Trick or Treat? The haunting of Castlemartyr Castle in the early Seventeenth Century

Castlemartyr Capella Hotel

Castlemartyr at dusk – the south front of the old castle consists of the tall medieval tower-house on the right and the lower early seventeenth century manor house with its three vast chimneys. The tall gable wall on the left indicates the size of the roof of the old manor house. The manor house was probably added by Edmund FitzJohn FitzGerald between 1611 and 1641.

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.

Castlemartyr scale

The scale of Castlemartyr is indicated by the size of the children in the photo. Note how the manor house has its windows on the upper floor.

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…..

Witch Hunt

Brutal witch hunts seem to have been more common in Scotland, England, and the Continent than in Ireland. Religious disputes and land ownership were the principal concerns in Ireland, although Florence Newton of Youghal was prosecuted as a witch on September 11th 1661!

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?

Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle was the seat of Charles McCarthy, who may have recounted the tale of the stone that granted eloquence….

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 .

A passion for hurling…even beyond the grave!

belgrove_and_east_ferry

An early 19th century print depicting Belgrove (on the left) and East Ferry (on the right) with the ‘Ballinacurra River’ in between. The view is towards the north in the direction of Midletong. Sadly Belgrove House on Great Island is now gone. The church-like building on the East Ferry side is still extant. It is a former chapel but is now a private house called Church Cottage.

Next weekend will see the first of the semi-finals of the All Ireland Hurling Championships when Kilkenny will play Waterford (7th August) and the following weekend will see Tipperary play Galway (14th August) to decide the teams playing the final on Sunday 4th September. It’s worth recalling that hurling is a game so ancient that it plays a role in some of our earliest legends – the Ulster Cycle, especially the tales linked to the hero  Setanta who killed a nobleman’s ferocious guard dog by striking a ball into the dog’s throat with his hurley. The furious nobleman, Culann, demanded compensation from the youth. Unable to pay the demanded compensation for killing the valuable dog, Setanta agreed to become the man’s guard hound – hence he is better known as Cuchulainn (hound of Culann).

The game was played throughout the medieval period and into the early modern period. The Crown attempted to ban the game as alien to ‘English’ custom. As with the prohibition on football, the law had no effect.

In East Cork, hurling is more popular, and arguably more important, than Gaelic football. One indication of this passion for hurling can be found in a tale recorded in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1945. The tale suggests that hurling wasn’t simply a passion for the living – in this part of the country even the dead played the game!

The setting for this tale is East Ferry and the channel that links Ballinacurra to the Lower Basin of Cork Harbour, the so-called Ballinacurra River. This channel also separates the barony of Imokilly from Great Island (Barrymore barony), where Cobh (formerly Queenstown) is situated. From the early 1600s a ferry was licensed to convey passengers, livestock and carts from Great Island to Imokilly and vice versa. It seems likely that this ferry was actually in existence from very early days. The route was part of the early medieval bothar na naomh (road of the saints) which linked the monastery of Cork to Cloyne, and then on to Lismore (and Cashel). This makes sense because it mostly followed high ground and was therefore less vulnerable to flooding during heavy rain.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century ferry was operated by a windlass system – a cable attached to each side of the channel was wound around a windlass on board the flat-bottomed ferry. Simply by turning the windlass the ferryman could take the vessel from one side to the other and back again.  Presumably the earlier ferry was operated by oars or a  punting pole.

In the medieval period there were two parishes on Great Island – Clonmel in the western half of the island and Templerobin in the eastern half of the island. These still survive as ‘civil parishes’ on the Ordnance Survey maps and on the official documents into the twentieth century. On the other side of the Ballinacurra River lies the parish of Rath or Garranekinnefeake. Locals also know this as East Ferry  – for obvious reasons. Today there is a small quay and a pub at East Ferry. It is not certain if this pub replaces a much earlier hostelry – but it shouldn’t surprise us if this were the case.

Traditionally, hurling was played between the young men of rival or neighbouring parishes. Teams were often enormous and the playing field could be extensive indeed. This is where the story tellers take up the whole drama.

East Ferry

The ‘Ballinacurra River’ separating East Ferry from Great Island today.

Late one night when it was dark, the ferryman at East Ferry shore heard a voice hailing him from the Great Island shore. Naturally presuming that he had a fare to transport to the Imokilly shore, the ferryman conveyed his vessel to the other shore. On arrival, he discovered that there was absolutely nobody about. He called out, but there was no response.Although upset that he wouldn’t earn a fare, the ferryman decided to stay on the Great Island until he got a fare.

Settling down in his greatcoat to keep warm, he dozed off. But awoke suddenly when he heard a faint noise from the Imokilly shore.  Oddly it sounded as if a large number of people on the high ground overlooking East Ferry were shouting and cheering. However, he couldn’t see anything in the darkness, and he wasn’t hailed, so he stayed where he was. Some time later there came a hail from the East Ferry shore. Naturally, the ferryman went across to earn his keep. But, again there was nobody there waiting for the ferry. Deciding to stay on his own side of the channel, the ferryman was about to settle down when some voices could be heard from the Great Island shore. Feeling somewhat abashed , he presumed that he had misheard and that the calm waters had projected voices a long way, the ferryman returned to Great Island…..only to find the shore empty as before.

Looking around to see if somebody had just made a fool of him the ferryman discovered some coins placed on a stone near the shore. On counting the coins the ferryman was astonished to discover that the sum deposited on the stone was exactly the fare sufficient to pay him for conveying a large party of passengers across the channel and back again. The long, cold, quiet  night passed in weary exhaustion. The next morning the ferryman, feeling foolish, told his replacement what had happened during the night. The other ferryman was appalled and asked some searching questions.. ‘You took the dead men of Ballymore across to Rath to play a game of hurling against the dead of that parish!’ The noise he had heard coming from the top of the hill overlooking East Ferry was the ghostly audience cheering on the two teams! Apparently it had happened before, and there was no evidence of any harm being done to the ferryman……as long as he did his job, for which he had been paid the correct fare! It is not know if the ferryman quit his post that day….or continued to ferry the ghostly hurling teams to their matches.

It is curious that this tale explains how the ghosts crossed the water – apparently they cannot cross water, to the ferry proved very useful for their night-time hurling matches. Compare this with the Classical legend of Charon, the ferryman who conveyed the souls of the  Greek and Roman dead across the mythical river Styx into Hades. Coins were placed on the eyes of the corpse to pay Charon’s fare for conveying their souls to Hades. In East Ferry, it was the ghostly hurlers who paid the ferryman! And all for the enjoyment of a game of hurling!