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 .

Samhain/Halloween in Irish folklore.

The Turnip Jack O'Lantern is the Irish Halloween tradition - the use of pumpkins is an American idea.

The turnip Jack O’Lantern is the Irish Halloween tradition – the use of pumpkins is an American idea which, sadly, has caught on in Ireland.  .

As we enter the dark half of the year, in Ireland tonight we are celebrating Halloween or, more properly, Samhain. Our ancient feast of Samhain was partially replaced by the Christian feast of All Saints or All Hallows on 1st November. This feast pushed the ancient pre-Christian observances of Samhain to the evening of 31st October – the Eve of All Hallows or Halloween. The Feasts of All Hallows and All Souls (2nd November) both commemorate the dead, and Samhain was a liminal festival which marked a time when the division between the world of the living and the world of spirits and the dead is very faint and it is possible to pass from one to the other. It also marked the end of the old year and the start of the new year in the ancient Irish calendar. Sadly, Halloween has become a celebration of b-movie fright nights rather than a time to reflect on the dead. The blog Irish Archaeology has highlighted the folk traditions that were recorded by the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1930s. The Commission asked schoolchildren to interview elderly people about their memories and local traditions. These recollections were written out in school copy books and are now preserved in the Department of Folklore in University College Dublin.

The website Dúchas has published examples of these Halloween recollections:

For the blog Irish Archaeology:

Samhain and the dark side of the year.

Friday, 31st October marks the end of the bright half of the year – Samhradh or ‘summer.’  At sundown the dark half of the year begins – Geimhreadh or ‘winter, which will last until the 1st of May!  (Don’t worry – we DO have the seasons of spring and autumn in Ireland, but these are really subdivisions  of the two principal seasons.)  We have already put our clocks back (last Sunday) and the sudden darkness in the late afternoon is still shocking, especially after the long, dry, warm and bright summer and autumn.  And it’s worth noting the timing of the time change is a modern co-incidence derived from the British need to increase productivity in arms factories during the First World War.

And, note, I said that summer ends at sundown on 31st October.  This is an ancient idea.  To this day the church (Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican) still starts the sabbath (Sunday) at sundown on the previous day.  This is usually marked by the First Vespers of Sunday which is sung at sundown on Saturday.  The Second Vespers of Sunday marks the end of Sunday at sundown on Sunday – and the same structure is used for major feasts of the church.  This tradition was inherited from the Jewish religion.

Curiously, the ancient Irish seem to have followed the same practice – beginning their four great feast days (Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa, Samhain) at sundown on the previous day.  So at sundown begins the feast of Samhain – the feast that marks the definitive and official end of summer and the completion of the harvest.  Even the name reflects this – samhradh (summer) and samhain (summer’s end).

Ancient calendars attempted to reconcile the phases of the moon (months) with the annual cycle of the sun.  Feast days could moved, depending on the moon.  And Samhain was probably no exception – it probably didn’t always fall on 31st October/1st November.  The fixing of the date came later, under the influence of Christianity.

In ancient times Samhain was a VERY sociable affair, probably lasting three days.  It was a time of gathering and feasting but also marked the end of the season for making war and the end of the season for travelling – the warriors and merchants and other travellers returned home.  Samhain seems also to have been a time for settling accounts – curiously the self-employed in Ireland have to make their tax returns to the Revenue Commissioners by close of business on 31st October – but, despite the horrors it brings, this is NOT a Halloween tradition! (Perhaps the Irish taxman has a morbid sense of humour.) It is worth noting that until the land reforms of the early twentieth century in Ireland, the 11th of November (Martinmas – the feast of St Martin of Tours) was a deadline for paying quarterly rents in Ireland.  One wonders if this is a hangover from the celebration of Samhain.  Settling accounts at Samhain made sense, since much social life would be lived indoors for several months until the weather became warmer and dryer again – it’s much easier to socialize indoors with people when everyone has settled their accounts with each other.

The sociability of Samhain was exacerbated by the presence of not only of family, friends and neighbours, creditors and debtors, but also of the ancestors and the denizens of the spirit world, both good and bad.  On the first night of Samhain after sundown the veil dividing this world of man from the world of spirits was considered to have faded so as to permit the spirits and sidhe (fairies)to enter the world of man.  This weakened veil also permitted the spirits to kidnap men and women and children and take them to the other world – a frightening prospect if you were kidnapped by someone who wanted to settle an old score with you!  Hence the need to don a disguise (preferably of a frightening kind!).

This brings me to a modern Irish gripe.  Many people in Ireland feel that the festival is too Americanized.  Well, pumpkins were not known in Ireland in ancient times – so they have a point there.  They also complain about children dressing up as Power Rangers, Batman, Iron Man, Mutant Ninja Turtles and what have you – but actually the kids have got it exactly right!  The point of the disguise is to protect the wearer of the disguise, not necessarily to scare off the evil spirits.

Fire seems to have played a major part in the festivities of Samhain, as it did in Beltaine (now 1st of May).  This, naturally made sense – fire kept you warm in the cold months of winter.   But it also came to the fore in the making of spooky lanterns – the Jack O”Lantern story is suspect in my opinion since it is probably a relatively moderns story.  But the use of lanterns to illuminate the  darkness and reveal any hiding places for spirits on that night does make sense.

When Christianity came to Ireland, the clergy very sensibly tried to convert the people, their places of religious assembly AND certain traditions.  Pope Gregory I (pontiff 590-604) is usually credited with advising missionaries to Christianize places, customs and feasts, so that the newly converted populace would find some familiar features in their new religion.   In Ireland this led to the tradition of holy wells and adaptations in the calendar – the feast of Imbolc (1st February) became the feast of St Brigid of Kildare.  Eventually, even Samhain succumbed to Christianity – the feast of All Saints (All Hallows) was gradually moved from April or May to 1st November (it was certainly being celebrated at this date by Charlemagne (crowned emperor in 800).  With the addition of the Feast of All Souls (2nd November) the whole festival of Samhain had become a Christian celebration.   Thus, Samhain became fixed as Halloween.

Even today in Ireland the dead are still commemorated with cemetery prayers throughout the month of November – the month of the dead.  And the Mexican Day of the Dead has echos of this – although its origins are considered entirely different.

As  youngsters in Midleton we had it lucky in late October.  The trucks bringing sugar beet to the Mallow sugar beet factory often dropped beets from the top of their load as they turned a sharp bend on the road near the house.  We gathered these stray beets and made our lanterns out of them, many a decent chisel being ruined in the process.   Before sugar beet was used, the lanterns were made out of turnips – which can give a very spooky appearance.  We went ‘a haunting’ (‘trick or treat’ is an Americanism, it even sounds like a holdup!) in the neighbourhood, but the suburban lights could ruin the effect.  Much better was a trip out the country – just three miles –  to my cousins in Ballintotis, where there was a old ruined castle and very little light.  Visiting Ballintotis Castle on Samhain was eerie fun!   I feel that the whole tradition works better in the countryside than in towns – too many street lights ruin the atmosphere.  And remember, Samhain was also the great feast celebrating the end of the harvest – many of the traditions are linked to food, a feature of harvest festivals.  Daniel Maclise’s 1833 painting ‘Snap-Apple Night’ is the best depiction of the older traditions celebrated on Halloween (in Blarney apparently), but a word to the wise, it has probably been sanitized to satisfy increasingly uptight English sensibilities. Most of the activity in the painting involves activities to predict the future – especially potential marriages (hence the group of young ladies on the lower left foreground).

One other gripe one hears is that Halloween is ‘unchristian’ – that’s a very puritanical view showing up the prejudice of the person who holds such a view – remember it was the devoutly Christian puritans of Salem village in Massachusetts wholaunched an orgy of judicial murder in 1692-1693.  The Salem Witch Trials were a true Halloween horror.  So, have no truck with sour prejudice  this Halloween – .go and celebrate the bounty of nature and have fun.  And light a lantern to scare any sourpusses off – they are the real evil spirits of Samhain/Halloween.

Daniel Maclise’s ‘Snap Apple Night‘ link:

Traditional Irish mask in the Museum of Country Life, Castlebar:

Very spooky traditional lantern made from a turnip (Museum of Country Life, Castlebar):