I half-facetiously took an informal poll yesterday regarding today’s St. Patrick’s Day post: would y’all prefer a gory Irish ghost story or a recycled misadventure of a fictional psychic called Madame Sadie, who used to turn up at my previous blog from time to time? Overwhelmingly, my public favored a gory Irish ghost story, so here we go. This one has its origins in an appalling episode from fifteenth century Ireland, and is taken from James Reynolds’ 1947 book Ghosts in Irish Houses.
Along the shores of Liscannor Lough there stand the blackened ruins of an ancient castle. Known as Kerrigan’s Keep, it was built in a ten-year period between 1360-70 by a chieftain called Roe Kerrigan.
Roe’s son (or, more likely, grandson) Anair took a wife in 1410, a Leinster woman called Marra Dartry. Thereafter Anair vanishes from the story, his only purpose being to give Marra three sons. Two of those sons would die defending Marra in battle; the third would be the cause of the dreadful haunting of the old Keep, which has echoes right down to the twentieth century.
Marra Kerrigan was an Irish warrior woman. She had not been long married to Anair before she took a fancy to the broad and prosperous acreage of their near neighbor, Liam O’Conahey. Failing to purchase it, she raised an army–which she led into battle herself–and took it from The O’Conahey by force of arms, killing him and taking his garrison as serfs.
The O’Conahey was only the first of those to lose land and life to the crafty, greedy Marra Kerrigan. Only one of them ever defeated her in battle: an Ordlin O’Downey, whose own army beat hers to a pulp and sent her home to recover from wounds of her own. For some years she remained there, raising her sons and managing her ill-gotten property.
When her elder sons were in their late teens, Marra went for vengeance against The O’Downey. It would be her last battle. One of her young and inexperienced sons somehow managed to set up camp in a swampy area called the Bog of Bealaclugga, and the army settled in to sleep.
The O’Downey, who had raised an army consisting of most of the great chieftains of the West of Ireland, attacked at dawn, out of a fog that had risen overnight. By noon it was all over. Marra Kerrigan and her two elder sons lay dead. Marra’s right arm, still clutching in its dead hand the bronze sword of the Kerrigans, only carried by its chieftain, was cut off at the shoulder and found lying nearby. On the hem of the garment she wore under her armor she had written, using her left index finger and her own blood, four words:
Avenge me. Never cease.
Fast forward some fifty years: the O’Downey, now ninety years old and senile, was about to travel from his home to that of his daughter, near Moycullan, where he would end his days in peace. The route taken by him and his hundred retainers would take them right past Kerrigan’s Keep, now ruled over by Marra Kerrigan’s only living son, Dulin.
Dulin Kerrigan had been too young to fight at Bealaclugga, but he had possession of one item: Marra’s bloody undercoat, with that crimson message on its hem. When he learned that The O’Downey would be traveling past the Keep, he knew that he could carry out his mother’s dying directive.
For some years he had been remodeling at the Keep. He had added some stone pillars as roof supports for the great hall–curious supports, for they were hollow. He had also added a narrow hall that led to a tall, narrow room, its floor deep in the ground and reached by a long stone stairway. It was here that he would conceal the bodies of The O’Downey and his hundred retainers.
He stopped the party as they were passing the Keep and told The O’Downey that the bridges between the Keep and Moycullan were out, and offered him the hospitality of his house until they could be repaired. The O’Downey accepted readily; he had long forgotten that this man’s mother had called on her son to avenge her death, and in any case, Dulin Kerrigan seemed a polite enough chap.
On the second night the party was entertained at a banquet celebrating the coming of age of Dulin’s son. Some of The O’Downey’s retainers thought, as the night drew on, that they could hear sounds from the seemingly solid stone pillars of the great hall, but nothing was said. By orders of their chieftain, they carried no arms, an omission they paid for in blood. Dead on midnight, the stone pillars burst open and armed men came out. In the slaughter that followed, The O’Downey and every one of his hundred retainers died, while Dulin Kerrigan sat at the head of the table murmuring four words, over and over: Avenge me. Never cease. Avenge me. Never cease. Avenge me. . .
The bloody bodies were cast into that tall, narrow and heretofore seemingly purposeless room, pitched headlong down the stairs into pits, which were hastily covered with flat stones–some about the size of a hand,–mortared into place. Then the room itself was sealed, and remained so for nearly a century.
By the year 1600, the direct line of the Kerrigans had died out, and the old Keep was inherited by a nephew named Connard Kerrigan. Connard removed the portcullis from the front of the Keep, replacing it with a Renaissance doorway. He also made the mistake of opening the wall that echoed so oddly, as if hollow, down the little corridor behind the great hall. He was, it seems, the first to encounter the horrifying ghosts of the O’Downey party, but he wouldn’t be the last. Nor did he leave any description of what sent him at a mad run out of the Keep to his death in the lough below. The wall was hastily resealed.
In 1730, another cousin, this one a Dartry, inherited. He had a mania for family history, and in the course of some research came across an account of the death of Marra Kerrigan and Dulin’s dreadful vengeance against The O’Downey. The Dartry sent a workman to open up the wall, and the man made it partway down the stairs into the room before those outside were startled by a roaring and crashing: the roars sounded like human voices and the crashing like stones smashing against a wall.
The workman managed to crawl back up the stairs, only to die at the top without a word. He appeared to have been stoned to death.
A year later, The Dartry died in a fire of unknown origin that swept through the Keep.
By 1802, the Keep was in poor repair, and the family had trouble keeping staff; the strange deaths of Connard Kerrigan and of The Dartry’s workman had not been forgotten. That year, it was inherited by a great-nephew of the Dartry who had died in the fire, many years before. This heir built a home called Kerrigan’s Acre, about a mile from the old Keep.
During a hunting party at the Acre, a young British officer named Hambelton heard, for the first time, the story about the sealed room at the Keep. He determined that he would debunk the legend; when reminded of the terrible death of the workman, he retorted that the man probably was killed by stones falling from the roof, loosened by the action of unsealing the door.
Hambelton, accompanied by several of the house party, rode to the Keep the next day. They took a look at the roof above the infamous room, but found that not a stone of it appeared to have shifted since Dulin Kerrigan’s day. Still, Hambelton insisted he would prove to them there were no supernatural phenomena involved.
The wall was unsealed once more, and Hambelton started down the stairs. Those above reported hearing a babel of human voices, moaning and wailing, and a fusillade of stones clashing with stones. When the noises stopped, they found Hambelton halfway up the stairs, bloody, unconscious, and still alive, his hands groping for the door above. A doctor, summoned to care for him, found that nearly every bone in his body was broken.
Hambelton lived ten days after he went down to disprove the legend. He regained consciousness toward the end, and left the only full account of what happened down in that awful place. He said that by the light of the lantern he carried he could see, when he got about halfway down the steps, that the stone floor suddenly began to pitch and roll, like waves coming in off the sea. He tried to shout for his friends to take a look, but all at once the biggest stones–long flat ones–seemed to stand on their ends, a hundred or more of them–Around each stone, he could see eyes–human eyes–glaring at him out of the darkness, and he could hear voices moaning and shrieking and wailing, but could make out no words.
The hands were worse. He could see hands rising up out of the dirt, each with filthy rags of clothing hanging off them, and each hand holding a stone.
And then, the hands hurled the stones at him.
Hambelton died. When the secret room was resealed, not a single stone appeared to be out of place.
The Keep was abandoned for good after Hambelton’s death, and was quite a ruin by 1924, when the sealed room was reportedly breached for the last time. That time, a parapsychologist called Dr. Santley begged permission from the current family at the Acre, who used the name Dartry-Kerrigan, to try to exorcise the ghosts. He was permitted to open the room, but nearby workman heard the noises of the legend and were just in time to catch the hapless doctor, who came racing out of the old Keep as if hounds of hell were chasing him, before he threw himself into the lough.
Dr. Santley was shortly thereafter confined to an asylum, where he lived out his days ranting about moans and wails and eyes and hands.
The door to that monstrous chamber was sealed, for the last time, and the old Keep left to fall into complete ruin.
PS: I must say, this story reminds me of another, better known one of a sealed room in Scotland’s Glamis Castle, where a member of the Lyon (now Bowes-Lyon) family shut up sixteen members of Clan Ogilvy to starve–However, the Ogilvies never put on a show anything like as horrifying as the O’Downeys who lay in a dreadful room beneath Kerrigan’s Keep.