It was Christmas a number of years back, and an elderly couple had booked a room at the Ballygally Castle Hotel, at the head of Ballygally Bay on the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland, a short twenty miles north of Belfast. The hotel and castle sits nearly on the bay itself, and in winter the wind blows hard and cold. When they arrived at the hotel, they were surprised to see various members of the staff preparing for a fancy dress ball, and that night, there was a knock on the door. When the gentleman opened the door, he found standing there a member of the serving staff, with an invitation to the ball. Not having any other plans, they attended and had the most beautiful evening. The hotel staff and other guests were all decked out in period attire, and everyone kept their tongues pressed firmly in their cheek to make the evening as authentic as possible. There are medieval banquets after all, all over Ireland and England, but the couple agreed that this surely must have been one of the finest.
The next morning at breakfast they couldn’t help but thank the lady who was the manager for one of the nicest evenings that they could remember. Which surprised their host to no end, as the ball was not scheduled to take place for another two days.
Upon learning that, perhaps understandably, the couple checked out.
Ballygally Castle dates from 1625, and is built in the style of a French Chateau, with exceedingly high walls five foot thick, including loopholes for firing muskets at the advancing enemy. It’s high corner turrets, dormer windows and steep roof makes for a remarkable and memorable site on the windswept coast. With its back to the sea, it was imperative that it be build solidly, so that it could withstand sieges. In fact, there was once a stream which ran through the castle itself to provide fresh water in such an event.
It was built by a Scotsman by the name of James Shaw, who rented the land from the Earl of Antrim for 24 pounds a year. The Scots have had a long history with the north of Ireland, both as allies and in exchange of labor for seasonal work, and as the Scots coming over as settlers and conquerors at the bequest of the English.
The castle remained in the Shaw family till 1799, when William Shaw sold the estate to Cyril Lord, a carpet tycoon, who extended and renovated the structure, before it was again sold and eventually became a hotel. Today the castle anchors one wing of what is essentially a modern hotel, with banquet rooms, the renowned Garden Restaurant overlooking the castle grounds, a bar and 44 bedrooms. It is situated along one of the most picturesque coastal drives to be found anywhere, passing the Giant’s Causeway to the north, a world heritage site and truly one of the most impressive natural rock formations to be found in Ireland, as well as the scene of several stories from their mythological past. Nearby is the breathtaking Nine Glens of Antrim, which makes for either a beautiful and only slightly hair-raising drive, or can provide days of hiking through some of the most beautiful country in the north of Ireland. In addition golfers and anglers find themselves in a sportsman’s paradise.
There are four guest rooms in the castle section of the hotel proper, and those who stay there are thought to share the castle with its most famous resident, Lady Isobel Shaw. There are small placards throughout the castle which lead you to the Ghost Room, a top corner turret which overlooks the Irish Sea. It’s cramped, confined and contains only a few sticks of modest furniture – a metal cot-like bed, a cabinet with mirror, a table and a portrait of a rather grim faced woman. There is one window which is quite small, but one supposed, large enough to have suited it’s macabre purpose one day long ago.
According to legend, James Shaw married the unfortunate Lay Isobel, who was unable to product a male heir, only a single daughter. In anger, Shaw had her imprisoned in the turret, where according to the story she went mad and leapt to her death. Another tale tells of henchmen hired by the Scotsman who threw her down the steep stairs which lead to the room. Still another claims that Isobel was having an affair with a sailor, which was discovered by Shaw who in a fit of jealousy, had her imprisoned in the room.
Since that time her spirit is said to haunt the tiny room, sometimes making itself known by the scent of vanilla, sometimes appearing to guests in the castle part of the hotel, looking desperately for her daughter. Guests have been awakened in the night to find her standing in the middle of their room, only to watch her fade away to nothingness.
According the book, The World’s Most Haunted Places, by Jeff Belanger, BBC reporter Kim Lenaghan was recording a piece on Ballygally Castle Hotel for a Halloween segment on the show, Good Morning Ulster. Lanaghan related to Belanger, that she sat with a medium in the Ghost Room. Lenaghan reported that the medium was not in a trance, but she was certainly very focused on what she was doing … The next thing that happened is it started to get a lot warmer. I mean significantly warmer, ”the temperature in the room must’ve gone up by 10 degrees. Then she started talking to someone, literally coinciding with the temperature going up, and a smell came. It didn’t waft in – I mean the smell came straight on almost instantly. It smelled like vanilla, but it wasn’t exactly vanilla. While it was a vanilla-like smell, it was an old, slightly musty smell. Musty vanilla – I know it sounds ridiculous. But that’s what it was.”
According Belanger’s book, “The medium would later explain that the spirit was that of a young woman who was scared and looking for her young daughter. The medium told Lenaghan that “they were keeping her there against her will, and she said there was an older woman who wouldn’t let her out of the room.” During the conversation, this woman continually ran to the window looking for a man named Robert who was out at sea. The spirit didn’t understand why Robert didn’t come back to get her.”
Lenaghan was planning on spending the night in the room, and the medium told her not to be afraid, as the spirit wasn’t angry or malicious, just afraid.
So was Kim.
But she appears to be the consummate reporter, and armed with a flask of coffee, brandy and a tape recorder, she ascended the stairs to the room, settled in and waited. According to Ms. Lenaghan, around 3 a.m. the room started to get warmer again. “€œI thought: It’s the coffee and the brandy. And then it got even warmer and I thought: No, this isn’t right. And the next thing, the smell came back instantly – that same smell. And it was even stronger than before. The smell was very intense toward my head. Yes, it was a smell, but the weirdest thing of all was it was a smell that almost covered you, like a sheet – it was all pervasive. It was almost like you could feel the smell on your clothes and in your hair and on the bed.”
Seconds later the reporter fled the room, and spent the rest of the night in a room as far from the turret as possible. The next morning the staff took her back to the room, where they reported that several guests had heard knocking during the night, one reported seeing a woman in their room who faded away to nothing, and then showed her, written in the dust of the mirror of the ghost room, the name Kim.
In addition to Lady Isobel, the castle part of the hotel is said to be haunted by the ghosts of one or more children. Guests have reported being woken up by small hands pushing and tugging at them in their sleep, only to wake up and find no one there, hearing only the sound of a laughing child. Most reports consist of knocking at the doors of their room in the night, followed by the laughing of children and the sound of small feet running away down the hall.
Yet another spirit is said to haunt the hotel, that of Madame Nixon, who lived there in the 18th century. After her death, she was reputed to wander the castle still, knocking on doors, and it’s often reported by guests that they hear the rustling of her silk dress passing them in the hallways, invisible and wafting the scent of her perfume.
It was a cold and bleak late October day when we pulled into the Ballygally Castle Hotel. It was well beyond the tourist season, and we more or less had the place to ourself. We took a cold, wet and windy walk along the beach, and the sense I had of the place was one of desolation. Perhaps in the summer months children laugh and play, the sun warms the skin and life and energy abounds. Alone and chilled to the bone however, with only a skeleton crew manning the hotel, it could easily work as a set for a gothic horror film.
We returned to the hotel and visited the ghost room. In truth, it is close in there, and one can only imagine the claustrophobia of being imprisoned in such a tiny space. Even the staircase leading to the room is narrow and confining, obviously meant for people shorter in stature than myself. Our room was at the foot of this staircase, at my request. Of course I had asked to book the ghost room itself, which isn’t available. But I suppose should one wish to spend the night in the room, there doesn’t appear to be anyone stopping you from mounting the stairs at night and holding your own vigil.
Which following dinner than evening in the Garden Restaurant, we decided to do. There was only one other couple in the dining room that night, and you could hardly escape the feeling and the memory of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, with its own ghostly children and sense of ghastly isolation. So following dinner we adjourned to our room, and fortified with Guinness and perhaps a dram or two of Irish whiskey, I grabbed my video camera and we started towards the staircase which leads to the Ghost Room of Ballygally Castle. I switched on the video recorder, put it on night vision and we started up the stairs. My disappointment must have shown in my face as the camera beeped at the top of the stairs and I looked down to see the dead battery icon light up, and the camera switch off. We went in anyway, and at night, in near total darkness, the room is indeed creepy. Neither of us had any real interest at that point in sitting there in the dark, so after a few tense moments we went back down the stairs.
Back in the room I went to plug in the camera, and noticed that it fired right up, still on battery power. So once again we started up the stairs, and once again, at the top of the stairs, the camera switched off.
I got the hint, and we went back to the room and turned in for the night.
We were soon asleep, and sleeping the sleep of the dead when I awoke to the sound of tapping. It appeared to be coming from my left, the direction of the door. The tapping soon grew louder into a knock, and finally to a banging. I started to wake my wife, who was still sleeping beside me, as the banging started coming closer, passing over us and to the other side of the bed, when following a moment of unbearable silence, the furnace kicked on. As they say, old houses have their own noises. And perhaps the mysterious knocking people hear in the night is nothing but a cantankerous furnace, rather than a restless spirit.
But the next morning, as we drove toward Belfast, I noticed my wife watching the video of us walking up the stairs the night before. The camera working once more, on battery power alone.
Sometimes hauntings manifest themselves as an apparition, sometimes as a knock at the door, sometimes as ghostly voices and the laughter of children. All I witnessed was a malfunctioning video camera and a noisy furnace, but in the end, that made the night well spent.
Real ghost stories and the places that inspired them