Considered by many to be Ireland’s most haunted castle, Leap Castle was allegedly home to some brutal atrocities in centuries gone by.
Located in Coolderry, County Offaly, Ireland, this historical structure has garnished worldwide attention and has been featured on a number of television shows catering to an audience with a fascination for the supernatural including Ghost Hunters and TV’s Most Haunted. But what is the history behind this infamous castle and what is at the root of its sinister reputation?
The O’Bannons were ruled by the O’Carroll clan, who held the land until 1659, when it passed to the Darby family through marriage. Twice during the O’Carroll ruling, Gerald FitzGerald—the Earl of Kildar—attempted to seize the castle, but the O’Carrolls managed to regain ownership. The tales collected and passed through the years paint a bloody picture of generational disputes at Leap Castle, reading as a veritable who killed whom of inter-family murders.
One of the most notorious spirits of Leap Castle is that of the red lady, a very tall spectre clothed in a fluttering red gown clinging to a sharp blade. The story behind the red lady is that she was imprisoned by the O’Carroll’s and repeatedly raped. She gave birth to a baby who was then murdered by the O’Carrolls. Overwhelmed with grief over the loss of her child, the red lady used the knife her phantom bears, to put an end to her own life of torment.
Another example of the horrible history of the castle took place in the late 1500s. The last chieftain of the O'Carroll Clan was at war with the Earl of Tyrone. He hired the northern MacMahon Clan, around 40 men strong, trained to fight for him, in the celebration of their victory on the field, the McMahon clan attended a feast at the castle before retiring for the night , the O'Carrol's then murdered them as they slept after the battle.
The MacMahons join the other ghosts in the castle.
The bloody history of the castle includes murder and massacre of guests and inhabitants aplenty in fact.
Yet another part of the tortured history of the castle was uncovered when workmen in the 1800s found a dungeon, or "oubliette", behind and underneath the altar. A trap door led to the spiked oubliette where many skeletons of victims were found
When they explored the sinister dark hole further they made a horrific discovery – there were enough human skeletons amassed on top of wooden spikes that it would take 3 cart loads to remove them. Prisoners – or unsuspected guests – of the O'Carrolls would have been dropped down through the hidden trap door above the oubliette where they would have had their lungs punctured by the wooden spikes below. There they would be left to die a horrific death within earshot of their gracious hosts and their merriment below.
In the 1600s the castle again switched ownership. It was not a peaceful passing along of the ownership torch, however. As the story goes, the daughter of the reigning O’Carroll chieftain became smitten with an English prisoner in one of the castle’s dungeons, a captain Darby. The O’Carroll daughter would regularly sneak food down to Darby and the two concocted plans to elope. Late one night she snuck down to the dungeons, freed Darby and the two began their grand escape from Leap Castle. Their getaway was cut short, however, when they ran into the girl’s brother on the stairwell and the two commenced in a sword fight where Darby emerged the victor. Upon the death of the O’Carroll son, the daughter became heiress to the castle.
The newly married Darbys took over Leap Castle to start their own family and invested in expansions and renovations. Captain Darby was a bit temperamental and became known as “the wild captain”. He had amassed his own treasures in battle which he hid in compartments scattered throughout the property. The wild captain was later imprisoned for treason in Dublin but was later allowed to return to Leap Castle. Years of imprisonment had driven the wild captain to the brink of madness and he was unable to recall where he had hidden is fortune. As the legend goes, the fortune still remains in Leap Castle and on certain evenings where the energies favor the spirits, you can see the phantom of the wild captain searching the grounds for his lost treasure.
With such a grisly past, it’s no wonder that many believe Leap Castle is swarming with ghosts. One of the castle’s eerier spirits is known as the Elemental, a mysterious figure with a decomposing face and a putrid stench.
Mrs M Darby, who married into the Darby clan in the late-1800s, came face to face with the Elemental numerous times while living at Leap. A gothic horror writer who often featured the castle in her work, Mrs. Darby was also fascinated by the occult. She conducted multiple séances in the castle’s corridors, and some believe that her communications with the other side is what awoke the Elemental.
Just what this elemental presence is manifested from is anybody’s guess. Some say that the elemental was put there by the druids even before Leap Castle was built in order to protect it while others say it is the spirit of one of the O’Carroll’s who died of leprosy.
Mrs M herself described her ordeal in a 1909 article for the Journal Occult Review:
"I was standing in the Gallery looking down at the main floor, when I felt somebody put a hand on my shoulder. The thing was about the size of a sheep. Thin guanting shadowy..., it's face was human, to be more accurate inhuman. Its lust in its eyes which seemed half decomposed in black cavities stared into mine. The horrible smell one hundred times intensified came up into my face, giving me a deadly nausea. It was the smell of a decomposing corpse."
Leap was burnt out and destroyed in 1922 by the IRA while the Darbys were living in England. The IRA then hung peacocks on meathook along the tower.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, 30 July 1922 a party of eleven raiders set fire to the Leap totally destroying the North and larger wing and its valuable contents. Giving evidence in the claims court Richard Dawkins said that on 30 July 1922, he was living in the Castle as caretaker with his wife and baby. They were the only persons in the castle that night. Richard Dawkins stated that at 2.20am there was a knock on the door. He opened the window, put out his head, and saw men outside who stated that they wanted a night’s lodging. They ordered him to open the door. He went down and opened the door and was subsequently held at gunpoint. The raiders then stated that they were going to burn the castle. Dawkins asked for time to get his wife and child out and was given twenty minutes to do so. The raiders then went into the castle and poured petrol over the rooms, and set them on fire. They kept the family outside from 2.30am to 5.00am. Each of the men had a tin of petrol, and all were armed. Some had trench coats and other had bandoleers over their civilian clothes. The men broke furniture before setting the castle on fire.
After the fire on Sunday 30 July the main part of the building was still intact. Richard Dawkins saved a quantity of the furniture and stored it in one of the out-offices. The out-offices were later broken into and looted by people from the surrounding neighbourhood who devoted Sunday to making visits to the ruined building and carting home any serviceable articles that had escaped the fire.
On Monday morning 31 July Richard Dawkins and his family (who had gone to live in the gate lodge) heard a knock at the door at 4.20am. Men outside asked him for paraffin oil. He stated that he had none. The men then left and went down to the castle. When he went down to the castle he found that the Southern part of Leap which had not been burned in the other fire was now on fire. Richard Dawkins could not get into the castle to save the valuable furniture and pictures that had survived; all he managed to save were chairs and a sofa which he stored in Birr. His wife was the only one who gave him any assistance. Although plenty of people came to see the fire they only laughed when Dawkins asked them for assistance.
In a newspaper report Jonathan Darby said that it looked as if there were explosives used in the destruction of the castle he had found some dynamite in the cellar where the raiders got so drunk they could not explode it. He said that it was the locals who burned the castle.
– Noel Guerin (source, Leapcastle.net)
A friend of the Darbys lived in the castle briefly until she was ravaged by gangrene. From then on Leap Castle lay dormant until it was purchased in the 70s by an Australian historian, Peter Bartlett.
Bartlett was actually an ancestor of the founders of Leap Castle, the O’Bannons. Bartlett did extensive restorative work for fifteen years and claims to have witnessed poltergeist activity through much of it. He contracted a white witch to drive the spirits out of the castle. The witch claims that the spirits vowed to not cause any more trouble but insisted on staying in the castle. Bartlett’s renovation efforts were tragically cut short when he died in 1989.
The Ryans have been plagued with freak accidents since living in Leap Castle. One resulted in a broken kneecap that delayed restoration of the castle. Once the renovation resumed, another accident left Ryan with a broken ankle. The castle’s malevolent history and creepy inhabitants didn’t stop The Ryans from conducting their newborn baby’s christening in the haunted Bloody chapel. This joyous event was a nice juxtaposition to the carnage and bloodshed that cursed this room for generations.
Today the castle is still privately owned by The Ryans.
While you cannot stay overnight in Leap Castle, there are plenty of hotels in the vicinity and Sean Ryan welcomes fascinated tourists who want to experience the grounds firsthand. Mr. Ryan has even been known to open his doors to visitors and grant them a private tour of Leap Castle.
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