In Ireland, there are almost as many ghosts as sheep, and even haunted castles, now hotels, have ghosts who sometimes find ways to spook guests during their stay. But even if you don’t believe in apparitions, a visit to the Emerald Isle will introduce you to a land of people who believe not only in ghosts, but also in leprechauns, fairies and banshees. I booked a private Ghostly Tour with John Colclough, Director of Ireland and Britain Observed. Colclough, a former lawyer, is an expert in ghosts, gardens, golf, genealogy and gourmet tours. I wanted someone loaded with esoteric information but who also had a wonderful sense of humor. That was John.
A three-hour drive from Dublin is the magnificent Castle Leslie in Glas Louch, Monahan, where Paul McCarthy married Heather Mills. No wonder. The property is set on a 1,000-acre estate with two lakes, 14 acres of gardens, fishing, an equestrian center, and three nearby 18-hole golf courses. Castle Leslie was built in 1878 by Baron Leslie who claimed descent from Attila the Hun. Since 1661, the Leslie family has lived on this site and now, Samantha, niece of the former 4th baronet, Sir John Leslie, and the last of the line, is the manager.
The Castle’s original furniture, family portraits and archives date back to the 1660’s. The toilets still have their original Victorian fittings, and there is much Victoriana from the Churchill family (to whom the Leslies were related by marriage). The sitting room and public rooms are filled with tapestries, suits of armor, relics, medals, a painted Della Robbia fireplace from a Florence chapel, a harp (a gift from William Wordsworth), and an emerald bracelet from the empress of China. Castle Leslie has changed little except for modern conveniences and amenities.
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The bedrooms are a mix of Edwardian, Victorian, and “fun,” including a nursery in which a huge dollhouse façade opens to reveal a bathroom. The ghostly draw is Norman’s room. Norman Leslie was Sir John’s uncle and was killed in WW1. Norman’s sister swore she saw him coming home in his uniform on the very day he died. Norman’s bedroom, a sinister-looking room with a dark wooden bed is haunted. The bed, bought in England, was originally a ‘marriage bed.’ In this bed, an actress killed herself with a razor and another woman jumped out of the window, claiming a sudden sadness had come over her. In Norman’s room, people say the haunted bed rises into the air and doors open and slam shut all night long. But are they just telling tall tales? When I walked into Norman’s room, there was something foreboding about it, much darker than the mahogany furniture. I was too scared to spend the night there, even though this was a ghost tour. Instead, I opted for a much more cheerful room which was ghostless.
The Hibernian Hotel in Dublin, a Victorian red brick building which was formerly a nurses’ home, is now a restored hotel in which Room 307 is said to be haunted. Story has it that during the Crimean War, a young woman, heartbroken that her lover had died, decided to become a nurse. She moved into the nurses’ quarters overlooking the hospital, pacing night after night as she thought about her departed lover. For the next 30 years, she was head matron of the Royal Dublin Hospital, but remained in Room 307, a room that still exists, now part of the Hibernian Hotel. Guests have complained about hearing someone walking around the room, insisting it’s the ghost of the Matron. When one guest questioned a hotel employee, he laughed it off and said, “We put it down to people having a pint too much ”
Curious about the ghostly presence, I spent the night in the Hibernian’s Room 307, but much to my disappointment, the ghost never made a peep. When I expressed my disappointment the next morning in not sighting the ghost, John reassured me. “Not to worry. There are thousands of ghosts in Ireland. Wherever there’s bloody history, there are ghosts. In the 18th century we had some extraordinary nasty rulers who make Nero and Caligula look like amateurs. I assure you, you’ll see ghosts.”
We stopped for lunch at Belvedere. This castle was built in 1750 by Lord Belvedere who married shortly after, and immediately took off to the continent, leaving his bride, Lady Belvedere, alone. Lady Belvedere had an affair with Lord Belvedere’s brother, who lived next door. She became pregnant, and when Lord Belvedere returned home, she asked for a divorce. Lord Belvedere refused and locked her up in her room, allowing her only to enter the garden. But the garden looked out on her lover’s estate, so Lord Belvedere erected “the jealous wall,” a strange Gothic folly, which blocked Lady Belvedere’s view of the brother’s home. Lord Belvedere forbade anyone to speak with his wife. Even while in the garden, a servant had to walk ahead of her and ring a bell to warn anyone there to leave. Lady Belvedere’s ghost has been seen walking next to the jealous wall.
But the apparition of Lady Belvedere didn’t appear, so John, like a true Irish guide, suggested we stop at Morrissey’s pub in Abbey Leix. (Opposite Morrissey’s is the Abbey Leix Carpet Factory where the carpets were made for the Titanic, but there were no ghosts there). We sat at the bar of Morrissey’s, in business since 1775, and where little has changed. A group who had just returned from the hunt invited us to join them for a pint. When I admitted I was on the lookout for ghosts, one of them laughed and said, “The only ghosts you’ll find here are live ones.” But John was in disagreement and said that ghosts definitely exist, and it’s just a question of whether or not you want to see them.
Just 90 minutes from Dublin is Castle Durrow, originally built in the early 1700’s, and now a contemporary renovated mansion with such amenities as heated wooden floors, fluffy comforters, and velvet bedspreads. Twelve-foot tall Georgian windows overlook views of the estate, the restored gardens, and the “leafy loopy walk” on the grounds. The windows also overlook places were two female ghosts who haunt the castle, have been spotted. These ghosts, known as the Blue Lady and the White Lady, are the daughters of former owner Lord Ashbrook who lived in the castle from 1716-1922.
One daughter, the Blue Lady was killed in a horseback riding accident. In her honor, Lord Ashbrook built an obelisk as a monument, which can be seen upon entering the grounds. The Blue Lady’s ghost, always on horseback, has been seen by locals. Her sister, known as the White lady, had an affair with the gardener, got pregnant, and was sent off to Australia to have the baby. She’s usually seen on the third floor, walking the corridors. The new owner says he has not seen either ghost, but his wife admits she saw the White Lady while upstairs. “It was a nice female who blinked on and off as a light when I talked to it, but not when my friend did, only for me. It’s a friendly presence and I like that.”
I felt the presence of neither the White or Blue Lady that night, but the next morning, I took an early walk to the entrance to the estate, were there’s an old cemetery. I tried, but couldn’t open the heavy metal gate, and kept tugging until it finally squeaked opened. Inside, were centuries-old tombs with inscriptions, which I couldn’t make out. I left the graveyard, closed the gate, and started back up to the castle. A squeaking stopped me dead in my tracks and I turned to see the gate had opened all by itself. How could that have happened when it had been so difficult to open? For a moment, I was spooked, but only for an instant because it was morning. Life is scarier at night.
On the way to Dublin is Ardgillan Castle where there is known to be a ghostly female presence. The presence walks up and down stone steps leading to the Irish Sea. The story is that in November of 1790, the Lady of Ardgillan, feeling unloved, walked down the stone steps and cast herself into the sea. Today, those steps are known as the “Lady Steps,” and a ghostly presence can sometimes be seen walking up and down aimlessly. The head ranger of Ardgillan said he’d seen a green lady on the stairs when he worked nights. ”I heard noises too, I did,” he said, “She must have had nail boots, because that’s what it sounded like. So, I turned on the lights, but the switch was turned off.” The Lady in Green is not the only ghost who has been sighted at Ardgillan. Day laborers claim they have seen the ghost of Colonel Taylor, who once owned the Castle, and Hercules Taylor his son. The housekeeper claims she saw a very fashionably dressed lady leaving the house.
The countryside of Ireland is a patchwork of rolling green hills without a house, street sign or building anywhere in sight. But the serenity ended the moment we arrived in Erke (pronounced uuurrkkk). We stopped at a burned out stone shell, an old rectory abandoned during the 19th century where the Vicar used to live. It seems the rectory is haunted because the Vicar was a Satanist, practicing black art. One day, he was found missing, and the townsfolk noticed a huge scorch mark in the church. The cook saw goblets and food strewn about everywhere in the kitchen. Eventually, the rectory burned down, and now the entire hill is supposedly haunted. Just standing there looking at the burned out shell, I had the same eerie feeling I’d felt in Norman’s room at Castle Leslie. It’s no wonder the town has a name like Erke.
Maybe I hadn’t seen any ghosts during my tour, but I did feel their presence. Even without spotting an apparition, my haunted tour with John Colclough was an excellent way to experience the Emerald Isle’s velvety countryside, Irish Sea, and the convivial people. (For more information on Ireland, go here. )
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