Halloween, the night of Samhain when the boundaries between life and death become blurred, is an evening now associated with bonfires, costumes and trick-or-treating, but reflective of the rich tradition of beliefs, traditions and folklore which once permeated the Irish landscape. The dark shadows flittering across ruined buildings and monuments have attracted their fair share of ghost stories and macabre tales. Though this should come as no surprise in a land with stories of a blood-sucking dwarf vampire buried headfirst beneath a boulder, men who become wolves, monsters in lakes, dragons in the sky, sidhe, grogochs, pechts, leprechauns, cluricauns, banshees and sheela-na-gigs. In the spirit of the season, I offer a few tales of ghosts and goblins from monuments I’ve worked on:
The gaunt limestone skeleton of the Hellfire Club on Montpelier Hill, reputedly including stones robbed from the adjacent megalithic tomb, remains arguably Dublin’s most haunted building. This hunting lodge, built c. 1735-40, has long been associated with occult practice carried out by the ‘young bucks’ of the Irish Hell-Fire Club, and stories of the grim barrel-vaulted building lost none of their impact over time as each new generation of storytellers sought to out-do each other with tales of Satanism, orgies, giant screaming black cats and sorcery.
Monkstown Castle, Dublin
The remains of Monkstown Castle were stabilised as a romantic ruin during the 19th century, but for the local people recorded by the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1930swho were certain the the ghosts of nuns could be seen looking over the walls of the former fortress of the Cistercian monks between the hours of twelve and three o’clock at night, though unfortunately their tales never quite explained what the nuns were doing in the wee hours with the monks. The hill beside the castle was then known as ‘Widow Gamble’s Hill’ who had cursed a rich lady in the area with ‘May your next child have a pig’s head’ when she was refused alms. The next child was said to have been born with a beautiful head, but which changed to a pig’s head in a few days. Enraged, the rich woman sent one of her servants to poison the Widow Gamble, and her ghost became a fixture of the hill.
Gruesome tales survive of Red Mary McMahon, a 17th century social climber wedding and burying many husbands, helping them out a third-storey window if they weren’t dying promptly, hanging menservants from the neck and female servants by the hair from the bartizans of her extension to the 15th century tower house, until the locals sealed her alive in a hollow tree trunk, releasing her ghost to wander the castle ruins for eternity.