I went in search of Ireland’s most troubled ghosts
A girl cried ‘murder’ in the dead of night and a table shook violently as a ghost tried to get in touch
Ross Castle, Co Meath: the bedroom of Sabina, daughter of the Black Barron, who is said to have died of a broken heart. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
There are hundreds of places in Ireland that shout about their relationship with the undead. We have castle hotels where phantoms play and stone cold jails where centuries old convicts rattle their chains as they seek justice denied or fresh victims to slaughter... or at least scare a little bit.
Several years ago while channelling my inner Scooby Doo I went in search of some of Ireland’s most troubled ghosts hoping to be scared witless. But apart from hearing a young girl screech murder in the dead of night in a 600-year-old castle and seeing a solid wood table dance wildly in the darkness of a dungeon it was a pretty uneventful adventure really.
First I went to Ross Castle – a charming B&B on a placid lake in Meath, said to be one of the most haunted castles in Ireland. It was mid winter and I arrived armed with a ghost detector loaned to me by a professional spirit hunter who had warned me that it was not a toy despite the fact that it looked for all the world like just that. I was shown to the most haunted room in the castle, at the very top of a spiral staircase in the ancient tower.
It was Sabina’s Room.
The plan was I would set up the not-a-toy box in the place where spirits roamed and simply let it scan the air around me for ghostly waves which it would convert into speech recognisable to a more alive human ear.
I was maybe a little sceptical as I climbed into my bed in a the room where Sabina the heartbroken teenage girl died after her brother had possibly drowned her boyfriend.
Sabrina was the daughter of Richard Nugent, known as the Black Baron because of his black heart. He was an unforgiving soul and less than pleased when Sabina decided that the only boy who could ever please her was Orwin, the son of a chieftain man.
So, in the best Romeo and Juliet tradition – although some years before it was a tradition – the star-crossed lovers eloped. Or tried to. They planned to take a boat across the nearby lake but the Black Baron and his son got wind of their plans and gave chase. Orwin drowned.
It was an accident. Or was it? Three days later died Sabina died 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.
Stories of sightings among guests abound. One American psychic started sobbing the moment she was shown to her room because Sabina’s presence was so strong. Another guest disappeared early one morning after being spooked by a ghost (most likely the Black Baron) who “made love to me last night”, as she wrote in the hotel guestbook.
While I was mildly concerned that the Black Baron might come after me too I was mostly untroubled by thoughts of dead people as I fell asleep that night. But then, shortly before 2am, the little black ghost detector crackled into life and alerted me to a presence in my room.
The reception wasn’t amazing and brought me back to nights spent listening to Radio Luxembourg on a bad radio in the west of Ireland in the 1980s. Then a single word came from the box.
It was “MURDER”.
Or was it “murmur”? Or “marbles”? “Mother?”
I asked for clarification and spent ages tinkering with the box, willing it to speak more but after a few more crackles it died.
At one point we – and I use the word we loosely – decided the spirit was an Irish speaker
And I heard no more from Sabrina. Although the box did come back to life in the car on the way home. And I am pretty sure it said “murder”. Or “marbles” I am still not sure if that means Sabina came home with me.
After the castle came the gaol. Wicklow Gaol is another spot beloved of the ghost hunters and we can tell it’s spooky because it still spells jail gaol. It has had a grim enough history since it first opened its heavy wooden doors to guests in the early part of the 18th Century. I visited twice – on one occasion a mystic held a seance and sought out prisoners to talk to. All I remember is a table shaking violently as a ghost called Willie tried to get in touch with us. “Harder Willie, harder. Push it harder,” the mystic said excitedly. I sniggered like a schoolboy.
On another occasion I went with a group who took the whole thing deadly seriously. They brought all manner of gizmos to talk to dead people but the most effective device turned out to be a simple torch, and for a brief period we used the flashing light to chat amicably to a spirit who was able to turn the torch on and off in response to our questions. Well, that or the torch’s wiring was dodgy.
At one point we – and I use the word we loosely – decided the spirit was an Irish speaker. If they were, they were the only ones in the room and not one of my group had sufficient command of our mother tongue to elicit anything interesting from the ghost so the trail went dead. Not before one of our party offered the ghost chocolate. With a straight face.
Despite all the evidence suggesting it’s hokum, the ghost-hunting phenomenon is enduring and, according to the Haunted Hotel Guide, there are more than 450 haunted hotels and castles across Ireland offering haunted adventures. There are ghostly bus tours in Dublin 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 once declared the second scariest hotel in the world by Trip Advisor. Legends about the hotel have been circulating for generations. It was the third stop on my ghost busters tour. I stayed in the most haunted room, but the ghosts were a no show.
It was disappointing as other guests 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.
It’s no child cycling maniacally up and down the corridors mind you but still better than having a toy box crackle marbles at you when you are trying to sleep.
Five other hopefully more haunted sites around Ireland
The Abbey of the Black Hag, Co Limerick
These remains of a medieval convent are said to be overrun with ghosts. There is the one-time prioress who practised dark arts. She died and was buried in a sacristy now known as Black Hag’s Cell. But she didn’t stay down for long. There is the Countess of Desmond who was buried alive in the Abbey by mistake, something which only came to light after her ghost appeared and prompted an exhumation which revealed her finger bones ragged from clawing. Today her screams can be heard throughout the ruins.
Coolbawn House, Co Wexford
This 19th century ruin is known as Bruen’s Folly after Francis Bruen, who built it for his bride. But neither Fran or his missus haunt the house today. That honour rests with a poor unnamed servant girl who had the misfortune to be struck by lightening while she was standing close to a window. The house – and the window – was burned down by the IRA in the War of Independence but even that wasn’t enough to see off the ghostly apparition.
Charleville Castle, Co Offaly
A ghost called Harriet – um, lives – here. She was the youngest child of the third Earl of Charleville and she died in 1861 after falling off a bannister she was sliding down. Visitors can still – they say – feel the chill of Harriet’s ghostly presence as they climb the stairs and there have been sighting of her ghostly figure. Sometimes she is seen playing with a little boy around her own age.
Charles Fort, Co Cork
Three funerals and a wedding led to this place being haunted by a ghost known simply as The White Lady. On her wedding night she killed herself after her new husband was murdered by his new father-in-law who then killed himself after he found his daughter dead. Quite why the White Lady – surely the most innocent of all the parties in the bloody threesome – remains the most unsettled soul and the one still walking the ruins is a mystery. Sometimes she has been seen waving and smiling at people, other times she has been accused of pushing them over. Sounds like a ghastly excuse for clumsiness to us.
Malahide Castle, Co Dublin
The castle was built by King Henry II for his buddy Richard Talbot in 1185. Now it is haunted by a court jester Puck, who had the misfortune to be stabbed to death after falling in love with Lady Elenora Fitzgerald who was being held prisoner there. With his last breath he vowed to haunt the castle forever and a day and he was as good as his word and he is to be seen roaming the gardens and castle to this very day. Or is he? Well, we haven’t seen him. Yet.