St. Katherine’s Abbey lies in the heart of West Limerick, almost invisible from the roadside, nestled away in farmland, secluded and decaying. Cattle roam the fields, blissfully unaware of the history and tales of haunting stemmed in Black Magic and tragedy.
The Black Nun’s Abbey
The local name is Monasternagalliaghduff, anglicised from the Irish Mainistir na gCailleach Dubh, or “The Black Nun’s Abbey” and is affectionally known by paranormal enthusiasts as the Abbey of the Black Hag. It has been a source of paranormal and archaeological intrigue for centuries. It is named after Katherine de O’ Conyl and was originally thought to be 13th century, due to Vatican records, however it may be a hundred or so years older than this.
It was founded following a donation of land by John FitzThomas of Connello and was reported as a house of God right up until the Dissolution of Monasteries where it was given a monetary value, although it appears it was abandoned long before this time.
The layout is typical of a Medieval abbey and within the ruins, the refectory, cells, cloister and other rooms are still clearly evident among the rich earth, foliage and old trees. The intriguing element, is that no matter how bright the day is, this unroofed nunnery is plunged in darkness.
Dark history, folklore and haunting are at the very centre of this rural nunnery, so let’s find out why!
The Desmond – Ormond Feud and a Countess Buried Alive
The Earl of Desmond, who was the House of Fitzgerald was involved in a lengthy and often bloody feud with the Butler family, the Earldom of Ormond during the 15th Century. It was a major battle for supremacy. It was bitter, complicated situation and sent a tidal wave of uncertainty and despair. It was so bad, that that in the chapel of Dublin Castle, the Earl of March, Bishop of Cloyne, recited this prayer at mass:
“Eternal God, there are two in Munster that destroy both us and our property, to wit the Earls of Ormond and Desmond, together with their bands of followers, whom in the end may the Lord destroy, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Now do remember with this tale, that records were notoriously badly kept, so identifying which Earl and Countess is tricky! However, under attack, the Earl Fitzgerald decided to get his wife to safety.
As he was pulling her onto his steed, an arrow pierced her thigh, shattering bone and spraying blood. As he rode on into the night, the Countess took on a deathly pallor, so the Earl reined in his mount to seek sanctuary at St. Katherine’s Abbey.
His wife seemed very dead indeed to the heartbroken man, so he swiftly buried her beneath the altar and continued to safety.
As time passed, the order of nuns began to hear blood-curdling screams in the night. Unable to cope any longer, they decided to re-inter the Countess in the hope of bringing her peace. To their horror, they discovered the corpse to have broken finger bones and nails torn out. The unfortunate woman had been buried alive!
To this day it is believed the Countess has been unable to find peace and continues to scream in anguish, waiting for her husband to save her from a fate truly worse than death. During excavations, it was determined that indeed bodies were buried within the footprint of the convent. Was one of them the re-interred Countess?
Black Magic Black Nun
So what of the Black Nun?
It is believed that one of the order wasn’t content with servitude to God, humbleness and helping the community. She wanted power – and that power would come at the cost of her soul!
She had her own cell, in which it was said she worshipped Satan and performed Black Magic, becoming a slave to the Occult. This was the highest form of blasphemy and the other nuns in the order fled their defiled home in fear, while the hag as she had become, remained in her house of darkness.
To complete her rituals, the Black Nun would go out into the local community and perform depraved sex acts and offer sacrifices, partly substantiated by the discovery of the bones of children including a spine.
Now the name Black Hag could be as simple as the fact that with malnutrition, the lack of daylight, living conditions and the ashes of fires, the woman would have had a gaunt, skeletal and very much black face along with her black robes.
The stories of dark magic could have been used as a justification for the dissolution of the nunnery during the Reformation at the hands of Henry VIII or at a time where witches were being hunted, the Pope was believing all the reports given to him and pointing an accusing finger as was happening all across Europe. I don’t believe we will ever truly know.
Investigating the Paranormal
It was time to visit the location and see if the claims of paranormal activity could be quantified. As the ruins are on private land, as Irish Paranormal Investigations, we sought permission and had a good discussion with the owners about their unique landscape feature!
To them it feels serene and peaceful, although this could be very much that any entities within are used to their presence and are as respectful of their landlords as the owners are respectful and protective of the Abbey. A kind of truce between the living and the dead as it were.
On our first walk around, I distinctly saw a translucent hand through a gap in the wall. I was shocked to say the least and still feel uneasy about it. The hand was reaching out as if to take Communion and the foliage around the apparition was disturbed, wavering, despite no hint of a breeze or movement throughout the trees and leaves around me.
As we continued on separate sides of one of the room ruins, most likely a Calefactory, a dark shadow rushed between us, dare we say shaped as a person in nun like robes? We were both convinced there was an actually living person playing tricks, so ran after it, but there was no one there.
We found in the cell, that torchlight would not penetrate the darkness, despite natural light having a way in and the torch shut off and would not work again until we left that space. We also had battery drainage and I felt a staring presence on my back as we left.
In what is reputed to be the Hag’s cell, I recited the Lord’s Prayer and as I did so, the place lightened and serenity took hold until I finished.
Overall, it is indeed a place of peace and I do not sense any darkness or evil within. Perhaps the Black Nun remains to seek redemption or chained forever to the place of her misdeeds. The Countess may well be a residual presence, her screams of fear forever imprinted in the stones of the Abbey.
One thing is for sure, if you are looking for a place that has dark history, folklore and hauntings all in one place, these sacred ruins buried deep in rural County Limerick are definitely top of that list!
If you have ever found yourself in a discussion on Irish folklore, you may have heard mention of both the Fear Gorta (Far Gur-tuh) meaning Famine man or Féar Gortach (Far Gur-toc) that relates to the Hungry or Famine Grass.
The Famine or Hungry Man is a skeletal wraith, a harbinger of death in human form. Féar Gortach is a folklore tale of a cursed patch of land where if you tread, you are doomed to die of starvation, no matter how much you eat.
The Hungry Grass and Hungry Man have two origins , but the horrific outcome of facing either is much the same. I often say that folklore and history are firmly entwined and Fear Gorta and Féar Gortach are no exception. In this instance, the most dreadful era of Irish history.
How the Great Hunger Began
It has many names, the Irish Great Hunger, The Great Famine, the Irish Potato Famine. It doesn’t matter which you use, they are all far too simplistic and in no way outline the despair, death and devastation Ireland endured for almost a decade at the hands of British tyranny. Class discrimination, religious intolerance, slave labour, deliberate starvation and forced exile, all under the dark skies of harsh winter after harsh winter.
Penal Laws introduced under British rule meant that parliamentary representatives were primarily British nationals and their male descendants who had been granted landed estates in Ireland.
Catholics had previously had property confiscated and were forbidden from owning or leasing land or voting. Penal Law was largely repealed before 1830, however the wheels of law, justice and reform grind slowly. For now, Irish Catholics had to settle for leasing land back from Anglo landowners.
The potato was only introduced to Ireland in the 18th century, but soon became a food staple due to it being hardy enough to survive Irish weather, it was a cheap product and went far for the hungry mouths it needed to feed.
Potato crops became infested with an airborne fungus called phytophthora infestans, also known as potato blight. It is believed that this fungus that seemed to originate on merchant ships between North America and Britain, actually carried on the wind across the Irish Sea and began destroying the potato crops of Dublin and the surrounding counties before it became a countrywide disaster.
Corn Laws were still in existence which fixed an artificially high tariff on imports to protect British corn prices and keep them in control of the market. A petition was put forward for Queen Victoria to repeal the high tax, which did happen, but it was too late.
This, combined with the continued high level of produce continuing to be exported out of Ireland by British landowners and merchants meant one thing – a food shortage of catastrophic proportion that brought a nation to its knees.
Charles Trevelyan and Black ‘47
Attempts at temporary relief measures were mismanaged and local committees would be unruly and incapable of the organisation required to put these measures in place successfully. Just when it was thought that things couldn’t get any worse, it did, with the assignment to the relief effort of a man who would become one of the most hated men in Irish history – Charles Trevelyan.
Trevelyan was an autocratic numbers and red tape man, a civil servant with no compassion, empathy or connection to the Irish people he was tasked to assist.
His methods at creating employment, bringing food to the table and restarting the Irish economy were drawn out, complicated and ultimately, a complete failure. Trevelyan and the British government had been operating on the principle that the blight would be short lived and nature would run its course – they couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first year of the potato blight and food shortages was dire, but the Irish kept going with a small import of corn, selling off the little livestock they had and borrowing money from loan sharks. Little did anyone know this was just the beginning of the horror at the hands of Charles Trevelyan.
British Prime Minister Robert Peel had been supplying Ireland with corn imports, however following his resignation in 1846, Trevelyan took complete control and cut off Ireland from further imports as he didn’t want the Irish relying on British support, despite his procedures to create a working economy in Ireland failing miserably.
When social systems and infrastructure failed, instead of sending food, Trevelyan sent soldiers to try and instil order. When one of the most brutal winters hit Ireland, Trevelyan forced half a million Irish out into the blizzards to build roads. Men, women, children, barley clothed, starving, freezing, many would drop dead where they stood.
1847 would become known as ‘Black 47’ – the worst year of the Great Hunger. The population was emeciated, still desperately trying to work on Trevelyan’s enterprises for almost no wages or food. Children went without any sustenance at all as the parents needed to eat in order to work.
Disease ravished the land, most dying from diseases such as typhus, dysentery and black fever rather than malnutrition.
As the months went on, it was a harsh but simple fact, the Irish people could not afford to eat, the money wasn’t there and they were dying due to the incompetence and indifference of the British Government.
Finally, all of Trevelyan’s projects were shut down and soup kitchens and charity were introduced, but too slowly and on too small a scale. 1847 saw the third potato harvest failure.
Evictions, Coffin Ships and Workhouses
As time passed, the landowners wanted their land back to grow their own crops and graze cattle. Their tenants were unfit for work, unable to grow their own potatoes and hadn’t paid any rent in years. As if starvation, slave labour and disease weren’t enough, tenants began to be evicted from their homes.
Over 500,000 tenants were evicted, with a further 100,000 being forced to emigrate to North America by the landowners with false promises on what would become known as the Coffin Ships.
Small, barely sea worthy vessels, crammed with skeletal families, broken and ravaged by disease, still hoping for a better life. Many would die onboard, their rotting corpses a stark warning of what may come to those watching and breathing in the stench of death. Others would die in makeshift hospitals on arrival. They were not welcomed and were received with hostility and fear from the largely Puritan communities of Canada and North America.
Back in Ireland, Trevelyan fought to save his career by making all Irish landowners the scapegoats for the years of horror inflicted on the Irish people. The penalties imposed upon them left them bankrupt and the common man had no wages. The shops were filled with food at this stage; however, no one had any money to buy. Ireland was in complete financial ruin.
The Poor Law was brought into play, however claimants had to rescind any bit of land or asset they held over a quarter acre and enter the workhouse in order to receive aid.
Workhouses were already crammed tight with widows and children who, if Trevelyan had his way, would be out on the streets to make way for those fit to work. The ever-increasing overflow were being placed into outbuildings with no sanitation or heat during another harsh winter.
Soon, even these were full and entire families, desperate for a roof and a crumb, were forced to live in makeshift camps anywhere they could find. Before long the workhouses and unions were riddled with debt and unable to keep up with supply and demand. As a result, no further aid from Britain was forthcoming due to non-payment of taxes.
Instead of sending help, the British government sent more and more soldiers to “control” the masses. Whispers of rebellion were rife through the evolution of the Young Irelanders, who sought to fight back against repression, however the British put every effort into supressing their efforts with new laws of internment and exile to Botany Bay, as well as the introduction of spies in every major city.
So, the cities were living in fear and struggling to keep food on the table and rural Ireland was a ghost nation, cottages abandoned, families gone, fields empty.
The workhouses were rife with disease, residents living and sleeping in their own filth, no segregation, everyone pushed in together, the violent, the mentally ill and the infirm together with families and small infants. Food minimal. All were in rags, haunted, hollow sunken eyes searching for a glimmer of hope long gone, through ravaged features.
Death, Mass Graves and the Rise of Fear Gorta and Féar Gortach
Death was the common denominator and the dead were tossed into carts, one on top of the other and tipped into the makeshift graves without so much as a blessing, souls condemned to Purgatory.
All over Ireland hundreds of these mass graves appeared, or Famine Graveyards as they became known. All were originally un-consecrated, although in later years many became memorialised and recognised consecrated ground.
Some however, remained buried in cold, unhallowed ground, forgotten souls crying out for their purgatory to end. Over the top of these burial sites the grass grew sparsely and it was cursed. It was hungry.
With the extent and horror of the Great Famine it is no surprise to hear such a tale was born from it. But what if I was to tell you that tales of the Hungry Grass and the emaciated figure known as the Hungry Man go back much further than you can imagine and with far more supernatural origins?
Supernatural origins and Lore
While the rise of the dark side of these supernatural forces undoubtedly occurred because of the Great Hunger, they appear to have been born of ancient ways and a much less human origin.
The most common lore behind the Féar Gortach is that is occurs as a result of fairy magic. Found in fields, it is cursed by the fairies of the Unseelie Court who use dark powers, evil if you will.
Whether as a source of famine or fairy, to stand on the Hungry Grass means death. Slowly you begin to starve and descend into madness. You eat and you eat but no amount of food will ever fill the void in your stomach. The mind snaps, convincing the poor, cursed individual that they are starving to death. Ultimately mind takes over matter and the victim just wither away and dies.
The Fear Gorta, or Hungry Man is not a man at all, but an ethereal being or fairy. He is associated with famine for two reasons. The first is his dreadful appearance. Skeletal in physique, his face is gaunt and haggard. Hollow cheeks and angular bones are covered by thinly stretched sallow skin. His emaciated figure a horrific image to behold. His clothing is nothing but tatters and rags and to all intents and purposes he has the look of the walking dead.
The second is that he is known to appear during times of hardship and Famine. The Fear Gorta can be malevolent or benevolent, depending on his mood and the welcome he receives. He is known to call house to house begging and if he is treated kindly, he has the ability to bestow good blessings and wealth on those he deems worthy. Of course, those who are unkind will feel his wrath and suffer abject poverty, famine and ultimately…death.
There are no sure-fire ways to defend yourself against either the Fear Gorta or Féar Gortach, but there are certain wardings and protections you can try. Carrying a crust of bread in your pocket may protect you from the starvation effects of stepping on the Hungry Grass. It is also believed that crumbs of bread spread over the affected area will somehow reverse the curse over those recently afflicted. Ultimately the salting and burning of the field is believed to bring closure to the curse.
In my own town, our community hospital St. Ita’s has always had a shadow over it, a darkness that I stared into, from early childhood to this day. It was little surprise to discover in my adult years, that it was in fact, the Workhouse, separated from the Famine Graveyard by a new road. You can build over the horrors of history, but you cannot tame them or erase them. The energy will continue to seep through. Respect, remembrance and understanding is key to keeping the darkness at bay.
A little way up the road is Knockfeirna, a centre of mystical convergence which translates as ‘Hill of the Fairies.’- a portal to the netherworld. It is also the location of remnants of the dark era of hunger, the hollow husks of famine cottages a reminder of the hollow husks of humanity who dwelt within. The two origins of the same haunting tales side by side, history and lore entwined.
So is the Féar Gortach an act of malicious fairy magic and why would they see fit to curse the land? There are accounts of fairy magic being used to keep humans away from sites of importance to the fairy realm. Fairy forts and patches of the Féar Gortach are believed to be traps that activate in the event of tampering, whether deliberate destruction or the accidental crossing of either supernatural creation.
Perhaps the very act of defiling the dead of the Great Hunger with mass burials was enough to trigger the curse on sacred fairy land. Did this in turn cause the lost souls of the Famine to become predatory, seeking to drag the living into their hell?
The Fear Gorta is a different story. He is fairy, he is solitary and he has no master. There is no protection from his power. Decimation and despair will awaken him and his withered, skeletal finger will unfurl and point to his next prey.
So much of the tragedy of Ireland holds hands with pagan ways, superstition and the supernatural, even in Christian times. The Great Hunger was the worst horror imaginable, so it is little wonder the lore that arose was equally horrific. May these inhuman acts remain in the past, the victims find everlasting peace and the hunger of Fear Gorta and Féar Gortach be sated.
As a nation oppressed and shackled to English rule and tyranny for generations, the people of Ireland have historically joined hands with those suffering a similar fate around the world, especially Native Americans and the enslaved African American people.
It is this network of support and inspiration that led a young escaped black slave from the East Coast of America to Irish shores. A journey that motivated this brave man to become one of the most influential figures in the fight for the abolition of slavery.
Frederick Douglass became an author of his trials and tribulations, a motivational public speaker and leader of the Abolitionist Movement, but life began in more humble and harsh roots and with a different name.
Born into Slavery
In 1818, an enslaved woman called Harriet Bailey gave birth to a son, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. His father was never officially named, but was believed to have been the master of Holme Hill Farm, Talbot County, Maryland.
The infant was taken from his mother and she was transferred to another location. Frederick barely saw his mother again and was raised by his grandmother until he was sent to work as a slave as a boy of just seven years of age.
As easily as handing off a baked apple pie or a used book, Frederick was “given” to Lucretia Auld. Her husband Thomas, in turn sent the young boy to work for his brother Hugh and sister-in-law Sophia in Baltimore.
Sophia felt for the boy and gave into his instance on education by teaching him the alphabet. Frederick then took it upon himself to show his fellow captives how to read and write by using the Bible as a teaching aid. Word spread that slaves were being educated and Hugh’s brother Thomas was outraged that the Auld family were at the centre of gossip.
As punishment, Frederick was delivered to a most wicked master, Edward Covey. Edward was notorious for whipping and beating the slaves within his domain, his intention to break their hearts and minds, while leaving the bodies just damaged enough that they could continue to toil.
First Step to Freedom
Frederick made several attempts to escape, each time bringing down more wrath on the defiant young man. During his time working at a nearby shipyard, he befriended and began to fall in love with Anne Murray, a free woman. This spurred him onto a successful bid for freedom and he travelled to New York City with the help of abolitionist David Ruggles, while taking a great risk, as part of his journey took him through the enslaved state of Delaware.
Once in New York, Frederick and Ann were married and looking to start a family of their own, however Frederick was still an escaped slave, so they moved to the free state of Massachusetts and Frederick began to take his steps towards becoming a free man.
One of these steps was a change of name. Friends of the couple were fans of Scottish author and poet, Sir Walter Scott and suggested he change his surname name to that of the main characters of his poem, ‘The Lady of the Lake.’
His relationship with David Ruggles progressed and Frederick subscribed to ‘The Liberator,’ an abolitionist newspaper run by William Lloyd Garrison and Isaac Knapp. From here Frederick Douglass began attending meetings and then spent six months travelling through America as a public speaker , during which time he was repeatedly assaulted in the streets.
It was at this point, William Lloyd Garrison encouraged Frederick to visit Britain and Ireland to raise much needed funds and awareness for the movement.
As Frederick made plans to travel, he had also completed writing his memoirs. His Irish friend, a printer in Dublin called Richard Webb, agreed to publish the autobiography.
Still an escaped slave, Frederick boarded an ocean liner in Boston with a first class ticket that had been purchased for him. The black man was forced into steerage as he did not have the ‘right’ to enjoy First Class. Douglass disembarked in Liverpool before continuing his journey to Dublin.
As Frederick set foot onto the Emerald Isle, the country under English Rule was at the beginning of what was to be one of the worst periods of Irish history – The Great Hunger, also known traditionally, as The Irish Potato Famine.
Despite their own suffering and fear, the people of Ireland welcomed Frederick Douglass with open arms and he put the wheels in motion with Richard Webb to print copies of his autobiography for sale at sold out lectures in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast. The book was selling faster than it could be printed, such was the impact the 27 year old African American was having on the oppressed nation.
The Liberator – Daniel O’Connell
It was however, the impact of Irishman Daniel O’Connell, who coincidentally became known as ‘The Liberator’ and who was a staunch supporter of the Abolitionist Movement.
On 29 September 1845, Irish Nationalist Daniel O’Connell took to the stage at a meeting of the Repeal Movement at Conciliation Hall in Dublin, inspiring Frederick Douglass to new levels of determination.
“I have been assailed for attacking the American institution, as it is called, negro slavery. I am not ashamed of that attack. I do not shrink from it. I am the advocate of civil and religious liberty all over the globe, and wherever tyranny exists, I am the foe of the tyrant.” – Daniel O’Connell
Spurred on by his time in the company of the Irish Nationalist, while in Belfast, Frederick Douglass wrote from his room at the Victoria Hotel to his friend William Lloyd Garrison on 1st January 1846 after four months touring Ireland.
Frederick Douglass Victoria Hotel, Belfast, January 1, 1846
To William Lloyd Garrison
My Dear Friend Garrison:
I am now about to take leave of the Emerald Isle, for Glasgow, Scotland. I have been here a little more than four months. Up to this time, I have given no direct expression of the views, feelings and opinions which I have formed, respecting the character and condition of the people in this land. I have refrained thus purposely. I wish to speak advisedly, and in order to do this, I have waited till I trust experience has brought my opinions to an intelligent maturity. I have been thus careful, not because I think what I may say will have much effect in shaping the opinions of the world, but because whatever of influence I may possess, whether little or much, I wish it to go in the right direction, and according to truth. I hardly need say that, in speaking of Ireland, I shall be influenced by prejudices in favor of America. I think my circumstances all forbid that. I have no end to serve, no creed to uphold, no government to defend; and as to nation, I belong to none. I have no protection at home, or resting-place abroad. The land of my birth welcomes me to her shores only as a slave, and spurns with contempt the idea of treating me differently. So that I am an outcast from the society of my childhood, and an outlaw in the land of my birth. “I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner as all my fathers were.” That men should be patriotic is to me perfectly natural; and as a philosophical fact, I am able to give it an intellectual recognition. But no further can I go. If ever I had any patriotism, or any capacity for the feeling, it was whips out of me long since by the lash of the American soul-drivers.
In thinking of America, I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky—her grand old woods—her fertile fields—her beautiful rivers— her mighty lakes, and star-crowned mountains. But my rapture is soon checked, my joy is soon turned to mourning. When I remember that all is cursed with the infernal spirit of slaveholding, robbery and wrong,— when I remember that with the waters of her noblest rivers, the tears of my brethren are borne to the ocean, disregarded and forgotten, and that her most fertile fields drink daily of the warm blood of my outraged sisters, I am filled with unutterable loathing, and led to reproach myself that any thing could fall from my lips in praise of such a land. America will not allow her children to love her. She seems bent on compelling those who would be her warmest friends, to be her worst enemies. May God give her repentance before it is too late, is the ardent prayer of my heart. I will continue to pray, labor and wait, believing that she cannot always be insensible to the dictates of justice, or deaf to the voice of humanity.
My opportunities for learning the character and condition of the people of this land have been very great. I have travelled almost from the hill of “Howth” to the Giant’s Causeway, and from the Giant’s Causeway to Cape Clear. During these travels, I have met with much in the character and condition of the people to approve, and much to condemn—much that has thrilled me with pleasure—and very much that has filled me with pain. I will not, in this letter, attempt to give any description of those scenes which have given me pain. This I will do hereafter. I have enough, and more than your subscribers will be disposed to read at one time, of the bright side of the picture. I can truly say, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life. The warm and generous co-operation extended to me by the friends of my despised race—the prompt and liberal manner with which the press has rendered me its aid—the glorious enthusiasm with which thousands have flocked to hear the cruel wrongs of my down-trodden and longenslaved fellow-countrymen portrayed—the deep sympathy for the slave, and the strong abhorrence of the slaveholder, everywhere evinced—the cordiality with which members and ministers of various religious bodies, and of various shades of religious opinion, have embraced me, and lent me their aid—the kind hospitality constantly proffered to me by persons of the highest rank in society—the spirit of freedom that seems to animate all with whom I come in contact—and the entire absence of every thing that looked like prejudice against me, on account of the color of my skin—contrasted so strongly with my long and bitter experience in the United States, that I look with wonder and amazement on the transition. In the Southern part of the United States, I was a slave, thought of and spoken of as property. In the language of the LAW, “held, taken, reputed and adjudged to be a chattel in the hands of my owners and possessors, and their executors, administrators, and assigns, to all intents, constructions, and purposes whatsoever.”—Brev. Digest, 224. In the Northern States, a fugitive slave, liable to be hunted at any moment like a felon, and to be hurled into the terrible jaws of slavery— doomed by an inveterate prejudice against color to insult and outrage on every hand, (Massachusetts out of the question)—denied the privileges and courtesies common to others in the use of the most humble means of conveyance—shut out from the cabins on steamboats—refused admission to respectable hotels—caricatured, scorned, scoffed, mocked and maltreated with impunity by any one, (no matter how black his heart,) so he has a white skin. But now behold the change! Eleven days and a half gone, and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door— I am shown into the same parlor—I dine at the same table—and no one is offended. No delicate nose grows deformed in my presence. I find no difficulty here in obtaining admission into any place of worship, instruction or amusement, on equal terms with people as white as any I ever saw in the United States. I meet nothing to remind me of my complexion. I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, “We don’t allow n——s in here”!
I remember, about two years ago, there was in Boston, near the south-west corner of Boston Common, a menagerie. I had long desired to see such a collection as I understood were being exhibited there. Never having had an opportunity while a slave, I resolved to seize this, my first, since my escape. I went, and as I approached the entrance to gain admission, I was met and told by the door-keeper, in a harsh and contemptuous tone, “We don’t allow n——rs in here.” I also remember attending a revival meeting in the Rev. Henry Jackson’s meeting-house, at New-Bedford, and going up the broad aisle to find a seat. I was met by a good deacon, who told me, in a pious tone, “We don’t allow n——s in here”! Soon after my arrival in New-Bedford from the South, I had a strong desire to attend the Lyceum, but was told, “We don’t allow n——s in here”! While passing from New York to Boston on the steamer Massachusetts, on the night of 9th Dec. 1843, when chilled almost through with the cold, I went into the cabin to get a little warm. I was soon touched upon the shoulder, and told, “We don’t allow n——s in here”! On arriving in Boston from an anti-slavery tour, hungry and tired, I went into an eating-house near my friend Mr. Campbell’s, to get some refreshments. I was met by a lad in a white apron, “We don’t allow n——s in here”! A week or two before leaving the United States, I had a meeting ape pointed at Weymouth, the home of that glorious band of true abolitionists, the Weston family, and others. On attempting to take a seat in the Omnibus to that place, I was told by the driver, (and I never shall forget his fiendish hate,) “I don’t allow n——rs in here”! Thank heaven for the respite I now enjoy! I had been in Dublin but a few days, when a gentleman of great respectability kindly offered to conduct me through all the public buildings of that beautiful city; and a little afterwards, I found myself dining with the Lord Mayor of Dublin. What a pity there was not some American democratic Christian at the door of his splendid mansion, to bark out at my approach, “They don’t allow n s in here”! The truth is, the people here know nothing of the republican Negro hate prevalent in our glorious land. They measure and esteem men according to their moral and intellectual worth, and not according to the color of their skin. Whatever may be said of the aristocracies here, there is none based on the color of a man’s skin. This species of aristocracy belongs pre-eminently to “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” I have never found it abroad, in any but Americans. It sticks to them wherever they go. They find it almost as hard to get rid of it as to get rid of their skins.
The second day after my arrival at Liverpool, in company with my friend Buffum, and several other friends, I went to Eaton Hall, the residence of the Marquis of Westminster, one of the most splendid buildings in England. On approaching the door, I found several of our American passengers, who came out with us in the Cambria, waiting at the door for admission, as but one party was allowed in the house at a time. We all had to wait till the company within came out. And of all the faces, expressive of chagrin, those of the Americans were pre-eminent. They looked as sour as vinegar, and bitter as gall, when they found I was to be admitted on equal terms with themselves. When the door was opened, I walked in, on an equal footing with my white fellow-citizens, and from all I could see, I had as much attention paid me by the servants that showed us through the house, as any with a paler skin. As I walked through the building, the statuary did not fall down, the pictures did not leap from their places, the doors did not refuse to open, and the servants did not say, “We don’t allow n——s in here”!
A happy new year to you, and all the friends of freedom.
Excuse this imperfect scrawl, and believe me to be ever and always yours,
Sailing to Freedom
From the beauty of Howth to the wonder of the Giant’s Causeway, from Cork and Father Theobald Matthew and to Dublin and Daniel O’Connell, the people of Ireland showed Frederick Douglass wonder, warmth and inspiration, not hunger, death and oppression. He became known as ‘The Black O’Connell’, a camaraderie founded on persecution between the two inspirational speakers.
From here, Frederick sailed for Scotland and Glasgow where he continued to speak to gain support for the Abolitionist Movement.
Early in 1846, Frederick Douglass sailed the Atlantic Ocean with the money from his tour and book sales. When he stood back on the terra nova of the land of the brave and the home of the free, he took that money and bought his own freedom.
The life and times of Frederick Douglass continued for many more years, his commitment to freeing slaves and pushing for the abolition of slavery was unyielding. His dream was realised in 1865 when he was 47 years old, with the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born a slave in 1818. Frederick Douglass died in 1891, a free man. Let us not forget that some 46 years previously, this man of great strength and determination lived the life of a free man in oppressed Ireland.
“Instead of the bright blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breath and lo! The chattel becomes a man.”
References: RTE Archives, History Channel, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, University at Buffalo, Yale University.
Artwork reproduced with the kind permission of Jim Fitzpatrick.
The Guardian of the Shannon stands weary yet proud, where the County Kerry banks of Carrig Island meet the flowing waters of the tidal Shannon estuary.
The whole area surrounding the village of Ballylongford in the Kingdom County was under the control of the O’Connor clan. The village itself is known for being the birthplace of world renowned Exorcist, Father Malachi Martin, but the darkness of evil tyranny found its way to the area long before the Jesuit priest was born.
Carrigfoyle is Carraig an Phoill in Irish, translating as ‘Rock of the Hole.’
It was built by Conor Liath O’Connor at the end of the fifteenth century, a stronghold overseeing the shipping lanes into the main port of Limerick city some 40 miles along the river. This meant the O’Connor Kerry clan could board and loot many of the merchant ships due into the Viking capital of Munster.
It was constructed some 86 feet high over 5 levels from limestone. A Bawn was created with a pontoon for landing boats and the surrounding woodland gave added protection. High vaulted ceilings on two levels gave added grandeur and it was finished off with a wide spiral staircase, with 104 steps leading you out onto the battlements and sweeping views of the Shannon estuary and surrounding farmlands.
As well as the main halls, there are several smaller chambers on each floor, more than I have seen in similar guardian towers in the region.
In 1579, as the war on Catholicism was taking hold, Spanish reinforcements arrived at Smerwick Harbour further along the Kerry coastline. This men were papal forces sent to assist the Irish defence during the Desmond Rebellion.
Desmond Rebellion and Bloodshed
Some of these soldiers were ordered down to Carrigfoyle Castle as this was the seat of the Earl of Desmond. An Italian engineer, Captain Julian also arrived to assist in the reinforcement of the critical stronghold.
Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, Sir William Pelham was leading the assault against the Irish Rebellion and had headquartered in Limerick city.
Under the orders of Queen Elizabeth, Easter 1580 saw the English Commander lay Siege to Carrigfoyle Castle. His fleet were positioned within the estuary and in the woodland of Carrig Island and at first were subjected to missiles in the form of boulders and weaponry being fired from the battlements by the men of Desmond.
As time wore on however, the English managed to scale the castle walls with assault ladders and the battle began in earnest. Sir William reported that the waters and castle walls “became slippery with blood”, as naval canons began their bombardment of the fortress.
After two days of siege, the structure began to collapse inwards, crushing many of the soldiers fighting for Irish freedom to death. The remainder try to flee into the shallow waters of the banks of the Shannon and woodland. They did not get far and were slaughtered by the blades of English troops. Captain Julian was hanged just a few days later.
Today Carrigfoyle Castle is eerily quiet, my climb to the top of the battlements solitary and silent. Drips of water gentle cascade down the limestone, caressed by the emerald green moss clinging to the walls of the past.
Carrigfoyle Castle Today
Shadows creep out from the stone, crushing the glimmers of sunlight as the terrified men within the vast structure were crushed by canon fire. On the gentle estuary breeze, historic cries of fear and despair are but a whisper, tossed away, carried over the majestic Shannon and lost to time.
Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland. The bloody conflict took place on 1st July 1690 (converting to the 11th in the Gregorian calendar, which was not adopted by Ireland until 1752) and although taking place on Irish soil, it was a fight for the Crown between James II of England and Ireland and the infamous William of Orange.
Prelude to Battle
The deposed King James II was the last Catholic monarch who had converted to Catholicism and he had borne a Catholic male heir. Staunch Protestant, William of Orange and his noble peers overthrew the Catholic King to prevent a Catholic hierarchy. The Battle of the Boyne was an attempt by the deposed King James to regain his crown and this battle was just a part of the Williamite War in Ireland.
The Jacobites fought for Irish sovereignty and Catholic tolerance in the name of James, whereas the Williamites sought to enforce and maintain a Protestant hold under the sovereignty of William of Orange and his wife Mary, who was ironically, the Protestant daughter of James II.
William marched south from County Antrim with his forces, gathering additional troops en route, many led by his second in command, Duke Fredrick Schomberg. In total, William commanded a multi-national army of some 36000 soldiers, including highly trained infantry.
James lay in wait with his troops forming a line of defence along the banks of the River Boyne, close to Drogheda in County Louth. His own troops were considerably less, forming an army of 23500, made up primarily of Irish, with the addition of French troops and some English and Scottish Jacobites.
Bloodshed On the Banks of the Boyne
The battle took place at the favoured River Boyne crossing at Oldbridge, a strategic point now marked by the Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge and at Roughgrange. The latter location proved to be formidable as a deep and swamp like portion of the river, preventing the two sides from engaging in close quarter fighting. Instead, many watched as aerial artillery took the stage.
At Oldbridge, the Duke of Schomberg chose to enter the waters with his cavalry and drive back the Jacobite foot soldiers. James II sent his son with a Jacobite cavalry to counter attack and the Williamites began to suffer heavy losses, including Duke Frederick, who was fatally wounded while riding his horse through the murky waters, attemptng to rally his troops. He is buried in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, his Latin inscription written by renowned Irish writer, Jonathan Swift.
While the Jacobites fought well, they were inevitably forced to retreat, possibly due to a lack of military leadership experience and of course, numbers. They incurred most fatalities, albeit it a small mortality rate of just over 2000 from both sides. Unheard of for a battle of this magnitude, it was partly due to incredible skill of the Jacobite cavalry, maintaining a tight defensive retreat, helped by the reluctance of William of Orange to be responsible for the death of his father-in-law.
While it was believed that some Irish troops eventually abandoned posts and chose life to fight another day over dying for a foreign crown, many Jacobites retreated to Limerick to continue their fight for James II.
Aftermath and the Declaration of Finglas
Williamite forces set up camp in the area of Finglas, as they arrived successful into Dublin. Here William of Orange created the Declaration of Finglas, announcing that any Jacobite foot soldier renouncing their allegiance would be pardoned providing they did so by 1st August, a deadline that was extended for three further weeks. It may seem like a generous offer, however it was a divide and conquer tactic to separate Jacobite leaders and the officers of James II from their troops.
Instead of ensuring submission, it riled the Catholic commanders, who continued their battle for Catholicism, albeit a futile endeavour.
While political advancement and battles continued for the next year or so and the Protestant hold over Ireland gripped tighter, an air of despondency and death loomed over the River Boyne and the ancient location still holds the souls of the departed for its own. Who are the ghosts of the Battle of the Boyne and what links are there to landmarks nearby?
Spirits of War
The Boyne Valley itself is one of the most mystical and ancient locations in Ireland and is home to the likes of Newgrange, the Hill of Tara, Slane Castle and of course the site of the Battle of the Boyne, which centred around Oldbridge and Roughgrange. It spans the counties of Meath and Louth, while sitting on Dublin’s doorstep and has been the enigmatic landscape for paranormal activity over centuries.
It is little wonder therefore, that the supernatural imprint of such an historic battle remains on the bloodied fields and banks of the River Boyne, as well as radiating out to other nearby landmarks.
James II and the Hanged at Athcarne Castle
Athcarne Castle in County Meath is a late sixteenth century Elizabethan mansion house with castle style turret, that has served as home to the noble Bathe family for generations. It is believed that James II chose this stately home as his residence for the night before battle, with his defeated spirit continuing to wander through the crumbling stone walls. It’s location is only a few miles from the site of the legendary battlefield and the cries of fallen soldiers can be heard screaming in the night. A hanging tree, solitary and weighted with death, stands in the grounds, the twisting, writhing shade of a condemned soldier seen dangling ethereally in the moonlight. A bloodsoaked young spirit, stalks the castle boundary, her demented gaze both terrifying and desperate in equal measure, It now lies as a forlorn ruin, holding helpless souls captive in its shadow.
Saints and Heroes of Duleek
Saint Mary’s Abbey in Duleek, has been a religious location since Saint Patrick founded a monastic settlement in the fifth century. It was also the place where the slain body of Brian Boru was taken before his final journey to Armagh following his death at the Battle of Clontarf.
Sir John Bellew was granted the title of Baron of Duleek in 1688 for his loyalty to James II and continued to fight in his name after the defeat at the Battle of the Boyne. The Baron lost his life during the Battle of Aughrim on 12th July 1691, one of the bloodiest battles on Irish soil. His broken corpse was returned to Duleek in County Meath and lies eternally in the shadow of the tower.
Talbot Tragedy at Malahide Castle
Malahide Castle Estate in North County Dublin dates back over 800 years and was the home of the Talbot dynasty which continued almost unbroken until the death of Milo Talbot in 1973. His sister Rose, unable to maintain the imposing castle and grounds, sold the historic landmark to the State.
On the morning of the Battle of the Boyne, fourteen Talbot men sat to breakfast in the Great Hall of the Castle, before leaving to fight for the Jacobites. They never returned, well not corporeally at least, bar one. There ghostly forms remain within their family home, kept company by a myriad of supernatural forces, from the shade of a heartbroken court jester to king slayer Myles Corbett, his armoured spectral form disintegrating before your eyes.
Sadly, much of the battlefield itself has been built over, with houses and businesses, all in the name of ‘progress’, despite the pleas of historians. Many of the homes on the site in Oldbridge however, have had individual reports of everything from poltergeist activity to the apparitions of children within their walls.
This year sees the Winter Solstice in Ireland a day later than usual, on 22nd December. Today that extra 24 hours may not seem a big deal, but thousands of years ago, it was an additional day lived in fear of long dark nights.
So what exactly is the Winter Solstice and why was it so important to our Celtic ancestors and their hopes for the future?
What is a Winter Solstice?
It is important to understand that all our festivals and traditions in Ireland are born from our farming heritage. A necessary way of life dating back to the Tuatha Dé Danann, our ancient race of Demi-gods. Everything we knew related to the seasons, the cycle of life and death, sowing and reaping, harvest and regrowth.
The term ‘Solstice’ actually stems from two Latin words – ‘Sol’ meaning sun and ‘Sistere’ meaning stand still. A point in the Northern Hemisphere where the day reaches its shortest in terms of light and the night is the longest by way of darkness. For a farming nation, this was not the end, but the beginning.
Agriculture and Paganism
This rural way of life was mirrored in the beliefs of the Druids and so many pagan rituals and festivities were borne of necessity. In a year that was measured by solar and lunar movement this moment was a fundamental turning point – the rebirth of the sun.
A fear was instilled from generation to generation, that as the light faded it would not return. Superstition and a need for ritual and tradition were the only ways to hold back the darkness for a nation at the mercy of the seasons and the sun.
It was a time when ancient trees were revered by pagans as they were believed to hold the power, the magic, the key to life and death. It was said that the battle of light and dark was between the Holly King and the Oak King. At the Winter Solstice the Oak would defeat the Holly and thus light would begin returning to the world.
Mistletoe was considered mystical and potent in protection so it would be cut from its habitat, growing on other strong trees such as the oak and offered up for blessings to be brought upon the home.
Origins of Christmas
Candlelight was a vital weapon against the encompassing darkness and the evil that lurked within, a tool to banish the malevolent. The Yule log, adopted from our Norse fellow pagans was lit and surrounded by evergreens such as ivy and mistletoe.
Food was shared among neighbours, produce that was easily preserved such as fruit, nuts, and baked goods that were full of spices for warmth and longevity. Harvested grains and fruits had completed their fermentation process and were handed out as alcoholic beverages and gifts were given to those who helped most in the community. This is all beginning to sound very familiar!
Each year on the Winter Solstice, as the sun begins to rise, a lottery selected chosen few are given the chance to experience the ethereal wonder inside the inner chamber of a Neolithic structure older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. An event that was first witnessed in recent times by Professor M. J. O’Kelly on 21st December 1967. The first such occurrence in over 5000 years.
Newgrange sits in the Boyne Valley in County Meath, Ireland and is to all intents and purposes, an ancient temple. A convergence of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance.
It is a mound structure stretching over one acre and is held in place by 97 kerbstones, covered in Megalithic artwork. It is just one of a series of such structures following the path of the River Boyne, however it is the most imposing and significant one of all.
From the home of the Tuatha Dé Dannan to the burial site of the ancient Kings of Tara, speculation as to the rhyme and reason for Newgrange continues – its past shrouded in mystery.
As with many pagan and particularly Druidic locations in Ireland, it succumbed to Christianity. The Cistercian Abbey of Mellifont was founded close by and the surrounding lands were procured as farmland, known as a Grange.
The inner passage at Newgrange is 19 metres in length and leads to a room laid out in the shape of a cross known as a cruciform chamber. The discovery of burned and decayed human remains as well as tools, show us that the monument was much more than a way of measuring the seasons, it was a monument to life and death.
As sunrise begins, and as the weather allows, a thin ray of light creeps along the exterior of the tomb and in through a narrow opening. Like an outstretched hand it reaches along the inner passage and explodes into a ball of light, marking one of the most significant astronomical moments in the Druid calendar. This is until once again, Newgrange is overwhelmed by darkness, a reminder of how little control we have over the sun and the onset of night. For today however, we have a new Winter Solstice and new hope is upon us.
As Metallica and thousands of dedicated fans descend on the Boyne Valley today, what is the history of Slane Castle and what are the supernatural links between this historic location on the River Boyne and a world famous Heavy Metal band?
Wherever I May Roam -The Burton and Conyngham Families
A coincidence perhaps, but the founder of Slane Castle was the son of an Anglo-Irish politician, Francis Burton, who’s family hailed from Shropshire in England. Cliff Burton’s father Ray is also of British heritage.
William Burton Conyngham, was the son of Francis and his mother Mary Conyngham was also from a prolific Anglo-Irish political family with strongholds in both County Meath and County Donegal.
In the late 18th century, William legally changed his name to include his mother’s maiden name in order to inherit the vast estate of his uncle Henry.
Disposable Heroes – Battle of The Boyne
The Battle of The Boyne took place in 1690 close by to what was the Fleming Castle. It was between King James VII of England (James II of Scotland) and William of Orange who had usurped James’ position as King. This battle for control of Britain and Ireland took place in one of Ireland’s most deep rooted historical locations, an insult to the legacy of the Irish High Kings so it was little wonder that Simon Fleming continued to fight for Irish power.
The Four Horsemen – Beyond The Pale
The land at Slane Demesne was the holding of the Barons of Slane and the Fleming family dating back to medieval times and they were not going to let it go lightly! The Fleming and De Lacy families had originally invaded Ireland from Normandy in the 11th century and taken the Hill of Slane by force. Generations later, Baron Slane had joined the Irish Catholic rebellion with the other Four Lords of ‘The Pale’, a strip of land including Slane under direct English rule.
The rest of Ireland outside of The Pale boundaries became known as a place of wild, unacceptable behaviour to the Crown, hence the phrase ‘Beyond the Pale.’ It was following this rebellion and the death of the Baron that lands were seized and eventually passed to the Conyngham family.
Eye of the Beholder – Slane Castle
The picturesque facade of Slane Castle and it’s famous natural amphitheatre that plays hosts to world class musicians including Metallica, came into being under the watchful eye of William Burton Conyngham and his nephew in conjunction with esteemed Irish architect, Francis Johnston, the man responsible for the gothic glory of haunted Charleville Castle in County Offaly.
Fight Fire with Fire – U2 and an Inferno
In 1984, a relatively unknown Irish band called U2 took up residence and recorded their iconic album, The Unforgettable Fire.’ In another strange coincidence, just a few years later, a third of Slane Castle was destroyed by you guessed it- an unforgettable fire. Years of restoration saw it return to its former glory.
Holier Than Thou – Saint Patrick and The Hill of Slane
Long before Burton Conyngham and the Fleming’s, long before castles and The Pale, the Hill of Slane was a huge part of the Pagan culture and Druidic rituals of the time. It faced directly onto the nearby Hill of Tara, the one true coronation place of the High Kings of Ireland.
When Saint Patrick arrived in Ireland, he went to the Hill of Slane at Easter and lit the Paschal Fire. At this time of year, it was the pagan way to distinguish all fires until a new one was lit on the Hill of Tara. When the Druid priests saw the lit shining across the Boyne Valley they fearfully warned King Laoghaire if the flame was not extinguished it would burn eternally at a cost of their Druid ways.
Saint Patrick was met not by a crazed heathen, but a learned king who listened to the Christian man and granted him leave to continue his work in Ireland. A Christian Abbey was founded on the Hill of Slane, in direct defiance of the existing pagan shrine. The standing stones of this Neolithic monument still remain within the grounds of the Abbey ruins.
All Nightmare Long – Shapeshifting Fairy of Slane
Slane Castle itself has protections pre-dating any of its prominent families. The Púca is a shape-shifting fairy of the Unseelie (Dark) persuasion. It transforms usually into a dark, terrifying steed with eyes of burning embers. If you are unfortunate enough to cross its path as a weary traveller and mount the mischievous beast, you will be taken the length and breadth of Ireland on the most frightening ride of your life, to arrive back at dawn, aged and weary.
Purify – Ancient Well of the Tuatha Dé Danann
In the grounds of Slane Castle, close to the river, lies an ancient well of mystical significance. It was blessed by the Alchemist Dian Cecht, physician to the Demi-god race, the Tuatha Dé Danann. He cast a spell of healing upon it, so injured warriors of the supernatural race could heal from any mortal wound other than beheading. In subsequent years it has become known as a Christian Holy Well and its waters are believed to continue to have restorative properties.
So if you are heading to Slane to see Metallica, take a moment to take in the history and supernatural occurrences where you stand, then enjoy the music and embrace it all – nothing else matters.
Situated just off the N69 lies an historic woodland estate now known as Curraghchase Forest Park.
Curraghchase is an emerald gem, nestled between the historic town of Askeaton and the medieval village of Adare, both themselves laden with landmarks and centuries of historical significance.
Today the 300 hectares of natural beauty are an abundance of wildlife in a tranquil woodland setting, with landscaped vistas and a glistening lake. At the heart of it all lies the abandoned husk of a majestic mansion house, echoing the past glories of a distinguished lineage and a cornucopia of cultural delight. It is no surprise therefore, that the Curraghchase ghosts of the past are more than just a figure of speech.
Cromwell and The Plantations
The lands were originally known as ‘The Curragh’, the same as the famous Kildare racecourse. The name means marsh or bog land and belonged to the Fitzgerald clan, which was subsequently seized from John Fitzgerald. Following confiscation by Oliver Cromwell, they were handed to Vere Hunt, an esteemed officer of Cromwell’s army, as a part of the Lord Protector’s Plantations.
The Plantations related to the attempted colonisation of Ireland by Cromwell, through confiscation of property and lands and re-allocation to officers of his army. Labourers and house staff were also brought in as settlers on these estates to establish a colony designed to reduce Irish influence in rural locations.
The Vere Hunt Dynasty
Vere Hunt came from a prestigious lineage dating back to the tenant-in-chief of England for William the Conqueror in the late 11th century, who was named in the Doomsday Book. His name was Aubrey de Vere the first and the name is one that would once again become renowned in the Vere Hunt family in the years to come.
Vere Hunt’s great grandson was named after the Cromwellian officer; however, he had his sights set on higher political status and social standing than his great grandfather.
In December of 1784, the de Vere Barnonecy was created for the Vere- Hunt descendants. This title enabled Vere Hunt to become High Sheriff of Limerick and in later years join the Irish House of Commons as the representative for Askeaton. It was a successive title that lasted through to the death of the 4th Baronet in the early 20th century.
Sadly, for this Vere his aspirations outweighed his capabilities. In seeking to realise his dream to reprint notable Irish literary and historic works as well as a provincial newspaper, he failed to manage the businesses and property in his charge and spent much of his later years in debt and even served a spell in Debtor’s Gaol.
A Change of Name and Circumstance
Vere’s son Aubrey seemed to have more of his Doomsday ancestor’s blood running through his veins. He received a solid Harrow education alongside Sir Robert Peel, founder of the Metropolitan Police and the romantic poet Lord Byron.
He married young and he and his wife Mary had eight children. During the mid-nineteenth century, Aubrey took the step of formalising the reversion of his family name to de Vere by Royal Licence. He continued to build his reputation as a respected landowner, employer and property manager, as well as dabbling in politics. However, his passion lay firmly in creating his own literary works and in the renovation and recreation of Curragh and Curragh House, which he renamed Curragh Chase.
The Poet Aubrey de Vere
While most of Aubrey Hunt’s children followed military or political careers, one chose to follow a more cultural path in life.
Aubrey Thomas Hunt de Vere was born in January of 1814 and It was quickly realised that a penchant for literature and culture was clearly in the de Vere-Hunt genes. Aubrey read at Trinity College, Dublin and studied the works of philosopher Immanuel Kant among others.
Aubrey counted esteemed scholars, poets and dramatists among his friends and Byron and Wordsworth as his muses – these influences along with his devotion to Catholicism were mirrored in his writings.
While his works were critically well received, his intense passion for theology and looking deep into the roots of his Catholic faith, meant they were more reflective and introspective as opposed to structured and definitive in connotation and construct, which met with divided opinion among his peers.
The Limerick poet was a stoic and serious character, his intellect and demeanour perhaps holding him back from a life of social normality, as Aubrey remained a bachelor until his death in 1902.
Alfred Lord Tennyson and other De Vere Literary References.
In the mid nineteenth century, Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson stayed for several weeks in Curragh Chase and was very close to the de Vere family. In homage to his Irish friends, Tennyson wrote the famous poem ‘Lady Clara Vere de Vere’, a poem about a noble woman and an aristocratic family.
The most well-known line from the poem is “Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood.’ From this Lewis Carroll based one of his own works, J.M Barrie, creator of Peter Pan used the title in a line for one of his plays and Sir Alec Guinness’s blue-blooded film ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ was named in Time magazine’s 100 films of all time.
It is during his stay at Curragh Chase that Tennyson encountered the Lady of Lake…
The Demise of Curragh House
The structure itself was an exquisite representation of romantic, majestic architecture and the cultural décor and artefacts within were of equal thought and magnificence.
A John Flaxman Romanesque frieze adorned the wall, watched by a caste of Michelangelo’s Moses. As visitors crossed the detailed parquet floors, they would pass the best of European and Asian craftsmanship in furnishings, sculptures and artwork.
It was said that even the relic of a cross from the execution of Charles I was retained within the walls of the County Limerick manor house, only to be destroyed by flame, as sadly, all this would come to an end on Christmas Eve of 1941. A fire engulfed Curragh Chase and the family home teeming with history, culture and knowledge was reduced to a blackened, hollowed out corpse.
The Ghosts of Curraghchase
Visitors to Curraghchase have reported supernatural occurrences over decades and centuries. One particular artist staying with the de Vere family sketched the image of a young ethereal girl as she negotiated the staircase, no foot falling on solid ground.
Warnings have been made not to venture into Curragh Chase after midnight as demonic coaches with headless drivers are seen dashing through the grounds.
Ghostly musical sounds of harps and other instruments playing carry through the night, and guests of the de Vere family would often comment on seeing mysterious lights as they ascended the stairs.
During Lord Tennyson’s stay in Curraghchase, he insisted he had seen the spectre of a lady with a sheathed sword rise from the lake, arm outstretched and pointing to the house.
On the night before Christmas in 1941, a tree was said to have leaned towards the stately home, a solitary limb outstretched, in an exact replica of Tennyson’s Lady of the Lake sighting. The fire in 1941 was said to be started by the tree limb reaching through the window and knocking over a candelabra.
While the Lady of the Lake has been reported climbing from the murky, misty waters many a night, every Christmas Eve she rises aglow, a burning effigy transfixed on the skeleton of Curraghchase.
Today the ruins of Curragh House stand as stoic as its former owner, protected by the sombre Yew trees within its shadow. An ancient monolith, ringforts and cairn are all within the estate – reminders that long before Oliver Cromwell and the de Vere-Hunt family there was a Fitzgerald Clan, Curragh Castle and druid lands belonging to the Irish.
Perhaps the Lady of the Lake was returning a stolen domain back to the people of Limerick, a Celtic Avenger protecting lands that transcend confiscation and construction. Perhaps she remains to this day as a guardian, watching and waiting, ready to step forth with flaming sword and limb to hold on to Curraghchase as Munster’s own.
Few people have heard of Aghaboe Abbey, in County Laois – I only came across it on the way to Kilkenny by chance! Strange because it is one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in Irish history.
It was founded in the 6th century by Saint Canice (also known more famously as Cainnech) who was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, a group trained by Saint Finian to ‘educate’ and convert the pagans of Ireland to Christianity. Over the next 200 years Aghaboe Abbey evolved into not just an important Christian place of worship, but a recognised seat of education, commerce and farming.
Saint Canice was actually a Druid descent of the high kings of Ulster and his conversion to Christianity led to not only the construction of a monastery and in later years, a cathedral in his name, but an entire city – for Kilkenny is so named from ‘Cill Chainnigh’ or ‘Church of Cainnech.’
Ironically, despite the Church’s persecution of Galileo in the 17th century to the point he was tried and convicted of heresy, one of the first Abbots of Aghaboe Abbey was Saint Virgilius in the 700s – some nine hundred or more years before the Italian astronomer.
Saint Virgilius was one of the earliest documented astronomers in Irish history. He also had the nickname of the ‘Geometer’ due to his extensive geographical knowledge.
Saint Virgilius finally left Ireland in 745, choosing to reside in France and become advisor to the Royal Court. He used the work he collected on canon law at Aghaboe Abbey to elevate Pippin the Younger to the status of King before moving on to Salzburg and the construction of the first Cathedral where the famous Baroque building now stands. Saint Virgilius’s original Cathedral was struck by a bolt of lightning in 842, in a twist mirroring the fate of Aghaboe Abbey.
At the start of the 10th century Viking invaders plundered and burned Aghaboe. It took some 150 years to complete rebuilding and at this time relics of Saint Canice were enshrined within. Fire seemed to be the arch-nemesis of this site as the Abbey was razed to the ground once more by flame in 1116.
Either unlucky or by design, the Abbey once again suffered destruction in the 13th century, seemingly due to its proximity to a Norman fortress and ongoing conflict with a local clan. On its further reconstruction, it became an Augustinian priory and then finally at the time of suppression and dissolution of monasteries in the 16th century it was under the Dominicans and remains so to this day.
In the 18th Century a Church of Ireland Church was built adjacent to the current ruins and as close as possible to the very first foundation stones of the Abbey itself. The Church was built sympathetic of its immediate neighbour and incorporated some of the Priory stones as well as the construction of its bell-tower in Medieval proportions.
The remains of Saint Canice are buried within the grounds. The day I chose to visit I was in total solitude and it is one of the most intriguing locations I have visited.
While a sense of serenity and grace were very much evident, the weight of history and destruction very much carried on the gentle breeze, landing firmly on my shoulders.
If you wondered why Irish males have a reputation for being smooth talking, tall dark and handsome strangers, then you need look no further than the Gancanagh (Gawn-canack). The name has a literal translation of ‘Love Talker’ and the title is no word of a lie!
One of the solitary fairy folk, the Gancanagh is part of the leprechaun family, although you wouldn’t think it to look at him. Tall, wiry and very easy on the eye, women are drawn helplessly to this ethereal being before he even begins to weave his intoxicating magic.
Tales of this mystery man stealing hearts and sanity date back over millennia. Likened to the Incubus, the Gancanagh is more subtle and more deadly. Traditionally his target would be the women of the rural areas such as milkmaids, devouring their chastity and casting shame on the family, but he moves on with the times as much as he does with locations.
He is dressed stylishly and oozes charm with his distinguished pipe or ‘dudeen’ pressed between his lips. The Gancanagh is nonchalant on the surface and appears lazy but don’t be fooled. He will charm, lie and ultimately seduce you – once that happens, your deadly fate is sealed.
I may have misled you by painting a romantic picture of this fairy, however this is just the façade. He isn’t just looking for love, he is looking for complete control using his intoxicating touch and when his prey is completely dependent he callously withdraws his affection and leaves.
The victims of the Gancanagh fall into a lovesick frenzy, and like any drug addiction it takes over their bodies and minds with disastrous consequences. Isolated from family and friends, pining for the touch of the Gancanagh, just spiralling into madness until death becomes a welcome but early release.
In modern culture W.B Yeats referred to the Gancanagh as being mysterious and relatively unknown in ‘Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry’ yet he has become know – it is possible that this creature inspired Oscar Wilde to write of Dorian Gray. This enigmatic yet deadly fairy even found himself featured in a Cork based episode of ‘Murder She Wrote’!
Of course there is one way to protect yourself from this seductive creature. An amulet made from the twigs of a rowan and mistletoe, pinned together with an iron nail and bound with a blood soaked thread.
Every self-respecting Irish man or woman knows the story of Tir na nÓg. Often simplified and romanticized as the ‘Land of Eternal Youth’, this island is believed to be the home of the demi-god race known as the Tuatha Dé Danann.
The origins and location of this enigmatic island remain as mysterious as ever. So how did Tir na nÓg become the sanctuary of a lost race of warriors and where is it now?
THE TUATHA DÉ DANANN
As the more cultured of the races of ancient Ireland, their diplomacy and education meant they frequently had the upper hand over rivals such as the Fir Bolg and arch nemeses, the Formorians. All this was set to change however, with the arrival of the Milesians.
The Milesians waged into a fearsome battle against the Tuatha Dé Danann and they were never going to settle until they had complete and utter domination over their rivals. Being the civilized nation they were, the Tuatha did everything they could to negotiate and seek peace and harmonious accord.
With no truce in sight the Tuatha did everything in their power to keep their stronghold, including invoking a mystical tempest to destroy the enemy. The crafty Milesians called upon a daughter of the Tuatha, the goddess Eriu and claimed the land of Eire as their own.
What happened next to the Tuatha Dé Danann is a matter of speculation, however the outcome was always the same. A land of their own outside of space and time.
Regardless of how they got there, it goes without question that the Tuatha went underground. And this is where it gets interesting.
TIR NA NÓG
Think Lord of the Rings and the Undying Lands, but do remember which came first. Tir na nÓg is a land of beauty, natural abundance and first and foremost, immortality. WHERE it is – well that’s another question altogether.
Generally, it is thought to lie on the Wild Atlantic Way off the west coast of Ireland, somewhere beyond the Aran Islands. It has to be remembered however, that it is a place made of mystical energy and its location is intangible.
Historical records show a Dutch navigator who settled in Dublin in the 17th century recorded seeing an island much described as Tir na nÓg. He sighted it off of the coast of Greenland which is some 1500 miles from the Aran Islands.
The island that appeared was protected by potent witchcraft and anyone trying to approach was pushed off course by powerful tempests and drowned at sea. Terrified to meet the same fate, the intrepid explorer made a full turn and headed south only to find the same island emerging on the horizon once again.
The terrain itself is a veritable landscape of waterfalls, mountains, forests and lakes. If you took the most beautiful and awe inspiring Irish vistas they would not hold a candle to what awaits in the land of the Sidhe.
MANANNÁN MAC LIR
Manannán mac Lir is the Irish sea god and protector of Tir na nÓg. Much like Poseidon and Hades, his guardianship means the Land of Eternal Youth is well protected from unwanted visitors and the Merrow folk will raise the warning if anyone dares to cross the oceanic boundaries. If Manannán mac Lir permits, every 7 years a fortunate few will be blessed to see the land of Tir na nÓg emerge from above the waves.
REACHING THE LAND OF THE TUATHA DÉ DANANN
Legend says the goddess Danu assisted in the escape of the cultured race by hiding them beneath the mounds of the earth, otherwise known as sidhs, and disguising their location with magic. These sidhs were portals and the Tuatha Dé Danann became known as ‘Aes Sidh’ or ‘people under the mound.’
Today that translates as ‘Sidhe’ or ‘faeries.’
As well as via coastal trickery, Tir na nÓg can be reached through one of the many magical faery portals dotted around the Emerald Isle. In fact, there is one not ten miles from my door called Knockfierna which translates as the ‘Mountain of Truth.’
At certain times of the year such as Samhain, the veil separating ourselves from the Otherworld is at is thinnest and that is when access becomes possible. Remember though, all that glitters is most definitely not gold.
OISÍN AND TIR NA NÓG
Oisín was a formidal warrior, one of the Fianna and the son of the legendary Fionn mac Cumhaill. What I should have mentioned is that the Sidhe were a devious lot and in particular the ‘A Leannan Sidh’ or faery sweetheart. She is known for luring unsuspecting male humans to Tir na nÓg, with them never to return home.
In this instance Niamh, daughter of Manannán mac Lir, failed in her mission. Whilst Oisín had fallen in love with his femme fatale, she in turn had fallen in love with the greatest poet Ireland had even known. Niamh carried him back to her land and they lived blissfully together. Time was an unknown quantity to those residing in Tir na nÓg and Oisín was shocked to find three hundred years had passed.
Desperate to see what was left of his people, Oisín travelled back on a white steed with Niamh’s blessing. Her only warning was that he should not touch the land of humans, for that would be his demise, as mortality would take hold.
On arrival Oisín was devastated to discover all that he had held dear was gone. Miserable and lonely, he turned his magic horse towards Tir na nÓg. Just before he entered the waves he saw an old man needing help to move a boulder. Guiding his horse Embarr, he assisted in what would be his last act of kindness.
Oisín fell from his steed and instantly began to age. It is said Saint Patrick found him and before the Fianna warrior died of old age he recounted his tale of Tir na nÓg.
The Land of Eternal Youth has fluid boundaries and magical wards protecting the Tuatha Dé Danann from harm and invasion. They keep themselves to themselves if you leave them be. If. Of course when the veils between worlds are at their thinnest, you may catch a glimpse of Tir na nÓg. If you are taken by a Leannan Sidh and find your way home, just be sure you never set foot on this mortal coil again, because it will be the last thing you ever do.
Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, there have been folktales of oceanic Femme Fatales luring men to an early grave. These maidens of the sea have proven as lethal as they are beautiful and the Irish mermaid known as the ‘Merrow’, is no exception.
The name derives from the old Irish ‘Moruadh’ meaning ‘sea maid’. Although the literal translation is feminine, the term Merrow applies to both the male and female of the species. They are said to dwell in ‘Tir fo Thoinn’, or ‘the Land beneath the waves’.
Merrow menfolk really don’t have a lot going for them. They are hideously ugly to the point that the mermaids refuse to take them as a mate, despite their genetic compatibility.
There is actually very little documented about these loathsome creatures, however they have been described in stories as being covered in emerald scales with a stunted body and limbs. They have green course hair, grotesque pointed teeth and bloodshot eyes. Merrow men are so bitter over their appearance and loneliness, that they capture the spirits of drowned sailors and keep them incarcerated under the sea in a desperate attempt at revenge.
Merrow women on the contrary, are absolutely striking. They have long, radiant hair and from the waist down, have glistening verdigris scales covering a quite remarkable fish tail. The beauty of the Merrow takes the breath of men away figuratively and literally. Their exquisite singing can mean both harmonious joy or death to those who succumb to the melodic enchantment.
Many human males have been seduced over time into mating with the female Merrow. Those with the Irish surnames of as O’Flaherty and O’Sullivan in County Kerry and MacNamara in County Clare, are believed to descend from such unions. Of course such relations were short-lived as the mermaid would become homesick for her subterranean way of life and would drag her suitor beneath the water.
Poor unsuspecting men would be enticed into the sea by the bewitching music of the Merrow women and be pulled beneath the waves to live in entranced captivity. In the event one absconded, they would incur the wrath of the scorned Siren and be hunted and then drowned. If an escaped prisoner really antagonised their captor they would be angrily devoured, bones and all.
Written accounts of the Merrow women luring unsuspecting Irishmen date back to the ancient Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, also known as the Annals of the Four Masters. Indeed, even the all-powerful demi-gods of chaos known as the Fomorians were not immune to their charms.
The Formorians and the Merrow
Roth was a Fomorian son carrying out his duties patrolling the coastal borders of Ireland. It would appear that the Merrows took umbrage at his presence within their seas and took steps to ensure he would no longer pose a threat. The seemingly innocent beauties of the waters began their attack by lulling Roth gently to sleep with their enchanting melodies.
Once he was sedated and clearly unable to fight back, they became bloodthirsty and homicidal. Violently they tore the poor misfortune limb from limb and joint from joint. Although much of him was consumed, the creatures sent his thigh floating over the current, the jagged femur pointing to what has now become known as the county of Waterford.
Of course, sometimes on a bad day there didn’t need to be a catalyst to stir up the wrath and destruction of these ill-tempered wily sea maids. They would simply take pleasure in brewing up storms, shipwrecking and drowning innocent sailors for no other reason other than crossing their watery path.
Luty of County Kerry and the Merrow
County Kerry lies on the Atlantic coast of Ireland and has strong links to the Merrow folk. Stories date back centuries and the most famous one of all involved a gentle fisherman who would rue the day he ever set eyes upon a Merrow woman.
Whilst walking on the beach, a young man by the name of Luty saw an incredible sight. There, lying on the shingle was the most beautiful female he had ever seen. A woman in every way bar her fish tail that was floundering on the sand.
His kind nature took over from the disbelief and he realised quickly that the creature before him was in terrible distress. He lifted the woman into his two strong arms and carried her out to the waves. The Merrow was named Marina and she was so ecstatic at being rescued, her malicious nature was subdued and she granted Luty three wishes.
He asked for the ability to break curses brought about by dark magic, to be able to command malevolent spirits to carry out charitable deeds and the power to make good things happen for those in need. The young man’s selflessness impressed the sea maiden so much she added a final gift of prosperity to Luty and all his future descendants.
Luty was delighted and reached out to shake her hand. Sensing the pureness of his soul, her true wickedness came to the forefront and she began to seduce the unsuspecting hero with her alluring voice. A shocked Luty realised almost immediately what she was doing and reached into his pocket for his iron knife.
As with all fairy folk, Marina could be harmed with iron and he lashed out. The mermaid dived beneath the waves but not before uttering a terrifying promise to come back and reclaim Luty in nine years. Time passed and Luty married a local girl and had two sons. He took his youngest son fishing and as Luty reached the shore, Marina rose from the ocean depths and grabbed the poor misfortune, dragging him down into the angry waves and he was never heard from again.
Protection from the Merrow
The Merrow wear a special enchanted cap called a cohuleen druith. The garment and indeed the Merrow penchant for capturing the souls of hapless sailors was spoken of in the nineteenth century Thomas Keightley book of folk tales, ‘The Soul Cages’. The cohuleen druith holds the power of the Merrow that enables them to live under the ocean.
If you are fast enough to snatch it from the head of the siren before she enchants you, she is no longer able to descend beneath the waves and she is very much at your mercy. Of course if you are too late and your senses are ensnared – well I am afraid you are doomed to an eternity in a soul cage, trapped at the bottom of the sea.
Many a conversation in Ireland starts with ‘do you know who’s dead?’ Death is a normal topic of discussion any self-respecting Seanchái (Irish Storyteller) will include death and haunting in his tale. In modern day Ireland the customs of old still remain and the event is treated with weighted respect and tradition. We seem to have a fascination and fear of our own mortal demise which stems back to our ancient roots and the safeguarding of the soul.
For the majority, it isn’t so much the dread of death itself, but what happens to the spirit and where it goes afterwards. There have always been the takers of souls in the form of demons, fairies, spirits and other ethereal beings. Over the centuries the Irish have got wise and found different ways to repel or hide from those looking to reap the soul and cast it to eternal damnation – or worse.
In order to find the right protection from these creatures of darkness, you have to know who they are and what they want. Some are merely harbingers; others seek to harvest your very essence of being. Those such as the Banshee will (mostly) just warn you that death is imminent, however there are two terrifying beings you should avoid at all costs.
Once thought to be Angels that have tumbled from the grace of God, the Sluagh Sidhe actually have far more sinister origins and purpose. Can you imagine how evil you have to be, that your soul is deemed too tainted for the fires of Hades and you are rejected by Satan himself? Well that is who the Sluagh are – souls of sinners not wanted by Heaven or Hell, destined to roam the Earth and take the departed for no reason other than the thrill of the hunt and to add to their ever growing number.
Unlike other Sidhe (fairies), the Sluagh are unable to walk this mortal coil. They ride on the wind as a host, unable to touch the ground. They travel as a flock and to all intents and purposes look like a conspiracy of ravens, which is probably one of the reasons the raven is seen as a portent of death. As the howling wind and darkening sky take hold they close in and it is clear they are not bird like at all. With wizened, leathery wings and gnarled, skeletal frames, these twisted creatures fly in from the west and seek out the homes of the dying. This is why one of the traditions that still holds today is to close any westerly facing windows when a loved one is taking a last breath.
Sadly, not every innocent (or indeed not so innocent) soul escapes the clutches of the evil Sluagh and these misfortunes are caught up in the host of the soul hunters, not to touch the Earth again or reach Heaven or Hell for all eternity.
The Dullahan and before him Crom Dubh, are descended from the god Crom Cruaich and are synonymous with dark rituals, death and folklore.
Crom Cruaich was first introduced to Ireland some time before the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Tigernmas was one of the first High Kings of Ireland and as a Milesian brought the worship of this deathly idol to Ireland, building a shrine at the top of Magh Slécht in County Cavan in order to win favour from his god.
King Tigernmas and most of his troops mysteriously died on Magh Slécht on the night of Samhain, now known as Halloween, as they worshipped their dark, sacrificial deity. As the centuries passed, Crom Dubh evolved from Crom Cruaich and became a worshipped figure in his own right. He is still left ‘offerings’ in rural parts of Ireland today on Crom Dubh Sunday.
The darkest incarnation of the sacrificial god however, is the Dullahan, also known as Gan Ceann, meaning without a head. Crom Dubh did not want to be denied human souls following the introduction of Christianity and so disguised himself as the one without a head, a tribute to the sacrifices by beheading that gave Crom Cruaich/Dubh his power.
For centuries the Celts have believed the head to be incredibly powerful, both the sacred and physical resting place of the soul. Warriors would decapitate their foes and keep them to ward off evil and gain more power. Those believed to have died as deviants would have stones placed in their mouths to stop the evil soul escaping. It is no surprise therefore, that one of Ireland’s most feared unearthly beings incorporates all of the Celtic beliefs over the ages.
Gan Ceann is a part of the ‘Unseelie court’ of the fairy realm, filled with the nastiest and darkest of the Sidhe and his job is to reap your soul. He carries his head in the crook of his arm, black eyes darting from the mottled, decaying flesh stretched thinly across his skull, searching for his prey.
The Dullahan carries a whip made from the spine of a human corpse as he stands on his wagon. The wheel spokes are made of thigh bone and covered with dried human skin and the coach is pulled by a jet black horse with eyes of glowing embers.
The headless horseman has supernatural vision and when he senses a soul for the taking he holds his head high, seeing across landscapes, through windows and into the darkest corners of the most remote homes.
The soul taker does not stop for anyone and all locks swing open, no one is safe. If you get in his way, at best your eyes will be lashed out with his whip or the Dullahan will throw a bowl of human blood upon you. The stain cannot be removed and you are marked as his next target.
Certain festivals increase the power of The Dullahan and this is a time to stay in and draw your curtains tightly. If you are out in the still of night, there is no protection from this agent of death. He does however fear one thing – gold. Throwing a piece in his path may make him back off for a while and may be the only thing that will save you.
The Dullahan is only permitted to speak once on each ride and that is to utter the name of the person who is going to die. When he finds his quarry and speaks their name aloud, their spirit is brought forth to be devoured.
So we closed our west facing windows and turned mirrors so souls were not trapped. We paid Sin Eaters to take our transgressions and clear a path to Heaven. We left food as offerings to the Sidhe and the departed that they may look favorably upon us. We hired Keeners to cry at wakes so as not to invoke the Hounds of Hell, sent to collect the dead and take them to eternal torment. All in the name of saving our souls.
The fate of the spirit is of more concern to the Irish than death itself and over the centuries protection of the soul has taken precedence over anything else. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what protections are put in place however, as the malevolent search for souls by the Dullahan and the Sluagh is too powerful and relentless. All we can do is the best we can in this life, maybe close the odd window at the right time, oh, and carry a bit of gold in our pockets – just in case!
Banshees have forever been known as portents of death, however there have been sightings of these wailing spirits seeking death for revenge and torment.
This evil being has the appearance of a wretched old hag, dress shredded, matted grey hair, pointed rotting teeth and long, yellow fingernails. If she sets her mind to have you as her prey, she will stalk you, forcing you to listen to her soul wrenching scream of despair until you go insane and your own soul is lost in the depths of her evil cry. Of course of you are lucky, you will have a quick death by looking into her blood red eyes, filled with enough loathing and agony to kill you instantly. For those who have been strong enough not to succumb to either? She will rip you to death with her bare hands.
THE FOXES OF GORMONSTON
In Irish Peerage the title of Baron or Viscount of Gormonston belongs to the patriarch of the Preston family and has been around since the late fourteenth century, their residence being Gormonston castle in County Meath.
The castle remained in the family until the 1950’s when it was sold to a Holy Order to create a school. Prior to that however, it was the location of one of the strangest occurrences for generations.
With the first instance reported in the seventeenth century, it was documented that the foxes in the surrounding countryside would know when the head of the Preston household was dying, even if that fact was unbeknown to the family themselves.
Arriving in twos and amassing under the window of the Viscount’s bed chamber, the foxes would howl and cry all night long. Servants would do their utmost to drive the animals away, only for them to return to their place of vigil.
Once the Viscount had passed away, the foxes soundlessly faded into the night.
Shucks, or Devil Dogs have long been written about in Irish history. They are black as the night, large, with glowing red eyes, some with cloven hooves instead of paws. Sometimes they are raised to protect treasure such as the one that breathes fire at Castle Biggs in Tipperary, others simply to forewarn of death.
Quite possibly the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles, they are seen in rural and isolated areas, although once your eyes set on the Shuck the mark of death is upon you.
In Kanturk, County Cork a local man by the name of Foley was walking home when he encountered the hell beast on the road, eyes glowing and snarling. He stood terrified as the Shuck brushed up against his leg. Unable to sleep that night, he told his family of his encounter and died just a few days later.
Crows and Ravens have long been emblematic of death, made all the more foreboding by their predisposition to feed on carrion, the decaying flesh of animals, as well as their black plumage.
These birds were purported to be chaperons, guiding the souls of the departed into the next world as well as conduits between this world and the spirit plain.
In Ireland there are references going back to ancient times and in Celtic folklore, The Morrigan is symbolised by a crow. She is a goddess of battle, strife and sovereignty and a harbinger of doom for those men who cross her path.
No corporeal weapons were needed in order for the Morrigan to take her prey. She relied solely on magic and her ability to shapeshift at will and is known primarily for appearing as a crow to those at death’s door.
The belief has continued over the centuries that when a single raven or crow has appeared at a house, tapping on the window, a death within was looming.
In the late eighteenth century there is an account of the Ross-Lewin family in Kilchrist, in County Clare being terrorised by their own messenger of death. The father of the household was away on business and his children went to spend the evening with friends.
On returning home, they passed the old abandoned church where they saw an old hag crying and waving her hands in the air.
Thinking her crazy the terrified youth went towards her only for the old woman to vanish. They sped home and told their mother of their encounter and the matriarch expressed her fears of a death in the family.
At that moment an enormous raven landed on the window sill and tapped three times on the pane. A few days later the family were in mourning as news reached them of the death of Mr Ross-Lewin.
Of course birds of ill-news do not end there. Thrushes flying in the window and settling and white owls seen during the day are also signs of a bereavement in the home.
So we closed our west facing windows and turned mirrors so souls were not trapped. We paid Sin Eaters to take our transgressions and clear a path to Heaven. We left food as offerings to the Sidhe and the departed that they may look favorably upon us. We hired Keeners to cry at wakes so as not to invoke the Hounds of Hell, sent to collect the dead and take them to eternal torment. All in the name of saving our souls.
The fate of the spirit is of more concern to the Irish than death itself and over the centuries protection of the soul has taken precedence over anything else. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what protections are put in place however, as the malevolent search for souls by the likes of the Dullahan and the Sluagh is too powerful and relentless. All we can do is the best we can in this life, maybe close the odd window at the right time, oh, and carry a bit of gold in our pockets – just in case!
For generations, children of Ireland have been reared on mythology and folklore. Of course to us they are far more than the tales of ancient legends, they are where we are from and define who we are now. From Cú Chulainn to Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Salmon of Knowledge to the triple goddess The Morrigan, giants, demi gods and creatures from the ethereal realm have always been a part of our lives.
Most of Ireland’s regional and national festivals evolved from the gods and goddesses of ancient times, especially from the Tuatha Dé Danann, deities deemed as the forefathers of Irish culture and civilization. Of course the Formorians, a wild and altogether darker and more sinister supernatural race, still have their part to play.
The goddess Brigid is immortalized in the spring feast of Imbolc and Saint Brigid’s Day, while Lughnasa is the harvest festival in the name of the god Lugh. Lugh was actually the son of a king of the Tuatha Dé Danann and his mother a Formorian. His games known as the Tailteann were a test of strength and agility among his people. Today these games have become known as the Gaelic Games, played in every village, town and county throughout Ireland.
Fear is at the source of the majority of folklore tales and practices, particularly in relation to death and the protection of the soul as well as safeguarding against the ethereal creatures of darkness. The festival of Samhain is a prime example, taking place at the end of October intertwining the light and dark, shielding against bad spirits and misfortune, but also welcoming back the dead with open arms.
The fear for celebrants was that malevolent spirits and evil entities could also cross with their loved ones as could the Devil himself. As well as the dead, homeowners had to contend with the fairies travelling abroad to create mischief. Gifts in the form of food or milk would be left on doorsteps to guarantee a fairy blessing and anyone foolish enough to not do so would be subject to pranks by the cheeky wee folk at best and victim to a fairy curse at worst.
Without a doubt the most terrifying of these supernatural beings are the harbingers of death. Crom Dubh was the sacrificial god associated with death and slaughter and his incarnation was The Dullahan, a part of the ‘Unseelie court’ of the fairy realm. The Unseelie fairies are those deemed the most evil and malicious of all the otherworld entities. Also known as Gan Ceann, meaning without a head, The Dullahan hunts the souls of the dying in the night.
Banshees have forever been known as portents of death and the goddess Clíodhna was the very first of these wailing spirits seeking death for revenge and torment as well as calling on those due to die. Individual families often having their own personal Banshee heralding a death to this very day.
From these gods and goddesses an entire culture and belief system has grown, with Ireland being home to a myriad of ethereal creatures and spirits, from both the ‘good’ Seelie Court and ‘sinister’ Unseelie Court.
Once again fear is the driving force behind the behaviour and response to these creatures and their accompanying threat, with fortification rites being fundamental. Druidic runes for example focus on strength, energy, health and protection. The markings on runes tend to come from Ogham, an ancient language of Ireland uncovered by archaeological finds over the centuries by way of Ogham Stones. These Stones have been found all over Ireland, usually associated with burial stones of ancient kings and warriors, however they are not of the past – Druidic practices are not just ongoing in modern Ireland but growing in popularity.
In previous centuries much of the population of Ireland couldn’t read or write and hexes, protection spells and rituals involved symbolism to get the point across. A Piseóg is a curse, placed on feuding neighbors, competing farmers and so on. Often recognized by a circle of eggs found in the hay or a talisman placed on a wall, they are set to bring misfortune on the home.
The power of the Piseóg lies in fear, a farmer would be so terrified of the curse he would destroy his own crops and cattle. But these curses can’t still be happening today can they? Tell that to the terrified man in Kerry I spoke to recently, who found a circle of eggs on his boundary wall and hasn’t slept properly since, his mind trying to figure out who would curse him and why.
What of the cute and friendly leprechaun? Don’t kid yourself! There are several types of leprechaun and not all of them guard a crock of gold! Around for over 1000 years, the leprechaun is descended from the Tuatha Dé Danann and are a part of the Sidhe or Fairy family. The name Leprechaun has two sources, both from old Irish. The first is ‘Leath Bhrogan’, meaning shoe maker and the second is Luacharmán meaning small body.
Leprechauns like to keep themselves to themselves and really don’t like mortals – or each other. Very much loners they are happiest in their own intoxicated company, however there is one you should be afraid of and that is the Fear Dearg which translates as ’Red Man’. Recognized by his blemished yellowy skin, Fear Dearg is dressed head to foot in red and his greatest delight is your fear and dread. He has the ability to make your nightmare a reality.
Of course this is all just the tip of the iceberg. We have Fairy Shock Troops riding the wind, devastating farmlands and cattle just for kicks, spirits of the eternally damned wandering the earthly realm looking for Irish souls to steal, serpents, mermaids and hellhounds. We have the Púca, a shapeshifting creature who terrorizes the night and ghosts, demons and the Devil himself.
If you thought Saint Patrick had driven all the paganism and darkness from Ireland, you would be wrong. Far from Christianity banishing these beliefs and rituals, the early monks actually documented these mythological events into such manuscripts as the Book of Leinster and the Annals of the Four Provinces. Instead of turning the Irish away from their gods and goddesses, the clergy fashioned their stories into those of Saints such as Saint Brigid. This is why Christian and Pagan stories are intertwined in much the same way Irish History and Mythology can never be separated and why we are great storytellers, it’s in our blood, heritage and very essence of being.
Ireland is a land rich in mythology and folklore, mixed with dark history and truth, bound neatly in fear, magic and excitement. Welcome to the Emerald Isle!
Ireland is a nation with a long, bloody and somewhat peculiar history with laws to match. Over numerous centuries we have been subject to Pagan Law, Brehon Law, Church Law and more than a few dubious by-laws to name just a few. Of course, being Irish we like to amuse and have the craic and some of our bygone regulations do just that! Here are my strangest Irish Laws!
Up until 1993 Suicide was a punishable offence under Irish Criminal Law. More bizarrely, until 1964, the penalty for Suicide was…death by hanging.
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 stated that “Any person who shall pretend or exercise to use any type of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or pretend knowledge in any occult or craft or science shall for any such offence suffer imprisonment at the time of one whole year and also shall be obliged to obscursion for his/her good behaviour.” This meant that whether you were a Master Sorcerer cursing thousands or a charlatan soothsayer, the penalty was the same. This Act was not revoked until 2006.
Murder and Theft
Killers and robbers were for centuries given trial by way of ‘ordeal by water’. Prisoners were cast into the nearest deep body of water and if they floated they were acquitted. That sounds fair until you realise that a millstone was tied to them before they were tossed into the murky depths.
For a long time, execution was deemed the last resort for a murderer as it was felt a financial penalty would be more useful. There were two types of fine payable. One was a fixed rate regardless of the deceased. The second was an honour fine and the amount was based on kinship and status. In the event the murderer was unable to pay the fine, the victim’s family took ownership of the convicted felon and had a few options. The first was to just keep the murderer until payment was given. The second was to sell him on. The final choice was to kill him – of course then you have to pay his family and so it goes on…
Until the 1920’s in Teltown, County Meath, if a man and a woman walked towards one another on Saint Bridget’s Day, they could pronounce themselves legally wed.
Brehon Law was first documented in the 8th Century and related to many Pagan customs and ceremonies. There were several levels of ‘marriage’ relating to status, property and so on making it very complicated. Divorce and dissolution of marriage however, were a much simpler affair! A woman could call an end to her marriage after one year for a myriad of reasons including pretty much boredom. She would walk away with all she brought with her, plus everything she gained during the marriage including property provided she was a good wife. A man was legally allowed to hit his wife, however everytime he did he had to pay for it. Quite literally in fact to the point where some wife beaters would be left penniless!
Trinity College Doctrine
It has been for centuries, illegal to walk through the Trinity College Campus without carrying a sword. Oddly enough it doesn’t seem to get enforced much! Of course, if you were a stickler for the rules, carrying that sword gave you entitlement to drink wine as you sat your exams.
As if carrying that sword didn’t give you enough power, it is said that on one day a year Protestants were able to climb the Trinity bell tower called the Campanile and shoot a Catholic. Not sure what degree that would be for!
Fast and Penance by Law
In 1815 an order came from Ireland that the people of Ireland were to offer up a prayer of thanks for the Battle of Waterloo.
Prior to this in 1665, a law was issued that the people of Ireland should fast and give penance on the first Wednesday of each month in a bid to rid London of the Bubonic Plague. With the Great Fire of London not far behind, you would wonder what the Irish were praying for!
Beyond The Pale
The Pale was an area outside of Dublin City Centre which the English used as the base for their rule in Ireland and became full of English settlers. In 1590 a law was passed to prevent the sale of horses in The Pale and the penalty was death. The reason? The Crown did not want the English settlers trading with the Irish Clans who lived…wait for it…beyond The Pale! Yes, that’s EXACTLY where that saying comes from!
As Samhain is upon us, it is a time to reflect on the origins of this pagan celebration and what it meant to those who, over centuries maintained the traditions and rites synonymous with this feast in Ireland, the precursor to Halloween!
Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) would begin at sunset on 31st October and ends at sunset on 1st November, signalling the beginning of a new year. It is one of four major celebrations during the Celtic year and signifies the end of summer.
This was a time when cattle were brought in and slaughtered for the winter months, the bitter cold and poor pasture leaving farmers no choice.
The ceremonies for Samhain were intertwined – the light and dark, protections against bad spirits and misfortune and a welcome for the dead to return.
As with Beltane, at the heart of Samhain is the customary communal bonfire. The fire was a protection ritual, to purge bad fortune and influence and to defend from harm during the long hard winter.
All house fires would be quenched, the central fire the only one alight. Each family would take a burning ember from the bonfire, carried in a hollowed out turnip and use it to reignite their own hearth, instilling the same protection and cleansing into their own homes and lives.
The bones of slaughtered cattle would be cast onto the fire as an offering for a good winter and objects symbolising wishes or ailments would be thrown on the flames, individuals hoping to be cured or receive their hearts desires.
Samhain is the time of year when the curtain between our world and the next becomes so fragile that the both the fairies and the dead can take a simple step between realms.
Many of the dead were welcomed back into the family fold with open arms, a place set for returning souls to sit at the table. This was known as a Dumb Supper and all living guests were to dine in silence, listening and watching for a word or sign from their dearly departed.
The fear for celebrants was that of course malevolent spirits could also cross over as could the Devil himself. These evil entities were thought to wreak havoc on the villages by making cattle sick and bringing disease to households so ‘guising’ would be carried out as a symbolic gesture to hide from those not wanted.
A typical costume was the Láir Bhán (White Mare) which would consist of a man covered in a white cloth, carrying a horse’s skull in his hands. He would lead a group of youths from farm to farm blowing on cow horns and asking for food. Woe betide any farmer who refused for he would be cursed with bad luck for the coming year.
As well as the dead, homeowners had to contend with the fairies travelling abroad to create mischief on this most ethereal of nights. Gifts in the form of food or milk would be left on doorsteps to guarantee a fairy blessing. Anyone foolish enough to not do so would be subject to pranks by the cheeky wee folk at best and victim to a fairy curse at worst.
It was these beliefs and traditions that led us to trick or treating and costumes in today’s Halloween, so a fistful of sweets for protection from mischief and misfortune is a small price to pay don’t you think?
I stood before 15 Marino Crescent, Clontarf, Dublin. I was here, at the very place Bram Stoker was born and raised. I continued my journey through Dublin, walking in the footsteps of the master Gothic horror novelist and creator of Dracula. I am now sharing that journey with you. Please click on the link to my Top 10 Bram Stoker locations for Dracula fans everywhere that I have written in my role as Ireland Editor for spooky isles.com
Situated in Ireland’s Ancient East, the County town of Wicklow is shadowed by the imposing and sinister Wicklow Gaol. For more than three hundred years, prisoners have been subjected to torture and hardship and the three storey building with sprawling foundations and walls of granite has witnessed some of Ireland’s must oppressive and historical events.
Over the years it has become a favourite venue for tourists and Paranormal Investigators alike, so let’s find out some more about Wicklow Gaol, listed as one of the world’s ‘Top Haunted Locations.’
HISTORY OF WICKLOW GAOL
Since 1702 there has been a prison on the site at Kilmartin Hill. The existing buildings were constructed over the remnants of the first gaol and were gradually expanded over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The Rebellion of 1798 brought ongoing notoriety to the prison as freedom fighters were jailed before trial and exile or execution. This pattern continued through the Famine, Easter Rising of 1916 and the Irish Civil War.
In the mid-nineteenth century overcrowding at Wicklow gaol brought expansion as the authorities feared the granite walls themselves would collapse under the pressure. Britain was forced to bring about changes due to European Prison Reform and that included the gaols of Ireland and as a result, facilities now included classrooms, workrooms and proper medical quarters.
The prison was downsized in 1877 and renamed a ‘Bridewell’, which was a remand prison for those awaiting trial and sentencing for petty crimes.
Wicklow Gaol had been dormant for sometime, however the Irish Civil War of 1922-23 brought the prison back into use for political prisoners, primarily members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Sinn Féin, including Erskine Childers, notable Irish Nationalist and gun smuggler,
The early twentieth century also brought in a change of use to an army barracks. It became home to the Cheshire regiment, which in a strange twist of fate, was founded thirty years previously by none other than Hugh Childers, cousin of one of Wicklow Gaol’s most famous prisoners.
Finally, in 1924 the Gates of Hell closed on the prison as it fell into disuse and disrepair, until such time as it was respectfully restored and opened to the public.
CRIMES, PUNISHMENT AND EXILE
The prison was used for years for general convictions, however the 1798 rebellion saw its use change to include the incarceration of political prisoners. Many inmates, from those rebelling against the crown to petty thieves were taken from Wicklow Gaol to the convict ships and exiled to distant lands such as Australia. A replica of the deck of the convict ship HMS Hercules, has been built inside the gaol.
There was no segregation within the prison as such and people who had stolen to provide food for their families in times of hardship found themselves sharing with the mentally ill, murderers and political prisoners.
Those who were exiled may have deemed themselves lucky, as the torture and methods of execution, poor conditions and suffering were unpleasant and unending.
Prison reforms introduced rehabilitation through education, although attempts at segregation, silence and torture were the preferred methods of atonement.
Torture devices included the everlasting staircase, a treadmill of sorts designed for maximum fatigue, breaking of spirit and isolation and a shot drill, a metal ball that was required to be held for periods of time suited to the prison guard, or else loss of rations would be enforced.
Flogging was by far the most favoured form of punishment, especially due to increased numbers of local workers being imprisoned for drunk and disorderly conduct.
When it came to execution, in the early eighteenth century prisoners would be hanged from the gallows arm jutting out of the prison walls. After death, the head would be severed from the body which would be buried. The head would then be scavenged and eaten by the gaol’s ‘pet’ hawk.
Other bodies would be unceremoniously dumped at sea, until the problem became enough for local fishermen to threaten to stop fishing due to pollution.
DISEASE, DIRE CONDITIONS AND DEATH
Overcrowding was a consistently major problem and expansion just couldn’t keep up with demand, peaking at an inmate population of almost 800 being housed in just 77 cells.
As a result, the spread of disease was rife and death wasn’t far behind. Often if a prisoner died of an infection they were left in the crowded cell, the rotting and diseased corpse bringing about the hideous deaths of those within the four walls, prison guards or ‘turnkeys’ just looking on, afraid to enter for fear of becoming a victim themselves.
The Great Famine (1845-1952) brought around a very different kind of problem. Upstanding citizens would commit crime in order to be incarcerated in Wicklow Gaol, as prison reforms guaranteed them shelter and regular meals – life staples they could not get on the outside.
There were no asylums or care facilities for the mentally ill in Wicklow, so the insane were mixed in with the general population. The women prisoners would be responsible for the welfare of these inmates.
Attempts were made to ‘employ’ prisoners for local work such as making nets for fishermen, however this practice stopped due to a growing fear of authorities that these items would be used in an attempt to escape.
Some of Ireland’s most famous rebel sons and at least one daughter were incarcerated for their attempts to bring about political change and create a Free State. This included Billy Byrne, mounter of several ambush attacks during the 1798 rebellion who was tried and then hanged at Gallows’ Lane.
James ‘Napper’ Tandy worked long and hard for political change, however after a short imprisonment he was exiled to France despite being convicted of treason. It is believed Napoleon may have exerted some influence, hence his designated place of exile.
Erskine Childers was a London born author and avid sailor. A firm believer in Ireland as a free nation, Childer’s used his yacht the Asgard to smuggle guns into the east coast of Ireland. His arrest was made after being found in possession of a gun, a gift from Michael Collins. Childers was convicted and executed by firing squad on 24th November 1922.
HAUNTINGS BEYOND THE GATES OF HELL
Wicklow Gaol has been the subject of paranormal activity for centuries and has attracted worldwide interest from paranormal investigators including myself and the other members of Irish Paranormal Investigations. Over the years we have found ourselves at the centre of a myriad of supernatural experiences.
At least one medium has entered Wicklow Gaol and claimed to have made contact with Erskine Childers, however there have been many witnesses to other phenomena.
A young child is regularly seen in the former school room and can also be heard. Other ‘inmates’ of the spectral variety are seen shimmering in and out of cells and along walkways.
On the replica of the Hercules deck, visitors are overcome with a sense of foreboding and eerie mists circle unsuspecting visitors.
Certain cells have been the epicentre of extraordinary paranormal occurrences including smells from stagnant to the sublime, female apparitions in black floating and sounds to terrify the hardiest of souls.
A ghostly prisoner can be seen on the walkway, hands behind his back and the eerie sounds of long gone children fill the ancient prison.
Our own experiences have included stones being thrown across a solitary prison cell during a loan vigil and murmuring and ice cold touch in the prayer room. We have had a host of K2 meters collectively responding to questioning by Natalie in a cell previously giving no tangible readings.
We have had REM-Pods going off on an empty landing and voices carrying up from the dungeons. The ship deck has consistently projected a feeling of wariness and fear, goosebumps appearing involuntarily as we felt the temperature drop and the location grow darker. Shadows have darted in the recesses between kegs and footsteps sounding on the stairs.
While our last time within the gaol was probably the quietest, perhaps with 2020 having seen the prison closed for the most part, the spectres of despair are ready once again to call out to you if you enter the Gates of Hell into Wicklow Gaol.