“Known universally as the most haunted castle in all Ireland, Leap Castle is without a shadow of doubt the most sinister and frightening building I have ever photographed. Once the principal seat of the powerful and warlike O’Carrolls, Princes of Ely, it stands on a vast, ancient rock guarding a strategic pass through the wild Slieve Bloom mountains.
My first visit was for a book that I was compiling called In Ruins – The Once Great Houses of Ireland, and I can distinctly remember my initial feelings of fear and fascination; nowhere before had ever held so many suggestions of the supernatural.”
The Original Tower House of Leap Castle (Leam Ui Bhanain) was once the principal seat of The O’Carrolls of Ely. It stood on a vast ancient rock guarding a strategic pass through the Slieve Bloom mountains. The O’Carrolls were the last chieftains of the area to surrender to the English in the 17th century.
In 1532, on the death of the O’Carroll Chieftain, a fierce rivalry for the leadership erupted within the family. The bitter fight for power turned brother against brother. One of the brothers was a priest. The O’Carroll priest was holding mass for a group of his family (in what is now called the “Bloody Chapel”). While chanting the holy rites, his rival brother burst into the chapel plunging his sword into his brother. Fatally wounding him, the butchered priest fell across the altar and died in front of his family.
The heinous act of brother killing brother and the blasphemy of a sacred mass cut short by such an evil event sent an echo of misery ringing throughout the castle.
Another source of evil was found at Leap Castle that may have compounded and nurtured the sprit of the elemental. A hidden ubliet (a dungeon) was found off the bloody chapel. It was a small room with a drop floor. Those who were forgotten within this room suffered unimaginable pain and misery until their death. Prisoners would be pushed into the room to fall through the floor and land on a spike eight feet below. If you were not lucky enough to die quickly on the spike, you died of starvation in an odorless room while the aroma of food and the sounds of merriment drifted up from the rooms below.
A narrow window would let you watch those who came and went in freedom from the castle. Around c.1900 workmen who where hired to clean out the ubliet made a hideous discovery, human skeletons laid piled on top of each other. It took three full cart loads to remove all of the bones. Among the bones workmen found a pocket watch made in the 1840′s. It is not certain if the dungeon was still in use then.
Because of its extremely bloody history Leap Castle has always had a reputation of being haunted, a reputation so strong local people avoided it at night. Completely gutted by fire, Leap Castle was boarded up and the gates were padlocked for over 70 years. Locals have described seeing the windows at the top of the castle “light up for a few seconds as if many candles were brought into the room” late at night. The castle laid in ruin for years.
In 1659 ownership of Leap Castle passed in marriage from the O’Carroll family to an English family, the Darby’s. The Darby family turned Leap into their family home, with improvements and additions and landscaped gardens. John Nelson Darby was the youngest son of John Darby of Leap Castle. The year of his birth, at Westminster, was 1800; that also of E. B. Pusey, who was to champion Anglo-Catholicism; and the career of each ended in the same year. The name “Nelson” was derived from the connection between his uncle, Henry Darby, commander of the “Bellerophon” in the battle of the Nile, and the famous admiral, Lord Nelson. He was educated at Westminster School, then at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated in 1819 as Classical Medallist. He was called to the Irish Chancery Bar, but soon afterwards, in 1825, took Deacon´s orders from Archbishop Magee, by whom he was priested the next year. He was appointed to the Wicklow parish of Calary, residing in a peasant´s cottage on the bog.
In the late 19th century descendants Johnathan and Mildred Darby were looking forward to raising their family here. The occult was the fashion of the day, and Mildred Darby did some innocent dabbling, despite the castle’s history and reputation for being haunted. Mildred’s dabbling with magic awakened the elemental with ferocious velocity.
In 1909, Mildred Darby wrote an article for the Journal Occult Review, describing her terrifying ordeal. “I was standing in the Gallery looking down at the main floor, when I felt somebody put a hand on my shoulder. The thing was about the size of a sheep. Thin guanting shadowy…, it’s face was human, to be more accurate inhuman. Its lust in its eyes which seemed half decomposed in black cavities stared into mine. The horrible smell one hundred times intensified came up into my face, giving me a deadly nausea. It was the smell of a decomposing corpse.”
The elemental is thought to be a primitive ghost that attaches itself to a particular place. It is often malevolent, terrifying and unpredictable. After Mrs. Darby’s experiments in the black arts, Leap Castle has never been the same. The Darbys remained at Leap until 1922. Being the home of an English family, it became the target of the Irish struggle for independence. Destroyed by bombs, completely looted, nothing but a burned out shell remained. The Darby’s were driven out.
Lord Rosse, who lives at nearby Birr Castle, built by his ancestors on the site of another former O’Carroll stronghold, states that he had always been, and still is, frightened by Leap. He said that his father had told him that as a child he would sometimes go to tea there with his governess and that, because of persistent rumours of several skeletons being bricked up behind the wall in one room, the then Lord Darby became enraged by what he considered to be idle gossip and had the wall dismantled, where, to his horror, three upright skeletons were found. He immediately had them bricked up again, saying that if one of his ancestors had killed them then it must have been for a good reason. Lady Rosse, an eminent archaeologist, believes that the castle is situated on a ley line and that the powerful forces these ancient alignments generate can be influenced by both good and evil, unfortunately in this case the latter. She added that she had been present at a recent exorcism attempt by a Mexican medium at the castle, but had found the experience unnerving.
After being burnt in 1922 by the IRA, while the Darbys were living in England, a mob had ransacked the mansion and macabrely hung the tame peacocks from meat hooks on the tower. The Darbys then gave the castle to an old lady, a family retainer, who later died of a gangrenous leg. Peter and Mide Gerrard owned the castle from 1973 to 1975 and tell the story of Peter’s mother who had been a friend of Cicely O’Carroll-Darby, and she had been invited to spend a night at the castle for a dance. She told Peter afterwards that she hadn’t slept well and continually felt that someone or something was hovering over the end of her bed. The Gerrards considered that the whole area around Leap was evil and that nothing good had befallen anyone who had owned it.
The next owner, Peter Bartlett, was an Australian and an O’Bannon. His clan had held the castle before the O’Carrolls, but were secondary chieftains to them. He began a long and ill-fated attempt to renovate the castle. Bartlett died tragically during this process.
In the 1990′s the castle was sold to the current owners. They were aware of the castle’s troubled history. Shortly after moving in they began restoration of the castle. During which time a “freak accident” left the owner with a broken kneecap delaying restoration work on the castle for nearly a year. One year after his “accident” the owner was back at work restoring his castle when the ladder he was standing on suddenly tilted backwards away from the wall causing him to jump several stories resulting in a broken ankle. Both were strange accidents.
The owners say they would be happy to share the castle with the spirits as long as there are no more “occurrences”.
In 1991, in Leap Castle’s Bloody Chapel was the christening of the owner’s baby daughter. For the first time in centuries the “Bloody Chapel” was filled with music, dancing, laughter, and most of all love. The day had been a “happy, pleasant, wonderful day”. If the troubled spirits of Leap Castle did not leave, maybe they have finally found some peace.