Craig O’Shea shares his knowledge of Kilkenny’s ghostly medieval spirits.
Few lands are steeped in as diverse a history as Ireland’s. From coast to coast, remnants from throughout the ages dot our beautiful landscape and serve as a permanent reminder of what went before. Every town, city and village is rich in folklore and local legend, adding a mystical charm to our unique heritage.
Every county can boast landmarks brimming with historical relevance, whether a castle, stately home, ruined city walls or a more recent reminder of our agricultural or industrial past, we are blessed to be surrounded by these direct links which allow us to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors.
In a world of technological advancement, few cities and counties have maintained their historical heartbeat like Kilkenny. The Marble City embraces an age-old past, combining modern living with its medieval core. And while Ireland can boast no shortage of beautiful cities, townlands and counties, few are as genuinely atmospheric as Kilkenny.
Narrow cobbled lanes, remnants of its city walls, St. Canice’s Cathedral with its majestic tower, all overlooked by Kilkenny Castle and its intimidating beauty. Given its mystic charm, it should be no surprise that Kilkenny is bursting with tales of the paranormal. Its people have told stories for generations, handed down to become far more than hearsay.
Kilkenny’s ghostly tales all have one very important thing in common. They are all based around fact and arise from genuine historic tragedies. And this can be said even for the lesser known tales, such as John’s Bridge.
One of the two main bridges in Kilkenny, the current structure has stood since 1910. John’s Bridge was first built in or around 1200 and has since been rebuilt many times. During the flood of 1763, people gathered on the bridge to observe the collapse of Green’s Bridge. As they stood transfixed on events upriver, John’s Bridge also collapsed, plunging all who stood on her into the murky, swollen Nore below. Sixteen people died. To this day locals and visitors alike speak of ghostly shapes, leaning on the walls of the new structure, gazing in the direction of Green’s Bridge.
Nowadays tourists pause as they cross the bridge, taking photographs and enjoying the spectacular view of the castle towering above. Whilst most are oblivious to the fact they stand on the site of such tragedy, there remains a sense of history surrounding the bridge. An eerie foreboding as the morning mist rises from the river.
Kilkenny Castle continues to generate stories, unsurprising really, given that there has been a castle on the site in one form or another since 1195. Sightings and activity at the castle have been a frequent occurrence over the centuries, right up to the present day. In fact, an electronic counter in the Parade Tower, used for counting visitors to the thirteenth century part of the fortress, continues to count up to a hundred visitors during the hours of darkness while the tower is locked and out of public reach. The state-of-the-art device continues to puzzle staff on the ground floor level, formally a dungeon where it is said many a poor soul would have been imprisoned before passing away. Now the starting point for the castle tour, it is also the sight of the infamous Dame Alice Kyteler witch trial.
Locals tell stories of the castle’s white lady roaming the gardens and river banks below. She also wonders the corridors and staircases and may have been inadvertently photographed as recently as 2010 by two teenage holiday makers. The people of Kilkenny believe this spirit to be that of Lady Margaret Butler, born in the castle in either 1454 or 1465. She married Sir William Boleyn and through her eldest son Thomas, she was the paternal grandmother of Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII of England. It is said that her spirit returned to her Kilkenny home upon her death.
Tales of spectral monks and merchants roaming Kilkenny’s streets and public houses are common here. But few are as well documented and captivating as that of the aforementioned Dame Alice Kyteler. Born at Kyteler’s House in 1280 into a well-established family, Dame Alice was a noblewoman who went on to marry four times.
Following the rather untimely and somewhat suspicious deaths of her first three husbands, it was fourth husband John le Poer who, after falling ill, first raised suspicions that he had been poisoned.
Following his death, the four children from his previous marriage, along with the children of her previous three husbands, accused Dame Alice of poisoning and sorcery against their fathers. She was also accused of denying the faith, sacrificing animals to demons and blasphemy. She was tried at Kilkenny Castle before the Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede in 1324.
After several months of deadlock her servant Petronella was tortured and confessed to witchcraft, implicating Dame Alice. She was now condemned. It is believed Dame Alice Kyteler fled to the United Kingdom along with Petronalla’s daughter. There are no records of her after 1324.
Petronella was not to be as fortunate. She was flogged and burned at the stake on November 3rd, 1324, a scapegoat for the witch hunt that needed a culprit, and became the first person in Ireland to be burned at the stake for heresy.
Legend has it that as she stood awaiting her fate in front of the baying crowds, Petronella vowed her revenge. Ironically, the fast food restaurant which now stands on the site of her demise, burned down in December 2009. This is the world’s earliest recorded witch trial.
Kyteler’s House is now a popular pub and restaurant in the heart of Kilkenny. Visitors report sightings of a sinister female apparition on occasion. Local opinion is divided as to whether it’s the spirit of Petronella, or indeed Dame Alice herself.
Kyteler’s ghost is also said to appear at St. Canice’s Cathedral, moving on the stairs under the western window. The sense of Dame Alice radiates through the cosmopolitan alleyways and side streets around the centre of Kilkenny, but Kilkenny’s mystery is not confined to within the limits of its medieval city.
The entire county is alive with history. An industrial past is brought to life by the remains of the buildings that once bristled with the energy of the workers who toiled day and night in the most dangerous of surroundings.
Nestled neatly in the countryside, the Deerpark coalmine at Castlecomer provides an eerie and atmospheric example. Once the heart of Ireland’s bustling mining industry, the Deerpark colliery was a home-from-home since 1928 for as many as 600 men and boys at a single time.
Many of the buildings or their foundations remain. The baths, bicycle shed and explosives magazine stand abandoned in what would have been the shadow of the mighty Bells Heap since 1969. The mouth of the tunnel entrance is visible, blocked by bricks and concrete, giving little insight into the dark world below or indeed, the men who entered never to return.
The Deerpark has tales in abundance. The spirits of long lost men still walking the footpaths toward the long since abandoned footbridge, heading home. The Deerpark houses, built to accommodate the miners, are still inhabited to this day, many of which by the families of those who worked below ground.
The county hides many secrets within the walls and grounds of its many stately homes. Shankill Castle stands secluded in Paulstown on the Kilkenny/Carlow border. Built centuries ago as a first line of defence for the city of Kilkenny, it is the scene of torture and murder, not least at the hands of Cromwell. Now sprawling and luxurious home, family members tell stories of ghostly carriages traveling through the grounds, coming to a halt in the yard outside the house.
Servant’s bells still ring on occasion and the ghost of an elderly lady was sighted in a first floor bedroom by a visiting artist in recent years.
Foulksrath Castle in Jenkinstown comes with three separate spectres. The first is that of a young lady, said to gaze through the tower’s windows. She is said to be the daughter of a previous owner who, unhappy with her choice of lover, locked her in a room where she either starved or fell ill before passing away.
The second is the spirit of a castle guard. Legend has it the hapless watchman fell asleep whilst on duty and was thrown from the battlements as punishment. His frantic footsteps are heard to this day as he wonders the castle, trying to make amends.
Then there’s the ghostly figure of a lady, said to wander the castle and grounds accompanied by the scent of fresh flowers.
Everywhere you turn there’s a story. But even with no knowledge of local beliefs or legend, the haunting shadows of Kilkenny’s past reach out and captivate.
These are only a taste of the tales that set Kilkenny apart. There are thousands across this beautiful county. But Kilkenny’s mystic charm is enhanced by that enchanting sense that will hold you spellbound, no matter where you are in Ireland. And it is this difficult to explain enchantment which, in my opinion, sets Ireland aside. To me, it is our willingness, not just to hold on to our past, but to incorporate it within our daily lives that brings the spirit of Kilkenny, indeed, the spirit of Ireland to life.
Just scratch the surface and you’ll find it. Dig a little deeper, and you may very well find them.
Craig O’Shea is a proud father of three beautiful daughters based in County Kilkenny. He’s an avid reader of autobiographies and anything historical. He’s a contributor to several online magazines, both here in Ireland and elsewhere. He also hosts a weekly music show on community radio, and dabbles in the Irish film industry as an extra, so keep an eye out for him!