In County Offaly, Republic of Ireland, near the town of Birr, there is a strategic pass through the Slieve Bloom mountain range to the province of Munster. The area was under the control of the O’Carroll clan. Their secondary chieftain from the O’Bannon clan built a tower fortress here to guard the pass in the late 15th century. The name of the castle in Gaelic was “Leim Ui Bhanain” which meant “Leap of the O’Bannons”. Eventually, the O’Carrolls took possession of the fortification. Today it is known as Leap Castle (pronounced “Lep”) and can be reached from the R421, just four miles north of the town of Roscrea.
The O’Carrolls were not exactly the type of people you would invite to have dinner at your house. More precisely, they were not the sort of people whom you should accept dinner invitations from. In the 16th century, O’Carroll of the Leap hosted a sumptuous banquet at the castle. He invited a rural branch of his own sept to the function. Hardly had his guests settled down at the table than he slaughtered each and everyone of them. He certainly would not be nominated for the Most Gracious Host of the Year award.
Settling matters with the cutting edge of the sword seems to be the standard modus operandi for the O’Carrolls. In 1532, Mulrooney O’Carroll, the clan chief died, without appointing a successor. His sons settled the matter in their own way. One of them was a priest. One day, as he was leading mass on the top floor of the tower, another brother burst in to bring things to an abrupt end. This brother, who was known as One-Eyed Teige O’Carroll, stabbed the priest in the back. Mortally wounded, the priest fell and died at the altar. After that, the room was called the Bloody Chapel.
The ownership of Leap Castle passed from the hands of the O’Carrolls to the Darbys in what can be considered to be a most suitable way. In the 17th century, an English soldier named Captain Darby was imprisoned in the castle dungeons. A daughter of the clan chief fell in love with him. She smuggled food to him. Eventually she helped him to escape. As they were going down a staircase on their way out, her brother came upon them. Naturally he did not approve of their plan. The English captain cut short his protests with a single sword thrust.
It turned out that the slain brother was the heir to the castle. With him dead, the daughter inherited Leap Castle. In 1659 she married Captain Darby and the castle became the possession of the Darby family.
A Young Girl Ghost
The blood-spattered exploits of the O’Carrolls spawned many paranormal manifestations at Leap Castle. The ghost of a young girl has been sighted many times. This was said to be the apparition of the daughter of one of the past owners of the castle. Her father wanted to marry her off to a rich gentleman. However, she insisted on falling in love with a poor farm boy. When her father found out, he settled the matter in the standard O’Carroll way. He had the boy killed.
His daughter, being an O’Carroll, reciprocated in kind. One night, while he was asleep, she went into his bedroom and killed him. The tit-for-tat killings carried over into the other realm. The following day, the daughter went up to the top of the castle. Possibly she was wondering what lay ahead for her. She got her answer in a very typical O’Carroll way. An invisible hand pushed her off the tower and she fell to her death. It was believed that it was her father’s ghost which had caused her fatal fall. Many visitors to Leap Castle have heard ghostly moaning and weeping at night. Some have seen lights at the top of the castle. They said that late at night the windows at the top floor “light up for a few seconds as if many candles were brought into the room”.
The Horrible Elemental
A member of the Darby family who owned the castle after the O’Carrolls was responsible for a fearsome addition to the plethora of ghosts haunting Leap Castle. In the late 19th century, interest in the occult was the fashion of the day. Mildred Darby tried her hand in the dark arts, innocently thinking that it was just for fun. Little did she know that her actions would bring forth a being horrifying beyond her wildest nightmares.
In 1909, Mildred Darby wrote an article for the Journal Occult Review. In her article, she described the paranormal being she had met. She said she was standing in the gallery when she felt someone put a hand on her shoulder. Actual what touched her was more of a something than a someone. The thing was about the size of a sheep. She said it was thin, gaunt and shadowy. It had a face. Its eyes, which seemed to be half decomposed in black cavities, stared into hers. There was a horrible smell emanating from the thing. She thought it smelt like a decomposing corpse.
People who are familiar with the dark arts said that Mildred Darby had awakened an elemental which is thought to be some kind of a primitive ghost. Nevertheless the Darbys lived in Leap Castle until 1922. That was when the Irish fought for independence from England. The castle, being the home of an English family, was a prime target. It was bombed and looted until only a fire-gutted shell remained. Of course, the Darbys had to leave.
A Forgotten Oubliette
In 1922, workers assigned to restoring the castle found an oubliette. This was a small dungeon. Its name is from the French word “oublier” which means “forget”. The oubliette was just behind the wall of the Bloody Chapel. It was simply a room with a drop floor. People who were sent into the room fell eight feet through the floor. At the bottom there were spikes. If they were lucky, they would be impaled and died quickly. Otherwise, they just starve to death, forgotten by whoever sent them into the room. The oubliette was full of human skeletal remains. It took three cartloads to remove the grisly discovery.
A New Old Ghost
In the 1970s, an Australian bought Leap Castle. He invited a white witch from Mexico to drive the spirits out of the castle. After many hours of parley with the specters in the Bloody Chapel, she announced that the spirits would not cause any further trouble but they insisted on remaining in the castle.
In the 1990s, the castle was bought by the current owners, Sean Ryan, a well-known musician, and his wife, Anne. In May 2002, they found the ghost of an old man sitting in a chair by a fireplace downstairs. They were not in the least surprised. With so many ghosts around the place, one more would not make much difference. So they just wished the apparition a good day and went about their daily routine.
It is possible that the ghosts of Leap Castle have decided to leave the living in peace. A few years earlier in 1991, they held the christening of their daughter in the Bloody Chapel. For the first time in many hundreds of years, the place was filled with the sound of music and laughter. It was said to be a “happy, pleasant, wonderful day”.
Anyone looking for some congenial spirits should consider a visit to Leap Castle. There is no lodging offered at the castle but visitors can spend a few pleasant nights at the nearby hotels while they explore the castle during the day.
Further information on the Leap Castle:
The Viscount Gormanston is a title in the Peerage of Ireland which is held by the head of the Preston family. This title was created in 1478. The title-holder is the senior Viscount of Ireland besides being the bearer of the oldest vicomital title in either Britain or Ireland.
The crest of the Viscount Gormanston is rather unusual. It has a fox on it. In heraldry nomenclature, the crest is described as:
“On a chapeau, gules, turned up, ermin, a fox pasant, proper”
When the Foxes come to Gormanston Castle
This fox on the crest is said to be connected to a paranormal phenomena unique to the Prestons of Gormanston. It is said that whenever a Lord Gormanston was about to breath his last, foxes in large numbers would gather at Gormanston Castle. Since foxes, by nature, are solitary creatures, for them to get together in any number at all is considered very unusual.
There are two possible origins for this extraordinary occurrence. One version claimed that it happened during a fox-hunt. A vixen with its nursing pups was cornered by the hounds. The incumbent Lord Gormanston took pity on the poor animals and called off the hunt without harming them in any way. Then when he died, the foxes were said to have kept vigil around the castle in remembrance of his good deed.
Another version claimed that it also happened during a fox-hunt but ended in a different way. Apparently the incumbent Lady Gormanston hated hunting. During the hunt, she found a vixen. Then she hid it somewhere out of harm’s way until the hunt was over. After that she released the vixen into safety. It was said that when she died, the foxes came to mourn her passing.
This strange behavior of the foxes of Gormanston had been observed a number of times. In the winter of 1860, when the 12th Viscount Gormanston was waiting out the last minutes of his life, Lord Fingall was told by a villager,
“My Lord, you will not find today, all the foxes have gone to Gormanston to see the old lord die.”
In 1876, when the succeeding Viscount Gormanston passed away, it was said that a number of foxes had followed the cortège carrying his body to the churchyard. They were said to have kept pace across the fields in a line parallel to the human mourners.
Another incident of this strange occurrence was related by Fr. John Ramsey, the grandson of the 14th Viscount Gormanston. He said that in 1927, before his grandfather was buried, the foxes had surrounded the chapel where the body was lying. Colonel Richard Preston DSO, the Lord Gormanston’s brother, tried to chase them away but they would not go away until the sun came up.
There was a similar incident reported by a distinguished Irish lady who was living near Gormanston. One morning in June 1940, a villager came to her parents’ house and said,
“Something has happened to Lord Gormanston, the foxes were barking all night long.”
Not long afterwards, they received news that the 16th Viscount Gormanston had fallen in the line of duty in France.
There were records in the Preston family logs which told of the same paranormal phenomena. These records dated back to the 17th century. They stated that as the 12th Viscount Gormanston lay dying, foxes gathered around the castle for several days. They were sighted sitting beneath the Viscount’s bedroom window, barking and howling the whole night long. Even after his death, the foxes were still lingering around the residence. Only after the funeral did they go back to wherever they had come from.
Witnesses had noticed some other peculiarities about this gathering of the foxes of Gormanston. One was that the foxes did not molest any poultry. During the gathering, the foxes were seen walking through scores of farmyard fowl apparently oblivious to the presence of what was, in normal circumstances, their dinner fare. Another peculiarity was that the guard dogs of the castle did not harm the foxes either.
On October 28, 1907, the 14th Viscount Gormanston, Jenico William Joseph, passed away. The New Ireland Review contained many interesting items about this event in its April 1908 issue.
Some of the unusual happenings were related by Lady Gormanston. She said that for a few days before the Viscount died, the foxes had been seen coming to the castle. The Viscount’s valet, who was sleeping in his room, heard what he thought was a dog barking. He opened the window and saw, instead of a dog, a fox sitting beneath the window and barking. She said that on the day that Edward, the 13th Viscount Gormanston, died, the foxes had also gathered at the castle. Actually, Edward had seemed better that day but the foxes apparently knew better. They came and sat under the window barking. That night, Edward passed away.
Lucretia P. Farrell, the daughter of the 13th Viscount, reported some similar incidents. She said that on the day before her grandfather died, the foxes had come in pairs from all around. They came to sit under his bedroom window. Then they started howling and barking all night. They were chased away but they kept coming back. In 1876, when her father died, she had nursed him until the end. Just before he died, she fell ill. Her family told her that the foxes had come as usual although not in such great numbers as before.
Anthony Delahan, a coachman, had his own account of the strange behavior of the foxes. On October 26, which was a Monday, at about 8 pm, he said he saw two foxes in the chapel ground. There were five or six more in front of the castle. He also noticed several foxes in the cloisters. The foxes in the cloisters were moving around in a circle, crying all the time. He watched their strange behavior until about 11 pm when he went to bed. He told Patrick White, a steward, about the foxes and White also saw the foxes.
On Wednesday, October 30, 1907, at about 10 pm, Richard Preston went to the chapel at Gormanston Castle to keep vigil by the remains of his late father. At about 3 am he heard a small noise outside the chapel. He opened a side door to see who or what was moving about at that hour.
According to him, there was a full-grown fox sitting on the gravel path hardly four feet from where he stood. Then he noticed that there was another fox in the shadow, sitting close up against the wall of the chapel. He could hear several more foxes moving about quietly within a few yards. He thought he could make out some of their shapes in the dark. The two foxes that he could see clearly did not move away when he opened the door. Only when he stepped out of the chapel and walked toward them, did they move off quietly into the shadow.
The current Lord Gormanston is Jenico Nicholas Dudley Preston, the 17th Viscount Gormanston. His son and heir apparent, Hon. Jenico Francis Tara Preston, may be able to tell, when the time comes, if the foxes of Gormanston are still keeping up with their centuries-old tradition.