Feeling Haunted


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.

On the Shore


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.

Scattered Stones


The surname O’Gara is an anglicized version of the Irish Ó Gadhra, meaning Descendent of Gadhra, a personal name that in turn derives from the word ‘gadhar’ meaning hound or mastiff. The family originally occupied an area known as Luighne, on the borders of what today are counties Mayo and Sligo. However, by the late 13th century they had been driven out of this part of the country by the MacSurtains (otherwise Jordans) and MacCostelloes, and so moved to what became known as the barony of Coolavin, County Sligo, where they remained in power until the late 16th century. Here, close to the north-west shores of Lough Gara (Loch Uí Ghadhra), they would build a large castle known as Moygara. 





In its present form, Moygara Castle consists of a large square bawn, each side measuring 51 metres, with a slightly angled residential tower in every corner and the remains of a gatehouse on the western side. The tower in the south-west corner is three storeys high, whereas those in the other corners rose just two storeys. Investigation of the site by the Moygara Castle Research & Conservation Project suggests originally a tower house stood here prior to the construction of the castle at some period between the early 16th to early 17th centuries. In 1538 Manus O’Donnell, after capturing Sligo Castle marched on and took the castle at Moygara, his son being killed by a shot fired from within the building. More than four decades later, in 1581, Moygara Castle was again attacked, this time by a number of Scots mercenaries in the hire of Sir Nicholas Malby, Lord President of Connaught. They burnt the castle and killed the son of Cian O’Gara.





By the 17th century, Moygara and its surrounding territories belonged to Fearghal Ó Gadhra who is believed to have attended Trinity College Dublin. Ó Gadhra is remembered for being the patron of The Annals of the Four Masters, a history of the country compiled by a number of Franciscan friars led by Mícheál Ó Cléirigh during the 1630s. There is some dispute over why Ó Gadhra should have assumed this position: it may be that while an undergraduate he had come into contact with antiquarian scholars James Ussher and James Ware and this inspired an interest in Irish history. Alternatively it may have come about because when young Ó Gadhra had been a ward of Sir Theobald Dillon, first Viscount Dillon who had close associations with the Franciscan order. In the aftermath of the Confederate Wars, the family’s lands were confiscated and it may be around that time that Moygara Castle began to fall into ruin. The later years of Ó Gadhra are unclear, although it is thought he was still alive at the time of the Restoration of 1660. One of his grandsons was Oliver O’Gara, an ardent Jacobite who, after the Treaty of Limerick, went into exile and joined the Irish Brigade in the French army. 

On Rocky Ground



Located on a rocky outcrop, Ballinacarriga Castle, County Cork is a particularly fine example of the Irish tower house, thought to have been constructed during the 16th century. Some of the battlements remain, along with square bartizans on the south-east and north-west corners. The building was originally surrounded by a bawn wall with a round flanker tower in each corner, but only a small stretch of the former and a portion of one of the latter remain. The tower house, on the other hand, has survived remarkably well. Seemingly on the third floor, which would have served as the main hall, there are elaborate carvings depicting the Instruments of the Passion, the Crucifixion and panels of decorative leaves, while a window bears the initials of Randal Muirhily and Catherine O’Cullane and the year 1585. During the penal era, this room was used for Catholic worship but now, as with so many such sites, is inaccessible to the public. 

A Fine Past, A Sad Present


Alas, the dilapidated remains of Athcarne Castle, County Meath now indicate little of its distinguished history, which go back at least 900 years. The name of the place is thought to derive from either Ath Cairn (the Bridge/Fording Point at the Cairn) or Ard Cairn (High Cairn). Whichever is the case, this indicates that it was originally the site of a pre-Christian cairn, or burial mound: it may well be that the structure seen today rests on top of or adjacent to a cairn. For hundreds of years, the lands in this part of the country belonged to the Bathe family, descendants of Hugo de Bathe, and Anglo-Norman knight who, as his name explains, came from Bath and who arrived in Ireland with Hugh de Lacy in 1171. It may be that Hugo de Bathe built some kind of castle or defensive fort here but eventually this was succeeded by the tower house which still survives and constitutes the eastern portion of the building. Rising four storeys and presumably erected in the 15th or 16th century, the tower has large window openings on the upper levels which were clearly later than the original structure; those on the topmost floor are topped with stone mouldings and there is a buttress on the north-east corner.






Until the mid-17th century the Bathes were a prominent family in Ireland, with large landholdings in north County Dublin, where they built a number of other castles at places such as Drumcondra and Glasnevin. Three of them would serve as the country’s Lord Chief Justice while John de Bathe was Attorney General in 1564 and then Chancellor of the Exchequer 1577-86. Around 1590 his son William Bathe, a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and then married (as his second wife) Janet Dowdall (as her third husband) built what, from a surviving engraving, appears to have been an Elizabethan manor house onto the west side of the old tower house; it may well have been around this time that the latter’s windows were enlarged. The couple’s respective coats of arms can be seen on a slim tower on the south-west corner of the present building, seemingly having been moved to this location in the 19th century. Despite remaining Roman Catholic, the Bathes appear to have survived and held onto their estates until the outbreak of the Confederate Wars of the 1640s when, along with other landed families of the same faith, they rose in rebellion. And, like so many other landed families of the same faith, upon the arrival of the Cromwellian forces towards the close of the decade, they found themselves on the losing side. As a result, their considerable lands were forfeited and distributed to members of the English army, Athcarne being granted to one Colonel Grace. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the Bathes sought the return of their property, but were unsuccessful, since it was now granted to Charles II’s brother, James, Duke of York (the future James II). Following further appeals, the duke returned Athcarne and surrounding 1,200 acres on a 99 year lease at a peppercorn rent: the rest of their former lands he retained. When James II came to Ireland, it is claimed that he spent the night before the decisive Battle of the Boyne at Athcarne Castle, which was, after all, only rented to the Bathes. In any case, soon after the start of the following century, the family had gone, James II was in exile in France, and Athcarne passed into the hands of another family, the Somervilles who in turn rented it on a long lease to the Garnetts.






Athcarne Castle remained occupied by successive generations of Garnetts until the early 1830s when it was acquired by the Gernons, once more a family of Anglo-Norman origin (mentioned here recently, see Alms and the Man « The Irish Aesthete). It appears the Gernons were responsible for pulling down the Elizabethan manor house and replacing it with a new residence, the remains of which can still be seen. This is a castellated three-storey block originally two rooms’ deep. A modest, single-storey entrance porch was added on the south side (previously access to the building had been from the north). It was probably also around this time that the little tower in the south-west corner was constructed and the Bathe/Dowdall coats of arms, previously on the exterior of the manor house, placed there as a souvenir of the castle’s earlier history. By the last century, the Gernons, rather like their predecessors on the site, were in decline. The surrounding land was sold and finally in 1939 an auction of the contents was held; among the lots, apparently, was a bed dating from the 17th century, the bed in which James II had slept the night before the Battle of the Boyne. In May of that year, the Land Commission offered the castle and remaining 88 acres for sale. Left empty, the building was unroofed and left as a shell in the early 1950s and so it has remained ever since. 

For more information about Athcarne Castle and its history, an invaluable source is Athcarne Castle | Facebook

With rounded edges


Milltown Castle, County Louth is thought to date from the early 15th century when built for the Anglo-Norman Gernon family, who long held land in this part of the country. In many respects it is a typical tower house of the period, but made unusual by having rounded corners and a couple of semi-circular towers. Of four storeys, it underwent the usual alterations across the centuries but remained in use as a residence until relatively recently; a 19th century photograph shows buildings attached on either side, including a two-storey house, but these have since been demolished and today it stands in a farm yard (guarded by a pair of rather aggressive dogs, hence no closer pictures…)

In the Black

The Black Castle in Leighlinbridge, County Carlow. The first fortification here was constructed in 1181 on the orders of Anglo-Norman knight Hugh de Lacy to defend a crucial crossing point on the river Barrow (the first bridge followed in the early 14th century). When the Carmelite order came to Ireland in the 1270s, a friary was established adjacent to the castle and it survived until the suppression of all such religious houses in 1540s when the property passed into the hands of Sir Edward Bellingham, Lord Deputy of Ireland. It appears he was responsible for building what stands today, a 16th century three-storey tower house. Badly damaged during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s/50s, the Black Castle thereafter fell into ruin, the south-west corner tumbling down in the late 19th century.


Tall and Thin



Deerpark Castle, County Galway might be considered the Weight Watchers of Irish tower houses: has all the vertical substance of a regular one, but only half the width. Erected on a natural outcrop of rock, the building is believed to date from the 16th century when this part of the country would have been under the control of the de Burgos, or Burkes a branch of which later became Earls (and eventually Marquesses) of Clanricarde. There are protruding stones on one side of the structure, suggesting an intention – probably not realised – to enlarge it, which may explain the tower’s unusual slimness. Its present name presumably derives from a later date, perhaps the 17th or 18th century, when the surrounding land was enclosed to serve as a deer park for the Burkes; its conversion into use as a dovecote most likely also occurred at this time.


More New to Old



Still in County Kilkenny, and around seven miles west of Newtown Jerpoint (see last Monday) is another Newtown: when it came to naming places in this part of the country, someone wasn’t feeling terribly imaginative. In this instance, the remains include a tower house, officially dating from the 1620s but by general consent probably constructed at least 100 years earlier, perhaps for the Sweetmans who were a dominant family in this part of the country. Rising four storeys, the building is fairly plain (hence the suggestion that it dates from well before the 17th century) and as usual is accessed by a single arched doorcase with a murder hole immediately inside. Not far away lie the ruins of a late-mediaeval church, the surrounding graveyard still in use as is so often the case in Ireland. Dedicated to All Saints, the building’s only surviving feature is a window on the east gable. Internally, much of the ground is covered with the remains of old tombstones. 


Saved by a Ghost


‘There is not a baronet in the United Kingdom who (with the very essence of good-humour) has afforded a greater opportunity for notes and anecdotes than Sir John Burke of Glinsk Castle and tilt-yard;—and no person ever will, or ever can, relate them so well as himself. Sir John Burke is married to the sister of Mr. Ball, the present proprietor of Oatlands, commonly called the Golden Ball. I witnessed the court ship; negotiated with the brother; read over the skeleton of the marriage settlement, and was present at the departure of the baronet and his new lady for Rome, to kiss the pope’s toe. I also had the pleasure of hailing them on their return, as le Marquis and la Marquise de Bourke of the Holy Roman Empire. Sir John had the promise of a principality from the papal see when he should be prepared to pay his holiness the regulation price for it. At all events, he came back highly freight ed with a papal bull, a nobleman’s patent, holy relics, mock cameos, real lava, wax tapers, Roman paving-stones, &c. &c.; and after having been overset into the Po, and making the fortune of his courier, he returned in a few months to Paris, to ascertain what fortune his wife had ;-a circumstance which his anxiety to be married and kiss the pope’s toe had not given him sufficient time to investigate before. He found it very large, and calculated to bear a good deal of cutting and hacking ere it should quit his service—with no great probability of his ever coaxing it back again. Sir John’s good temper, however, settles that matter with great facility by quoting Dean Swift’s admirable eulogium upon poverty:—“Money’s the devil, and God keeps it from us,” said the dean. If this be orthodox, there will be more gentlemen’s souls saved in Ireland than in any other part of his Britannic Majesty’s dominions.’





‘Previous to Sir John’s marriage, Miss Ball understood, or rather had formed a conception, that Glinsk Castle was placed in one of the most cultivated, beautiful, and romantic districts of romantic Ireland, in which happy island she had never been, and I dare say never will be. Burke, who seldom says any thing without laughing heartily at his own remark, was questioned by her pretty closely as to the beauty of the demesne, and the architecture of the castle. “Now, Sir John,” said she, “have you much dressed grounds upon the demesne of Glinsk?” “Dressed, my love?” repeated Sir John, “why, my whole estate has been nearly dressed up these seven years past.”
“That’s very uncommon,” said Miss Ball; “there must have been a great expenditure on it.”
“Oh, very great,” replied the baronet, “very great.”
“The castle,” said her future ladyship, “is, I suppose, in good order?”
“It ought to be,” answered Sir John; “for (searching his pockets) I got a bill from my brother Joe of, I think, two hundred pounds, only for nails, iron cramps, and holdfasts—for a single winter.”’




‘The queries of Miss Ball innocently proceeded, and, I think, the replies were among the pleasantest and most adroit I ever heard. The lady seemed quite delighted, and nearly ex pressed a wish to go down to the castle as soon as possible. “As Sir John’s rents may not come in instantly,” said she, “I have, I fancy, a few thousand pounds in the bank just now, and that may take us down and new-furnish, at least, a wing of the castle !”
This took poor Sir John dreadfully aback. Glinsk was, he told me, actually in a tumbling state. Not a gravel walk within twenty miles of it: and as to timber, “How the devil,” said he, “could I support both my trees and my establishment at the same time? —Now,” he pursued, “Barrington, my good friend, do just tell her what I told you about my aunt Margaret’s ghost, that looks out of the castle window on every anniversary of her own death and birth-day, and on other periodical occasions. She’ll be so frightened (for, thank God! she’s afraid of ghosts), that she’ll no more think of going to Glinsk than to America.” – “Tell her yourself, Sir John,” said I:—“no body understands a romance better; and I’m sure, if this be not a meritorious, it is certainly an innocent one.” In fine, he got his groom to tell her maid all. about the ghost: the maid told the mistress, with frightful exaggerations: Sir John, when appealed to, spoke mysteriously of the matter; and the purchase of Glinsk Castle could not have induced Miss Ball to put her foot in it afterwards. She is a particularly mild and gentlewomanly lady, and, I fancy, would scarcely have survived, a visit to Glinsk, even if the ghost of Madam Margaret had not prevented her making the experiment.’


From Sir Jonah Barrington’s Personal Sketches of his Own Times (3 vols. 1827–32). Until offered for sale through the Encumbered Estates Court in the early 1850s, the land on which Glinsk Castle, County Galway stands had belonged for many centuries to a branch of the Burke family. In 1628 one of them, Ulick Burke, was created first baronet and it was probably around this time, or soon afterwards, that work commenced on the construction of the castle, built as a semi-fortified house. However, it does not seem to have survived very long, being perhaps gutted during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s. Certainly by the time Sir John Burke, tenth baronet, married the wealthy Sydney Ball in October 1816 the building had long been a ruin, hence his desire that she never visit the place.