With Halloween fast approaching there may be a tendency in Ireland to bemoan the Americanisation of the ancient Irish festival of Samhain. However this post will recount details of events in Castlemartyr that might suggest superstitions could be manipulated for other purposes, even as early as the first decades of the seventeenth century.
An Englishman travelling about Ireland in the 1620s befriended Charles McCarthy, later created Viscount Muskerry in 1628. McCarthy, a major Gaelic landowner in County Cork, and a Catholic, was the owner of Blarney Castle. He was well connected and no doubt regaled his visitor with tales of the stone built into his castle that conferred eloquence on those who kissed it. Whether it was the present Blarney Stone or not is open to question.
McCarthy may have been suspicious of the Englishman’s tour – was he a spy sent to identify vulnerable estates that could be seized by the Crown and granted to English planters? Taking the visitor on a tour, McCarthy took him first to Castlelyons to meet the young Lord Barrymore – a scion of the Anglo-Irish Barry family who had married a daughter of Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork. From Castlelyons, the travellers went towards Youghal, but with darkness approaching, they stopped at Castlemartyr for the night.
In those days Castlemartyr was the residence of Edmund FitzJohn FitzGerald, the son of the last effective Seneschal of Imokilly who had died in confinement in Dublin Castle in 1589 just before the order for his release arrived from London. Edmund was only about eighteen months old when his father died. However, despite the fact that his father had twice rebelled against Elizabeth I in the space of ten years, the family estate at Castlemartyr was not confiscated. So, when Edmund came of age about 1610/1611, he inherited his father’s estate. It was almost certainly after this time that Edmund modernised the old castle by adding a modern manor house to his tower house.
Charles McCarthy was certainly the reason why the English traveller was granted ‘meat and bed’ for the night at Castlemartyr, although traditional hospitality would certainly have seen him fed and housed for the night. Another detail would have helped – Edmund FitzGerald was a Catholic, just like McCarthy. One would give much to learn what topics were part of the dinner conversation, but one suspects that land and lineage may have been among the subjects discussed. These were normal subjects of conversation in a status conscious age. One wonders if their host recounted the tale of the execution of his grandmother, Shylie O’Carroll, who was hanged from the gateway of Castlemartyr during the Second Desmond Rebellion in an effort to persuade the Seneschal to surrender Castlemartyr. (Local legend has it that Shylie was hung from the castle gateway, but it seems she was hung in Cork.)
Following a grand meal, the guests were escorted to their chambers. Unusually, instead of being housed in the same room, the Englishman was given a room of his own, with a large window overlooking the park. Having got himself undressed, the visitor, locked the door and climbed into his comfortable bed, and extinguished his taper. A low fire in the grate was all that lit the chamber.
Some time later, the visitor’s sleep was interrupted by a noise. It emanated from the direction of the door into the room. But the door was locked but someone clearly tried to gain entry into the bedchamber. Footsteps sounded outside, departing from the door. Imagining that he was about to be murdered, the visitor cowered under the bedclothes awaiting his fate. All was quiet again for a time, the dying embers of the fire cast eerie shadows around the room. Reassured that the door was secure, the Englishman dozed off again.
It happened again…..footsteps outside his chamber, another attempt to open the door. This time more violently – the terrified Englishman was convinced now that somebody meant to do him harm. After all this was a Papist Irish household and he was a good Protestant Englishman. He cried out to the intruder but got no response. A sound of laughter, followed by receding footsteps suggested that the intruder had departed.
By now the visitor was very worried. He reached for his taper and took it to the fire to light it from the last embers. This feeble light was to be his comfort for the rest of the hours of darkness. Wide awake now, and peeping from beneath the bed cover the Englishman contemplated his own, possibly immanent, mortality. Some time later, perhaps an hour or two, there was a noise at his window. It seemed as if someone was tapping on the glass. But that was impossible – the chamber was on an upper floor!
The tapping stopped and all was quiet again. By now the taper had burned very low and soon it would go out. Then a shadow appeared on the ceiling, a figure seeming to reach into the chamber to open the door from inside. By now the taper was extinguished and the only remaining light came from the dying embers of the fire. Once again footsteps sounded outside, this time very faint. Once again the door rattled as someone tried to gain entry.
It was too much for the petrified visitor, who spent the rest of the hours of darkness crouched under the bed, wrapped in a sheet. As soon as it was daylight, he got out, dressed quickly and opened the door to head out. The household was about to have breakfast, but the Englishman begged Charles McCarthy to depart with him immediately and speed on to Youghal. Despite McCarthy’s protests, the Englishman’s fears prevailed and they left at once…..
This strange tale was recounted some years ago at a lecture given in the Hunt Museum, Limerick. The lecturer suggested that a number of factors made the tale interesting. A Catholic Irish gentleman escorted a Protestant visitor to the home of a long established Catholic gentry family with a rebellious lineage. This was a time when the Plantation of Ulster was under way. The Elizabethan Plantation of Munster was still fresh in Irish minds, and the English adventurers, like Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, were known for their rapacious acquisition of land – from whatever source. Families like the McCarthys of Muskerry and the FitzGeralds of Imokilly were wary of these interlopers. Was there a ghost in Castlemartyr that night?
It seems likely that, with or without the prior knowledge of Edmund FitzGerald, members of the household at Castlemartyr tried to frighten the English visitor and discourage him from giving a good account of his visit, thereby discouraging any possible ‘claims’ by an English planter on the Castlemartyr estate. The ‘haunting’ of Castlemartyr by a poltergeist that night seems to have been a defensive mechanism by the household. In an age of superstition, when women were persecuted in large numbers as witches, this was a highly successful strategy by the FitzGeralds of Castlemartyr. It is interesting that this tale appears to be the earliest example of ‘trick or treat’ known in an Irish context!
Happy Samhain….or Halloween .