Spooked in an Ir­ish cas­tle

A trip to Ire­land to scat­ter her par­ents’ ashes, is spir­i­tu­ally en­light­en­ing for Mary McNamara.

Sunday Star-Times - - ESCAPE | COUNTY MAYO - Mary’s Cot­tage Kitchen, Main St, Bal­ly­cas­tle; lat.ms/ maryscot­tagek­itchen.

Ire­land is a proudly haunted is­land, its land­scape de­fined by an­cient cairns and stand­ing stones, ru­ined abbeys, cas­tles, and cot­tages. The spec­tral comes in many fa­mous forms, such as the White Lady of Kin­sale (who threw her­self off the walls of Charles Fort af­ter her hus­band was shot); the Wait­ing Lady of Ardg­illan Cas­tle (on vigil for her drowned hus­band); and the ca­su­al­ties of war (the Ja­co­bites of the Bat­tle of Aughrim and King James II who haunts Ath­carne Cas­tle 10km from where he died in the Bat­tle of the Boyne).

So if you are look­ing, there are plenty of ghosts to be found in Ire­land. Or you can do what I did and bring them with you.

My fam­ily and I trav­elled to Ire­land in June 2017 to scat­ter my par­ents’ ashes at Down­patrick Head in County Mayo. We knew the ex­act spot be­cause Mum and Dad, who spent many of their postre­tire­ment sum­mers in the land of our an­ces­tors, had taken us there al­most 20 years ago.

Down­patrick Head is one of the world’s more dra­matic edges, where the wild­flower-stud­ded grass runs in sweet green benev­o­lence un­til it hits the wild wind and a 140-foot drop on to black rocks and white foam.

We have pic­tures of my then 1-year-old, Danny, sit­ting in the grass pick­ing daisies while my par­ents showed my brother, Jay, where they wanted their ashes to go: right in view of the tow­er­ing sea stack called Dun Briste (Bro­ken Fort), and a few yards from a blow­hole where, my fa­ther in­formed us, Bri­tish sol­diers had thrown lo­cal villagers dur­ing the 1798 Ir­ish Re­bel­lion.

For a year or two, Down­patrick Head was some­thing of a fam­ily joke. We would not make that crazy drive to that crazy cliff, but if we did, we would pitch the ashes down the blow­hole. Then, far too soon, it wasn’t.

My dad died four years af­ter that trip. When we of­fered to take Mum and the ashes to Ire­land, she said she wanted to wait and be scat­tered with him. When she died a few years later, nei­ther my brother nor I had the heart to make the jour­ney.

Af­ter that once-upon-a-time 1-year-old went away to col­lege, my brother and I re­alised we had to get mov­ing, busy sched­ules and mixed feel­ings be damned.

My hus­band Richard, Danny and his sis­ters Fiona and Darby and I flew to Dublin a few days be­fore Jay and his hus­band, Franco. Af­ter what I can only hope was our very last ar­gu­ment to end with ‘‘Well, you’re the old­est,’’ Jay per­suaded me to carry the ashes.

In Dublin, we stayed in a lovely flat near the Gen­eral Post Of­fice, which now houses an ex­cel­lent mu­seum de­voted to the 1916 Easter Ris­ing. We put the bag in a nice al­cove where I could nod to them as we came and went.

An ‘at­mos­phere’

It was when at the cas­tle that the haunting be­gan. Jay had de­cided that we needed to rent a cas­tle. We chose Turin Cas­tle, a glo­ri­ous restored keep in County Mayo, near the towns of Ballinrobe and Cong (where The Quiet Man was filmed). It slept 12 and had five bed­rooms and five bath­rooms. We were seven, so for once there were no arguments about bed­rooms and no wait­ing for a free bath­room.

Turin Cas­tle rose square and solid from bright green fields at the end of a drive that was easy to miss be­cause it was pre­ceded by at least two turns on un­named lanes. It has been beau­ti­fully restored, which is not to say ren­o­vated. The ameni­ties are mod­ern, but the lay­out is true to his­tory.

All the rooms are ac­cessed by a stone spi­ral stair­case that be­gan on the ground floor, where the door­ways were small enough to make in­vaders stoop so the res­i­dents could cut off their heads.

Along a se­ries of land­ings were bed­rooms, bath­rooms and the kitchen, which was con­nected to a breath­tak­ing great room

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with a fire­place you could stand in. Jay and Franco ar­rived at the cas­tle sev­eral hours af­ter we did, through the mist at dusk, and Franco im­me­di­ately in­formed the kids that he felt an ‘‘at­mos­phere’’.

We have a few ghost sto­ries from our trav­els, so when the ‘‘this cas­tle is haunted’’ sto­ries be­gan, I wasn’t sur­prised.

Franco felt a hand tug his shirt as he got ready for bed; in­vis­i­ble fin­gers tou­sled Jay’s hair. Danny, brush­ing his teeth one night, heard some­one hiss ‘‘psst’’ at him, but no one was there. Fiona heard rustling in the kitchen and, an­noyed when no one an­swered her, walked in from the great room to find the kitchen empty.

I laughed, un­til one day when, af­ter spend­ing a quiet half-hour with Fiona and Darby, I went to find Richard, who asked, ‘‘What are those two fight­ing about now?’’ I told him the girls weren’t fight­ing, hadn’t made a sound. ‘‘But I heard one of them cry­ing,’’ Richard said.

The wind at the cas­tle was strong at times, but it al­ways sounded pre­cisely like the wind.

I kept an eye, and ear, out af­ter that, but it was all hard to be­lieve. I have been in houses that felt dis­turbed or scarred, but Turin Cas­tle was not like that, not scary at all. It was lovely and in­ter­est­ing; even those who felt the spirit thought it was mis­chievous, not ma­li­cious. I be­gan to feel snubbed, hav­ing not en­coun­tered it.

Best laid plans

The day to scat­ter the ashes came, and we made our way north to Down­patrick Head with an A num­ber of air­lines fly into Dublin. It is then a three- to four-hour drive to Mayo. Other­wise, you can fly into Ire­land West Air­port in Knock in the eastern part of Mayo.

Where to stay:

Turin Cas­tle, Kilmaine, Ire­land; tur­in­cas­tle.com. US$3400-$4600 ($5097-$6990) a week, de­pend­ing on sea­son. Greenacres holiday cot­tage, Ballinrobe, Ire­land; airbnb.com/rooms/ 24061022. $91 a night. Sleeps seven. Down­patrick Head is along the Wild Atlantic Way, wil­dat­lanticway.com, and one of many places worth vis­it­ing in County Mayo, mayo-ire­land.ie/ en/wel­come. oblig­a­tory, and ex­pen­sive, stop at Fox­ford Woollen Mills, where my par­ents once bought a pile of tweed caps and wool sweaters for fam­ily mem­bers.

As we got closer, Waze, which had func­tioned beau­ti­fully through­out our trip, kept taking us along long and ill-fated routes, but we fi­nally ar­rived at the top of Mayo, about 5km north of Bal­ly­cas­tle, where the wild Atlantic has carved cliffs and sea stacks.

The ge­og­ra­phy had not changed in 20 years, but a few other things had. There was a carpark, and there was a view­ing area around the blow­hole, which we dis­cov­ered is called Poll na Sean­tine (Hole of the An­cient Fire), and was where lo­cal rebels had drowned while hid­ing from Bri­tish sol­diers. That’s bad, but not as bad as villagers be­ing pitched on to the rocks.

The wind was cold and steady un­der a pale grey sky. When my par­ents first brought us here, I told them their ashes would not be scat­tered any­where if there was any chance they would blow back all over me.

But the wind was at our backs as we faced the sea, so strong it moulded our coats against us. We went to the spot that our par­ents had showed us and got as close to the edge of the cliff as our spouses would al­low.

Jay took Dad and I took Mum and we prised open the boxes, care­fully cut the bags, said a prayer and, on the count of three, shook their ashes on to Down­patrick Head.

Dad flew out in a great cloud and marked the grass to the cliff. Mum flew out and then, af­ter hang­ing in the air for a sec­ond or two, pro­ceeded to defy the laws of aero­dy­nam­ics and na­ture by fly­ing against the wind and all over me.

I was fu­ri­ous, my brother wide-eyed and my kids dou­bled over with laugh­ter. ‘‘She heard you,’’ said Fiona. ‘‘She heard what you said.’’

We walked around a bit, talk­ing about that lon­gago day and how much my par­ents had loved this coun­try.

Then we drove to Bal­ly­cas­tle to have lunch at Mary’s Cot­tage Kitchen, where we had lunched with my par­ents all those years ago. I went into the ladies to wipe the ashes from my face and, af­ter I closed the door, the light went out, and then it went back on again. Quick as a wink.

We stayed an­other four days at the cas­tle, and though the wind sighed and the fire threw shad­ows on the floor, there were no more hints of haunting. If we wanted ghosts, we would have to look else­where; ours were sink­ing into the Ir­ish grass, set­tling be­neath the Ir­ish sea.

Turin Cas­tle is near the towns of Ballinrobe and Cong.

The cas­tle can sleep 12, and has five bed­rooms and five bath­rooms.

All the rooms are ac­cessed by a stone spi­ral stair­case.

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