What it's like to spend a night at one of Ireland’s most haunted castle hotels

Tom Breathnach spends a night at one of Ireland’s spookiest hotels – just in time for Halloween
What it's like to spend a night at one of Ireland’s most haunted castle hotels

The lobby at Kinnitty Castle.

I’m doing a spot of ghost-hunting homework. On Youtube. In the footage, UK doc-makers Shiver are on their latest paranormal mission with all the cinematographic drama of a Blair Witch Project take.

Amid a teaser montage of bumps, jumps and shrieks, presenter Yvette Fielding announces — with the same tone of dread were she on assignment in Transylvania — that she and her team are now off to one of Europe’s most spookiest climes: Offaly!

County Offaly, I’ll have you know, is said to be Ireland’s most haunted turf, laying land to the famed region (at least in paranormal circles) as “the haunted triangle”. This trio of possessed properties includes Charleville Castle near Tullamore and Leap Castle just south of Birr, but to really get up close and personal with our haunted heritage, this week I checked into its third enigma, and what is said to be one of Ireland’s most spooky hotels, Kinnitty Castle.

Kinnitty Castle, a 19th century gothic revival stunner on the Laois border isn’t a property which tends to showboat its haunted credentials.

Nowadays, it’s a popular four-star hotel and a top wedding venue — and nobody wants their Vera Wang to be upstaged by an apparition. But it’s hard not to feel its otherworldly impact when you land. I arrived there via the lonesome Slieve Bloom mountains as a boggy, blustery night was drawing in on the Cappard pass. It made for an ambient, yet spooky scape, the kind of setting that you’d expect to hear a banshee cry were the sounds of Classic Hits not drowning out the eerie environs.

Then, ascending on its foothills, Kinnitty Castle, flanked by sprawling estate parklands emerges from the tree cover with an ethereal air.

Nudging open the armoured front door, flickering candelabras guide my way up a stairwell towards the castle’s rather spectacular, blood red lobby — a fittingly dramatic welcome for a lord, a lady or the most discerning of poltergeists. “We like to think that while many guests have checked in over the years, some have never truly checked out,” Cora Dwyer, GM of Kinnitty Castle tells me, her tongue only slightly in cheek.

Cora is referring to who are considered as Kinnitty’s three supernatural custodians who continue to keep watch of the building. “Best known of these is a monk (affectionately known as Hugh), who is said to live on centuries after the property’s previous carnation as an abbey, as well as a female who is said to frequent the rooms of the first and second floor.” She’s referring to one Lady Catherine Hutchinson, a keystone figure in the history of the castle who ordered its renovation and extension in 1811 by hiring the renowned Pain brothers architects. 

The bridal suite at Kinnitty Castle.
The bridal suite at Kinnitty Castle.

“It took a woman to bring the castle back to life,” Cora jokes — and today her life still seems to keep watch here. “We believe she usually frequents the first and second floors, particularly in the Geraldine Room where she’s seen with a little child playing. It’s said that the child may have come from an extra-marital affair…” she adds. It may all have the air of dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean léi but I’m all hooked on the ghostly gossip.

I was staying in one of those first floor suites, namely the Thomas Winter room, which features a trove of period treasures and overlooks the castle gardens. Kinnitty welcomes as many as six paranormal investigations per year where rooms are discreetly booked out by ghostbusters, geared with all their necessary kit and kaboodle. “Some of the footage is pretty interesting! But a lot of people hear things go bump in the night, be it, after a few fizzy drinks or not, we’re not too sure.” From my own experience, the only thing that seemed possessed thus far was my Wifi signal (hey, those 19th century walls are thick) but unfettered, I was off to explore more.

The hotel’s banquet hall, located across the courtyard and buried graveyard, (dotted with headstones and skeletons for Halloween!) was my next stop. A creaky door leads into the impressive banquet hall, all festooned up for the next wedding, complete, with bride and groom thrones. It’s here that Hugh the monk is said to call the name of guests or staff. I certainly feel a chill in the air, though it is a frigid day in the Midlands so I try not to let my thoughts go overboard. Next, I head to town to the Dungeon Bar, found by a pretty impressive labyrinthine vault of snugs and passages. It’s less a hellish prison nowadays but more a novel spot to watch some Saturday night rugby on TG4 while enjoying some subterranean pub grub.

Bartender Luke is quick to regale me of haunted tales, even popping out an image of an apparition taken on his phone. “All female staff have heard their name called by a male voice,” he tells me “And recently we had a lady calling down to reception to say she felt there was someone in her room,” he adds. “A guest also said they saw a figure appearing at the end of their bed,” he reveals to me before clocking the name of my room on the bar table and adding, “Oh, you’re in the Thomas Winter room. That was the room!”

Whether you’re a believer, or not, Ireland’s haunted heritage seems a largely positive tourism spin-off. “I think what’s really interesting about Kinnitty and its haunted history is that Irish people are certainly not turned off by it, Europeans are interested in it, while Americans absolutely love it,” Cora later tells me. “For Americans, it’s probably the most popular USP of them booking the castle. Together, it’s all about the original character features and the history, they stay up all night listening to the stories of our night porter, Martin. They’re almost believers before they arrive here!”

Back in my suite, I sink down in my bed with a nightcap, eyes fixed on the end of the bed. Hugh or indeed Lady Hutchinson didn’t come to party but, during my stay at Kinnitty Castle, I’d like to think I felt more than a little soul. I’ll just have to pack my infra-red ghost hunting kit next time.

Kinnitty Castle

The banquet hall at Kinnitty castle.
The banquet hall at Kinnitty castle.

You can feel the spirit of Kinnitty Castle from €160 per night B&B with those legendary suites available from €260. Come Halloween, the property is festooned with various spooktacular while a family friendly fairy trail is a popular haunt for younger guests. To explore the hinterland, Kinnitty Castle also makes a fine escape for romantics and couples to enjoy the Slieve Blooms by hiking or mountain biking, while the hotel also offers horse riding packages so you can jaunt through the hills.

Ballyseede Castle

The towering exterior of Ballyseede Castle.
The towering exterior of Ballyseede Castle.

Here’s a different spin on the Rose of Tralee! Ballyseede Castle Hotel, located just outside the Kingdom capital, tracks its ghostly legend with the fragrance of the iconic flower. Hilda, Ballyseede Castle’s most famous ghost and a former resident, is said to show her presence by the scent of roses which always accompanies her. She has been seen many times standing at the window of her old room. Even the resident Irish Wolfhound Mr. Higgins is known to bark at apparitions in the window.

The castle offers nightly castle tours to guests, with barman, Tim, explaining the spooky side to the history. Rates from €179 for Castle rooms (or 163 for lodge rooms). Two night dining packages start from €480.

Cabra Castle, Cavan

Ghoulish vibes at Cabra Castle.
Ghoulish vibes at Cabra Castle.

Looking for a thriller? Cabra Castle in Co. Cavan holds the dubious distinction as being voted the second scariest hotel in the world, no less, by Trip Advisor (the Hotel del Coronado in California took top horrors/honours). Legends about the hotel have been knocking around for generations, most stemming from the ghost of a servant girl who fell foul of the family for having a relationship with their son. 

Guests have claimed to have heard her cries, met a man in early 20th Century military uniform striding down the corridor as well as hearing a horse and carriage pull into the courtyard in the dead of night. Who needs Sleepy Hollow, when you have Cavan? Cottage/Castle rooms from €150/€220 per night while stay two nights and enjoy B&B and dinner on one evening from €392.

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