Cromwellian soldiers occupying your attic space, the spirit of unsettled souls lingering on your landing and the spectre of a weeping woman in your garden. When you live in a centuries old castle you are never alone. The spirits of the past, both seen and sensed are all around you.
Across the Irish countryside there are dozens of ancient castles still functioning as family homes. Legendary locations such as Leap Castle in Co Offaly and Markree Castle in Co Sligo, house hardy residents who relish their haunted histories. The lives of the long deceased occupants and their sometimes gruesome past permeate the walls of these unique living spaces.
Sybil Cope grew up in Shankill Castle in Paulstown Co Kilkenny. The castle was purchased by her mother and father, Elizabeth and Geoffrey Cope in the early 1990’s and has hosted a wide range of visitors from ghost hunters to artists. It was an inspiring place to live but Sybil admits her home’s haunted reputation had its drawbacks.
“It was a fantastic place to grow up but come Halloween I did notice that friends would be reluctant to visit,” she recalls with a laugh, “you would think living in a haunted castle would be a bonus at that time of year but no one was brave enough to come to us so we went trick or treating in the village instead.”
Shankill Castle was built in the early 18th century by the Aylward family and their vault lies in the graveyard in the grounds. In the past, cemeteries were often a target for grave robbers and Shankill Castle was no exception as Sybil explains: “In the 1700’s Peter Aylward’s body was placed in the vault but his remains were stolen and never found. The legend goes that he was never properly laid to rest and his ghost now roams the upstairs corridor because it is never at peace”.
In the years after Peter’s death the butler would sit in the vault with the bodies of deceased family members while they decomposed to ensure they weren’t snatched.
Local legends about the castle ghosts were hard for Sybil to ignore: “There are certain parts of the house that spook me’ she admits. ‘The corridor Peter haunts is close to where my bedroom was. Getting from the light switch to my room would be the scary bit, I would get a bit of a chill and then make a dash for it.
“The Blue Room is another spot where people have sensed things over the centuries. I never saw anything but I never felt like I was alone when I slept there,” she says.
In the late 1990s a Vogue photographer was working on a shoot at the castle when her mother suggested he photograph the Blue Room. Having ventured upstairs he returned quicker than expected, says Sybil, adding, “he said he didn’t go into the room as he didn’t want to disturb the old lady in the rocking chair. My mother was stunned because there was no old woman. He was convinced it was a real person and described the woman who fit the description of my grandmother,” says Sybil pausing as she remembers, “she had passed away only a few months previously and had slept in the room.”
Sybil works hard to market the layers of history in creative ways in an effort to keep the castle running. Along with her brother Reuben, she devised ScareFest — a Halloween festival with crafts for children and night time tours for adults that are not for the faint-hearted.
“We guide people around the graveyard after dark. It’s great fun to do and it’s unbelievably popular. People seem to really love being scared out of their wits,”she adds.
Not far from Shankill Castle, Alex Durdin-Robertson and his young family are based in Alex’s ancestral home of Huntington Castle, Co Carlow built in 1625. Having survived invasions, rebellions and insurrections the castle has witnessed some horrific events and gained its haunted reputation as a result.
Alex, as keeper of the castle’s history, provides a wealth of detail about it’s past. He outlines one of the most unpleasant acts perpetrated on his family lands.
“In 1798, the North Cork militia captured nine local rebels and hanged them from the Castle’s avenue trees”, he explains, adding that the castle grounds were regularly used during the period “rebels would meet at what became known as the spy bush where they ambushed a supposed 1798 traitor and then hung him from the branches of the bush, pretty gruesome stuff”.
Ghostly sightings have been recorded at the castle for many centuries since. Cromwellian soldiers have been seen in the attic along with the sounds of marching feet. The Bishop of Limerick’s ghost is said to haunt the Four Poster room but tales of resident ghouls never unsettled Alex growing up: “It was normal to us.” he admits “it was home, though I did have my own experiences of its spirits”.
The castle was built on land which had been the site of a 12th century abbey . “When I was young I had a cool tree house” remembers Alex “and one night myself and my brother were staying out there when we saw a monk dressed in a cassock walking right past us”.
“It was very clear, very vivid. He was quite a tall figure, we both saw him so, you know, these things do seem real.”
Despite his own encounters Alex is not too concerned and says “the ghosts in Huntington have never been ... well, I never thought there was a presence of evil. And there are explanations for these things,” he assures me, adding, “the visions from the past may just be a moment of time replaying in the future because time isn’t necessarily a straight line. What we think of as a ghost is not always someone out to get you, though it might seem frightening at the time.”
The growing interest in the supernatural aided by TV series such as Ghost Hunters is helping both Sybil and Alex to encourage visitors.
“The castle is incredibly tough to keep going but there is an increase in tourists looking for spooky experiences,” Alex explains.
“This works in our favour; the castle’s history coupled with the Celtic traditions around Halloween are a great fit”.
In 2011 Huntington Castle opened for its first candlelit tour and the family were stunned at the demand. “We had 400 people attend the event, it was mayhem at the time but now we have it well organised and run up to 14 pre-booked Halloween tours each day for a week.”
In an age where every entertainment imaginable is available at the touch of a button it seems that people still love an old fashioned scare.
The younger generation of Irish castle dwellers are making their ghosts earn their keep, jangling the nerves of visitors of all ages.
The sometimes gruesome, often restless dead are providing an unexpected lifeline for these historic homes.
The version of trick or treating that we know today has been hugely influenced by US culture. While the practise of dressing up and calling door to door has waxed and waned over the centuries, its origins are thought to lie in Samhain. The Celts wore animal skins and masks to scare off evil spirits who were unleashed that night. People also left out food offerings for the spirits of their ancestors.
The bonfire also has origins in Samhain when Celtic druids would light a ritual bonfire as their year came to a close. Fading natural light, which provided food and warmth, was replaced with the man-made fire as the darkness closed in.
Families would extinguish their own home fires on the night before Samhain marking the end of the year and then rekindle them from the communal bonfire.