Things that go bump in the night

Sat, Apr 7, 2012, 01:00

GHOST HUNTING:One woman fled one morning after being spooked by a ghost – most likely the Black Baron – who, she wrote in the guestbook, ‘made love to me last night’. CONOR POPEvisits some of Ireland’s spookiest spots

IT’S 2AM AND I’m asleep in the 600-year-old bedroom where a heartbroken teenage girl died after her brother drowned her boyfriend, – when the little black box by my pillow suddenly starts shrieking “murder”. At least it sounds like “murder” but the crackling audio from its cheap speakers makes it hard to say for sure. Maybe it’s saying “mother”? Or “marbles”? This is the most haunted room in Ross Castle, said to be one of the most haunted castles in Ireland, and whatever the box is telling me, it’s hard not to feel just a little spooked. I sit bolt upright but the ghost in the machine falls silent.

It was given to me hours earlier by Ireland’s leading paranormal investigator and Today FM DJ Tim Kelly. Handing it over, he told me to ignore the large letters on its front which read “this is a toy”. The manufactures have to say that “for legal reasons”, Kelly says, but he assures me it’s a high-end ghost detector. I wait for him to break into laughter but doesn’t. He seems deadly serious.

Ghost hunting is a serious business for Kelly. He and his team have carried out scores of paranormal investigations all over the country, including a regular monthly caper through Wicklow Gaol, supposedly the most haunted jail in Ireland. Before I go there, I visit Ross Castle in Co Meath. It is run by an affable German woman, Benita Walker. This is the place where hundreds of ghost-hunters come to each year in search of the supernatural. As many as 70 per cent of the guests who walk through Ross Castle’s creaking wooden doors are on the trail of a ghost called Sabina.

She was the daughter of Richard Nugent, known as the Black Baron because of his black heart. He was furious when Sabina fell for the son of an Irish chieftain called Orwin. So, in the best Romeo and Juliet tradition, the star-crossed lovers eloped. Or tried to. They planned to take a boat across the nearby lake but the Black Baron got wind of their plans and had poor Orwin drowned. She died soon afterwards of a broken heart. “To this day, Sabina haunts the castle’s walls. Visitors and guests make frequent encounters with her spirit, still in search of her lover – and restless until the day she will be reunited with him,” the castle website says.

Walker is more circumspect. “I hear things from guests but I have never seen anything strange myself,” she says. “I am so busy all the time, so maybe it is very hard to tune in.” She may not have seen Sabina but she is always willing to tell tales of the people who have. “If people are here alone I don’t mention the ghosts. And if they mention them I make sure to ask if they are sure they want to know.”

There was the American psychic who started sobbing the moment she was shown to her – now my – room because Sabina’s presence was so strong. Another guest disappeared early one morning after being spooked by a ghost (most likely the Black Barron) who “made love to me last night”, as she wrote in the hotel guestbook.

Others have seen faces in wardrobes, and men sitting at the foot of their beds in the dead of night. Mediums have woken up covered in fresh scratches while others have detected musky smells and heard church bells ringing out and pianos playing. Apart from my “this is not a toy” box shouting murder or mother or marble, I get nothing. It is very disappointing.

The only other guests when I stayed were more disappointed by the ghostly no-show. The heavily tattooed pair were so desperate to see a ghost that every wisp of wind, every chill, every door left ajar and light left on is blamed on Sabina. They were super annoying.

Many ghost-hunters are. Weeks later, in Wicklow Gaol, Kelly leads a team of “professional” ghost-hunters flown over from London, and 22 customers on a “paranormal investigation” through the dark corridors. It is about as scary as Scooby-Doo.

The show starts with a briefing from Kelly – the gadget guy – after which we meet Angie and Keith Freeland, a husband and wife team. He’s a para-psychologist and she’s a medium. Keith says para-psychology is a real thing. He has taken an online course to secure his papers and everything. By his reckoning, even scientists are starting to recognise the validity of his, um, profession “as the evidence mounts up”.

Before we go hunting, Angie leads us through a grounding session to ensure we don’t take any ghosts home with us. We hold hands and pass an imaginary orb of light from person to person. As it “moves” this non-existent orb gets bigger until it envelopes us all and protects us from the spirits we will encounter. She then calls on our on personal spirit guide to watch over us.

Angie was a late arrival to the professional spirit world, despite having the “gift” since she was a six-year-old. She went to a psychic investigation in her 40s and discovered she was better at the ghost chat than the mediums being paid to be there. So she did a course in psychicness in the Psychic Studio, which is run by Tamara Trusseau, who also offers face-to-face and phone readings for £100 (€120) an hour.

She is now known as the “Queen of the Table” because of her ability to get ghosts to move tables by way of communication. Our group of seven rest our fingers lightly on a table on the top floor of the jail, which was the site of an old church. Angie shouts at it like a hawker flogging fish at a London street market. It starts to rock, gently at first. Then it shoots across the floor with us chasing it. All the while, Angie exhorts it to even greater efforts. She says the table is being tipped by a mean and angry jailer called William. She demands we encourage the table to move too so we all start shouting with one voice: “Harder Willie, harder. Push it harder.” It’s hard not to laugh.

Impossible, really.

Angie believes a ghost is moving the table. Common sense would suggest it is being moved collectively and unconsciously by the group, in what is known as an ideomotor effect.

On another occasion I visit, one group is taking the whole thing deadly seriously. They brought all manner of gizmos to talk to dead people but the most effective device is a simple torch, and for a brief period we chat amicably to a spirit who turns the torch on and off in response to our questions. Well, that or the torch’s wiring was dodgy. This spirit’s answers seem erratic so the English woman leading our little group asks if “anyone speaks Gaelic”. There are a few confident replies but our confidence drains when she asks us to ask the ghost if he was a “political prisoner involved in the Uprising”. No one knew the Irish for political. Or prisoner. Or Uprising. Eventually we (they) decide it is a girl called Grace who likes chocolate and one of the group proceeds – in all seriousness – to offer Grace chocolate, although how she is supposed to eat it is beyond me.

THERE ARE A LOT OF GULLIBLE and suggestible ghost-hunters out there, as evidenced by the popularity of programmes such as Sky Living’s Most Haunted. Unsurprisingly, such programmes and the mediums who star in them have been dogged by controversy. Most Haunted was cleared of fraud several years ago by British TV watchdog Ofcom, but not for the reasons the programme makers would have liked. Ofcom ruled that it was an entertainment show, not a legitimate investigation into the paranormal, and should not be taken seriously.

Self-styled mediums such as Sally Morgan are also no strangers to controversy. The British TV psychic attracted the ire of Liveline callers last year when she was accused of getting information about audience members from an offstage accomplice. “The first half of the show went really well, but when the second half started we could clearly hear a man’s voice coming from the window behind us. Everything he said, the psychic would say 10 seconds later. It was as if she was having the information relayed to her,” one caller said. Morgan denied the accusation.

Despite the evidence suggesting it’s all hokum, the ghost-hunting phemomena is growing and, according to the Haunted Hotel Guide, there are now more than 450 haunted hotels and castles across Ireland offering haunted weekend adventures. There are at least two ghostly bus tours in Dublin alone and scores of pubs – including the Gravediggers in Glasnevin – that have capitalised on their ghostly regulars.

One of Ireland’s most well-known haunted hotels is the Cabra Castle hotel in Kingscourt, Co Cavan. It was declared the second scariest hotel in the world two years ago by rating site Trip Advisor. Legends about the hotel have been circulating for generations. At my own request, I am given the most haunted room, but the ghosts don’t show. The staff are cheery and good natured and are happy to tell tales about happenings, although few have any direct experience themselves.

US visitors get the biggest buzz from their brushes with the netherworld, both in the hotel and near the “Hanging Tree” in the grounds. One recently claimed to have met a man in early 20th-century military uniform striding down the corridor, another heard a horse and carriage pull into the courtyard in the dead of night to deposit a screaming infant at the steps of the hotel. A third guest walked in on a row about the sale of the castle between an elderly man and his son. Not the most blood-curdling scene, admittedly, but better than a black box mumbling marbles.