Spooky Tales for a Celtic Halloween
Updated: Oct 17, 2020
Ardgillian Castle in Dublin, Ireland is a great place to visit for a guided tour, an afternoon tea, or even for a movie shoot. Just don’t go there on Halloween. Guests have reported frequently encountering an apparition on the Lady’s Stairs. She is known as the Waiting Lady. The stairs lead outside to the nearby beach. The Lady is believed to be waiting for her husband to return from the sea but he drowned. She then also drowned, leaving her children orphaned. It’s a tragic story and one that is sure to make any decent person a bit sad, especially since the Waiting Lady usually doesn’t bother anyone. She’s just waiting for her husband. Most days. But, the legend says, if you see the Waiting Lady on Halloween, you will be thrown out to sea and drowned.
Halloween, which grew out of the Celtic festival of Samhain, is an excellent time to tell ghost stories. Samhain is very much about mortality and ghosts. Each year at Samhain (starting at sunset on Oct. 31st), according to Celtic belief, the veil between this world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest. It is so thin in places that you can see through it or even cross over to the other side. Of course, the inhabitants of the Otherworld can—and do—cross over into this world too. So who lives in the Otherworld? Faeries, of course. Ghosts as well. In fact, at Samhain, Celtic folklore says, those who have died during the year will come back to take care of any unfinished business. Before we go on, though, let’s be clear. The Otherworld isn’t up there somewhere. Celtic spirituality teaches that it is right here, all around us, all the time. We just can’t see it because of the veil. But there are places where the veil is thin year ‘round and souls that just insist on making their presence known. Here, to get us in the Halloween spirit, are some of their stories.
The Faceless Lady
In the seventeenth century, the people of Great Island in Co. Cork, Ireland, held Margaret Hodnett’s beauty in high esteem. So did Margaret. She had mirrors placed throughout her family home, Belvelly Castle, so she could admire herself in any room. Unsurprisingly, suitors came to call. One, a local lord named Clon Rockenby, felt he must have the greatest beauty in the land for his wife. But Margaret refused him. And refused him. And kept refusing him. Undaunted, Rockenby made up his mind to take her as his wife whether she liked it or not. So he brought an army with him to Belvelly Castle. But he decided there was no need for violence. Instead, he laid siege to the castle. Margaret and her family, he felt sure, were so spoiled that they wouldn’t hold out long. He underestimated them, though. It took a year before they gave in. When Rockenby entered the castle to claim his bride, he found her completely emaciated. Her beauty had wasted away along with her body. In a fit of anger, he smashed Margaret’s favorite mirror. Margaret’s brother, meanwhile, ran the unsuccessful suitor through with a sword.
Margaret went mad after this and spent the rest of her days roaming about the castle, looking in each mirror, seeking her lost beauty. Belvelly Castle is now for sale but I wouldn’t recommend buying it. Margaret’s ghost still roams the castle. She appears, they say, as a lady in white who routinely goes to a spot on a particular wall where, apparently, her favorite mirror used to be. She rubs the wall as if trying to see her reflection. Margaret sometimes appears veiled but when she is not, they say, she is completely faceless.
The Black Dog of Rosslyn Castle
In 1302, during a battle with the English, a Scotsman defending Rosslyn Castle killed a knight. The knight’s dog then attacked the Scotsman. Sadly, the man was forced to kill the dog too. After the battle, the victorious Scottish guards returned to the castle, believing there would be peace at last. But there wasn’t. Each night, a huge black dog would enter the castle’s guard room, terrify the soldiers then vanish. Finally, one night, the soldier who had slain the dog was in the room when its ghost entered. The man yelled in horror and collapsed. Three days later he died. The ghostly dog never came again to the guard room but, on stormy nights, the dog’s unearthly baying can be heard in the woodlands surrounding Rosslyn Castle.
Corpse Candles and Phantom Funerals
You don’t have to live or work in a castle to encounter a ghost. You can find yourself face-to-face with one (or more) simply by walking home at night from work (or the pub).
A man from Coed-y-Brenin in Wales was walking home one evening. Just as he came to a crossroad, he found himself pressed in on all sides by a mass of ghostly presences. They walked on, taking no notice of him and seeming not to care about how they were jostling him and moving him along like a stick caught in a current. Then he saw the blue lights of corpse candles, bobbing forward, held by invisible hands. That’s when he knew he was caught in the midst of a phantom funeral. It was all he could do not to faint from fear! Gathering his wits, he escaped into a nearby field and watched as the funeral procession continued towards Neuadd Lwyd. A few days later, he witnessed an actual funeral taking the same route to the graveyard and gave thanks he wasn’t the one in the casket.
The Welsh considered seeing a phantom funeral or even just the corpse lights floating by themselves down a road as a sign of the imminent death of someone who lives close by. Sometimes, the person who sees the procession is the one destined to die.
Phantom funerals aren’t unique to the Welsh. Ireland’s National Folklore Collection contains a handwritten account of a phantom funeral which was seen in Ballyhaise, Co. Cavan, Ireland. The account, written by Mena Hutchinson, says that Johnnie Smith of Carrickmore was making his way one morning to the Clone Fair when he heard the sound of horses and carriages coming behind him. He jumped into a ditch to get out of the way. When he looked, he saw two white horses drawing a hearse and twelve more carriages in procession behind it. Mena’s story doesn’t explain how Mr. Smith recognized this as a phantom funeral but it indicates that Hutchison’s father told this story as an example of one. The handwritten account can be seen here.
For the Irish, the main harbinger of death is the banshee. She is not a ghost. She is a fairy who devotes herself to a particular family, warning them of the impending death of a relative by keening (wailing and moaning). Banshees are usually heard rather than seen but anyone who encounters this fairy will never forget the experience. The following banshee story is based on an eyewitness account collected and recorded by the poet and folklorist, W. B. Yeats in his book, Irish Fairy & Folk Tales.
At twilight on an early November evening, Mr. Connelly made his way home from work. The walk was a long one on a lonely road, but he had made this trip so many times, he gave no thought to anything unusual happening. Until he reached the bridge over the stream. Mist was rising up from the water and suddenly everything had a strange, dream-like feel to it.
“Ah, Thomas,” he rebuked himself, “get hold of yourself, man!” He tried to shake off the strange feeling but a chill went into him as if a cold wind was blowing right through his heart. His legs nearly gave out but he forced himself towards the bridge.
That’s when he saw her, an old woman (or so he thought) crouching there on the rise of the bridge. She was hunched over, her head buried in her hands, and she seemed to be in great distress.
Despite the fear shaking his insides, he pitied the woman and, approaching her, said, “This is a cold place to be resting, ma’am.”
When she didn’t respond, he asked, “Are you all right?” Mr. Connelly reached out to touch her on the shoulder but something made him stop. He studied her. She wasn’t old. Her hair wasn’t gray, as he had thought. It was black as onyx with moonlight shining off it, and was longer than any he’d seen on any other woman. It flowed over her shoulders, down her back, and continued along the ground for a couple more feet. Her arms were slender and shapely, like a young woman’s. She wore a green dress and a grey cloak of unearthly beauty.
Quickly, he blessed himself, saying, “God’s protection be upon us.”
With that, the woman lifted her face to him. It was paler than a corpse’s. Her eyes clear blue and cold as a frosty night were red and raw from crying. She stood up, lifted her arms, and let out a wail of such agony and despair that Mr. Connelly thought he’d drop dead then and there, so strong was the thumping of his heart against his chest. The woman glided away and vanished into the mists.
Mr. Connelly ran the rest of the way home and Mrs. Maguire, his good landlady, had to pour a river of whiskey down his throat to revive him.
The next day, he heard from neighbors that a family whose house was near the stream had a relative visiting from Tyrone, and that they had found him that morning dead in his bed. That’s when Mr. Connelly knew for sure. On the bridge the night before, he’d met a banshee.
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Slan go foil!
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