Despite being built as a private residence, there’s something distinctly institutional about Muckross House, County Kerry; this impression not helped, obviously by the expanses of bleak gravel in front of the building. Replacing an earlier house, the present Jacobethan-style one dates from 1839-43 when designed by Scottish architect William Burn for Colonel Herbert. It was here that the Herberts famously entertained Queen Victoria in 1861 during her visit to Killarney, and seemingly the cost of the royal stay (for which the house was lavishly redecorated) together with declining income from their estates, led the family to bankruptcy; in 1899 Arthur Guinness, Lord Ardilaun bought Muckross for his wife Olivia whose mother had been a Herbert. Then, the property was sold to an American William Bowers Bourn who in turn presented it to his daughter Maud on the occasion of her marriage to Arthur Vincent. But following her early death, in 1932 Bourn and Vincent decided to present the house and surrounding 11,000 acres to the Irish nation and it has remained in public ownership ever since. Standing on the terrace and looking west towards Muckross Lake, it is easy to understand why the house was built here, even if harder to understand why it was built in quite such an unforgiving style.
For those who believe in the supernatural, there’s stiff competition for the title of Ireland’s Most Haunted House. But one property which often appears to lead the field is Leap Castle, County Offaly. Superbly located on a rocky outcrop and with views across to the Slieve Bloom Mountains, in its present form the core of the castle is a late medieval tower house but likely built on the site, and perhaps incorporating elements of an earlier fortified structure. The name Leap (pronounced, incidentally, ‘Lepp’), derives from the Irish Léim Uí Bhánáin meaning Leap of the O’Bannons, the latter being a minor sept in this part of the country which for many centuries was dominated by another family, the O’Carrolls, ancient rulers of the kingdom of Éile. Leap Castle became one of their principal strongholds, although their authority was greatly weakened over the course of the 16th century by internecine feuding. To give a flavour of what took place during this period: in 1541 the castle’s then occupant Fearganhainm O’Carroll was murdered by the O’Mulloys, and was succeeded by one of his sons Teige ‘the one-eyed.’ It has been claimed that Teige murdered one of his own brothers, a priest, while the latter was performing the rite of mass in the chapel at the top of the castle. In any case, Teige in due course met a sticky end when he was killed by another of his kinsmen, Cahir O’Carroll who was in turn killed by Teige’s younger brother William. Inevitably William was then murdered by one of his relations, and his son John was killed the following year by one of his cousins, Mulroney, a son of the late Teige. It will come as no surprise to learn that Mulroney was then slain by John’s brother Charles, who would eventually also meet a bloody end: no wonder the place is often thought to be haunted. Somehow, despite this extraordinary roll call of murder and mayhem, the O’Carrolls managed to hold onto Leap Castle and its surrounding lands until the mid-17th century when they were finally displaced by another family.
The first of a long line of men bearing the same name to live there, Jonathan Darby is thought to have been granted Leap Castle in the aftermath of the Cromwellian wars, as a reward for his military services. Although he briefly lost the property back to the O’Carrolls in the aftermath of the 1660 Restoration, Darby and his descendants would remain in residence at Leap until the early 1920s, one Jonathan succeeding the next. In the first half of the 18th century, the building was expanded by the addition of wings on either side of the tower house, and the interiors remodelled in the Gothick style, inspired by Batty Langley’s Ancient Architecture Restored and Improved (1742). Alas, these would all be lost when the castle was gutted by fire in 1922. Typical of the time, the family’s younger sons had to find alternative careers and in two instances, despite the estate being as far inland as is possible in Ireland, they became distinguished admirals in the Royal Navy, George Darby commanding the Channel Fleet during the American War of Independence, and then relieving Gibraltar during the Spanish siege of 1781, and in the next generation Henry d’Esterre Darby being an important naval figure during the Napoleonic Wars. But perhaps the most interesting character produced by the family was John Nelson Darby, his middle name given to acknowledge his godfather and family friend, Horatio Nelson. Typical of many younger sons, John Nelson became an Anglican clergyman renowned as a young curate serving in Delgany, County Wicklow for his fervent, and often successful, evangelising of Roman Catholics in the area. However, he parted ways with the Church of Ireland, ostensibly because of an insistence by the Archbishop of Dublin that converts must swear an oath of loyalty to the English crown, but more likely because it was insufficiently evangelical for his tastes. He then became one of the founders of a new Christian movement which was established in Dublin in the late 1820s: the Plymouth Brethren, its name derived from the first meeting of the group in England which took place in the Devon town (a subset, otherwise known as the Exclusive Brethren, were also called Darbyites). Many visitors to and natives of Dublin will be familiar with the Davenport Hotel close to Merrion Square: this building dates from the 1860s when built as a gospel hall for the Plymouth Brethren. The largest such hall ever constructed, it could hold 3,500 persons seated, or 5,000 standing. The Merrion Hall remained in use for its original purpose until the 1980s when sold, and following a fire which gutted the interior, today only the facade is original. One suspects there is little awareness now of how strong was the Christian evangelistic movement in mid-19th century Ireland, not least among the country’s landed gentry: a number of notable families in County Kerry, for example, became members of the Plymouth Brethren during this period. It is an area ripe for further investigation.
Returning to Leap Castle, this remained in possession of the Darbys until July 1922 when destroyed during the Civil War. The last of the family to live there, yet another Jonathan, was married to Mildred Dill who had a particular interest in the supernatural and held séances in the house, which helps to explain why it has been associated with hauntings. Writing in the Occult Review in 1909, she described an incident in Leap Castle: ‘I was standing in the Gallery looking down at the main floor, when I felt somebody put a hand on my shoulder. The thing was about the size of a sheep. Thin, gaunt, shadowy. its face was human, to be more accurate, inhuman. Its lust in its eyes, which seemed half decomposed in black cavities, stared into mine. The horrible smell one hundred times intensified came up into my face, giving me a deadly nausea. It was the smell of a decomposing corpse.’ All of which helps to explain why the building has long been associated with hauntings. Meanwhile her husband Jonathan Darby appears to have been a testy man, given to outbursts of temper. Inheriting the estate while still in his teens, he also inherited much debt at a time when the Land Wars were getting underway and tenants resisting efforts to increase the rents they were obliged to pay. Nevertheless, determined to improve his financial circumstances, Darby raised rents by up to 30 per cent. Furthermore, unlike many other landowners, he declined the opportunity to sell the greater part of his estate under the generous terms of the 1903 Wyndham Act. The consequence was that he was not popular in the area, and that Leap Castle was ripe for attack once the War of Independence and then the Civil War saw a widespread breakdown of law and order. In late July 1922 the Darbys were out of the country, and the castle was occupied only by a caretaker, his wife and child. In the early hours of July 30th, the building was set on fire by a party of 11 men, who in the usual fashion, poured petrol over the floors and furniture and then set it alight. As a consequence the castle’s north wing was completely gutted, but the main part of the property remained intact. Looting took place during the day and then, in the early hours of July 31st, the rest of the building was set alight and destroyed. Darby duly applied for compensation for the loss of his property, suing the county council on the grounds that local residents were responsible for destroying his home and that the relevant military authorities had made no effort to intervene and save the castle. He sought £35,000 but, as was almost invariably the case, received only a fraction of this sum, £7,000. Furthermore, the land he had hitherto refused to sell was now compulsorily purchased by the Land Commission and distributed among tenants. By the mid-1930s he no longer owned any part of the Leap estate, and the castle stood a ruined shell. That is how I remember first seeing it almost 40 years ago, not long after the building had been bought by an Australian, Peter Bartlett whose mother had been a Bannon and who therefore felt an affinity with the place. In the years before his death in 1989, he carried out initial restoration work on the site but a lot remained – and remains to be done. In 1991 Leap Castle was bought by traditional musician Seán Ryan who has lived there with his wife and daughter ever since, untroubled by having to share the spot with multiple ghosts. More structural work has been undertaken but, as can be seen, large parts of the building, not least the north wing, remain shells. Whatever about being haunted, Leap Castle is certainly a most haunting place.
Located at the northern end of Rathdrum, County Wicklow, this is what remains of Ardavon, once home to the Comerfords, a family responsible for building a mill in the lower part of the town in the mid-19th century. The mill eventually closed in 1935 but the buildings still stand on one side of the bridge crossing the river Avonmore. Meanwhile the Comerfords remained at Ardavon until 1958 when the house was acquired by the Wicklow County Vocational Education Committee. It was then used as a school but in 1991 Avondale Community College opened and Ardavon became redundant, a property owned, but not used, by the local authority. Soon enough the inevitable happened: in 1997 the house was badly damaged by fire and despite undertakings by Wicklow Council to undertake restoration work, it has remained a roofless ruin ever since.
Located at one end of Rathdrum, County Wicklow, this is the former Royal Fitzwilliam Hotel, opened in October 1863 beside the station by the Dublin & South Eastern Railway. Although trains still stop here, the hotel closed in 1931 and appears to have been left empty for many years, although for a brief period earlier this century it was used to house asylum seekers. At the height of the economic boom, it was offered for sale at €1.9 million, but failed to find a buyer: by 2013 the price had plunged to €150,000, but still there were no takers. In the interim it was subject to vandalism before finally, in December 2009, being badly damaged by fire. Since then its condition has further deteriorated and is now in a pitiful state, with the handful of distinguishing features such as the cast-iron drinking fountain, being allowed to rot.
‘Let us now attend to the antiquities of one of their [the Culdees] ancient seats: this in old records is named Inchenemeo, corrupted from Innisnabeo or the “Island of the living” but, from its situation, most commonly called Monaincha, or the “Boggy Isle”…Giraldus Cambrensis, who came here with King John in 1185, thus speaks of it: “In north Munster is a lake containing two Isles; in the greater is a church of the ancient religion, and in the lesser a chapel, wherein a few monks, called Culdees, devoutly serve God. In the greater, no woman or any animal of the feminine gender ever enters but it immediately dies. This has been proved by many experiments. In the lesser isle, no one can die, hence it is called ‘Insula Viventum’ or the island of the living. Often people are afflicted with diseases in it, and are almost always in the agonies of death; when all hopes of life are at an end, and that the rich would rather quit the world than lead longer a life of misery, they are put into a little boat, and wafted over to the larger isle where, as soon as they land, they expire”.’
‘Monaincha is situated almost in the centre of a widely-extended bog, called the Bog of Monela, and seems a continuation of the bog of Allen, which runs from east to west, through the kingdom. Since the age of Cambrensis, and through the operation of natural causes, the lesser Isle is now the greater, and Monaincha, which contains about two acres of dry arable ground, is of greater extent than the women’s island. In the latter is a small chapel, and in the former the Culdean abbey, and an oratory to the east of it. Monaincha is elevated a little above the surrounding bog; the soil gravel and small stones. We may easily understand what Cambrensis means by the church here being of the “old religion.” The Culdees, its possessors, had not even at this period when the Council of Cashel had decreed uniformity of faith and practice, conformed to the reigning superstition; they served God in this wild and dreary retreat, sacrificing all the flattering prospects of the world for their ancient doctrine and discipline. Their bitterest enemies bear testimony to their extraordinary purity and piety.’
‘The length of our Culdean abbey in Monaincha is thirty-three feet, the breadth eighteen. The nave is lighted by two windows to the south, and the chancel by one at its east end. The former are contracted arches, the latter fallen down. The height of the portal, or western entrance, is seven feet three inches to the fillet, by four feet six inches wide. The arch of this, and that of the choir, are semi-circular. Sculpture here seems to have exhausted her treasures. A nebule moulding adorns the outward semicircle of the portal, a double nebule with beads the second, a chevron the third, interspersed with triangular frette roses, and other ornaments. It is also decorated with chalices, artfully made at every section of the stone, so as to conceal the joint. The stones are of a whitish grit, brought from the neighbouring hills of Ballaghmore; being porous, they have suffered much from the weather; but the columns of the choir are of a harder texture (though grits); close grained and receiving a good polish. Being of a reddish colour, they must have been handsome objects…It will readily occur, how great must have been the labour and expense of transporting the materials of this and other structures in cots of excavated wood to Monaincha, and before this was done, the carrying them a great distance over a deep, miry and shaking bog, before they reached the margin of the water. It appears by the tradition of the old inhabitants, that about a century ago the island was not accessible but in boats; every drain for the springs, and every passage for the river Nore being choked up with mud and fallen trees; the surface, in consequence, to a vast extent, was covered with water. Present appearances fully confirm this account.’
Text taken from The Irish Culdees, and their Abbey of Monaincha, published in the ‘Dublin University Magazine: A Literary and Philosophical Review’, Vol.LXXVI, December 1870. The Culdees, their name derived from the Irish Céilí Dé (meaning Companion of God) were early Christian hermits who lived on the same site but in separate cells, only gathering for certain communal activities such as worship in church, and sharing obedience to the same leader.
Located on the shores of Lough Gill, this is Parke’s Castle, County Leitrim. Despite its name, the building was originally a tower house erected by the O’Rourkes and it was here that Sir Brian O’Rourke entertained Francisco de Cuéllar, the sea captain shipwrecked in Ireland in 1588 after participating in the Spanish Armada, who later wrote an account of his time in this country. Sir Brian just a few years later was convicted of treason by the English government and hanged in London’s Tyburn. In the early 17th century his tower house and surrounding land were acquired by the planter Sir Roger Parke who created the building seen today. In 1677 two of Parke’s children were drowned in the lough, and his surviving daughter Anne married Sir Francis Gore and moved to his home in neighbouring County Sligo. As a result, the castle, a particularly fine example of the plantation fortified house, fell into disrepair. It remained in that state until restored by the Office of Public Works in the last century and opened to the public.
As far back as the late 13th century Herbertstown, sometimes called Harbourstown, County Meath was associated with the Caddells, a family of Anglo-Norman origin who, despite the Penal Laws, remained true to the Roman Catholic faith and at the same time managed to hold onto their lands in this part of the country. Their residence here, of two storeys and six bays with the facade distinguished by an Ionic portico, was originally constructed in the mid-18th century but presumably later enlarged or altered, as it was described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as ‘a handsome modern mansion, with a demesne comprising more than 400 acres tastefully laid out and well-planted, and commanding an extensive view from the summit of a tower within the grounds, which forms a conspicuous landmark to mariners.’ Herbertstown House was demolished at some date in the 1930s/40s but the ‘tower’ survives. Dating from c.1760, it is actually a polygonal limestown gazebo, with large round-headed openings on each side, one of which drops to the ground to provide access to the interior. Although now roofless and open to the elements, a balustraded platform around the top of the building (once section missing) indicates this once held a viewing platform, which makes sense as the gazebo stands at the summit of an artificial mound and offers superlative prospects of the surrounding countryside. Local legend has it that the Caddell responsible for constructing the building used it to watch racing at Bellewstown, some four miles away, after he had fallen out with the event’s organisers.
Based in County Sligo, the O’Haras are an ancient Irish family, their surname an anglicisation of the original Ó hEaghra, descendants of Eaghra Poprigh mac Saorghus who died in 926. The family’s ancestry is attested by the Book of O’Hara (Leabhar Í Eadhra), a volume of bardic poetry written on vellum for Cormac O’Hara in 1597 and acquired by the National Library of Ireland almost 20 years ago. It might therefore have been expected that during the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries, when so many other similar Gaelic families lost everything, the O’Haras would suffer the same fate. However, in this instance, by adapting themselves to changing circumstances, they survived and continue to live in the same area as did their forebears hundreds of years earlier. When Cormac’s son Tadgh O’Hara died in 1616, he left two infant boys, the elder another Tadgh, the younger Kean, who were raised as members of the Established Church by the Court of Wards. In consequence, despite some confiscations, they managed to hold onto more of their ancestral lands than was customarily the case, and although never rich (and frequently in debt) they survived. Their circumstances were helped, as often occurred, through judicious marriages which brought into the family property in northern England and also in Dublin: included in the latter was a site on Essex Street where the original Custom House once stood and another on Wellington Quay today occupied by the Clarence Hotel.
Tadgh O’Hara the younger died unmarried in 1634 and so the estates passed to his brother Kean whose two elder sons also dying without direct heirs in turn the O’Hara lands passed to another Kean. Of the next generation, the elder son Charles sat for some time in the Irish House of Commons but is best remembered now as the close correspondent and almost father-figure to Edmund Burke. Meanwhile his younger brother Kane O’Hara became well-known as a playwright and composer who in 1757 co-founded the Musical Academy in Dublin with the Earl of Mornington (again a talented composer and father of the future first Duke of Wellington). Five years later, he scored a success on stage with Midas, the first-known burletta (a kind of parody of opera seria) to be performed in English. After being performed in Dublin’s Crow Street Theatre, it reached Covent Garden in London in 1764 and was succeeded by a number of other burlesques written by O’Hara. In 1774 he opened Mr. Punch’s Patagonian Theatre on Dublin’s Abbey Street. This was a theatre which staged puppet versions of operas and burlesques and later also transferred to London. The Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who would later sing in operas by Mozart, Gluck and Paisiello, performed in O’Hara’s premises while a young man. Meanwhile his nephew, another Charles O’Hara, duly inherited the family estate in Sligo and, like his father before him, sat in the House of Commons, although described in 1782 as ‘a very dull, tedious speaker.’ He opposed the Act of Union, but then sat in the Westminster parliament representing Sligo until his death, when he was succeeded by his son, Charles King O’Hara who did not stand for election but remained in Ireland where he was prominent in relief efforts during the Great Famine. Dying childless, his estate went to a nephew, Charles William Cooper, with the condition that the latter changed his surname to O’Hara. It is his descendants who have continued to live on the site to the present day.
The O’Haras were never particularly wealthy, were often heavily indebted and their estates remortgaged: it didn’t help that on several occasions there were legal disputes among them over inheritances (a common phenomenon in late 17th/early 18th century Ireland). In the 1790s, financial circumstances had become so bad that they were facing bankruptcy, and large portions of their property had to be sold to pay some outstanding debts. The family’s base was always close to the town of Collooney, which they sought to improve, not least by establishing a bleach mill there. Likewise they tried to modernise and better the land they owned a few miles to the south-west of Collooney. The house there is now called Annaghmore but for a long time named Nymphfield (or Nymphsfield). A succession of buildings seems to have occupied the site, the first one, which may have been a tower house or fortified manor, thought to have been demolished in the 1680s. Its replacement, on which much money was lavished in 1718, lasted until the start of the 19th century, perhaps around 1822 when Charles King O’Hara inherited the estate. Surviving images of this building show it to have been of two storeys with single storey wings on either side, very typical of the Regency villa. In the early 1860s Charles William O’Hara, having inherited the estate and changed his surname according to the terms of his uncle’s will, embarked on a substantial enlargement of the house, by now called Annaghmore, its design attributed to the ubiquitous James Franklin Fuller. It is this house, a full expression of high-Victorian taste, which can be seen today, all fronted in crisp limestone ashlar. The facade was graced with an Ionic portico, a second storey added to the wings and the building extended to the rear, although part of this was demolished in the last century. Largely unaltered over the past 150 years, the interiors are wonderfully florid, reflecting the bold confidence of this period, post-Famine and pre-Land Wars, when estate owners embarked on a flurry of building work. Long may it remain as a celebration of that era.
The Rathdiveen or ‘Tiara’ gate lodge stands at what was once another of the entrances to Rockingham, County Roscommon. Dating from c.1810 like many other buildings on the estate, this one is believed to have been designed by John Nash, the architect of the main house, but it has also been attributed to Humphrey Repton with whom Nash had earlier worked. However, since the two men had famously fallen out and ended their partnership in 1800, a link with Repton seems highly unlikely. The lodge’s most distinctive feature is a highly-distinctive bowed pediment reminiscent of a tiara which rises above a Doric colonnaded portico: the facade’s frieze echoes that found on the adjacent gate posts. Unfortunately, some years ago the latter were moved during road-widening works and not correctly realigned, thereby disrupting the symmetry of the entrance. Nevertheless, the lodge itself has been well-maintained by private owners, a contrast with the poor condition of the lodge shown here a few days ago which is in public ownership.
The two-storey gatehouse which formerly provided the main entrance to the Rockingham estate in County Roscommon; this building, like most of the others here, was commissioned by Robert King, first Viscount Lorton from architect John Nash. The gatehouse, however, is not in the classical idiom employed elsewhere at Rockingham but instead is an exercise in Tudorbethan Gothic with a crenellated parapet and pointed-arch windows, sandstone used for the main body of the building and limestone for the dressings. For the past half century this part of the former estate has been in public ownership, jointly managed by the local authority and Coillte. It might therefore have been thought that the historic buildings under their care would be decently maintained, but instead the gatelodge, under which many visitors pass as they arrive at the site, has been allowed to fall into neglect; hardly an impressive introduction to the place. Instead of being left in its present condition, the building ought to be restored, and could repay investment by being offered for holiday lets.