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Monday 11 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C

Many Irish 'ghost stories' are untrue... except these ones

And this man has written a book about them.

3_CoolbawnHouse Tarquin Blake Tarquin Blake

‘THE TENDENCY IS for people to make ghost tales flamboyant – so I was trying to stay away from that’ – Tarquin Blake

Author and photographer Tarquin Blake loves ghost stories. But when he set out to write a book about Irish ghost tales, and photograph the locations, he hit upon one small problem:

“99% were purely fictional. They were about non-existent people and non-existent townlands.”

So he decided to find the ones that had truth to them, for his latest book Haunted Ireland.

LeapCastle2 Tarquin Blake Leap Castle Tarquin Blake

“My concept was to find stories where there was something physical I could go photograph,” he explains.

“Also that the story could be backed up with historical fact or contemporaneous accounts from the time that could be verified, as I knew it couldn’t be made-up nonsense.”

If you scoff at the idea of a ‘ghost’, you might find that the historical facts that Blake found during his research could at least convince you that something weird did indeed happen in his chosen locations.

“It’s like a jigsaw trying to put the pieces together and figure out the full story,” explains Blake.

“The internet is absolutely a waste of time for anything like this,” he laughs when asked about his research method. “It’s mainly books, old books. If someone’s written about it before, it makes it easier to get into it.”

He also trawled through newspaper archives, census records (“you can establish if a certain person was in a certain location”), manuscripts, and libraries in his search.

Ghost stories that weren’t true

The book came from a long love of the supernatural and paranormal. “I’ve been really into ghost stories for a long, long time,” says Blake.

“I’ve been collecting short stories and books for over a decade and I have a massive collection of Irish stories. I’ve been reading all this stuff for a long time and I guess it was working on the first two books about mansions that I had this idea about doing a book on ghost stories and going around photographing houses and estates.”

A lot of the stories are rooted in history and folklore.

LeapCastle1 Leap Castle

Key to the book is the spooky photographs that accompany the stories. Because “you can’t photograph a ghost”, Blake chose to take some of the photos using an infra-red lens, to capture the atmosphere.

“With the photographs, a lot of people like a very polished, colourful, sharp nice image, whereas I try and get the atmosphere behind the place.”

The poltergeist

Getting to photograph the locations meant experiencing some of the residual spookiness himself. And one location in particular left quite the impression on him.

The Cooneen Poltergeist1 The Cooneen poltergeist

“So many places, I am a little bit numb to the spookiness of them,” he explains. “You’d have to drop me into the most grim, terrifying place and it wouldn’t scare me too much now.”

But when he visited the site of a reported poltergeist haunting, it was very different. “I was totally freaked out when I went to the place to photograph it,” he recalls.

“The atmosphere of the place and how it looked – you couldn’t imagine a more haunted place.”
“I picked up my phone to call my wife and my phone was dead. It’s quite a new phone…”
“I picked up my camera and my camera battery was dead too.”
“I went back to the car and changed my camera battery – I was on edge and the hairs were standing on the back of my neck.”

The Cooneen Poltergeist2 The Cooneen poltergeist

Does he believe in ghosts? “I think ghosts are definitely real but I don’t think they’re on the same physical plane as us. I think you have to keep an open mind and try and not be too scientific about their existence… leave it a little bit to the imagination.”

One of the more fantastical stories is that of a ghostly ship that was said to have appeared in the air at Clonmacnoise in Co Offaly.

“This ship apparently appeared in the air and an anchor came out clouds. It got hooked on part of the structure… this account is recorded in loads of different very early books. There’s got to be a bit to this story. There was one book written in Irish and one in Norwegian – a Viking account of this thing, this strange ship that appeared. It makes you think when you see the same account in different languages there’s got to be something to the story.”

In his book, he recounts how there are sworn written accounts of 16 people who witnessed a battle between two ships that appeared in the sky.

Other tales include ones about the Hag of Beara, a black cat that haunts the Kilkakee estate, the curse of Castle Lyons, a vampire dwarf from Co Derry and the werewolves of Ossory.

Strange apparitions

4_CorkLunaticAsylum Tarquin Blake Tarquin Blake

Another strange site was Sing Sing, a former IRA holding cell in a graveyard.

Blake had visited there in the past and remembered how strange he felt in that location.

“It was only probably about a year or two later when I got to seriously research the place and found all the stories from people who were held in the cell, accounts of apparitions appearing before them. I was thinking ‘oh my God, I was in that place and I felt the same kind of things’.”

Who is the book for?

5_WitchBurning Tarquin Blake Tarquin Blake

“It’s not aimed at paranormal researchers,” acknowledged Blake. “It’s for the intelligent reader who is open-minded and wants to learn a bit more about these things. Some of the stories are grim and have an amusing side to them, they’re not all gruesome.”

“I think ghost stories, they’re not really strong in Irish culture,” suggested Blake. “Ghost stories are not really a strong tradition, it’s more legends and fairy stories.”

But with these stories, he’s hoping to prove that there may be more to Irish ghost tales of old than meets the eye.

Haunted Ireland is published by Collins Press and is out now. All photographs above courtesy of Tarquin Blake.

Read: Hidden Ireland: Abandoned and ruined ‘big houses’>

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