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Spooky Ireland: Ghosts, Myths and Vampires

Posted on Oct 31, 2018 by Dawn Rainbolt

Ireland is where Halloween originated. Called Samhain (“saw-when”), it was a pagan festival celebrating the start of winter during which the Celtic peoples thought the door to the world of the dead was open.

Ireland is a country full of ruined abbeys and drowned villages, of terrible stories of famine, coffin ships and disaster, of gale winds and dark storms, of remote islands cut off from the mainland. It is a country abandoned by thousands in search of a better life, many never to return. In short, Ireland in a country made for ghost stories…

In the spirit of Halloween, find a list of some of Ireland’s creepiest sites for this dreary October day.


Shipwreck of the Spanish Armada

Causeway Coast - site of the Spanish Armada

Causeway Coast, site of La Girona shipwreck of the Spanish Armada.

Marine travel was important up until the last century in Ireland, and the fear of loved ones being lost at sea was a significant one. Many famous shipwrecks are associated with Ireland –  the Lusitania in Cork as well as the Titanic who was built in Belfast. A less famous though equally horrible fate awaited the doomed Spanish Armada, capturing the imaginations of the Irish for decades. In the 16th century, retaliating against the British for their state-sanctioned pirates who attacked and disrupted Spanish trade routes, 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 did make it on land alive were killed by the 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 its safe to say that shores of Ireland are plagued with the tragedy of drowned spirts, and the ocean floor is littered with skeletons of ships and their sailors alike.

Explore the Causeway Coast & learn more about the doomed Spanish Armada on our trip, Hiking the Causeway Coast & DonegalOther highlights include the Giant’s Causeway, a hike along the Causeway Coast (favourited as Best Destination by Lonely Planet, the wilds of Donegal and the clifftop Dunluce Castle. 


Wicklow Gaol

Wicklow Gaol

Spooky Wicklow Gaol, home to much paranormal activity.

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 Wicklow Gaol. The 1798 Rebellion. The Famine. A struggle for Independence. Eviction to the Penal Colonies. These were the major events that saw a swell in the number of prisoners. 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 were all enough to be sent to Australia. Conditions were horrid. Freezing and damp, overcrowded and rough, more often than not the prisoners were underfed and malnourished, they were overworked and tortured, they were beaten, abused and neglected. Many were there for simple crimes like petty theft, not paying a debt on time, or eviction during the famine years and yet they were locked away for years, many never to leave the jail alive. Many were executed outside the gaol’s grisly walls. Talk about the punishment not befitting the crime!

Understandably so, Wicklow Gaol is one of Ireland’s most haunted places and therefore rich in paranormal sitings. Strange smells come from Cell 5, a woman in black velvet lurks 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 repeatedly makes people feel 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. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it it clear that Wicklow Gaol is a haunting place of bygone horror.

Visit the hills of Wicklow on our trip, Hiking the Wicklow Way, and take a detour to the spooky Wicklow Gaol. For those particularly interested in the paranormal, take a ghost tour to learn about the paranormal activity at the prison. Highlights of the Wicklow Way include a walking tour of Dublin, exploring the ancient monastic site Glendalough, a visit to one of National Geographic’s favourite gardens at Powerscourt Estate, and a stay in a deluxe ecolodge. 


Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Ancient graves in Ireland

Exploring the ancient graves in Ireland, site of the stories that may have inspired Bram Stoker.

When it comes to understanding Bram Stoker’s inspirations for his world-famous horror novel,  Dracula, there are many theories and possibilities of how Dracula came to be. The obvious – Transylvania (modern day Romania) and its brutal medieval king, Vlad Tepes Dracul, a brutal tyrant remembered for his hatred of Ottoman Turks and his love of impalement. A bit closer to home (as Stoker never came close to visiting the far-flung dark forests and lost villages of Transylvania), his own childhood in Ireland, local stories, myths and legends even his own family history all may have affected the celebrated author.

Born in Dublin in 1847, Stoker had unluckiness to be born during the Great Irish Famine (and interestingly enough, died just days after the RMS Titanic, which had been 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 – of people buried accidentally – or sometimes forcibly – alive, particularly tales told him by his mother, who was from Sligo. For those wealthy enough, they could install a bell and pulley system – just in case they woke up buried alive but for the vast majority of people, this was simply a fear one had to live with.

Every year, there is a Bram Stoker Festival held in Dublin on the days leading up to Halloween, which includes events like ghost tours, tales of Stoker and vampires, a haunted library, late-night horror films and terrifying theatrical plays.

Visit the dramatic landscapes of Ireland’s northwest by biking the rugged landscapes of Donegal from Cliffs to Coast or hiking Northern Ireland and Donegal (ending in Sligo).


Dublin’s 40 Steps to Hell

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. Those 40 stone steps took the 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 ghost 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…).

New for 2019, the trip Hiking the Wicklow Way starts and ends in Dublin, and includes a historical walking tour of the city. 


Glenveagh National Park & Castle

Glenveagh Castle - Glenveagh National Park

Welcome to the shores of Lough Veagh and Glenveagh Castle surrounded by the wilds of the national park.

The wilds of Donegal and the sweeping landscapes of Glenveagh are hauntingly beautiful – vast, desolate, empty. Few people lived up here, and those that 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. But apparently owning land and castle wasn’t enough for Adair and his wife. He gained infamy throughout the country for his ruthless eviction of some 244 tenants of his land. Most had nowhere else to go and all were vey 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 until you are back in the relative civilisation of a bright and busy town.

Explore the haunting wilds of Glenveagh and Donegal on our bike trip, Biking from Cliffs to Coast. Highlights also include Slieve League Cliffs – twice the height of the Cliffs of moher! –  a visit to a tweed weaving workshop, some of Ireland’s best cycling routes like Glengesh Pass and the Barnesmore Gap, and standing at Malin Head, the northern edge of Ireland. 


The Pirate Invasion of Baltimore

Baltimore Beacon

The Baltimore Beacon, guarding the entrance to the harbour at Baltimore, site of the Sack of Baltimore (though the Beacon wasn’t erected until the early 1800s.

Today, Baltimore is the picture of a perfect seaside village set in the remote landscapes of West Cork. But this wasn’t always the case – certainly not on that fateful day of 20 June 1631. The Sack of Baltimore, as its come to be known, was a targeted raid of the village of Baltimore by a motley crew of Barbary pirates led by a Dutchman who went by the stage name of Murad Reis. The actual number of prisoners taken vary between 100 – 250 but the village was decimated. Those who survived the journey were sold as slaves in Northern Africa to work the rest of their lives as galley slaves rowing for months on end in ship, a harsh life as a simple labourer or even worse, 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.

Visit Baltimore and more in the West Cork & Kerry on our Island Hopping adventure! Other highlights include a boat trip to Skellig Michael to see an ancient monastery and puffins, and a visit to a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) community at the southern tip of Ireland. 


The Lady of the Lake at Curraghchase House

Curraghchase House near Limerick

The ark and shuttered Curraghchase House in Curraghchase Forest Park near Limerick.

Though Limerick has a certain not-so-glamourous (dare we say creepy!) reputation, the city has come a long way and is now a quirky cosmopolitan city. 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, it was gutted by fire in 1941 and was simply closed off, left to a 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.

Both the new 2019 Bike Trip – The Kerry Peninsulas and Hiking the Dingle Way start and finish in Limerick; the haunted and eerie house at Curraghchase is just a short distance away. Bike the Kerry Peninsulas for wildest regions of the three peninsulas, and hike the Dingle Way to explore this fascinating peninsula in depth – ancient beehive huts, deserted islands, a woodworking demonstration and holy mountains await! 


Oweynagat Cave or the Gateway to Hell

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 then entrance to any kind of underworld – pagan or Christian – is a creepy place for a holiday like Halloween!

Though not currently on our trips, take a look at our tailor made interactive trip builder to custom create your dream holiday. Or cycle around quiet farmlands of the region on our low-key Biking and Yoga Escape.


Carrowmore Tombs at Sunrise

Carrowmore Tombs

Carrowmore Tombs on Halloween is a spooky time to visit!

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 are 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.

To explore the tombs of Carrowmore and other fascinating neolithic sites in Sligo by joining our biking and yoga escape in Sligo


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About the author

Dawn Rainbolt

American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and now Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she has fallen in love with the rich Irish culture, intriguing history, ancient castles, cheery locals and sweeping landscapes of Ireland.

Read more articles by Dawn


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