Spooked in an Irish castle
A trip to Ireland to scatter her parents’ ashes, is spiritually enlightening for Mary McNamara.
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.
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
If you go: Where to eat: To learn more:
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.