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Simon Marsden

Phantoms of the Isles - Im Reich Der Geister

Leap Castle
County Offaly, Southern Ireland

Leap Castle, County Offaly, Southern Ireland
Leap Castle, County Offaly, Southern Ireland (MA-C-704)

Known universally as the most haunted castle in all Ireland, Leap Castle is without a shadow of doubt the most sinister and frightening building I have ever photographed. Once the principal seat of the powerful and warlike O'Carrolls, Princes of Ely, it stands on a vast, ancient rock guarding a strategic pass through the wild Slieve Bloom mountains. My first visit was for a book that I was compiling called In Ruins - The Once Great Houses of Ireland, and I can distinctly remember my initial feelings of fear and fascination; nowhere before had ever held so many suggestions of the supernatural.

The O'Carrolls were the last sept to surrender to the British in the seventeenth century and their fearsome reputation has left behind a legacy of intrigue and murder as brother fought brother for control of their empire. Local people are still in awe of the castle and are fearful of the many ghosts that are still said to haunt this ruin. Above the main hall of the great fourteenth-century tower is what is known as the 'Bloody Chapel' where 'one-eyed' Teige O'Carroll slew his brother at the altar and, late at night, passers-by on the main road have seen a window of the room suddenly illuminated by a strange light. In one corner of this chamber was a spiked oubliette, a secret dungeon into which unsuspecting prisoners were thrown down through a trap door and conveniently forgotten. It is said that three cartloads of bones were extracted from here after the house was destroyed by fire in 1922. Below the keep, it's said, stretches a network of deep dungeons hewn into the rock, containing bricked-up passages and secret chambers. Several human skeletons and spearheads were found here too. It is interesting to note that the last owners of the house before the fire, who added the Gothic wings, were said to have been unaware of the existence of these cavernous tombs.

During the period of the Darby's residence overnight guests frequently experienced the terrifying spectre of a tall female figure, dressed in what seemed to be a red gown, with her right hand raised menacingly above her head, seemingly illumined from within. The unfortunate visitor always awoke suddenly in the middle of the night, prior to this nightmarish vision, with an extraordinary and violent cold feeling in the region of their heart. Whether this ghost is connected with the murder of a princess of the royal O'Carroll household many centuries ago is not known, but this State Bedroom was always shunned by the Darby's servants. The strangest and most demonic spectre in the castle is a foul smelling elemental, half-human, half-beast, that haunts the tower stair and is believed to be the embodiment of all the horrific and evil deeds that have taken place here.

The Darby family obtained the estate when Jonathan Darby married the daughter of an O'Carroll chieftain in the seventeenth century. A staunch Royalist, he was known as the 'Wild Captain', and legend says that he hid a fabulous hoard of treasure in the castle with the help of two servants, who he then murdered, before being imprisoned for treason. When he was released many years later his mind was so deranged that he couldn't remember where he had hidden the hoard, and the mystery remains to the present day.

Lord Rosse, who lives at nearby Birr Castle, built by his ancestors on the site of another former O'Carroll stronghold, told me that he had always been, and still is, frightened by Leap. He said that his father had told him that as a child he would sometimes go to tea there with his governess and that, because of persistent rumours of several skeletons being bricked up behind the wall in one room, the then Lord Darby became enraged by what he considered to be idle gossip and had the wall dismantled, where, to his horror, three upright skeletons were found. He immediately had them bricked up again, saying that if one of his ancestors had killed them then it must have been for a good reason. Lady Rosse, an eminent archaeologist, believes that the castle is situated on a ley line and that the powerful forces these ancient alignments generate can be influenced by both good and evil, unfortunately in this case the latter. She added that she had been present at a recent exorcism attempt by a Mexican medium at the castle, but had found the experience unnerving.

I then visited Peter and Mide Gerrard who had owned the castle from 1973 to 1975. They told me that, after being burnt in 1922 by the IRA while the Darbys were living in England, a mob had ransacked the mansion and macabrely hung the tame peacocks from meat hooks on the tower. The Darbys then gave the castle to an old lady, a family retainer, who later died of a gangrenous leg. After it changed hands once more they had purchased it as an investment. Peter Gerrard told me his mother had been a friend of Cicely O'Carroll-Darby, and she had been invited to spend a night at the castle for a dance. She told him afterwards that she hadn't slept well and continually felt that someone or something was hovering over the end of her bed. He added that he thought the whole area around Leap was evil and that nothing good had befallen anyone who had owned it. He then said that he hoped he had escaped this curse because he had lost money when he sold it - we all laughed nervously.

The next owner, Peter Bartlett, was an Australian and an O'Bannon. His clan had held the castle before the O'Carrolls, but were secondary chieftains to them. I had dinner with him one night in the summer of 1988 and noticed that his tenancy at the castle was exerting both a mental and physical drain on his resources. He told me that many extraordinary poltergeist phenomena had taken place when he began to renovate the building and he was inclined to support Lady Rosse's theory of the overwhelming powers of the rock. He believed that we are living in an age when the ghosts of all the dead and departed are crying out to warn us not to abuse nature and its abundance. Peter died tragically the following year and the castle is now in the hands of a trust. Lady Rosse told me that she was keen to rid the castle of its ghostly reputation, but I wonder what powerful magic can cleanse this dark fortress of its fiendish past: to me, these supernatural powers are best left alone.