Ireland is a proudly haunted island, its landscape defined by ancient cairns and standing stones, by ruined abbeys, castles and cottages.
The spectral comes in many famous forms: the ladies — the White Lady of Kinsale (who threw herself off the walls of Charles Fort after her husband was shot); the Waiting Lady of Ardgillan Castle (on vigil for her drowned husband); the Faceless Lady of Belvelly Castle (survived a siege but went insane upon discovering she was no longer beautiful) — the incarcerated (Cork District Lunatic Asylum, the Wicklow Jail); and the casualties of war (the Jacobites of the Battle of Aughrim and King James II, who is said to haunt Athcarne Castle six miles from where he was defeated in the Battle of the Boyne).
So if you are looking, there are plenty of ghosts to be found in Ireland.
Or you can do what we did and just bring them with you.
My family and I traveled to Ireland in June 2017 to scatter my parents’ ashes at Downpatrick Head in County Mayo. We knew the exact spot because Mom and Dad, who spent many of their post-retirement summers in the land of our ancestors, had brought us here almost 20 years ago.
Downpatrick Head is one of the world’s more dramatic edges, where the wildflower-studded grass runs in sweet green benevolence until it hits the wild wind and a 140-foot drop onto black rocks and white foam.
We have pictures of my then-1-year-old son Danny sitting in the grass and picking daisies while my parents showed my brother, Jay, where they wanted their ashes to go: right in view of the towering sea stack called Dun Briste (Broken Fort) and a few yards from a blowhole where, my father informed us, British soldiers had thrown local villagers during the 1798 Irish Rebellion.
So not, you know, Rose Hills Cemetery back home.
For a year or two, Downpatrick Head was something of a family joke. We would not make that crazy drive to that crazy cliff, but if we did, we would pitch the ashes down the blowhole. Then far too soon, it wasn’t.
My dad died four years after that trip; when we offered to take Mom and the ashes to Ireland, she said she wanted to wait and be scattered along with him. When she died a few years later, neither my brother nor I had the heart to make the journey.
After that once-upon-a-time 1-year-old went away to college, my brother and I realized we had to get moving, busy schedules and mixed feelings be damned.
My husband, Richard, Danny and his sisters Fiona and Darby, and I flew to Dublin a few days before Jay and his husband, Franco. After what I can only hope was our very last argument to end with “Well, you’re the oldest,” Jay persuaded me to carry the cremains.
It was a bit unsettling to travel with your parents’ ashes. My mom was always fashion-conscious, so I had to find a stylish carry-on, but it was still disconcerting to shove it in the overhead.
In Dublin, we stayed in a lovely flat near the General Post Office, which now houses an excellent museum devoted to the 1916 Easter Rising. We put the bag in a nice alcove where I could nod to them as we came and went.
It wasn’t until we got to the castle that the haunting began.
Jay had decided that we needed to rent a castle. He showed me a few from which to choose, and we both loved Turin Castle, a glorious restored keep in County Mayo near the towns of Ballinrobe and Cong (where “The Quiet Man” was filmed). It slept 12, with five bedrooms and five bathrooms. We were seven, so for once there were no arguments about bedrooms and no waiting for a free bathroom.
Turin Castle rose square and solid from bright green fields at the end of a drive that was easy to miss, in part because it was preceded by at least two turns on unnamed lanes. It has been gorgeously restored, which is not to say renovated. The amenities were modern (and flawless), but the layout was true to history.
All the rooms were accessed by a stone spiral staircase that began on the ground floor, where the doorways were small enough to make male invaders stoop so the current residents could cut off their heads.
Along a series of landings were other bedrooms, bathrooms and the kitchen, which was connected to a breathtaking great room with a fireplace you could stand in and a table that can only be described as “baronial.” (Which it is, in the video on the castle’s website.)
Jay and Franco arrived at the castle several hours after we did, through the mist at dusk, and Franco immediately informed the kids that he felt a definite “atmosphere.” “It’d better have atmosphere,” my jet-lagged brother grumbled, “it’s an Irish castle.”
We have a few ghost stories from our travels — Jay and Franco once stayed in a Parisian hotel with a sorrowing female presence that they felt but never saw — and Ireland is full of places where a ghostly child or a cowled figure would make perfect sense. So when the “this castle is haunted” stories began, I wasn’t surprised.
Franco felt a hand tug his shirt as he got ready for bed; invisible fingers tousled Jay’s hair. Danny, brushing his teeth one night, heard someone hiss “psst” at him, but no one was there. Fiona heard rustling in the kitchen and, annoyed when no one answered her, walked in from the great room to find the kitchen empty.
I laughed, until one day when, after spending a quiet half-hour with Fiona and Darby, I went to find Richard, who asked, “What are those two fighting about now?” I told him the girls weren’t fighting, hadn’t made a sound. “But I heard one of them crying,” Richard said. “Crying and crying.”
The wind at the castle was strong at times, but it always sounded precisely like the wind.
I kept an eye, and ear, out after that, but it was all hard to believe. I have been in houses that felt disturbed or scarred, but Turin Castle was not like that, not scary at all. It was lovely and interesting; even those who felt the spirit thought it was mischievous, not malicious.
I began to feel snubbed, having not encountered it.
The day of the great ash scattering came, and we made our way north to Downpatrick Head with an obligatory, and expensive, stop at Foxford Woolen Mills, where my parents had, years ago, purchased the approximately 387 tweed caps and wool sweaters we were still parceling out to family members.
As we got closer, Waze, which had functioned beautifully throughout our trip, kept taking us along long and ill-fated routes, but we finally arrived at the tip top of Mayo, about three miles north of Ballycastle, population 219, where the wild Atlantic has carved cliffs and sea stacks.
The geography had not changed in 20 years, but a few things had. There was a car park, and there was a viewing area around the blowhole, which we discovered is called Poll na Seantine (Hole of the Ancient Fire), and where, my father would have been interested to learn, local rebels had drowned while hiding from British soldiers. Which is bad, but not as bad as villagers being pitched onto the rocks.
The wind was cold and steady under a pale gray sky. When my parents first brought us here, I told them their ashes would not be scattered anywhere if there was any chance they would blow back all over me. Dumped, not scattered. I had repeated this several times as we prepared for the trip.
But the wind was at our backs as we faced the sea, so strong it molded our coats against us. We went to the spot that our parents had showed us and got as close to the edge of the cliff as our spouses would allow. Jay took Dad and I took Mom and we pried open the boxes, carefully cut the bags, said a prayer and on the count of three, shook their ashes onto Downpatrick Head.
Dad flew out in a great cloud and marked the grass to the cliff. Mom flew out and then, after hanging in the air for a second or two, proceeded to defy the laws of aerodynamics and nature by flying against the wind and all over me.
In my hair, in my eyes, in my mouth. All over my glasses, my coat, into my purse, ashes of Mom. For weeks after, I would pull something out of my wallet and find a little maternal grit.
I was furious, my brother wide-eyed and my kids doubled over with laughter. “She heard you,” said Fiona. “She heard what you said.”
I spat a few times and we walked around a bit, talking about that long-ago day and how much my parents had loved this country. Then we drove to Ballycastle to have lunch at Mary’s Cottage Kitchen, where we had lunched with my parents all those years ago. I went into the ladies room to wipe the ashes from my face, and after I closed the door, the light went out, and then it went back on again. Quick as a wink.
The sun came out on the drive home, and when we returned to the castle, it was bathed in golden light. We stayed another four days, and though the wind sighed and the fire threw shadows on the floor, there were no more hints of haunting. If we wanted ghosts, we would have to look elsewhere; ours were sinking into the Irish grass, settling beneath the Irish sea.