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Dublin: 7 °C Thursday 13 December, 2018
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Hidden Ireland: Step into the site where Halloween began

Archaeologist Neil Jackman steers us around some spooky ancient Samhain spots in Roscommon, Dublin, Meath and Wexford. Hold us.

LOOKING TO DO something a little different this Halloween?

As a special edition of our Hidden Heritage series, archaeologist Neil Jackman gives a few suggestions for spooky sites with dark pasts in counties Meath, Roscommon, Dublin and Wexford. If you have a suggestion for a great site to visit please do leave a comment below.

The Hill of Ward, (Tlachtga), Co Meath

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Image © Joe Conlon

Just two kilometres outside of Athboy in Co Meath you can find one of the possibly most important, yet largely unheralded, archaeological sites in Ireland. This is Tlachtga, known now as the Hill of Ward, and it was here that the origins of Halloween began.

The monument appears as a series of extensive ditches and earthen banks surrounding a circular mound. The site itself is around 150m in diameter, though originally it could have been even larger, as investigations using LiDAR survey by The Hill of Ward Archaeological Project show possible outer embankments suggesting that originally the entire hill was enclosed, potentially making it one of the largest hilltop enclosures recorded in Ireland.

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These hilltop enclosures often date to the later part of the Bronze Age or Early Iron Age period, and rather than defensive structures they are thought to be places of massive gatherings and celebrations at particular times of the year.

The celebrations at Tlachtga are thought to be the origins of Halloween. At Samhain (the ancient precursor to modern Halloween), it was believed that the spirits of the dead would return and creatures like the fairies would leave their mounds and walk the lands again. It was a time of disorder, where the boundaries between the living and the dead were broken.

As part of the ceremonies, the old year’s fires were extinguished across the country and, after sunset, the ceremonial New Year Samhain fire was lit here on Tlachtga to mark the death of the old year. Torches were lit from this sacred fire and carried to seven other hills around the county including Tara and Loughcrew, and then on to light up the whole countryside.

The views from the site are simply spectacular, from here on a clear day you can see the Hill of Tara, Loughcrew, Kells, Trim and the Dublin Mountains and it must have been an awesome site watching the blackness of night being slowly dotted with the fires across the landscape, marking the victory of life and light over death and darkness for another year.

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Image © Joe Conlon

These events are recreated every year, when local historian Joe Conlon leads an atmospheric torchlit procession from the Fairgreen in nearby Athboy to the Hill of Tlachtga. This is a free event. Access to the Hill is over a difficult stile and you will be walking over an uneven field in near darkness so please do be careful and wear comfortable boots.

This event is part of the great Spirits of Meath, with fun events across the county. Please visit this section of the meath.ie site for more information.

Rathcroghan, Co Roscommon

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Another site connected to Samhain is at Rathcroghan, just outside Tulsk in Co Roscommon. Here you can find Oweynagat – The Cave of the Cats. This cave is central to many legends and folklore. It was thought to be the entrance to the Otherworld, and home to the mythical early Irish race that became Fairies, the Tuatha Dé Dannan.

It was also believed to be a place guarded by malevolent creatures that emerge from the cave at Samhain with the spirits of the dead, and ravage the land of Ireland. It was also home to the Morrígan, the powerful goddess of battle, strife and fertility.

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Image © Richard Mills

Rathcroghan is a fascinating landscape deeply steeped in folklore, legend, history and archaeology. Though you can access the main site for free, I strongly recommend you pay a visit first to the excellent visitor centre. This will give you a real grasp of the complexity of the archaeology as well as the stories and legends that make this such a special place.

You can also arrange tours of Rathcroghan and its associated sites through the Rathcroghan Visitor Centre at Cruachan Ai in Tulsk Village where the staff are more than happy to take you on a journey through this ancient landscape.

There is a wonderful opportunity on Halloween to enter Oweynagat itself! Take a guided tour at Samhain to the Cave of the Cats, ‘Entrance to the Otherworld’, the Morrigan’s ‘fit abode’, a place the Christian scribes called the Gates of Hell… if you dare! Tour Cost is €6 per person. Please bring torches, waterproofs and your courage! See rathcroghan.ie for more great events.

The Hellfire Club, Co Dublin

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If you like your scares a little more modern where could be better than a visit to The Hellfire Club, on Montpelier Hill near Tallaght, south Co Dublin. The Hellfire Club is steeped in stories of dark events and the occult. It was built by the famous Irish politician William Speaker Connolly in 1725 as a hunting lodge.

However this building wasn’t the first structure on the hill. In the foreground of our picture you can see a low grassy mound with some large stones, this could be the remains of the Neolithic passage tomb that William Connolly is said to have had destroyed to clear the land for the lodge.

It would have had extensive views over County Dublin, and its prominent location is similar to that of Seefin Passage Tomb located nearby in County Wicklow. The tomb features in the first supernatural tales associated with the building. It is said that shortly after the tomb was destroyed and its stones used in the construction of the Hellfire Club, a strong wind blew and demolished the fashionable slate roof off the new building, presumably in retaliation for the desecration of the ancient burial site.

Undeterred, Connolly had a new roof constructed, this time from a strong arch of stone that still stands today.

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Connolly died in 1729 and the lodge lay unoccupied for a time before being acquired by the Hellfire Club. This was a group notorious for excess and depravity. They had famed drinking bouts, during which they always left one chair empty in honour of the devil. They drank a mix of melted butter and whiskey called scaltheen, and various accounts of them and their practices abound.

I have read accounts that they poured this scaltheen mix over a black cat then set the poor animal alight as a precursor to their evening’s revelries and ‘devil worshipping’. Another account tells of a priest who had been told of the satanic worship, he arrived at the club during one of their sessions to see them all gathered around a table, at the head of which sat a large black cat. The clergyman recited prayers of exorcism and threw holy water at the cat which ‘tore the beast apart’. Creepy stuff indeed, and you thought the television show Love/Hate was cruel to poor moggies!

There are even darker stories of murder and sacrifice, of a young woman who was killed by being rolled down the steep hill in a burning barrel.

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The building was burned either on purpose to give it a more hellish appearance, or as an accident when a poor footman accidentally spilled drink on the Principal of the Hellfire Club’s coat and the Principal reacted by pouring scaltheen over the footman and setting him alight. The poor footman tried to flee but bumped into tapestries, setting the whole building ablaze. According to this tale, many of the members of the Hellfire Club burned alive as they were too drunk to escape.

With the Hellfire Club largely destroyed by the fire the members relocated down the hill to the nearby Stewards Lodge which also has a grim reputation with more tales of apparitions and ghoulish goings-on.

When we visited there wasn’t much in the way of anything supernatural happening (well apart from a lot of kids running around shrieking, they kind of dulled any spooky atmosphere a bit but they were terrifying in their own way).

Inside the building there are a number of rooms with fireplaces, arched windows and connecting galleries. The architecture is very unusual and it is well worth a look. Probably the most disturbing thing about the site is the unfortunate extensive graffiti and vandalism. There is no doubt it is still used as a place for excess and boozing – I suppose it’s just keeping up the tradition set by the original Hellfire Club!

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The views over the landscape are incredible, and there is a nicely set out walking loop around the hill so it is a popular place for walkers and dog owners.

The site is about 15 minutes’ drive or so south of Tallaght on the R115. It is well signposted with a large carpark (please be careful not to leave any valuables on display in your car) and follow the well made path up all the way to the site.  If you like to use Google Maps enter Montpelier Hill, South Dublin as your destination.

Loftus Hall, Co Wexford

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My final suggestion for a spooky Halloween site is Loftus Hall in Co Wexford. The legend tells that in the eighteenth century the house was owned by Charles Tottenham (whose first wife was Anne Loftus). Charles, his second wife and his daughter from his first marriage were staying at Loftus Hall, when a fierce storm raged and an unexpected ship arrived at the nearby Hook Peninsula. A young man arrived at the Hall to seek shelter.

Charles invited the young man to stay, and the young man and his daughter Anne quickly became very close. The family and handsome stranger began playing cards in front of a roaring fire. Anne clumsily dropped one of the cards, and when she bent down to pick it up she noticed instead of a foot the stranger had a cloven hoof! She shrieked in fear and the stranger flew through the roof leaving a large hole in the roof.

Anne was in a state of deep terror and shock. She wouldn’t leave the Tapestry Room at Loftus Hall, and refused food and drink until she died in 1775. Later, it is said that the demon stranger returned, and that it is he that is responsible for the reported poltergeist events.

A number of attempts at exorcism are said to have failed as ghostly events are still reported at Loftus Hall…

Loftus Hall has a number of great events planned for Halloween, with actors setting the scene to bring the gruesome and ghastly events of Loftus Hall to life. Please see here for more details.

These are just a few suggestions for great heritage sites associated with Samhain and spooky goings on. If you know of a creepy site with a dark past I’d love to hear your stories, please leave a comment below if you have a site to recommend or a terrifying tale to tell!

  • If you’d like to keep up with daily images and information about Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites please consider following Neil’s company Abarta Audioguides on FacebookTwitterInstagram or Google+.
  • If you’d like to support us please consider downloading one of our audioguides from abartaheritage.ie: they are packed with great facts, information, stories and legends from Ireland’s iconic sites. They are designed to be fun and informative whether you are visiting the sites or from the comfort of your own home, so if you are looking to escape to the Court of Brian Boru the next time you are doing household chores, download one of our guides and let us whisk you off to ancient Ireland!
  • All images © Neil Jackman/abartaheritage.ie unless stated otherwise.

Read more in our Hidden Ireland series here>
Watch: Ghost caught on camera robbing an off-licence>

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