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A Folklore Survey of County Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Ghosts and Haunted Houses

Here, ‘where’er we tread is haunted,’ and libellous, ground, so that in the majority of cases the names and definite addresses must be withheld, although in every case I am acquainted with them.

Taking first the ancient buildings, I am unable to state the nature of the haunter of Lisananima (ghost fort) in Kilcorney, or of the other places of like name, although, as regards the former, Dr. George MacNamara and I did our best, about 1897, to find out, for the ghost was said to have been seen recently; so also at Toberatasha (spectre well). At Lisfuadnaheirka, near Kilkee, we were told in 1896 of a ‘horned ghost,’ but ‘Fuadnaheirka’ was a local ‘terror by night’ who slew people, as Eugene O’Curry says his bare legs knew when, (as a boy in 1816), he lived close to Dunaheirka (or Liscroneen), a large fort, which was the chief seat of this being, and was evidently a place to be run past on dark winter evenings.[51] It is not wonderful that stories should be so vague. A form ‘that shape has none’ terrifies some nervous or drunken person, who afterwards speaks often of the ghost, but can give no details. The subject is usually regarded too seriously for verbal embroidery.

A fisherman, being detained on Scattery Island by a storm early last century, and hence unable to attend mass at Kilrush, went up into the ‘cathedral’ [52] to pray. After a time he looked up and saw a crowd of monks and laity with priests at the altar in gorgeous vestments. He shut his eyes in terror and prayed, and when he ventured to look again he saw only ‘the clouds flitting over the roofless church and the old ravens croaking and wheeling over their nests on the tower top’.[53] At Stamer Park I was told, in 1873, that ‘a string of monks’ used formerly to pass up the garden to the Abbey of Ennis, but, even then, it was only a vague tradition. A ‘she-ghost’ haunted the canal bridge of Clonlara, while it was being built in 1769, and was at last exorcised by a slab, still remaining, with her figure cut on it in low relief and the date. This figure closely resembles the grotesque (and usually indecent) carvings of prophylactic female figures called ‘hags of the castle,’ and now sheelanagigs from a well-known carving in County Cork. Two undoubted examples of these figures remain in Clare, a much-defaced one above the door of Kilnaboy church, and a perfect one, struggling with two dragons, on the ornate, and possibly eleventh-century, sill at Rath-Blathmaic church.[54] The Clonlara figure, if older than 1769, may have been brought from one of the ruined towers of Rinroe, Newtown, and Aharinagh, not far away.

'Ghost Stone', Clonlara
'Ghost Stone', Clonlara

The back avenue near the castle of Tirmicbrain or Adelphi was haunted, until 1885 at least, by a dark shadowy figure. A ‘grey man’ haunted the lonely storm-beaten shell of Dunlicka Castle on the cliffs near Kilkee, one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of that glorious coast. He tried to point out hidden treasure, but failed owing to the fears of the man who saw him, and who, when at last venturing back, could not remember the exact hiding-place. The disgusted treasure guardian has made no later attempt.[55] Doonmore, a shore castle farther north, was notorious for the ghastly sounds heard in its vaults, probably caused by waves lapping into rock crannies, but imputed to the perturbed spirits of those who had perished miserably in the dungeons.[56] At Clare Castle, there used to be seen a ghost, said to be the wife of the first Colonel George Stamer of Carnelly (1680), who held the place under Lord Clare. Legend said that her infant had sprung from her arms through an open window into the river Fergus beneath. The mother went mad and died, and her ghost could be seen vainly searching for her lost child along the bank.[57] But in the records her place is occupied by a business-like lady who brought much land and money to her husband, survived him, and died, (evidently in full possession of her senses to the last), at a ripe old age with her children around her. At Carrigaholt Castle, on the Shannon, the ghosts of Lord Clare and his ‘yellow dragoons’ could, I was told in 1875, be seen at military exercises in the castle field.[58] This seems now to be forgotten. Fortanne, or Rosslara Castle, near Tulla, and the old roadway south from it, were reputed to be ‘airy’ (eery); the haunting beings whispered, laughed, and rustled in the hedges, and ‘things flew out.’ (I have often been there in the dusk, and, as in most lonely lanes on a hill-slope facing ‘the wild west wind,’ found the noises very weird and curious).

While, as we know, the country in darkness abounds with uncanny sounds, this is still more the case with old mansions. Such houses, with disused chimney flues and attics, ill-fitting casements, ivy and snails to tap on the windows, owls to flap and moan overhead, rats, shaking doors, and warped stairs to imitate footsteps, only need a legend and a few nervous inmates to become treasure-houses of ghost-lore.

One house on the verge of the Atlantic was haunted by a ‘breathing ghost,’ and had also a footstep passing with a faintly-clanking chain up and down a lobby. Our servant, after a couple of weeks in 1887, heard the first, and we heard the footsteps frequently. I finally located the latter in a dully-jarring sash which resounded in the flooring, the ‘chain’ was a loose pump-handle, and both were actuated by the fairly regular recurrence of a prevailing sea-breeze in the stillest part of the night. A little inland, and not many miles from Lisdoonvarna, two rooms in an old family house are reputed haunted. The ghost of a faithless wife used to be seen getting out of the study window, just before dawn on the anniversary of her elopement. Loud noises, shaking the floor, were heard in the room overhead. The ghost of a legendary ‘Countess of Antrim,’ whose portrait was preserved there, haunted the hall and passages, and it was told that she had made away with her stepson in order that her own child might succeed. She was not visible, but revealed herself in a rustling of garments and turning of handles. A fragment of a poem on her crime is remembered:—

‘The blood on the cradle’s the worst blood of all,
For the young Lord of Antrim lies dead in the hall.’[59]

Corofin has several haunted houses, both new and old, in and about it. One ghost haunted a house in the village for half a year, putting out candles and throwing sods of turf about at night. Near Moyhill, in the same district, a ghost was seen by a Mr. O’Neill coming through a ceiling; it used to put its hands on sleeping people, causing much alarm, but, like the preceding spectre, it lapsed into the Silence after a few months.[60] In a house near Ennis, a soft footstep hurried on some nights through several rooms, in one of which a cupboard used to open after the noise; this was not only seen and heard by the family and accustomed guests (like myself), but by new visitors unacquainted with the story.

It is not clear whether the beings that haunted two farmers’ houses between Kilkee and Liscrona were ghosts or elves. The families began to ‘see things,’ and notably a little old man who used to sit on a sod of turf. This inoffensive haunting was more than the occupants could bear. One of them fitted up a cow-house as his dwelling-place, and the other actually built a new house. The old residences are in ruins, and their desertion took place over sixteen years ago.[61]

It is to the credit of the people of Eastern Clare that it possesses hardly any haunted houses, but there are two of transcending interest.

The first lay near the Fergus. A footstep followed one at night on the upper stairs, and curtains were drawn round the old-fashioned beds,—if not by ‘a hand of bone,’ at least by a ‘thing that no man sees.’ On more than one occasion all the bed-clothes were lifted, ‘as if by four people,’ off a sleeper. Even the late Mr. Richard Stacpoole, a man of iron nerve, told how once on a visit this happened to him; indignant at what he supposed to be a foolish joke, he got up, locked the door, searched the room, and kept awake, only to find the action repeated twice; he struck a light at once, but no one was visible. Hands were laid on the doors and their handles. Anyone who ‘married into’ the family or its connections was liable to have their hands kissed in the dark on their first visit. An invisible dog used to howl before deaths, being only heard from the room of the relation of the foredoomed person. A ghost, (said to be of no less a person than Maureen Rhue, the famous Amazonian O’Brien of 1640-50), used to pass up and down the long, straight avenue. Legend said that, after the murder of her twenty-fifth husband,—(only three husbands are known to history, which is also ignorant of their murders),—she was fastened into a hollow tree and starved to death. There were also the ghosts of two nuns,—for the place was said to have been a convent, without a particle of evidence,[62] —and, in 1838, a lady on horseback at a ‘Druid’s Altar.’ (The last-named was probably a pure invention of the then owner.) There was, however, another ghostly object of which I heard from an eye-witness still living. A dark spot used to break out in the wall of a quaint old brick-floored room, with an inside window looking down into the kitchen. The legend was that an old nurse, a pensioner of the family about 1750, used to live in this room, and died, aged over 90, suddenly and mysteriously. One evening the kitchen-maid brought up some beer, and fancied she saw ‘a black shadow hanging over’ the nurse. The latter was much alarmed at hearing this, and took her chair over to the inner window, where she could see into the kitchen. Next morning, when the girl brought up the breakfast, the beer stood untouched, and the old woman sat leaning back with a look of appalling horror on her face and with her hands resting on the table. The other servants ran up at the maid’s shrieks and lifted the nurse, who was stone-dead, with a deep cut on the back of her head. There was a small patch of blood on the wall, and ever since it comes out as a dark spot on the wall about the anniversary of the nurse’s mysterious death.[63]

The second house, now a dismantled ruin in a lonely valley in the eastern hills, had a far worse reputation. It brought misfortune on anyone who rented it, and a heavy doom lay on its actual owners; certainly, when my family rented it for the shooting, its reputation was maintained by the falling on us of a subsequent heavy trouble. Its most ghastly legend will be told later, and relates to a skeleton found buried under a peat rick in the yard, when the rick was removed owing to scarcity of peat; according to another version, told at Tulla, the rick was set on fire, and, when the white ashes blew away, the unconsumed skull of a murdered man remained.[64] One room was fastened up with iron clamps, tradition said, because its floor was soaked in ineffaceable blood. Another legend, (which I never heard locally or, indeed, in Eastern Clare at all), told how long ago a detachment of a Scottish regiment, quartered there, was poisoned by the owner. The drummer boy escaped the poison, but only to be brutally murdered as he tried to escape from the window. My informant (in the far west of the county), says that ‘the boy’s ghost has been seen by many credible witnesses.’ There was some vague tale of a light on the lake, where dredging yielded a vast quantity of bones, said to be human and mainly of children, but I distrust profoundly the dicta of Clare people on comparative anatomy. The stories I give next were told me by at least six of my relatives, including my mother and two of my brothers. Those who stayed in the house rarely rested undisturbed, for whisperings and mutterings, footsteps down the passages, low sobbing, and strange shrieks and laughter were usual. Sometimes grimmer visitors came. My mother told how she and my father were awakened by the clang of a door and heavy foot-steps. Someone then entered their room, though the door was afterwards found locked, and they both felt a horrible sense of some fearful presence in the darkness, seeing,—but unseen. After a few long minutes of suspense ‘It’ passed back through the door and up the corridor, another door crashed to, and nothing more was heard. The clanging door was believed to be the one clamped up. My sisters also had a tale to tell. The curtains of their great bed had been carefully drawn and tucked in all round, but in the night my elder sister awoke, and, feeling a gust of air and hearing a rustle, called to the others. She found the curtains drawn back, and all heard a horrible mocking laugh, but nothing was found in the room when the candle was lit. Noises and rustlings, with groans, sobs, and hurrying feet in the corridor, were heard for four nights.


Chapter 6


Chapter 8