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    Spooky Ireland: Ghosts, Myths and Vampires

    7 min read

    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 is a country made for ghost stories…

    By Dawn Rainbolt, Marketing Executive
    More by Dawn

    Ireland is the origins of modern-day Halloween.

    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.

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

    Spooky Legends

    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: The Hag of Beara

    Witches and Halloween seem to go hand in hand. Why? Why do witches seem to be so more 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 (‘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 once more becomes an old woman. In other versions of the story, she is turned to stone awaiting the return of her husband, in the wilds of West Cork.

    Read more about the Hag of Beara in our Irish folklore series.

    Explore the wilds of West Cork and the Hag’s Stone on our West Cork Escape.

    The Hag of Beara

    Vampires: Bram Stoker & Dracula

    Marsh Library Dublin

    Exquisite Marsh’s Library hasn’t changed since Bram Stoker studied here. The library still has records showing him checking on books on history, myths and Transylvania.

    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, 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. For those wealthy enough, they 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, there’s 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.

    Ghosts: Shipwreck of the Spanish Armada

    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 –  the Lusitania in Cork as well as the Titanic who 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.

    Wild and dramatic coastal landscapes of the Causeway Coast, where many of the Armada boats sunk beneath the waves.

    The clifftop Dunluce Castle, located on the same shoreline where La Girona met its fate.

    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 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.

    Visit Dunluce Castle on our Causeway Coast & the Mourne Mountains hiking trip. 

    Restless Spirts: Irish Gaols

    The central hall of Wicklow Gaol. Keep an eye out for ghosts!

    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 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 it clear that Wicklow Gaol is a haunting place of bygone horror.

    The eerie inner courtyard of Crumlin Road Gaol.

    Stairway to Hell in Dublin

    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…).

    Mummies of Dublin

    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, the 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.

    Underneath one of St Michan’s creepy vaults home to the mummies.

    Haunting Landscapes: Glenveagh National Park

    Eerie and remote, the hunting castle feels like its tucked at the ends of the Earth.

    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.

    Adair gained infamy 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.

    Explore the haunting wilds of Glenveagh and Donegal on our bike trip, Biking from Cliffs to Coast. Or, hike these eerie hills on the Causeway Coast & Donegal

    The Pirate Invasion of Baltimore

    The coast of Baltimore and its famous Beacon as seen from the water – the first views of Ireland the pirates would have had…

    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 actual number of prisoners taken vary between 100 – 250 but it left the village 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.

    Visit Baltimore and more in the West Cork & Kerry on our Island Hopping adventure. Or learn about Ireland’s great Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley on our new Island Hopping – West Coast trip.

    The Lady of the Lake at Curraghchase House

    Though Limerick has a certain not-so-glamourous reputation, 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 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 group trips, Bike 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. 

    The haunting remains of what’s left of this once-glamourous estate.

    The Gateway to Hell: Oweynagat Cave

    Crawling down the ancient souterrain into dark 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!

    Astrological Alignments at Sligo's Neolithic Sites

    The sunset of the longest day of the year painting the Carrowkeel tombs in a magical orange glow.

    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.

    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 10pm). 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 our Self Guided Cycling tour of the Wilds of Sligo.

    Meet 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 and sweeping landscapes of Ireland. Armed with a Masters Degree in Tourism Marketing and a love of writing and photography, she is Wilderness Ireland's Marketing Executive since 2017.”

    View profileMore by Dawn

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