Ireland’s sacred landscape is decorated with remnants of our turbulent history. From coast to coast, county to county, we are surrounded by these physical reminders of how our ancestors lived as they sculpted the early foundations of a nation. Fortified castles, towers and city walls dating as far back as the Norman conquest and before, many of which stand firm to this day, still in their defensive and imposing posture, ready to protect the people and townships over which many a tribal battle was fought. But faced with the beauty of such monuments, we can sometimes forget just how bloody an era it was from which they were born. As we admire their grandeur and walk in the footsteps of our predecessors, it’s easy to lose sight of the reasons behind the origins of these fortresses.
Most of what remains today are the eerie remnants of 15th and 16th century structures. But most of these sites would have had a much older building predating the present one. As the need for fortified castles subsided somewhat, and with many of the original structures partially or completely destroyed during Cromwell’s conquest during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, most of the new buildings had evolved from battle-ready fortresses into the stately tower houses we see today.
Ireland has no shortage of these beautiful and historic monuments. They dot our countryside marking medieval boundaries and serve as important reminders of the centuries-old blood that has been spilled in their shadows. Handed down through generations, many of these tower houses are superbly maintained. And as they have changed hands from clan to clan, family to family over the centuries, their evolution in adapting to the needs of its inhabitants have not taken from the wonder of what secrets may remain below its battlements, locked behind shielding walls which were erected to protect.
But what if some of these secrets were never intended to be forgotten?
Our castles, stately homes and tower houses are steeped in folklore and legend, many of which far exceed the boundaries of their respective locality. Rich in that diverse history which sets Ireland apart, it’s clear to see why. Tales filtered through the mesh of time and handed down through generations emanate from the shadows cast by these imposing, yet very human landmarks.
Nestled in the foothills of the pre-Reformation parish of Coolcraheen in northern county Kilkenny, Foulksrath Castle stands as a beautiful illustration.
As imposing as it is beautiful, the castle towers over its surrounding woodlands and narrow roadways. With the origins of the now tower house dating back to the Norman conquest, it’s little wonder that tales of ghostly happenings are in no short supply here.
The De la Frenes family landed in England with William the Conqueror in 1066. They were loyal to their leader and followed as part of an invading army. The head of this household would have been a senior officer amongst the Norman ranks, safe in the knowledge that he was sure to acquire lands on these islands as the invading force conquered and settled. The lands on which the castle stands were awarded to the De la Frenes as a reward of conquest.
It is said that the first member of the family to come to Ireland was Sir Humphrey or Hubert De la Frene, arriving with either Strongbow or Henry II. In reward for his loyal services he received large holdings throughout Ireland, including Kilkenny. Sir Humphrey, or Hubert had two sons, Fulco and Geoffrey. And it was Fulco who was handed the lands in Coolcraheen with Geoffrey moving closer to the gateway city of Kilkenny. It is from Fulco that the castle takes its name. Fulco, anglicised to Fulk, was a common name in that family. Rath being the ring fort which to this day stands close by to guard Foulksrath, an ominous reminder of the deadly era from which these historic monuments rise.
It is believed Fulco had a son, named after his father, and it was this Fulco who built the original castle in 1349 whilst in the military service of Henry III. Said to be a blood-thirsty military man, Fulco fought at the Battle of Crecy and the Siege of Calais.
At this stage the castle would have been of typical Norman Motte and Bailey design, with low tower and raised living area surrounded by timber barricades and encircled by a deep water-filled ditch.
Through marriage the castle eventually passed into the hands of the Purcell family, another clan of Norman origin. It was the Purcells who built the current castle, some time in the early 15th century. The family sided with Royalists during the English civil war and as such, the Foulksrath estate was confiscated by Cromwell and divided between three of his officers. It was Bradshaw who was to receive the castle, allowing the Purcells to continue living on the land.
And it was during Bradshaw’s time that the first ghostly tale was born of Foulksrath.
Unsurprisingly, Bradshaw was not a popular man. He had a savage military reputation and with the evicted Purcell clan inhabiting the land close by, Bradshaw had troops to keep watch over his castle and family. He ran a tight ship, employing only the most elite of guardsmen, over whom he kept an ever-watchful eye. His standards were high.
The Unfortunate Guard
It was during a clear, calm November night on which a sleepless Bradshaw decided to make a post-midnight patrol of his tower to both reassure himself of the security of his home, and enforce his presence upon his guards.
As Bradshaw entered the battlements atop the tower, he happened across one of his troops. The hapless guard, exhausted from working long hours had fallen asleep whilst on duty.
Bradshaw was furious. He flew into an almost uncontrollable rage. Upon hearing such commotion disturbing the quietness of night, the gatekeeper urgently climbed the stone spiral staircase to the battlements. He found the grovelling guard begging for mercy at the feet of the home owner. Bradshaw had to set an example. He summoned the gatekeeper; together the two men hoisted the startled guard to his feet before pushing him over the battlements, killing him instantly.
To a man the stature of Bradshaw, this was justice. Indeed, this was the only justice men of such military standing understood.
It is said that the hapless guard was so surprised at his own lack of professionalism at falling asleep on duty that he died in a state of shock and disbelief. His restless spirit returns to Foulksrath on the anniversary of his violent passing. Each November 29th, in the calm, small hours of the pre-dawn Kilkenny morning, his footsteps are heard emanating from the battlements, as to this day he desperately bids to make amends for his misdemeanour and prove himself to his demanding master.
Over the coming centuries Foulksrath Castle changed hands many times. And it’s from a later, unknown owner that the second and perhaps better-known tale emerges.
Visitors and locals alike often report sighting a young lady peering from the windows of the tower, weakly staring with an expression of hopeless sadness, even defeat.
Local legend tells the story of the young girl. Born and raised in Foulksrath Castle she was to be the only daughter of her proud yet domineering father.
As she grew older, so too did the girl’s curiosity grow. She often ventured beyond the boundaries of the imposing castle. Under the watchful gaze of her father she became a prominent member of the community, an ambassador of her well-respected and high-standing family.
But the girl was to bring shame upon her good name when she fell in love with a young man of different faith. As rumour circulated her father inevitably discovered the truth behind his daughter’s misadventure. So enraged was he that he banished the girl to solitude in the dark, cold tower. It was here that after some time, the young girl, either by way of starvation, illness or at the hands of her cruel father, met her fate. She passed away, her body lying undiscovered for some time, forgotten by a disinterested and embarrassed family.
It is unpredictable as to when her spirit will appear. Many report sighting her for a mere split second before she backs away, sinking into the dark chamber behind.
Visitors to the tower have felt her presence as they stand enjoying the majestic view from the castle windows. The sense of foreboding is overwhelming as you stand where she once stood. Many speak of feeling as though she is present, standing behind, watching. Some even believe they have caught a glimpse of her reflection in the glass before turning to find nothing except the eerie cold. To this very day her presence is felt and her pale, lifeless face glimpsed by passers-by.
The castle continued to change hands as the surrounding landscape evolved into a parish community. One of the more notable families to call Foulksrath home were the Swifts, relatives of Jonathan, the famous Irish writer.
Their arrival heralded a colourful chapter in the life of the old castle. Godwin Mead Pratt Swift was an eccentric. He was a creative visionary, a daydreamer.
Flight Gone Wrong
In 1857, following a long period of research and intricate design Godwin Swift patented Ireland’s first aircraft. So confident was he in his creation’s capability that he spoke enthusiastically to the townspeople about his amazing ‘aerial chariot’.
Swift decided to use his craft’s test flight as a demonstration and the local folk turned out in number to observe the maiden flight.
Using his butler as test pilot, Swift intended to use Foulksrath’s old ring fort, situated less than half a mile from the tower as the landing site.
The less-than-enthusiastic butler climbed aboard and as the assembled audience looked on, Swift launched his chariot from the battlements atop the tower by way of catapult.
The craft instantly nose dived into the yard below. The butler suffered horrendous fractures to almost every bone in his body, yet miraculously survived!
So self-assured was Swift that he struggled to comprehend why his aerial chariot didn’t fly, eventually laying blame at the feet of his unfortunate butler-turned-test-pilot.
The White Lady
It was shortly after that the third of Foulksrath’s spirits emerged and through time grew prominent.
Her visitations became so regular that she is widely regarded as Foulksrath’s resident spectre.
She takes the form of the classic ‘white lady’, roaming the castle gardens. She has been seen by residents, visitors and passers-by alike, glimpsing the fleeting apparition through the iron spokes of Foulksrath’s gates.
She announces her presence before making her ominous appearance. Witnesses have historically spoken of the scent of wild flowers and lilac before sighting the ghostly figure. Many speak of inexplicably experiencing the scent right up to the present day.
It is said to accompany the restless and wondering ghost, the identity of whom remains largely mysterious.
Locals believe it to be the spirit of Lady Margaret Butler, the paternal grandmother of Anne Boleyn and former resident of the nearby Kilkenny Castle of which she is also reputed to haunt.
But far from fearing her spirit, local people find her presence as a source of certain comfort. They believe the calming scent of wild flower and lilac is intended to soothe.
Every tower house and castle throughout the land is brimming with a similar history whilst shrouded in a thick blanket of secrecy. When we dig deeper we unearth the history on which these beautiful legends are based. But it’s the staunch belief of the local people, who having been reared on tales and superstition, which sets Ireland apart as a land of captivating mystery and deep beauty.
And no amount of fruitless investigation can deter those who chose to believe in these whispers from the past. To many, logical explanation is not required when history chooses to remind us of those who have gone before.
As long as there is question there remains reason. Perhaps science cannot explain that which is not scientific…
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!