“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us” – Charles Bukowski
One wonders why our world isn’t more haunted for as Victorian linguist Maximilian Schele de Vere once morosely observed, “The earth, it has been said, is one vast graveyard, and man can nowhere put down his foot without stepping on the remains of a brother”. Or perhaps our little corner of existence is stupendously and ubiquitously haunted and we choose to ignore it, so we can carry on with our Zoom meetings and paying our bills in relative peace (or counting our drachma and loitering in the agora if you want an ancient equivalent). Of course, lacking a reputable manual for the recently deceased, it’s hard to understand what sort of protocols the afterlife operates under, if said protocols even exist, or whether there is in fact an afterlife. Yet we see ghosts. And in some places we see more ghosts than others. We could talk about “strange attractors” or stone-tape conducive architecture, but that seems mere puffery, when in fact it seems that some places just beg for a good haunting due to their long and sordid history of illustrating mankind’s propensity for nastiness.
One such hotbed of horror is Ireland’s Leap Castle, located in Coolderry, County Offaly, burned to ruins in the 1922 Irish Civil War, and rebuilt by Australian historian Peter Bartlett (a distant relative of the O’Bannon clan who originally built it in the 13th Century) between 1974-1989. The castle then passed to musician Seán Ryan in 1991, three years after Bartlett’s death. This is not the master Irish fiddler and whistler Seán Ryan who died in 1985 for those alert Irish fiddle and whistle fans out there, but likely one of his children (who is himself a renowned tin whistle player). And don’t knock “tin-whistling” as an esoteric career choice, since in our increasingly specialized labor economies, esoteric expertise is exceedingly marketable. If you are one of only two experts in the world on Sumerian pot shards, you’ll never lack for work or a way to end the conversation at parties. Similarly, who knew there might still be a small, but significant and highly-paid demand for COBOL programmers in the 21st Century?
The territory around Leap Castle has been occupied continuously since Neolithic times (the castle itself appears to have been built on an ancient stone, ceremonial structure), but the castle proper first appeared in about 1250 A.D. as the ruling seat of the O’Bannon clan and was originally called Léim Uí Bhanáin (“the Leap of the O’Bannons”). The O’Bannons were a secondary clan associated with the far more powerful O’Carrolls, competitors for the position of High King of Ireland until the early 12th Century, when their Kingdom of Munster was partitioned by High King of Ireland Toirdelbach Ó Conchobhair and effectively ceased to exist as a political entity.
The O’Bannons appear to have lived in relative peace (or what passed for it in Ireland at the time) at Leap Castle until their patron O’Carrolls ran afoul of Gerald FitzGerald, 8th Earl of Kildare and the “uncrowned King of Ireland” under the Tudors from about 1477 onwards. The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (a purported history of Ireland from the biblical Flood until 1616 A.D. – give them a break, the authors were monks) reported that Earl Gerald attempted unsuccessfully to take Leap Castle in 1513 in a punitive campaign against the O’Carrolls, but returned to sack it in 1516. By 1557, the O’Carrolls were firmly in possession again, but were busy bashing each other over the head for control of the clan, including an incident where Teige O’Carroll fatally stabbed his own brother (a priest) during a mass in Leap Castle’s “Bloody Chapel” and saw him die on the altar. Stay out of clans as they are messy affairs. From 1659-1922, Leap Castle passed into the hands of the notable Darby family, which not only produced a number of British admirals over the years, but included one Mildred Darby (1867-1932), a Gothic horror writer know to hold seances in the castle. Now, I have nothing against Gothic horror writers or seances per se, but it does seem like tempting fate to indulge in such pursuits on the premises given the long and bloody history associated with Léim Uí Bhanáin. We do of course have a plethora of the unrestful dead to choose from. The litany of woe is a long one. In 1489, John O’Carroll died of plague at Leap Castle in an outbreak so bad that hundreds of bodies lay unburied. “Large dungeons are situated below the keep, and there are many bricked-up passages and secret chambers. One of the former is said to lead to a neighbouring rath. The guard-room on the south-east side is hewn out of the rock. Numerous bones have been found in different parts of the building” (Adams, p268, 1904). The presence of dungeons is rarely a good sign, add in some plague, and dabbling in the occult, and it’s no wonder that Leap Castle has the distinction of being one of Ireland’s most spectrally-populated castles, “owning more spooks to the room than all the others together” (Shoemaker, p106, 1908).
During the Parliamentary Wars, “Mr. Darby, of Leap, espoused the King’s cause, and tradition avers that Cromwell appeared before the castle saying that if they did not surrender in twenty-four hours he would blow them out with a pump-stick. The fortress was not tenable in the event of cannon being used, as it is commanded from many points. A weird story is told of the Jonathan Darby of the time, usually known as ‘the wild Captain’. It is said before he surrendered the castle he collected all his money and treasure and with the aid of two servants hid it somewhere in the walls of the fortress. He then sent one of them for his sword and in the meantime threw the other over the battlements. Upon the messenger returning he slew him with the weapon he brought, evidently thinking ‘a secret is only safe with three when two are dead’. Later he was arrested on a charge of high treason and imprisoned in Birr. He was several times reprieved, and at last liberated, his legs having mortiﬁed. Upon his return he was only capable of murmuring ‘My money, my money’, but was quite unable to say where it was concealed” (Adams, p270, 1904). In the 19th Century, investigators of psychical phenomena reported a litany of ghostly goings-on, mostly tied to various blood-curdling episodes in the history of the castle.
Queer things occur inside the castle walls at stated intervals. Massive old doors that have been doubly locked, and others that are hermetically sealed and unused for generations, will mysteriously reopen and close with a bang that awakens the echoes. Then, again, at the witching hour of midnight all the dogs begin a weird yelling, not their accustomed bark, but a low plaintive, attenuated moan, which those of their kind are known to reserve specially to mark their disapprobation of music. These things are all very curious and may be accounted for. Imagination of a lively kind amidst surroundings peculiarly gloomy can go very far, but it will not open doors nor make dogs bark at a fixed unseasonable hour. It may, however, explain a host of the blood-tingling tales that hang around the castle, mostly associated with the sieges to which it had the bad fortune to be exposed and the good luck to survive throughout many ages. The present household of the old keep trouble themselves but little about these, but they were the stock stories of the ancient retainers and dependents of the late W. H. Darby, and could be told with telling effect when the narrator could speak of the manifestations on the very spot on which they were made. The ghostly visitants invariably, according to the story-teller, re-enacted in dumb show some of the most sanguinary and tragic incidents in the castle’s history. Still there was so much similarity in what was always done, as to suggest that the resources of the spooks were limited, and with a restricted repertory they were, of course, unable at all times to vary their nocturnal entertainment. The plot is generally in this way — A voice is heard in the upper part of the castle, and attentive listeners can discern the sound as that of a number of persons dragging another, struggling and resisting, across the floor to the great hole in the keep. Into this the body is cast, and as it descends in its fall to certain death, the dying shriek of the victim is heard, the voice being the voice of a woman. At another time the wild captain is said to be in the dramatis persona of these invisible sleep disturbers, but the denouement is nearly always alike (Borderland, 1896, p457).
When the Castle was renovated in the 1900’s, workers found an “oubliette” (a dungeon only accessible through an overhead hatch – in this case a trap door) behind a wall in the chapel, filled with three cartloads of human bones, who had dropped eight feet into the pit and been impaled on wooden spikes placed there expressly for that purpose. This is of course is not only a gruesome and rather slow way to die (leading to very resentful dead), but also an efficient means of disposing of unwanted guests or unruly peasants. A ghostly “Red Lady has been associated with the castle, as have two female children (one of which was said the have died falling from the castle battlements), and some sort of grey elemental critter but many of the reported ghosts are tangled up in fictionalized accounts about an Irish castle identified as “Kilman Castle” (for a good example, see “The House of Horror”, in Jessie Adelaide Middleton’s 1916 The White Ghost Book), but widely believed to have loosely borrowed traditions from Leap Castle in furtherance of gothic plotline.
Occasionally, I find myself bemoaning the necessity of narrative in ghostly encounters, and prefer strange phenomena involving details that no sane creature would report if they thought to be taken seriously (my personal favorite is the famous ghostly cylinder filled with blue liquid in the Tower of London – a ghost that couldn’t be bothered to go beyond basic geometry). And then one reads about the history of a place like Leap Castle. Its like encountering place names that include “Devil”. The name wasn’t applied because lots of happy, joyous events transpired there. Of course, the history of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man carpet the earth, so why should any particular location be any more haunted than any other? Maybe our fascination with history and location when it comes to hauntings is tied to an existential fear that every acre of the planet is likely to be just as haunted, but if we tell ourselves gruesome tales about specific locales, we can more readily ignore phantoms accumulated over the millennia everywhere else, and go on about our daily lives. We’ve got stuff to do. We can’t always be bothering with specters, so we choose what to ignore, and place our confidence in the special nature of certain places. As Mark Twain said, “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure”.
Adams, Constance Louisa. Castles of Ireland: Some Fortress Histories and Legends. London: E. Stock, 1904.
MacDermott, Philip, Owen Connellan, and Michael O’Clery. The Annals of Ireland. Dublin: B. Geraghty, 1846.
Shoemaker, Michael Myers, 1853-1924. Wanderings in Ireland. New York: G.P. Putnam’s sons, 1908.
“A Haunted Castle in Ireland”. Harry Houdini Collection (Library of Congress). Borderland v3. London: [s.n.], 1896.