A trip across IRELAND reveals surprises beyond medieval ghosts and family ties

I’m standing in a muddy field in Country Antrim, just outside Belfast, Northern Ireland, surrounded by hundreds of enraged sheep. They’re bleating violently, puncturing the peace of the picturesque emerald countryside as if to say “You don’t belong here”. They’re right. My boyfriend, Erik, and I have ignored multiple “No trespassing” signs (and even hopped a fence) to search for the derelict remains of Shane’s Castle, my family’s ancestral château. You’d think the ruins would be hard to miss, but most Irish castles were built deep in the forest to protect against foes and deter starving peasants from begging at their gates. “Are sheep violent?” asks Erik, half kidding, but we feel like intruders. It’s our first trip to Ireland, and since both sides the week driving from one side of the country to the other to discover my ancestral roots – and check out some famous castles along the way. We head back to the car and exit the castle’s outer gate, an imposing stone structure with the O’Neill family coat of arms – red hand – showcase prominently in the centre. It’s not your typical family sigil: The legend goes that centuries ago, my great-great-grand-something raced an opponent across the River Liffey in a boat with the promise that whoever touched the soil first would win all of Ireland as a reward. My ancestor could tell that he was going to lose, so he chopped off his left hand and hurled it to the shore. He was named the King of Ireland and lived at Shane’s Castle, which is still owned by his descendants to this day.

Description: Shane's Castle was destroyed by fire in 1816.

Shane's Castle was destroyed by fire in 1816.

It would be easy to dismiss this story as a tall tale that’s been enhanced over hundreds of years and just as many prints of Guinness, but I like to think it’s true. The Irish people we’ve met here are natural storytellers, happy to regale us with historical tales in their singsong accents. While horseback riding on a trail around the grounds of Castle Leslie, just south of Northern Ireland, our guide Dermot nods toward the large stone barrier lining the property of the castle. “That’s the famine wall”, he says would line up there to beg for food. Once, a man from the village jumped the wall and stole a calf to feed his family”. My horse, Two-tone, grunts. Dermot lowers his voice. “The Leslie family beheaded the man as punishment and carried his head around in a cloth bag to warn others. That bag is still on display in the castle”. Yikes!

Description: Castle Leslie – County Monaghan, Ireland

Castle Leslie – County Monaghan, Ireland

A few days later, when we pull up to Ashford Castle, a sprawling medieval pile in County Mayo, two hours from Castle Leslie, I nudge Erik. “I can’t wait to hear the story behind this place”, I say with a giggle, taking in the miles of manicured landscape peppered with enormous stone fountains. As soon as we walk inside, I feel a chill on the back of my neck. “Ashford is haunted”, I declare. Turns out I’m right. That night, during a decadent five-course meal at George V (the castle’s grand ballroom turned fine-dining restaurant), Martin, the maître d’ (a dead ringer for Downtown Abbey’s Carson), tells us about the castle’s resident ghost. “One time, there were no guests in the castle, but the porter kept getting rung by room 430 over and over again”, says Martin seriously. “Every time we went up, there was no one in the room”. Suddenly, my chargrilled scallops are much less interesting than Ashford’s ghost. I coax Martin to continue and take a deep swig of Chablis. He leans in. “Many people who stay in that room overnight hear a woman’s voice asking ‘Where’s Elaine? Where’s Elaine?”

That night, as I lie in a dark-oak four-poster bed, under a thick red canopy, I try to forget that our suite is 900 year old and – worst luck – directly under room 430. “Don’t be scared”, says Erik. “We’ll be fine”. Still, I insist on sleeping with the TV and all the lights on. The next morning, Erik tells me he had a waking dream that a woman came to our bedside. In spite of Ashford’s grandiose luxury, I’m eager to get somewhere that’s a little less haunted.

It’s our last full day in Ireland, so we decide to track down the Staffords, my mother’s side of the family. Our destination is Lismore, near the southern tip of the country, where my ancestors held a small plot of land during the potato famine before most of them immigrated to Montreal in 1874. The natural beauty in Lismore is staggering – the road we follow runs parallel to a gurgling brook surrounded by wild tulips and dense foliage in hundreds of shades of green. We locate the town’s cathedral and wander the rows of crooked tombstones, which are so old it’s almost impossible to make out their inscriptions. I find the grave of James Quinn, a distant relation, who was only 16 when he died in 1910. It’s covered in moss, forgotten and almost completely overgrown. I wonder how he died. Erik and I stand in front of his grave for ages, holding hands. Neither of us wants to disturb the stillness of the cemetery.

Description: Lismore Castle

Lismore Castle is perhaps the most spectacular castle in Ireland and has been the Irish home of the Duke of Devonshire since 1753.

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