This Halloween the spirits of the departed will once again walk the land during the night’s trick-or-treating. Apparitions will dart from door to door, and small ghosts and ghouls will abound in touristy ?haunted houses.? But what of the real legends of haunting? Places where the dead are said to make themselves known to the living? Let’s explore one such place: an Irish castle known as Foulksrath, an imposing structure that I visited during the spring of 2000.
Scattered about Ireland are the remains of as many as 3,000 castles. Most of them were not built by the Irish, but rather symbolize oppression and domination by a foreign presence. For that reason, many of these structures have not been maintained, and some were even purposely destroyed. Their remains stand on lonely cliffs, in the middle of fields, along highways, and even in towns and cities. In some places, only a single wall remains, or perhaps one might find a part of a courtyard invaded by yew trees, gorse bushes, and weeds.
Foulksrath castle, in the southeast corner of Ireland, had also been neglected and in fact was scheduled to be destroyed when An Óige, the Irish Youth Hostel Association, purchased it in 1946. Once a symbol of the overlord’s wealth and power, the renovated castle found a new life offering cheap accommodations to budget-minded travellers. That is until recently, when the costs of maintaining the ancient structure forced An Óige to put the site up for sale.
Although the word castle conjures up images of massive stone fortresses with multiple towers and possibly a drawbridge, Foulksrath is actually a tower-house, a smaller castle. Built around 1550, Foulksrath is nevertheless a formidable edifice that even today presides over the peaceful meadows and lush green farmland around it.
Although it is surrounded by a placid and quiet countryside, enclosed within its ancient defensive walls are said to be restless spirits, apparitions that dwell in the tower and from time to time make their presence known to visitors. Tales of these ghosts, told and retold in a variety of ways, added a mystique to the building when it was in use as a hostel. Perhaps they even helped draw curious travellers to a small and somewhat obscure castle in a rural corner of Ireland.
In one well-known legend, it is said that a gaunt and lonely looking dark-haired young lady can often be seen looking out from one of the windows. According to the story, she had fallen in love with a lowly soldier; the relationship was forbidden by her father, who locked her in the tower. However when her father went away to war, she was left completely alone and starved to death. With her eyes forever searching the distant horizon, she waits in vain for someone to release her from her prison.
Though the story of this victim of starvation and desertion creates a haunting image, some versions of the tale rework this legend. Rather than having the lady in the tower starve to death, John Dunne, in A Ghost Watcher’s Guide to Ireland (2001), provides us with a happier ending (and a frankly much less captivating tale). According to Dunne, a former lord of the castle locked up his daughter in an effort to prevent her from marrying a local man. With the help of a cuckoo bird, the young lady is somehow rescued from her prison, and later weds her lover.
It is intriguing to speculate whether Dunne, buoyed by contemporary events (including positive signs from the peace process in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic’s improved economic situation), reflected the island’s new-found optimism in his version of this story. The lovers break from the divisions, deprivations, and violence of Ireland’s past and avoid a tragic end to their relationship.
Another Foulksrath tale with differing interpretations is the story of the November footsteps. Dunne also tells us about the eerie footsteps and opening door which are allegedly heard every year on a certain night in November. He doesn’t elaborate further, however.
In contrast, Haunted Castles of Britain and Ireland, published only a couple years later, gives us a firm date for the annual return of this spirit. It also explains the alleged haunting: the noises, it is said, are associated with an older castle that once occupied the site. That castle was built in the 13th century by a Norman, Fulco De La Frene; the annual visitor is said to be the ghost of a sentry who, while on duty, was found asleep by De La Frene, hoisted up over the battlements, and thrown to his death. According to the legend the sentry, having failed in life to perform his duty, returns every November 29 to take up his post. People claim to have heard feet shuffling along the stairs and the sound of a heavy door opening.
Perhaps the differing versions only add to the eeriness of these stories?or perhaps the inconsistencies are proof that there is no truth to these tales. It is not only collections of ghost stories that report creepy happenings at Foulksrath; for example, it is also said that a BBC crew filming at the location had unusual difficulties with its equipment. Maybe there really is something spooky going on there?
In any case, during my one night at the Foulksrath hostel, I encountered no apparitions, heard no inexplicable noises, felt no shivers down my spine. Nevertheless, I am still fascinated by the ghost stories of Foulksrath: how they change and take on lives of their own, and the status that they still provide to the old tower.