Ireland is the origins of modern-day Halloween. Samhain (“saw-when“) was a pagan festival celebrating the start of winter during which the Celtic peoples believed that the door to the world of the dead was open… or at least, at its weakest, allowing spirits and fairies to slip through for the night. On the Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of autumn and start of winter, Ireland’s darkest season.
No matter what you believe, Halloween is a spooky time of year in Ireland. So in the spirit of Halloween, find a list of some of Ireland’s creepiest sites for this dreary October day.
Want to know more about the Irish origins of Halloween?
Samhain, pronounced “saw-when,” is the Irish word for Halloween. In fact, it is here that Halloween originated, coming from ancient pagan tradition of the transition between autumn and winter. It is the time of year during which the doors to the other world – where the spirits live – are open.
Halloween – and fall in general – is a spooky time of year. The air is cool and crisp, the leaves are falling off the trees. The forests and beaches slowly empty out of visitors, and the days are growing steadily shorter. It is a time of year for costumes and scary stories, a time of year when legends seem to come to life, and a time of year to tell ghost stories around bonfires.
Read on for a few of Ireland’s spookiest spots and scary stories.
Witches and Halloween seem to go hand in hand. Why? Why do witches seem to be so more Halloween-y than, say, vampires or zombies?
Well, it might just have something to do with the Hag of Beara. The Hag of Beara, oftentimes called the Cailleach (meaning ‘hag’ in Irish), is the winter witch. Born on Samhain, it is she who is attributed to bringing winter. In the legend, she is said to grow younger and younger as the days go on, until spring comes and she becomes an old woman once more. In other versions of the story, she is turned to stone awaiting her husband’s return deep in the wilds of West Cork.
There are numerous places in Ireland associated with the Hag of Beara, including the Hag’s House (really a Neolithic tomb) atop a hill in Co Sligo, or the Hag’s Head, along the Cliffs of Moher.
Read more about the Hag of Beara in our Irish folklore series.
Explore the wilds of West Cork and the Hag’s Stone while island hopping in Cork and Kerry.
So what were Bram Stoker’s inspirations to write his ground-breaking horror novel, Dracula? There are many theories about how Dracula came to be. The obvious – Transylvania (modern-day Romania) and its brutal medieval king, Vlad Tepes Dracul, a domineering tyrant remembered for his hatred of Ottoman Turks and his love of impalement.
A bit closer to home (as Stoker never visited the far-flung dark forests and lost villages of Transylvania), Stoker’s own childhood in Ireland, local stories, myths and legends, and even his own family history, may all have inspired the celebrated author.
Born in Dublin in 1847, Stoker was unlucky enough to be born during the Great Irish Famine (and strangely he died just days after the RMS Titanic, built in Belfast, sank dramatically in 1912). One dark tale tells of Abhartach, an evil dwarf who rose from the dead (more than once!), attacking various villages of County Derry. The undead dwarf was only definitely killed after a Derry chieftain buried him standing upside down with wooden hazel rods driven through his body. This time he did not return – and it’s not hard to see the connection to Stoker’s work.
There are also theories that Stoker was inspired by the stories of the terrible Famine of his youth, people who were buried accidentally, or even forcibly, alive, told to him by his mother, who was from Sligo. Those wealthy enough could install a bell and pulley system – just in case they woke up buried alive. But for most people, this was simply a fear to live with.
Every year, a Bram Stoker Festival is held in Dublin on the days leading up to Halloween. It includes events such as ghost tours, tales of Stoker and vampires, a haunted library, late-night horror films and terrifying theatrical plays.
Read more about Bram Stoker and his Irish inspirations…
Marine travel was an important mode of travel for centuries, and the fear of losing loved ones at sea was a real one. Many famous shipwrecks are associated with Ireland such as the Lusitania which sank off the coast of Cork, as well as the Titanic, which was built in Belfast.
A less famous but horrible fate awaited the doomed Spanish Armada. In the 16th century, retaliating against the British and their state-sanctioned pirates who attacked and disrupted Spanish trade routes, the Spanish Armada set sail for the British Isles. Not all went as planned and over two dozen ships, each with bounty and crew, ploughed into the rugged coastal rocks of Ireland as north as Donegal as south as Kerry.
Those ships that survived destruction fled and were hunted down, and those survivors who made it on land alive were killed by locals for fear of being accused of treason. Hundreds of men lost their lives to a cold watery grave on Ireland’s rugged coasts.
In the waters off the Causeway Coast, the last of the ships to be wrecked in the tragedy was La Girona, of which less than a dozen of her 1,300 crewmen survived, leading to the ship’s near-legendary status. Interestingly, Dunluce Castle, now a dramatic silhouette perched on the edge of the coast, was partly funded from the loot salvaged from La Girona, which crashed near the castle shores.
In a dramatic turn of fate, parts of the castle collapsed suddenly into the sea on a dark and stormy night – the castle was later abandoned, and the village was lost. It’s hard to say if the castle of the coast is haunted by any particular spirit but it’s safe to say that the shores of Ireland are plagued with the tragedy of drowned spirits, and the ocean floor is littered with skeletons of ships and their sailors alike.
Visit Dunluce Castle on our Causeway Coast & the Mourne Mountains hiking trip.
Irish history has a dark side to it, and this is evident in the eerie halls and freezing cells of its prisons – Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, Spike Island in Cork, Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast and Wicklow Gaol, a cold, grey heap of stone in a town buried deep in the Wicklow Hills.
Hundreds of prisoners have darkened the thick, desolate doors of Irish gaols like Wicklow Gaol. The 1798 Rebellion. The Famine. A struggle for Independence. Eviction to the Penal Colonies. Deportation to Australia, for example, was predominantly for political/treasonous prisoners however many convicts could be exiled for petty crimes too, like stealing bread, homelessness or prostitution.
Gaol conditions were horrid. Freezing and damp, overcrowded and rough, more often than not the prisoners were underfed and malnourished, they were overworked, beaten, abused and neglected. Many were there for simple crimes like petty theft, not paying a debt, or eviction during the famine years. Many never left the jail alive, and some were executed outside the gaol’s grisly walls. Talk about the punishment not befitting the crime.
Understandably, Ireland’s gaols are among Ireland’s most haunted places and therefore rich in paranormal sitings. At Wicklow Gaol, strange smells come from Cell 5, a woman in black velvet lurks in the halls on the ground floor, shadows prowl on the lower deck while children cry on the upper deck (yes, children could be convicted). Cell 13 makes people uncomfortable and apprehensive, and a green mist occasionally covers the ground level. Most visitors, even those who don’t feel a ghostly presence, can’t wait to leave.
The same is true of Crumlin Road Gaol, Spike Island in Cork, Dublin’s Kilmainhaim Gaol and other Irish Gaols. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it clear that Wicklow Gaol is a haunting place of bygone horror.
You’ve heard of a stairway to Heaven (in fact, we’ve got one of those too! It goes up Cuilcagh Mountain in Fermanagh).
Getting into Heaven may have been difficult, but all it took to get to Hell was 40 steps down a dark alleyway behind St Audeon’s Church in Dublin. The Stairway to Hell steps took the unfortunate wanderer from the relative comfort and wealth of the Cornmarket area to the squalor and pestilence of Cook Street and Fishamble Street, where a tangle of brothels, pickpockets, taverns and otherwise unsavoury locations awaited the visitor.
In fact, the story goes that a madame called Darkey Kelly, pregnant and spurned by her lover, was burned at the stake possibly for witchcraft or possibly for being Ireland’s first serial killer.
The alley is still a dark, damp, creepy place and the low visibility that once attracted criminals still does today. Darkey Kelly’s witchyghost is meant to haunt the steps and her restless spirit has been seen at the door of the church (where people once left abandoned babies…).
Egypt isn’t the only place for mummies – Dublin is full of mummies. Underneath the nondescript St Michan’s Church, there is a creepy half-forgotten crypt home to dozens of vaults containing coffins. The dry conditions meant that the residents of the coffins were well preserved, and over time, a few of those coffins have broken down, revealing their mummified inhabitants.
Under Christ Church Cathedral, there are the accidental mummies of a cat and rat, stuck in a never-ending game of chase when the animals got stuck in the organ pipe. And then in the National Archeology Museum in Dublin, find the dizzyingly well-preserved bog bodies from Ireland’s many bogs.
And any visit to Ireland near Halloween should include at least one cemetery. With a passionate local historian, wander the rows of tombstones through the massive Glasnevin Cemetery in the oldest section of the graveyard.
Visit the mummies and more on our Origins of Halloween Private Departure.
The wilds of Donegal and the sweeping landscapes of Glenveagh are hauntingly beautiful – vast, desolate, empty. Few people lived up here, and those who did, lived a rough life. In the 1850s, a wealthy landowner called John Adair and his American heiress Cornelia decided to build a hunting lodge for entertaining purposes on the shores of Lough Veagh.
Adair gained infamy for his ruthless eviction of some 244 tenants of his land. Most had nowhere else to go, and all were very poor. Many ended up in the workhouses of Letterkenny and others nearby, institutions known for their cruelly harsh work and living conditions.
Others ended up as beggars and still others – those who managed to scrape together the fare – boarded “coffin” ships bound to North America, Australia and more, tempting their fate abroad (if they survived the perilous journey. Coffin ships acquired their nickname due to the larger number of people who died due to the cramped and poor living conditions on the small ships).
The empty hills and dark, wild landscapes of northern Donegal forcibly abandoned by the tenants retain a haunted feeling that you just can’t quite shake off.
Today, Baltimore is a picture-perfect seaside village in remote West Cork. But this wasn’t always the case – certainly not on the fateful 20 June 1631. The Sack of Baltimore was a pirate raid of the village of Baltimore by a motley crew of Barbary pirates led by a Dutchman called Murad Reis.
The number of prisoners taken varies between 100 and 250, but the village was decimated. Survivors were sold as slaves in Northern Africa to work their whole lives as galley slaves, the harsh life of a simple labourer or to live in total seclusion in a harem. It is said that of the hundreds of people kidnapped from Baltimore, only 3 ever set foot on Irish soil again…
Today, West Cork is still one of the more remote and loneliest regions in all of Ireland. Visit Baltimore and the rugged, desolate coast of West Cork and its even more desolate islands to learn of the Sack of Baltimore and other invasions and pirate tales.
Limerick has a certain not-so-glamourous reputation, but the city has come a long way and is now a quirky cosmopolitan hub. For those looking for a bit of spookiness, head outside the city to Curraghchase Forest Park, home to the ruined Curraghchase Manor.
Shuttered, dark and eerie, this once-elegant manor strikes an odd contrast with the surrounding cheerfully green estate-turned-park. Once the reigning jewel of the land, Curragchase was gutted by fire in 1941 and was simply closed off, left to slow decay.
Once the inspiration for Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, Lady Clara Vere de Vere, local legend claims that it was the ghostly figure of the Lady of the Lake, originally seen by Tennyson, that supposedly caused a tree to come crashing through the window on a dark Christmas Eve a century later, knocking over the candelabra that started the fire. It’s said that the ghost of the Lady of Lake appears each Christmas Eve as a burning figure on the waters of lake by the ruined house.
Irish mythology claims that the dark, narrow Oweynagat Cave in the Irish Midlands was the birthplace of the future warrior queen of Connacht Queen Maeve. In mythology, the cave is said to be a great palace in the “other world” of the fairies and the Tuatha dé Danann.
As Christianity spread throughout Ireland, many pagan sites, significant dates, and gods/goddesses were re-appropriated as important Christian sites, feast days and saints. Even pagan monuments and objects became relics and holy sites. Oweynagat Cave fell to the same fate, its door to the pagan underworld replaced as the Gateway to Hell, known as ‘the hell-mouth of Ireland’ (even supposedly linked to nearby Caves of Keash in Co Sligo, today one of Sligo’s best-kept secrets!).
Either way, a cave marking the entrance to any kind of underworld – pagan or Christian – is a creepy place for a holiday like Halloween.
Halloween or Samhain as it was known in pre-Christian times, was an extremely important date in the Celtic calendar. Many of their monuments were constructed to align with certain dates such as summer and winter solstices.
Sligo is littered with ancient monuments, many of which have yet to be excavated or explored. One of the most predominant sites in Sligo is the many tombs at Carrowmore, an ancient megalithic burial ground of over 50 cairns. On the morning of Samhain, the sunrise pours over the ‘saddle’ of the Ballygawley Mountains, aligned directly with Listoghil Tomb, alighting the interior chamber.
If it’s midsummer that you’re visiting, for a slightly less eerie experience (though you’ll still get goosebumps!), head up to Carrowkeel tombs (also in Sligo) for the Summer Solstice at sunset. A complex made up of nearly two dozen tombs, a few are opened and even aligned with the solstice at sunset (about 10 pm). On and around the longest day of the year, watch as the sun lights up the chamber inside the ancient tomb as people have done for thousands of years…
To explore the tombs of Carrowmore and other fascinating neolithic sites in Sligo on a private biking and yoga tour of Sligo, where you can bike at your own pace.
Learn more about the solstices in Ireland and their connection to these ancient spots.
There are abandoned cottages, and in some cases, entire villages all over Ireland, remnants of another era before rural folk started to move into towns and cities, or simply leave Ireland behind entirely to make for America, Canada, Australia and other places in search of a better life.
These abandoned villages have left behind a spooky aura, a reminder of a lost way of life. Oftentimes, such places are very remote – islands, boglands, deep in the mountains or forests, unreachable by road.
Some of the most famous cases of abandoned villages are that of Slievemore, the deserted village of Achill Island, and the lost village of the Great Blasket Island.
Slievemore is a boolaying village, meaning it was a seasonal village to which the islanders would migrate each year to graze the cattle. Today, roughly 80 one- to three-room houses of the recorded 137 remain visible, built in rows along the hill’s slope. Below them, the vestiges of “lazy beds,”a type of agriculture used for steep terrain with less-than-ideal (i.e. boggy) soil. Though the occupants of the village simply left, moving to the permanent settlements on Achill, the mainland or abroad, the village marks the end of a certain way of life. It is haunting and desolate. There is a small road from Keel, but the best way to approach it is the 5km ‘old bog road’ from the village – the path once used by those who lived there.
Achill is also home to a creepy story. Long before the railway existed or became a greenway for cyclists, an old prophecy told how “carts on iron wheels” would bring the souls of dead islanders on the carts’ first and last journey. True to the tale, a shipwreck on the island’s bay resulted in a tragedy, and indeed the just-finished railway carried the dead back to Achill. After the railway closed, another tragedy occurred, a fire that killed several island workers on the mainland.
And true enough, those carts on iron wheels carried the Achill Islanders home…
Another eerie abandoned Irish village can be found on the Blasket Islands. An archipelago of six islands, the Great Blasket island was once home to a small but thriving island community of almost 200 people at its peak. Though located not far off the coast of Dingle’s Slea Head (its westernmost point), stormy weather routinely cut off this island community from the mainland. Undaunted, Blasket Islanders developed a rich storytelling tradition, generating several important writers and story-tellers including Peig Sayers, Thomas O’Crohan (or Tomás O’Criomhthain), Maurice O’Sullivan (Muiris O’Síilleabháin in Irish), and more, leaving behind a rich cultural heritage.
But sadly so many people left the island – mostly emigrating to the Americas – that the island population massively dwindled. The weather often left them isolated from Dingle, and fishermen often never made it home. Installing modern amenities proved too difficult, and in 1952, the remaining island population was evacuated and re-installed on the mainland.
Today, the village is slowly crumbling to mother nature, cared for by the OPW. Just a few of the cottages have been restored to their former glory for visitors to imagine the daily life of the islanders who once lived here. Visit Dingle, the Blaskets and other islands on an island hopping adventure.
From Bram Stoker to the origins of Halloween, Irish folklore to weather in autumn and even our favourite Halloween treats, have a look at our Halloween in Ireland page for the full scope of this ancient holiday.