IT’S AFTER dark on a Thursday evening in October and I’m standing outside Wicklow Gaol.
It’s the busy season for the spooky tourist attraction of course – inside there’s a raucous group taking part in a teambuilding exercise, so I’m not feeling too frightened.
Yet. But then I glance up and catch sight of the beam used to hang people from in the not too distant past, and all of a sudden, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
When the editor asked me to write about Ireland’s most haunted venues, I hesitated for more than a minute because if you were to look up “fraidy cat” in dictionary, there may well be a picture of my face.
To say I am easily spooked is an understatement – I am a woman of nearly thirty who is still terrified of a dark landing, wouldn’t dream of saying “Candyman” in the mirror three times, and totally, utterly believes in ghosts. However, I have absolutely no desire to seek said ghosts out. Quite the opposite, in fact – I’d like to respectfully steer well clear of them at all times.
Yet, I love Halloween. Well, I love the Americanised candy and pumpkin-spiced latte version of Halloween. I like skull paraphernalia, dressing my little doggy up as a devil and carving out Jack-O-Lanterns. Admittedly, my tastes are far more Hocus Pocus than Paranormal Activity.
Still, I took up the challenge to hang out in some haunted houses because I like to broaden my horizons – and meet people who are my exact opposite.
In tonight’s case, that would be the Irish Ghosthunters, a motley crew that gather to investigate the paranormal, reach supernatural beings and delight in the occult.
“Around 2002, I was working in Today FM doing the mid-morning show and we decided to go to Wicklow Gaol as an item for it,” says Tim Kelly, ostensibly the leader of the pack.
“After that, I let it sit for a while but I still had an interest in the supernatural so I decided to put a team together. We have about nine key members, they were all from other teams originally, but we sort of came together.”
The ghosthunters meet about three or four times a month, give or take, and hold investigations at either private homes or public spaces. “Sometimes you get calls from private houses, people hearing or seeing things. A lot of times it can just be anxiety or stress, and we don’t actually see anything in the house.
“Sometimes we find mice in the attic, creaking floorboards.”
I get the feeling they prefer to visit old houses and mansions.
“We set up night vision cameras all over the room, and then sit and wait. Usually someone will watch a screen and see what happens, and we review the footage afterwards.
“We also set up audio recorders to capture EVP, or electronic voice phenomenon. One time in Wicklow Gaol, we heard nothing with our ears, but when we listened back, we heard heavy boots approaching us.” Tim tells me there’s no fear anymore, that it goes away. “I’ve never really felt scared.
“I think being frightened comes from primal fear of the dark, animals attacking and the unseen.
“However one time in the Hellfire Club, I was recording one of the girls in a small room when we both heard something stampeding, charging at me as clear as day. I just moved against the wall, out of the way. It’s a very strange place, not nice at all.”
Despite all his spooky endeavours, Tim has never seen a ghost.
“I haven’t seen a full apparition, but I’ve seen darker than dark shadows, heard voices, and seen lights that shouldn’t have been there.”
We’re at Wicklow Gaol because according to Tim, it’s one of the spookiest locations around.
Built in 1702, it’s certainly been standing long enough to be filled with ghostly characters, and is believed to be the site of some truly heinous activities. The further in to the gaol we go, the creepier it gets – when we can no longer hear the din of the team-builders, I start to feel unnerved.
There’s undoubtedly a chilling atmosphere – everything is pokey and cold, and on entering the tiny cells, you’re at once seized with a sense of claustrophobia. My boyfriend, accompanying me because I am indeed such a scaredy cat, insists the doors don’t close anymore and not to be silly. I tell him he’s not accounting for the occult – cue eye roll. He’s definitely a cynic when it comes to this sort of thing.
There have been rumours of inexplicable and eerie cold mists on the first floor corridors, and sightings of women in 19th century garb (who weren’t, in fact, tour guides in fancy dress) and in 2009, the SyFy channel declared it to be one of the most haunted locations in the world.
Not surprising, perhaps, when one considers the amount of executions that took place here dating back to the 18th century – both in the cells themselves and in the grounds.
I put on a brave face for the night, but in all honesty, I’m desperate to leave. I know some of my friends would love the spooky setting, but it’s too creepy for comfort for me, and in all honesty, you couldn’t pay me to sleep there. Relieved, I bid my new spook-loving friends goodbye, and leave them to their energy-measuring.
I decide I’m of the opinion that in this one area of my life, the less known the better.
IRELAND’S SPOOKIEST SPOTS
Charles Fort, Kinsale
Said to be haunted by a lady in white, this ghost story tells the tale of a jubilant bride’s happiness turning to despair. The legend goes that her father shot her brand new husband having mistaken him for a sleeping sentry, and upon realising his mistake, threw himself from the walls.
Coming across her dead father and husband, with whom she hadn’t even had the chance to consummate the marriage, she flung herself off also. Soldiers since have told of seeing the lady in a ghostly wedding dress, while there have also been reports of a ghostly presence pushing people in the fort.
The Hellfire Club, Dublin Mountains
This well known former lodge in the mountains is popular with hill walkers, but formerly the site of a devil-worshipping club. Its members used to dress up as the devil and drink whiskey from a cauldron – there were even rumours of cannibalism. All sorts of black magic went on up there, including the roasting of live black cats to summon Satan himself. It’s creepy enough during the day now, let alone at night, but a popular site with paranormalists.
Loftus Hall, Co Wexford
Situated near the Hook Peninsula, this is the site of one of Ireland’s most famous ghost stories, where a mysterious and charming visitor played poker with an unsuspecting family, flying out of the roof and leaving a hole in the ceiling when their daughter Anne caught sight of his cloven foot under the table.
Believing she had been in the presence of the devil himself, poor Anne was never the same again. She was locked away in a room and refused food and drink, waiting for her mysterious stranger to return. She died not long after, Anne’s ghost is said to have haunted the house ever since. If you fancy a visit, they hold tours often. See loftushall.ie
Belvelly Castle, Co Cork
The story of Lady Margaret is an extra spooky one, because those who claim to have seen her can’t agree on whether or not her apparition has a face. In the 1600s, she was a bit of a fancy woman with lots of men after her and loads of mirrors in her home. One bloke got a bit tired of waiting on her, so decided to starve her and her family in to submission.
It’s said they surrendered after a year, but that Margaret had lost her beauty and was rejected by her former suitor. Apparently her ghost still wanders the halls (some say faceless and some say not), rubbing at the walls until they gleam like her beloved mirrors.
Charleville Castle, Co Offaly
This Tullamore castle is now more famous as the site of boutique music festival Castlepalooza, but it’s been haunted for centuries if hearsay is to be believed. The ghost of a little girl named Harriet is said to walk the halls.
She died after falling down the staircase in 1861 at the age of eight, and ever since people have heard her singing, laughing and screaming echoing through the castle. Some have even sworn they saw a little girl in a blue and white dress with blonde ringlets.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved