A writer from the north of England, Ann enjoys writing about the unexplained and the paranormal, as well as historical crimes and mysteries.
Leap Castle in County Offaly prides itself on being one of Ireland’s most haunted buildings. Still inhabited, its bloody history is steeped in murder, treachery, and violence. Today, Leap is occupied by the Ryan family, but they are not alone. Up to twenty ghosts are said to wander the halls and corridors of this ancient castle, and nothing or nobody can persuade them to leave.
The Castle’s Origins
The exact origin of Leap Castle has been lost in the mists of time. Some historians suggest that a fortification was built upon the site as early as the twelfth century. Intriguingly the land around Leap was recognised by the Druids as a place of great spiritual significance. The foundations of the current castle were laid sometime in the fifteenth century. Known as O’Bannons’ Leap, local folklore tells a tale of two brothers jumping from a high crag to decide the castle’s ownership. The loser perished, falling to a painful death. The first bloody pages in the history of Leap Castle were written.
Within a hundred years the O’Bannons had relinquished their home to their more powerful neighbours, the O’Carroll’s. Devious, vengeful and violent, their reign was one of terror. In 1532 Mulrooney O’Carroll, the clan leader, died. His sons Thaddeus and Teighe began an almighty battle for control of not only the clan but the castle itself. Thaddeus a priest, was to meet a gory end. One evening whilst conducting mass in the chapel, his brother burst in. Accusing Thaddeus of insulting him by beginning mass before his arrival, Teighe plunged a dagger into his sibling’s chest leaving his body sprawled across a bloodsoaked altar.
Murder became second nature to the O’Carrolls and they would do anything to maintain their iron grip on the land they controlled. The warring tribe often employed other clans as mercenaries to support them in battle. This tactic served them well, as they usually managed to avoid paying for services rendered. When thirty-nine of the unwitting O’Neill family helped them to one victory, the O’Carrolls repaid them by slitting their throats. A similar fate was to befall the McMahons when they helped defeat the Earl of Tyrone in battle. Charles O’Carroll, the last chieftain to occupy the castle, rewarded them by poisoning their drink and disposing of their bodies within the castle walls.
Treachery was at the very core of the O’Carroll soul. It surely couldn’t have come as a shock then, when the daughter of Charles O’Caroll, Deborah, betrayed her father. When an Englishman called Captain Darby was captured and imprisoned within the castle, she fell in love with him. The two eventually married and Darby requested the castle as a reward for his military service during the English Civil War. The couple made the castle a real home for the first time and a son Jonathon was born. Known as ‘the wild captain’ when he became an adult, he buried a fortune in treasure somewhere in the castle‘s grounds before murdering the two servants who helped him. Later he was imprisoned in Dublin Gaol for treason. Miraculously, he escaped execution just in the nick of time when William of Orange pardoned him. Returning to Leap Castle, he searched for years to find his treasure. His endeavour proved fruitless, his memory destroyed by his incarceration. Ironically, he had murdered the only other men who knew where the treasure was buried.
In the nineteenth century, the last Darby to occupy the castle, married Mildred Dill. Dill was a Gothic Novelist with a strong interest in the occult. It was her recounts of the ghostly occupants of Leap Castle that would seal its reputation as the most haunted castle in Ireland.
On the 30 July 1920, the Darby’s residency of the castle was to end. Fortunately, the family was not at home when a band of 30 men presumed to be IRA broke in and set fire to the castle. In a period of seething resentment against the British, the English Darby family was reviled. As well as destroying much of the castle, the men hung the castle’s tame peacocks from the battlements. The Darby family were never to return home and the castle was to lie empty and derelict for many years.
Leap Castle Today
In the 1980s, a descendant of the O’Bannon clan, purchased the castle and began extensive renovations. Plagued by bad luck and setbacks, a white witch was asked to cleanse the castle of its ghostly hangers on. Unable to do this, the witch suggested that the phantoms wished no harm to anybody but were not prepared to leave the castle. Today the castle is owned by musician Sean Ryan. He and his family live peaceably alongside their ghostly tenants and continue to restore and renovate the castle they have grown to love.
In 1922, workmen were employed to clear up some of the damage done to the castle. When two of them began working in the chapel, they were intrigued to discover a trap door hidden behind the altar. After some effort, they managed to open the door and reveal what was hidden beneath. What they discovered was horrific. The door disguised the entrance to a secret dungeon, an oubliette. Designed to lure the unsuspecting to a slow and painful death, the hell hole was lined with wooden spikes. Filled with enough human bones to fill three carts, it was clear that the fortunate had met a quick death. The unfortunate had died slowly of starvation in the pitch-black cell, surrounded by the rotting corpses of those who’d gone before them, their screams unheard through the thick stone walls.
During her time at Leap Castle, Mildred Darby not only wrote a series of dark and sinister ghost stories under the pseudonym Andrew Merry, she also dabbled in the occult. Famous for holding seances and using a ouija board to contact the dead, she is blamed for disturbing the Elemental. Elementals are spirits of the earth able to manifest themselves in physical form. Leap Castle was built on holy Druid land. Did they use magic to conjur up an Elemental to protect their land? Did Mildred Darby’s meddling give the Elemental a physical form? In a letter to a friend Mildred wrote;
Whilst dressing I was startled by a loud yell of terror stricken male and female voices coming—apparently from hall, and ran out to see the cause. My husband was out ahead of me at his heels I passed through corridor of wing and onto the gallery running round two sides of hall. Two lamps on gallery, two more in hall below. On the gallery, leaning with ‘hands’ resting on its rail, I saw the ‘Thing’—the Elemental and smelt it only too well. At the same time, my husband pulled up sharply about 10 feet from the Thing, and half-turning let fly a volley of abuse at me ending up ‘Dressing up a thing like that to try and scare the fools of women and servants—to try and make a fool of me.
Mildred added more detail to her account in an article for the Journal Occult Review. She describes the Entity as being the size of a sheep with large inhuman eyes and a terrible smell of sulphur. Terrifyingly, it had placed its deformed hands upon her shoulders. It was clear who it had come for.
The Ghostly Throng
The Elemental may be the most terrifying spirit occupying Leap Castle but it certainly isn’t the only one. Numerous ghouls and phantoms have been condemned to wander through its ancient rooms for eternity. Thanks to Mildred Darby we know who many of these troubled souls are, others remain a mystery.
- The Red Lady has been witnessed many times at Leap Castle. Tall and beautiful she wears a scarlet dress that rustles as she walks. In her hand, she carries a dagger. Although her identity isn’t clear, it is thought that she was a hostage of the O’Carroll’s. Sometimes seen silently watching over sleeping infants, legend has it that she gave birth in the castle. Rather than feed her child, the O’Carrolls murdered the innocent babe, condemning the ghost of its mother to seek vengeance.
- The Bloody Chapel is one of the most haunted rooms in the castle. The scene of a brutal murder during a sacred mass, it is also the place where unsuspecting prisoners were tossed into the oubliette to die. As well as the ghostly spectre of the murdered priest, bright lights are seen streaming from the windows of the chapel on dark nights.
- The Priest’s House is little more than a burnt-out shell now but it still retains its ghostly residents. Mildred Darby claimed that people sleeping in the house often awoke to find he had been joined in bed by a heavy, snoring man. A monk has been witnessed wandering through the ruins and most strangely a burly man in peasant dress is seen pushing a heavy barrel up the stairs. When he reaches the top he lets the barrel drop and disappears.
- The exact location of the Murder or Muckle Room is no longer known, destroyed in the fire of 1920. Mildred Darby claims to have felt a cold hand grasp hers while sleeping in the room. Shocked she sat up in her bed but could see nothing. Instead, she heard a loud thud and the sound of somebody uttering a prayer. Later a large bloodstain appeared on the floor. Despite being washed and sanded many times, the bloodstain could not be removed.
- Two of the most tragic ghosts in the castle are those of little girls, Emily and Charlotte. They are seen playing in the hall and running up and down the stairs. Emily is believed to have fallen from the battlements to her death. Her ghost is still seen tumbling from the castle roof, disappearing just before she hits the ground, Charlotte, her playmate, drags a deformed leg behind her.
- The ghost of a murdered woman has been witnessed since the O’Carrolls lived in the castle. Almost naked she wears a red cloth over her face and runs screaming along the galleried landing before falling. Legend has it that two of the O’Carroll brothers were fighting over her, whether she was a hostage we will never know. She was allegedly stabbed to death as she attempted to escape from one or both of the brothers.
- A woman known only as the Governess and an old man sometimes appear in the Great Hall. Dressed in Victorian clothing the lady is sometimes seen with Emily and Charlotte. On cold days the old man sits warming himself by an open fire, dressed in buckled shoes and wearing a bright green jacket, he is sometimes seen with a wizened old woman and a priest with a cunning face.
Today, the Ryan family live peacefully alongside their ghostly neighbours. Sean Ryan prefers to call them spirits rather than ghosts and continues to restore beautiful Leap Castle around them. Filled with music and laughter, the atmosphere is no longer sinister and troubled. Even the Bloody Chapel that has seen so much tragedy and death has been used for the christening of the Ryan’s grandchild, a truly happy occasion. These days the ghosts may be a little quieter, but that doesn’t mean they have plans to move on any time soon. As long as these spooky spectres remain within its walls, Leap will continue to proclaim itself the most haunted castle in Ireland.
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Offaly History Blog: ‘The Most Haunted Castle in Ireland’ by Neil Guerin
WikiPeebla.com: Richard Marsden
‘The Haunting History of Leap Castle’ by Leslie O’Malley
‘The Bloody Chapel at Leap Castle’ by Ciaran McHugh
Ciaran McHugh Photography
© 2018 Ann Carney