamming the door behind them. But, when Tom McAssey looked back, the door was wide open again, and a hideous black cat with blazing red eyes was snarling at him from the shadows of the room. "I thought my legs wouldn’t take me away from the place," he later recalled, "I was really in a bad state."
Following this chilling encounter Margaret O’Brien had the building exorcised and things quietened down for a time.
But then, in October 1969, a group of actors staying at the arts centre decided to hold a sťance for a joke and the disturbances began again. Furthermore they seemed to have raised the spirits of two nuns, who would appear before startled witnesses in the gallery of the centre.
A local medium, Sheila St. Clair, visited the property and claimed that the phantoms were the unhappy spirits of two women who had assisted at satanic rituals held during the meetings of the notorious Hell Fire Club in the 18th century.
Richard Parsons had founded an Irish branch of this club in 1735 and they are said to have held their sinister assemblies, in a hunting lodge, the ruins of which can still be seen on Montpelier Hill behind the centre.
Local legend tells how Richard "Burnchapel" Whaley, a member of one of the areas richest families, had joined the society and had revelled in the debauched rituals.
These are said to have included the burning alive of a black cat on at least one occasion; the worshipping of cats in place of Satan himself; the setting on fire of an unfortunate woman stuffed inside a barrel; and the ritual beating and murder of a poor deformed boy.
At a meeting of the club in 1740, a servant is said to have spilt a drink on Thomas Whaley, who was so enraged by the accident that he had the servant doused in brandy and set ablaze.
The subsequent fire burnt down the building and killed several members of the club.
In July 1970, a dwarfish skeleton was discovered buried beneath the kitchen floor of the building and in the grave with it was the brass statuette of a monstrous demon, which gave credence to at least one of the legends. A priest was called in to give the body a proper burial and thereafter the manifestations ceased.
Today, a pleasant restaurant occupies the old house, and hellish felines seem to be very much a thing of the past. But reminders still exist of its more sinister bygone days.
Chief amongst these is Tom McAssey’s portrait of "The Black Cat of Killakee" that gazes hauntingly down from one of the walls, its eerie red eyes and almost human features enough to send cold shivers racing down the spine.
St Michan’s Church, Dublin
St Michan is said to have been a Danish Bishop who, in 1095, built a church above vaults that had been constructed upon the site of an ancient oak forest.
The church was rebuilt in the 18th century and contains, among other things, the death mask of the charismatic Irish patriot, Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798), and the organ on which Handel is reputed to have practise his "Messiah" before the first performance in Dublin.
The philosopher Edmund Burke was christened here and the funeral of Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell took place here.
But, in the dark vaults beneath the church, you will find one of the creepiest and most unique haunted locations in the whole of Ireland.
You enter this subterranean world via two heavy iron doors that open onto a steep flight of stone steps, down which you descend into eerie darkness.
The air, however, is strangely warm and fresh, not in the least like the cold and clammy atmosphere you would expect to find in such a place.
As your eyes grow accustomed to the dark, you notice a series of high-vaulted cells that lead from a central passage.
In several of the chambers, coffins are stacked in untidy piles as generations of the same family lie on top of one another. In places the weight of the dead pressing upon the dead has resulted in the coffins collapsing into each other causing arms, legs or even heads to protrude from their final resting places as if posing for some grotesque and macabre family portrait.
What is even more remarkable is, that despite the fact some of these people died 500 years ago, they have not crumbled into dust, but have been preserved, like mummies, their flesh the texture of tanned leather.
Even more bizarre, their joints are supple and actually move! The only living creatures in this underground world of twisting shadows are spiders. Their webs woven thick across walls or forming grim, grey veils that stretch from ceiling to floor.
In some places open coffins display occupants whose heads are either thrown back or lying to one side, their mouths open as though they have just fallen asleep and you find yourself expecting them to start snoring at any moment. The body of a man lies with one leg crossed over the other, the traditional posture denoting a crusader. Such is the state of preservation that you can actually stoop and examine the nails of someone who died 800 years ago. There was a time when you were even allowed to shake him by the hand, but such intimacy is now forbidden as a result of the frequent attempts to steal his fingers as souvenirs!
The remarkable preservation of the cadavers is thought to be the result of the air being chemically impregnated by the remains of the oak forest that stood on the site in ancient times.
As long as the vaults remain dry, decay ceases. Let only a little moisture enter and the bodies crumble into a fine dust. In 1853 the two brothers John and Henry Sheares, who had been beheaded in the 18th century were re-coffined and stood upright in a vault with their heads by their feet. The people of Dublin brought wreaths and, within a year, the moisture from the flowers had wrecked everything in that vault.
Not surprisingly, the tales of ghostly happenings pale in comparison to the gruesome reality of the crypt. But people exploring the macabre Charnel House, have heard strange disembodied voices, whispering around them and some have felt ice cold fingers run down their necks as they stoop to examine the permanent residents of this subterranean world of silent shadow.
Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin
The vast and eerie Kilmainham Gaol is Ireland’s largest unoccupied prison. Its echoing corridors and poignant courtyards provide a vivid idea of what it would have been like to find yourself confined in one of these forbidding bastions between 1796, when it opened and 1924, when it closed.
As well as housing many common criminals it was also the place where the leaders of the 1916 uprising were detained. Many were also executed within its grim walls, and a plaque in the gaols courtyard remembers those patriotic men who bravely and defiantly faced the firing squads, in the cold early morning hours of May 1916.
The last to die was James Connolly who had to be tied into a chair in order that the execution could be carried out, as he was unable to stand on his own due to his terrible injuries.
With such an eventful and often gruesome history, it is inevitable that Kilmainham Gaol should have several ghosts.
The building had stood empty for many years before a dedicated band of volunteers set about its restoration in the early 1960’s.
At the time, the governor's quarters were utilised as a home by Dan Mcgill and his family who acted as caretakers. Not in the least bit perturbed by the fact that his front windows looked out onto the place where the gallows had once stood, Dan carried out his duties with cool, level headed efficiency.
One evening he was preparing for bed, when he happened to glance from a side window and saw to his surprise that the chapel lights, which he had only just turned off, had been switched back on. He walked across to the chapel, switched them off and returned home where he once more prepared to retire. But on looking from the window he saw that the chapel lights were blazing again. He made the long walk to the chapel a total of three times in that one night.
During the restoration another man whom colleagues described as "very religious and tea total" was painting in the dungeon area of the prison, when a huge gust of wind suddenly blew him against a wall. Battling hard against the mysterious tempest, he managed to fight his way from the dungeon, where his ashen face and shaking hands were vivid testimony to his brush with the uncanny force. He point blank refused ever to work in, or even visit, the gaol again.
Another volunteer was decorating the "1916 Corridor" when he heard what he took to be a colleague’s heavy footsteps, climbing the stone stairs and walking along the passage behind him. Turning to greet whoever it was, he was astonished to find no one else in the corridor, despite the fact that the plodding footsteps continued as though some invisible presence had just walked right past him.
Several children visiting the old gaol have paused terrified on the threshold refusing to go one step further, whilst one guide who was particularly susceptible to psychic sensations, claimed that there was an evil and fearsome aura around the balcony of the chapel.
Others, however, sense the gaol to be a tranquil place and speak fondly of how the eyes of the thousands of past inmates, watch them, apparently looking out for their well – being.
Perhaps the last words on the haunting of the gaol, should go to Dan McGill, who was always pointing out that no-one should ever fear the inmates, because they knew that the volunteers were only trying to tell their stories.
"But," he would say, "the soldiers and the guards? Now they’re a different matter."
Malahide, County Dublin
Puck The Phantom Sentry
Malahide is a stunningly picturesque, fortress that stands amidst a profusion of massive oaks, mighty chestnuts and towering sycamores nine miles to the north of Dublin.
Richard Talbot, who had been awarded the Lordship of Malahide by Henry 11, built the first castle on the site in about 1185.
Thereafter, despite regular sieges and constant warring aimed at displacing them, his descendents clung to possession for 791 years (a ten year eviction during the Cromwelian era excepting), until in 1975 the Hon. Rose Talbot was forced to sell her ancestral home to pay the exorbitant Death Duties occasioned by the sudden death of her brother Milo, the last Lord Talbot de Malahide, in 1973.
Purchased by the local authority, it was opened to the public and visitors can now experience the majestic ambience of a true time capsule, wherein ancient corridors and winding stairways lead into atmospheric old rooms, resplendent with period furnishings, family portraits and intriguing artefacts.
Having ascended the winding stone stairway from the reception, you step into the Oak Room, which sits at the heart of the medieval castle where above the fireplace is a 16th century Flemish carving depicting the Coronation of the Virgin.
One of the Castle’s most abiding legends centres upon this exquisite work. In August 1649 Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland with a force of some 12,000 soldiers.
The then owner of Malahide Castle, John Talbot, was unceremoniously evicted and Cromwell gave the fortress to Miles Corbet.
Tradition asserts that the moment he took possession the carving mysteriously disappeared and was not seen for ten years until, following the Restoration of Charles 11 in 1660, and the subsequent execution of Corbet, the Castle was restored to the Talbot family and the carving re-appeared upon the wall!
The Great Hall of the Castle, is one of the most important medieval rooms in Ireland and remains virtually unaltered since its construction in 1475.
On the 30th June 1690, fourteen members of the family are took breakfast here before setting off to fight in the next day’s Battle of the Boyne at which every one of them was killed.
It is also the room to which Malahides’ best attested ghost returns.
No one knows for certain who was but there is a tradition that he lived in the 15th century and, due to his slight stature, was unsuitable as a fighting man, so was employed instead as a watchman.
Unfortunately he was partial the odd tipple and one night, having imbibed a little too liberally, fell asleep at his post and an enemy stormed the Castle. Shamed by his neglect of duty, the remorseful sentry hanged himself from the Minstrel’s Gallery.
But his spirit has remained here ever since and appears whenever changes happen of which he disapproves. The last sighting of him was in 1975 when the castles’ fixtures and fittings were being auctioned. An auctioneer from London was busily compiling an inventory, when he looked up from his work and saw the unmistakable figure of Puck, standing by the tiny doorway, shaking his head in censure.
The Hill of Tara
Tara, County Meath
The hill of Tara is nothing special to look at. No crumbling ruin crowns its summit, and the surrounding countryside is anything but dramatic. Yet it is a magical place, steeped in mystery and legend and to journey the ragged paths which snake their way across its gentle slopes, is to walk in the footsteps of Kings and heroes.
Although legend accepts the Fir Bolg as the first invaders to make Tara a royal seat, it was the arrival of the mystical Tuatha De Dannan that made it a sacred and godly place.
They brought with them four divine gifts one of which, the Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, is said to be the weather beaten and decidedly phallic monument that today stands atop the grassy mound known as the Kings Seat. It was once Ireland’s coronation stone, over which monarchs were crowned and which was said to emit a fearsome roar of recognition when touched by the rightful king of Tara.
It has stood here since the times when magnificent wooden palaces dominated the brow of the hill. Its memories are Ireland’s memories of ancient glories and long ago kingships.
It remembers the feis, those great national assemblies that took place every three years at which laws were passed, tribal differences settled and the defence of the realm decided. It has witnessed the huge crowds that flocked here to enjoy great banquets whilst being entertained by athletes, combatants, poets, musicians, minstrels and jesters.
It warmed to the glow of firelight as storytellers gathered their audiences around them and, using nothing but the magic of language, spirited them away into the realm of the gods, where they held them spell bound with breathless tales of ancient conflicts and heroic conquests.
Tales of the mighty warrior, Lugh of the Long Hand, who came here to lead the mystical Tuatha De Danann into battle against their enemies the evil Fomorians.
A warrior such as he had never been seen in Ireland before, and so bright was the radiance of his countenance that, when he stood upon Tara’s heights people thought the sun had risen in the west. He wore the Milky Way as a silver chain around his neck; had a rainbow for his sling and possessed a sword called "the Answerer" with which he could cleave through both walls and armour.
Before riding into battle at the head of a great host of warriors, he equipped himself with every magical weapon known to the world.
His forces inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Fomorians and banished them from Ireland forever, after which the De Danann returned to Tara and ruled for nine generations, until the arrival from Spain of the Milesians, ancestors of the modern Irish.
These were the sagas and unwritten histories with which the storytellers would regale their audiences in the halls of Tara. And of how, with the coming of the Milesians, the history of modern Ireland began. How at Kenmare Bay in County Kerry the two sides fought a battle during which the De Danann Queen, Eriu, was fatally wounded.
But before she died, she made the Milesian leader, Amorgen, promise that the island would bear her name forever and thus it became Eriu, Eire or Eireann.
As the epic tales approached their climax, the audiences would have listened with baited breath to the story of the final confrontation between the two forces on the plain of Teltown, to the north of Tara. Of how the invaders finally overwhelmed the Tuatha De Danann who, rather than become expatriates, used their magical powers to retreat into a mystical realm, leaving Ireland itself to their conquerors. Thereafter, they dwelt beyond the sidhes, those grassy mounds and barrows that speckle the landscape of Ireland to this day. They became, according to the storytellers, the Aes Sidhe, or “People of the Hills” - the fairies whose existence has become rooted in the Irish psyche and whose mysterious otherworld has provided a final refuge in times of trouble. Every god was a Fer-Sidhe, or “man of the hill” and every goddess a Bean-Sidhe, or “woman of the hill”- the banshee of popular Irish legend.
Ages went by, generations of Kings were crowned over the Stone of Destiny, living and dying at Tara.
Then, at some stage around AD430, Loegaire became the 116th King and it was during his reign that another God arrived on Tara’s slopes as Christianity, in the robust form of St Patrick, challenged the pagan powers by lighting a Pascal fire on the nearby Hill of Slane. The Druid Priests warned Loegaire that, if he did not extinguish the fire immediately then it would burn in Ireland forever. But Loegaire ignored their warnings and St Patrick came to Tara where, plucking a shamrock from the hillside, he used its three leaves and single stem to teach Loegaire about the nature of the Trinity.
Thus it was that Christianity came to Ireland and the emblem of the nation was born. But it was this new faith that, ultimately, sounded Tara’s death knell. According to legend King Diarmaid, who ascended the throne in AD558, arrested and executed the murderer of a tax collector who had taken sanctuary with St Ruadhan.
Incensed by the Diarmaid’s actions, the Saint came to Tara and, ringing his sacred bell, pronounced the fateful incantation "Desolate be Tara for ever and ever."
Soon after the palace lay abandoned its buildings left to rot with only the stone of destiny standing silently by, a lone witness to the ending of its glories.
All is quiet here now. The heroes have departed. The ashes of the fires by whose glowing logs the storytellers once wove their magic have long since been raked into the hillside. The fairy folk have retreated ever further into their secret domain, driven from our consciousness by an invasion of modern technology and universal conformity that sees eccentricity where our ancestors saw enchantment.
But it is still possible in a quiet moment to stand upon Tara’s heights and, with the breeze upon your face, imbue yourself with the spirit of the place. "If you go there” wrote the poet Francis Ledwidge from the mud-spattered trenches of Flanders, “look all around you and remember me to every hill and wood and ruin, for my heart is there.. Say I will come back again surely, and maybe you will hear pipes in the grass or a fairy horn – I have heard them often from Tara"
Nr. Ballinalack, County Westmeath
The Fate of the Children of Lir
This is a tranquil place of ancient enchantment where rippling waters reflect tree lined hillsides that rise sleepily from the marshy banks.
Reids bend wearily against the faint breezes as though recoiling in shameful horror at the memory of a long ago act of unspeakable cruelty committed upon these very shores where one of Irelands most poignant legends was born.
It came to pass that the Tuatha De Nanaan met to elect a king, and duly settled upon Bodb Dearg, much to the anger of another contender, Lir, who returned to his palace angrily refusing to accept the new monarch.
The men of the Denanaans wished to wage war on Lir, but Bodb Dearg was anxious that his reign would be a peaceful one, and so dissuaded them.
As Lir’s resentment festered, fate dealt him a tragic blow, for his beloved wife died from a mysterious illness, leaving him inconsolable at the loss.
When Bodb heard of this, he sought to make peace with his adversary, and offered him the hand of one of his three treasured stepdaughters in marriage. Lir, filled with remorse at the Kings generosity abandoned his ambitions, accepted Bodb’s friendship, and chose Aobh, the eldest daughter, as his wife.
Theirs was a happy marriage, and Lirs’ joy knew no bounds when his wife gave birth to twins, a daughter, Fionnuala, and a son whom named Aodh.
A few years later his wife became pregnant again and the once embittered warrior sent word to his great friend, Bodb informing him of the glad tidings.
But the shadow of grief fell once more upon the household when Aobh died giving birth to twin boys, whom the distraught widower named Fiachra and Conn.
When word of his foster daughters death reached Bodb Dearg, he was filled with grief at the loss and, consumed with pity for his son-in-law, he declared that "our friendship with one another will not be broken for I will give him for a wife her sister Aoife."
Lir was again moved by the Kings kindness and the two were duly married. His children provided great solace to Lir, whose heart was filled with "joy and delight at the beauty of their appearance."
But the love he showed for them caused resentment to burn within his wife, who hatched a plan to be rid of them forever. She feigned a sickness, that lasted for almost a year and, just as Lir had resigned himself to losing a third wife, she miraculously recovered.
Her husband was overjoyed and was much relieved when she said she wished to take the four children to visit Bodb.
Yoking her chariot, she sent for the children and told them to prepare for. But Fionnuala had been warned in a dream of her stepmothers’ evil intentions and refused to go with her.
Lir, however, calmed his daughter’s fears, persuading her that no harm would befall her and, reassured, the children boarded the chariot and set out on their ill-fated journey.
As they approached the tranquil shores of Lough Devereaugh, Aoife turned to her servants and ordered them to kill the children, promising them great riches if they would carry out her wishes.
But the horrified attendants refused, warning her that "it is a bad deed you have thought of, and harm will come to you out of it."
Aoife attempted to kill the children with her own sword but could not bring herself to carry out such a cold-blooded act. Instead she bade them refresh themselves in the Lough.
The unsuspecting children rushed gleefully into its cooling waters, but no sooner had their first playful splashes broken the surface, than Aoife raised a druidic wand and cast a terrible spell upon them. A sudden flash exploded from the glassy waters, as a fearsome roll of thunder shook the earth to its core. A swirling, thick mist enveloped the children whose terrified screams echoed around the surrounding hillsides.
Then all was still, and as the fog cleared, the Children of Lir found that they had been transformed into four beautiful swans.
As the realisation of their plight dawned upon them, Fionnuala turned to her stepmother and, in a quavering voice, demanded "evil witch what mischief did we commit that your love should turn totreachery?"
Then, as anger overcame her fear she warned "do not think that your deed will go unpunished for the fate awaiting you will be far worse than ours."
But Aoife was unmoved by the such a threat "away with you," she sneered, "for you will never be able to seek revenge on me and nor will your friends, for it is with flocks of birds that your cries will be heard forever."
It was then that the children begged her to "put some bounds now to the time when this enchantment will end."
"It is worse for you to of asked it of me," replied Aoife, "for no friends and no power that you have will bring you out of these shapes until you have been three hundred years on Lough Devereaugh and, thereafter, another three hundred years on the stormy Sea of Moyle and yet a further three hundred in the chilly climes of Irros Domann, on the Western Sea. Only when you hear the sound of a Christian bell will your release be imminent."
But then the evil stepmother relented and granted one concession to the charges she had betrayed. "You may keep your human voices," she told the Children "and I will make them the sweetest voices in the whole of Ireland, sweeter even than those of the Fairy people, and anyone who hears them will be lulled into a gentle sleep."
Then turning to leave she cried "but that is the extend of my mercy, now go for I have finished with you!"
So saying, she reined her horses and sped off to the palace of her foster-father, where she attempted to cover her treachery by informing him that the reason she had arrived alone, was that Lir mistrusted Bodb and was convinced that his children would be in danger if he allowed them to accompany her.
But the King was suspicious and sent messengers to Lir enquiring after the children’s well being.
The arrival of Bodbs’ envoys greatly alarmed Lir and he set out in his chariot to retrace his children’s journey.
Passing the shores of Lough Deveraugh, he noticed four swans swimming towards him and marvelled at the sweetness of their song.
But then Finiannola spoke out, telling him who they were and what had happened. Realising that his children were now beyond help, Lir let out a howl of anguish and collapsed weeping to the ground.
That night, he and his attendants camped on the shores of the Lough and his children sang to him in tones so sweet, that they eased his sorrow and lulled him into a tranquil sleep.
The next morning he hurried to Bodbs palace and told the King what Aoife had done. The furious monarch summoned his evil stepdaughter and ordered his druids to turn her into the foulest and most hideous creature they could they could think of. The priests struck her with their wands, turning her into a demon of the air and dooming her to drift helplessly amidst the clouds till the end of time.
For the next three hundred years the children remained on the placid waters of Lough Deveraugh, and the people of Ireland helped ease the burden of their sentence by coming to visit them.
The second and third parts of the spell passed less comfortably, but finally nine hundred years had gone by and the swans flew ashore to return to their fathers’ palace.
But they found it to be a desolate ruin - its ramparts broken, its walls covered by moss and the green lawns on which they had once played, swallowed by nettle and bramble.
Heartbroken they flew back to the Western Sea and settled on the island of Inis Glora.
Meanwhile, St Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland and, in his wake, came holy men one of whom, St Kennock, settled on the island where the swan-children dwelt.
One morning they were woken by the sound of his oratory bell and, following its chime they landed before the holy hermit who recognised them immediately and greeted them warmly. As he did so their feathers fell away and they became human once more.
But they were no longer children. Their bodies were stooped and wizened, their hair was white, their skin was wrinkled and it was obvious that they were dying.
They begged St Kennock to christen them and, no sooner had he done so, than they breathed their last. And, as the saint blessed them, he fancied he saw four radiant children, with silvery wings and tranquil expressions rise from their haggard bodies, encircle him for a moment and then swoop skywards to seek their place in heaven.