Is Leap Castle the world’s most haunted castle? Would any castle even want to hold this unusual and possibly unwanted accolade? It would, and on its website Leap Castle wears it as a crest. It has indeed made many lists as one the world’s most haunted. But what’s the story behind this small Irish castle? Is it worth a visit? Are you brave enough?
This tourist attraction is quite unlike any others I’ve visited in Ireland. In fact it’s possibly unlike any I’ve visited in the world.
I visited Leap Castle mostly by accident. I knew previously of its existence and a little of the story behind it. But as chance would have it, while I was travelling around the area on a road trip some months back , I found myself within a few miles of it. As it would turn out, it would prove to be the unexpected highlight of this pandemic road trip.
Visiting Leap Castle
Leap Castle is located in County Offaly between the towns of Roscrea and Birr. It’s about 1 hour and 45 minutes from Dublin, Cork and Galway. A real middle of nowhere place, as you can see on the map below. Don’t expect a bus stop outside, it’s only reached by car and GPS. Even then it’s hard to recognise from the road.
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As I pulled up outside the gate house of the castle I couldn’t even tell if it was open. I parked the car in on the hard shoulder and walked inside, in the unexpected hope that I could visit. My hopes weren’t high as all looked deserted. Just then an elderly gent walked out from a cottage. My first impressions were that he appeared a little like a Druid, with a long grey beard, and a unruly mane. Was I trespassing in his home? I apologised if I was being an imposition and asked if the castle was open. To my surprise, an offer to take me to see it was the reply.
As I turned out I was in his home. The gentleman I met was Sean Ryan, who along with his wife and children called Leap Castle home. I was quite startled to hear this, having only heard of the ghost stories of the house. Most people flee in the face of this. Not Sean Ryan.
Sean took me into the castle. The first thing that caught my eye was the rather intriguing knocker on the door. It suggest one enters at their peril. To my further surprise the room that followed was far more homely than I expected. Logs crackled in a large hearth to the left. The walls and tables were a ramshackle collection of memorabilia. They screamed life not death. This room was Sean’s family’s living room. With that Sean stirrer the wood in the hearth and took a seat by the fire, as he has done for the last 25 years.
We instantly sparked up a conversation. He asked me my interest in the place, and rather than blurt out about the castles infamous history I conservatively said I had read some stories online. With that Sean then took to telling me the castles history. Throughout my unusual visit, the subject of ghosts or spirits never came up, and all I have garnered about this has come from online sources, predominantly the castles own website.
The History of Leap Castle
Instead Sean spoke of the text book history. This bloody history alone is sufficient to conclude something isn’t quite right in the place. Imagine a poltergeist in a haunted house with a pet cemetery all built on a native burial ground. Now you’re on the right track! The castle was built by the O’Carroll’s in the 15th century. The O’Carroll’s were known as a viscous people, who wouldn’t let anyone stand in their way to get power. And so it would be for the time that they controlled the castle. They left a trail of blood and murder that is still felt to this day by the castles other inhabitants.
Their 150 years in charge were a turbulent one. John O’Carroll was the first prince of Ely. Over the years no fewer than seven of the O’Carroll’s were murdered for this title. Half of them in fact by other O’Carroll’s. Eventually they conceded the castle to the Darby’s in 1667. The Darby’s would live here until a faithful night in 1922 when the IRA would come calling to burn the castle interior. The Darby’s has reputedly being tough landlords, and the castle therefore represented a symbol of British rule.
Sean explained to me that he purchased the castle in 1991, and set out to fully renovate it. A complete shell at the time, all that was before me was from his own private collection, much of which was collected from around the world. Sean had spent his life as a traditional Irish musician which had took him to far flung places. A sculpture of a king stood out- it was the bow of a ship brought back from the Philippines. Amazing how it fit so well in the surroundings of an Irish Castle. Sean had added a conservatory overlooking the lands to the east, and it added a breath of fresh air to the otherwise musky surroundings.
The Many Ghosts of Leap Castle
Of course so far I’ve left out the bit so far about the ghosts. And there are oh so many. How many places can count 50 ghosts as their permanent residents? The Ryan’s and Mildred Darby (who lived here during the late 19th century) have kept a good account of this sightings. Mildred Darby was known to perform seances and it is believed this may have led to increased activity in the castle. Since it has allowed visitors there have been several sightings, and innumerate reports of people feeling a presence passing by them. To date it has featured on two TV shows, Ghost Adventures and Most Haunted, both looking to capture that unique atmosphere possessed within.
The first is the priest. Two of the O’Carroll brothers once contested the right to be next chieftain. One day while one of them Thaddeus O’Carroll was saying mass in the chapel on the castles top floor, the other brother Teighe stormed in and murdered him on the altar. His ghost is still said to inhabit the chapel, or the spiral staircase below. There have been many reports of a bright light shining from the chapel, even after the castle had been burned.
Mildred Darby recounts a story of how as she woke one morning a stone cold hand grasped hers. Whatever it was then collapsed in an agonising string of prayers. She also wrote of how a blood stain in the floor couldn’t be washed away.
Red Lady of Leap Castle
Perhaps the most famous of all is the Red Lady. It was she that drew a number of supernatural and ghost hunting shows to the castle. A tall figure, emanating light, she is known to walk the corridors, in a red cape holding a dagger menacingly in her hand. Imprisoned and raped by one of the O’Carroll’s she was said to have given birth to a baby. The baby was murdered by the O’Carroll’s and in grief she soon after took her own life with the same dagger. A jarring cold is said to precede her appearance. Bring a coat just in case.
The priests house which adjoins the castle was never refurbished since the Ryan’s moved in. It is an empty shell of what it once was. But in the day of the Darby’s a heavy shadow hung over the place. A peasant man pushing a barrel up a stairs is one of the apparitions. A monk, of unknown past is said to often pass through one window, before leaving through another. It was also said that those sleeping there, would often feel a heavy weight atop them. A weight that was said to have snored. Now that’s the stuff to give you nightmares.
The third of the Darby’s to inhabit Leap Castle was a Captain Jonathon Darby. He was said to have buried the family treasure throughout the estate of the castle. However a charge of treason saw him imprisoned in Dublin. He escaped the sentence of being hung drawn and quartered and was released some years later, but the experience took its toll and he couldn’t recall where he had hidden the treasure. The secret was taken to the grave and beyond, as his ghost still searches for that lost treasure.
On several occasions while engaging in a battle the O’Carroll’s were said to hire men. Rather than pay them they would take them back to the castle and Murder them. Soldiers from the McMahon clan, another Irish tribe from Monaghan aided in a battle against the earl of Tyrone. As they slept at night after a celebration in the castle, they had their throats slit. These soldiers are said to haunt the castle Great Hall.
Emily and Charlotte
Emily and Charlotte were two little girls who lived here during the 1600s. Tragedy struck when Emily fell from the battlements of the castle. Many stories over the years recount seeing a girl falling from the battlements only to disappear before she hits the ground. The ghosts of the girls are often seen playing, laughing, and crying in the main hall, Sean Ryan’s family’s living room.
But wait, there’s more
I’ve been to castles with ghosts before but it seems Leap Castles’ list of ghosts is endless. A woman that was murdered in the castle is known to appear, scream and then disappear again. Then there’s the governess who was the minder of the aforementioned Emily and Charlotte. An old man, dressed in green is also commonly seen in the main hall, sometimes warming himself by the fire as Sean Ryan was during my visit. The old man is often accompanied by a woman in old fashioned dress and a large head-dress, and another old man dressed like a priest.
In the walls by the church an 8 foot deep hide was built, to store things or hideout during an attack. But the O’Carroll’s found their own sadistic use for it. It became an oubliette, which translates as “to forget” from French. They would throw their enemies into the hole, where horrifically the walls of the castle would become their permanent prison and final resting place. The O’Carroll’s would then simply forget about them.
In the 16th century 39 members of the O’Neill clan are said to have helped the O’Carroll’s in a battle, but had their throats cut at a celebratory feast in true family style. They were all thrown into the oubliette. When the Darby’s later renovated they took 3 cart loads of bones from the oubliette, suspected to be around 150 bodies. A ghost is said to still live in the Oubliette, as seen by Sean Ryan. It is also postulated that the moving of the bodies awoke a sinister spirit known as the Elemental.
The Elemental is an entity said to have been drawn to the house by the sheer number of incidents here. But there are other theories. The Wizard Earl of Kilkea Castle is one suspect, with the suspicion being that he put a curse on Leap castle. Others believed that the castle is built on an ancient druid site, where the dark arts were practiced.
The urban dictionary describes an elemental as “An apparition or entity that cannot be fully perceived is called an elemental or elemental ghost. Something that moves too fast for the human sensory range is perceived as a blur and cannot be seen clearly due to its rate exceeding the frequency where it will properly be perceived.”
Mildred Darby’s seances and occult practices may have led her to the discovery of the oubliette, and in addition the awakening of the Elemental. It was her that witnessed this dark spirit mostly, and is thus best described in her own words in a not too familiar publication nowadays, the “Occult Review”.
Mildred Darby and the Elemental
“Suddenly, two hands were laid on my shoulders. I turned round sharply and saw, as clearly as I see you now-a grey ‘Thing’, standing a couple of feet from me, with it’s bent arms raised as if it were cursing me. I cannot describe in words how utterly awful the ‘Thing’ was, it’s very indefinableness rendering the horrible shadow more gruesome. Human in shape, a little shorter than I am, I could just make out the shape of big black holes like great eyes and sharp features, but the whole figure-head, face, hands and all-was grey-unclean, blueish grey, something of the colour and appearance of common cotton wool. But, oh! so sinister, repulsive and devilish. “
“The thing was about the size of a sheep, thin, gaunt and shadowy in parts. It’s face was human, or to be more accurate, inhuman, in it’s vileness, with large holes of blackness for eyes, loose slobbery lips, and a thick saliva-dripping jaw, sloping back suddenly into its neck! Nose it had none, only spreading, cancerous cavities, the whole face being a uniform tint of grey.”
“It’s lustreless eyes, which seemed half decomposed, and looked incredibly foul, stared into mine, and the horrible smell which had before offended my nostrils, only a hundred times intensified, came up to my face, filling me with a deadly nausea. I noticed the lower half of the creature was indefinite and seemed semi-transparent-at least, I could see the framework of the door that led into the gallery through its body.“
Undoubtedly no spirit has had such a profound and disturbing affect by its appearance to people in the castle as the Elemental. The castles website tells a frightening story of the interactions with this entity too.
My own tour of the haunted Leap Castle
After Sean had brought me up to speed with the movements of the castle over the years, he subsequently invited me to explore the chapel on the top floor. We exchanged €6, the price Sean asks for the privilege to tour his home. Then came the moment I didn’t expect. Sean handed me a torch and beckoned to a door leading to a spiral staircase. Did this mean what I expected? I had to visit possibly the world’s most haunted castle…
I of course couldn’t let down my curious side. So on I went. Sean advised that the torch was necessary on the dark stairs just to navigate. Oh great. He also asked that when I was coming back if I could be sure to padlock the church door behind me. Which made me think and wonder. What was he looking to keep out exactly?
The spiral staircase was lit at the bottom but as it ascends the light thrown is less and less. A number of closed doors and unusual objects set the mind racing as one climbs. A loose stone step then caused my heart to skip a beat. I climb further now fully relying on the torch to show the way. Spooky is an understatement. Finally I reached the padlocked door of the chapel.
Entering the haunted chapel of Leap Castle
Drawing the bolt back the door creakily opened on to the church floor. I perhaps saw now why the door was padlocked. This floor is open to the elements, a step too far in Sean Ryan’s renovation so far. He tells me later that 2020 was to have been the year for that. Another victim of the year that was in it. For now though the chapel provides another fascinating side to this eerie place.
The chapel is but a shell of what it once was. The windows are without glass; one could easily step through and plummet to the ground far below. That strange thought crossed my mind, perhaps a psychological bi-product of the place I now stood. Staring back at the door I walked through, I sincerely hoped no one padlocked me in this creepy place of notorious history.
The chapel had a few more features that filled my mind with intrigue. One window overlooked the ruins of the priests house. It looked a particularly forlorn place with some crows circling above adding to that feeling. No monks crossed my field of vision though. To one shadowy side of the chapel a spiral staircase led downwards. There was no apparent destination and I dared not explore. On the other side lay a trap door, the presumed top of the famed oubliette. I took care to back away, it has claimed enough victims with the years.
My own personal “What was that?” experience
I returned downstairs, completely exhilarated by my experience (without any unearthly appearances), taking care to lock the chapel and all that it holds within, out and away from the Ryan family.
Back in the Main Hall came the moment I can’t explain though. As Sean and I spoke about the current predicament in Ireland, a noise resembling a voice suddenly interrupted our conversation. We both glanced in the direction but no one was visibly there. I turned back to Sean and he resumed the conversation as if nothing had happened.
Was this the reaction of a man too used to seeing and hearing the unexpected? Was there a rational explanation such as another family member being in the castle? Or had I too had an experience of the supernatural, as so many visitors and inhabitants before had done? I never asked Sean what it was. I’ve always been a good judge of character and emotion simply by watching the face of a person. And in Sean’s face I saw the tells that’s it was a question that was indeed best left unasked. And so it became another thing left unsaid. Shortly after I left, never to know…
Travel Insurance on the Halloween Trail
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