True Irish Ghost Stories, by St. John D. Seymour and Harry L. Neligan, , at sacred-texts.com
We have given various instances of ghostly phenomena wherein the witnesses have failed at first to realise that what they saw partook in any way of the abnormal. There are also many cases where a so-called ghost has turned out to be something very ordinary. Though more often than not such incidents are of a very trivial or self-explanatory nature (e.g. where a sheep in a churchyard almost paralysed a midnight wayfarer till he summoned up courage to investigate), there are many which have an interest of their own and which often throw into prominence the extraordinary superstitions and beliefs which exist in a country.
Our first story, which is sent us by Mr. De Lacy of Dublin, deals with an incident that occurred in the early part of last century. An epidemic which was then rife in the
city was each day taking its toll of the unhappy citizens. The wife of a man living in Merrion Square was stricken down and hastily buried in a churchyard in Donnybrook which is now closed. On the night after the funeral one of the city police, or "Charlies" as they were then called, passed through the churchyard on his rounds. When nearing the centre he was alarmed to hear a sound coming from a grave close at hand, and turning, saw a white apparition sit up and address him. This was all he waited for; with a shriek he dropped his lantern and staff and made off as fast as his legs would carry him. The apparition thereupon took up the lamp and staff, and walked to Merrion Square to the house of mourning, was admitted by the servants, and to the joy of the whole household was found to be the object of their grief returned, Alcestis-like, from the grave. It seems that the epidemic was so bad that the bodies of the victims were interred hastily and without much care: the unfortunate lady had really been in a state of coma or trance, and as the grave was lightly covered, when she came to she was able to force her way
up, and seeing the "Charlie" passing, she called for assistance.
An occurrence which at first had all the appearance of partaking of the supernormal, and which was afterwards found to have a curious explanation, is related by Dean Ovenden of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. "At Dunluce Rectory, Co. Antrim," he writes, "I had a strange experience. There was a force-pump attached to the back wall of the house, and many people drew water from it, as it was better than any obtained at that time in Bushmills. We used to notice, when going to bed, the sound of someone working the pump. All the servants denied that they ever used the pump between 11 P.M. and 12 midnight. I often looked out of the back window when I heard the pump going, but could not see anyone. I tied threads to the handle, but although they were found unbroken in the morning the pumping continued, sometimes only for three or four moves of the handle. On many nights no pumping was heard. The man-servant sat up with a gun and the dog, but he neither saw nor heard anything. We gave it up as a bad job, and still the
pumping went on. After about two years of this experience, I was one night alone in the house. It was a calm and frosty night and I went to bed about 11.30 P.M. and lay awake; suddenly the pump began to work with great clearness, and mechanically I counted the strokes: they were exactly twelve. I exclaimed, 'The dining-room clock!' I sprang from bed and went down, and found that the clock was fast, as it showed two minutes past twelve o'clock. I set back the hands to 11.55 and lay in bed again, and soon the pumper began as usual. The explanation was that the vibration of the rising and falling hammer was carried up to the bedroom by the wall, but the sound of the hell was never heard. I found afterwards that the nights when there was no pumping were always windy."
A man was walking along a country lane at night and as he was coming round a bend he saw a coffin on the road in front of him. At first he thought it was a warning to him that he was soon to leave this world; but after some hesitation, he finally summoned up courage to give the
thing a poke with his stick, when he found that the coffin was merely an outline of sea-weed which some passer-by had made. Whereupon he went on his way much relieved.
The unbeliever will state that rats or mice are more often than not the cause of so-called ghostly noises in a house. That, at any rate, instances have happened where one or other of these rodents has given rise to fear and trepidation in the inmates of a house or bedroom is proved by the following story from a Dublin lady. She tells how she was awakened by a most mysterious noise for which she could give no explanation. Overcome by fear, she was quite unable to get out of bed, and lay awake the rest of the night. When light came she got up: there was a big bath in the room, and in it she found a mouse which had been drowned in its efforts to get out. So her haunting was caused by what we may perhaps call a ghost in the making.
The devil is very real to the average countryman in Ireland. He has given his name to many spots which for some reason
or other have gained some ill-repute—the Devil's Elbow, a very nasty bit of road down in Kerry, is an instance in point. The following story shows how prevalent the idea is that the devil is an active agent in the affairs of this world.
A family living at Ardee, Co. Louth, were one night sitting reading in the parlour. The two maids were amusing themselves at some card game in the kitchen. Suddenly there was a great commotion and the two girls—both from the country—burst into the sitting-room, pale with fright, and almost speechless. When they had recovered a certain amount, they were asked what was the matter; the cook immediately exclaimed, "Oh, sir! the devil, the devil, he knocked three times at the window and frightened us dreadfully, and we had just time to throw the cards into the fire and run in here before he got us." One of the family, on hearing this, immediately went out to see what had caused all this trepidation, and found a swallow with a broken neck lying on the kitchen windowsill. The poor bird had evidently seen the light in the room, and in its efforts to get
near it had broken its neck against the glass of the window.
An amusing account of a pseudo-haunting comes from County Tipperary, and shows how extraordinarily strong is the countryman's belief in supernatural phenomena. The incidents related occurred only a very short time ago. A farmer in the vicinity of Thurles died leaving behind him a young widow. The latter lived alone after her husband's death, and about three months after the funeral she was startled one night by loud knocking at the door. On opening the door she was shocked at seeing the outline of a man dressed in a shroud. In a solemn voice he asked her did she know who he was: on receiving a reply in the negative, he said that he was her late husband and that he wanted £10 to get into heaven. The terrified woman said she had not got the money, but promised to have it ready if he would call again the next night. The "apparition" agreed, then withdrew, and the distracted woman went to bed wondering how she was to raise the money. When morning came she did not take long in telling her friends
of her experience, in the hope that they would be able to help her. Their advice, however, was that she should tell the police, and she did so. That night the "apparition" returned at the promised hour, and asked for his money. The amount was handed to him, and in a low sepulchral voice he said, "Now I leave this earth and go to heaven." Unfortunately, as he was leaving, a sergeant and a constable of the R. I. Constabulary stopped him, questioned him, and hauled him off to the barracks to spend the remainder of the night in the cell, where no doubt he decided that the haunting game has its trials. 1
An occurrence of very much the same description took place in County Clare about three years ago. Again the departed husband returns to his sorrowing wife, sits by the fire with her, chatting no doubt of old times, and before he leaves for the other world is regaled with pig's head and plenty of whisky. The visit is repeated the next night, and a request made for money to play cards with down below: the wife willingly gives him the money. Again
he comes, and again he borrows on the plea that he had lost the night before, but hoped to get better luck next time. On the woman telling a neighbour a watch was kept for the dead man's return, but he never came near the place again.
An account of a police-court trial which appeared in the Irish Times of 31st December 1913 emphasizes in a very marked degree the extraordinary grip that superstition has over some of the country people. A young woman was on her trial for stealing £300 from the brother of her employer, Patrick McFaul of Armagh. District Inspector Lowndes, in opening the case for the Crown, told the bench that the money had been taken out of the bank by McFaul to buy a holding, for the purchase of which negotiations were going on. The money was carelessly thrown into a drawer in a bedroom, and left there till it would be wanted. A short time afterwards a fire broke out in the room, and a heap of ashes was all that was found in the drawer, though little else in the room besides a few clothes was injured. "The McFauls appeared to accept their loss with a complacency,
which could only be accounted for by the idea they entertained that the money was destroyed through spiritual intervention—that there were ghosts in the question, and that the destruction of the money was to be taken as a warning directed against a matrimonial arrangement, into which Michael McFaul was about to enter." The accused girl was servant to the McFauls, who discharged her a few days after the fire: but before this she had been into Derry and spent a night there; during her stay she tried to change three £20 notes with the help of a friend. But change was refused, and she had to abandon the attempt. "If some of the money was burned, some of it was certainly in existence three days later, to the amount of £60. One thing was manifest, and that was that an incredible amount of superstition appeared to prevail amongst families in that neighbourhood when the loss of such a sum as this could be attributed to anything but larceny, and it could for a moment be suggested that it was due to spiritual intervention to indicate that a certain course should be abandoned."
The foregoing tales have been inserted, not in order that they may throw ridicule on the rest of the book, but that they may act as a wholesome corrective. If all ghost stories could be subjected to such rigid examination it is probable that the mystery in many of them would be capable of equally simple solution—yet a remnant would be left.
And here, though it may seem somewhat belated, we must offer an apology for the use of the terms "ghost" and "ghost story." The book includes such different items as hauntings, death-warnings, visions, and hallucinations, some of which obviously can no more be attributed to discarnate spirits than can the present writer's power of guiding his pen along the lines of a page; whether others of these must be laid to the credit of such unseen influences is just the question. But in truth there was no other expression than "ghost stories" which we could have used, or which could have conveyed to our readers, within reasonable verbal limits, as they glanced at its cover, or at an advertisement of it, a general idea of the contents of this book.
[paragraph continues] The day will certainly come when, before the steady advance of scientific investigation, and the consequent influencing of public opinion, the word "ghost" will be relegated to limbo, and its place taken by a number of expressions corresponding to the results obtained from the analysis of phenomena hitherto grouped under this collective title. That day is approaching. And so, though we have used the term throughout the pages of this book, it must not therefore be assumed that we necessarily believe in "ghosts," or that we are bound to the theory that all, or any, of the unusual happenings therein recorded are due to the action of visitants from the Otherworld.
We may now anticipate one or two possible points of criticism. It might be alleged that the publication of such a book as this would tend to show that the Irish nation was enslaved in superstition. Without stopping to review the question as to what should, or should not, be classed as "superstition," we would rejoin by gleefully pointing to a leading article in the Irish Times of Jan. 27, 1914, which gives a short account of a lecture by Mr. Lovett
on the folklore of London. Folklore in London! in the metropolis of the stolid Englishman! The fact is that the Irish people are not one whit more superstitious than their cross-channel neighbours, while they are surely on a far higher level in this respect than many of the Continental nations. They seem to be more superstitious because (we speak without wishing to give any offence) the popular religion of the majority has incorporated certain elements which may be traced back to pre-Christian times; but that they are actually more superstitious we beg leave to doubt.
Another and more important series of objections is stated by one of our correspondents as follows. "I must confess that I can never reconcile with my conception of an All-Wise Creator the type of 'ghost' you are at present interested in; it seems to me incredible that the spirits of the departed should be permitted to return and indulge in the ghostly repertoire of jangling chains, gurgling, &c., apparently for the sole purpose of scaring housemaids and other timid or hysterical people." The first and most obvious remark on this is, that our correspondent
has never read or heard a ghost story, save of the Christmas magazine type, else he would be aware that the above theatrical display is not an integral part of the "ghostly repertoire "; and also that persons, who are not housemaids, and who can not be classed as timid or hysterical, but who, on the other hand, are exceedingly sober-minded, courageous, and level-headed, have had experiences (and been frightened by them too!) which cannot be explained on ordinary grounds. But on the main point our correspondent is begging the question, or at least assuming as fully proved a conclusion which is very far from being so. Is he quite sure that the only explanation of these strange sights and weird noises is that they are brought about by the action of departed spirits (we naturally exclude cases of deliberate fraud, which in reality are very unusual)? And if so, what meaning would he put upon the word "spirits"? And even if it be granted that the phenomena are caused by the inhabitants of another world, why should it be impossible to accept such a theory, because of its apparent incompatibility with any conception of an
[paragraph continues] All-Wise Creator, of whose workings we are so profoundly ignorant? Are there not many things in the material world which to the limited human mind of our correspondent must seem puzzling, meaningless, useless, and even harmful? He does not therefore condemn these offhand; he is content to suspend judgment, is he not? Why cannot he adopt the same attitude with respect to psychic phenomena? Our correspondent might here make the obvious retort that it is we who are begging the question, not he, because such happenings as are described in this book have no existence apart from the imaginative or inventive faculties of certain persons. This would be equivalent to saying bluntly that a considerable number of people in Ireland are either liars or fools, or both. This point we shall deal with later on.
Our correspondent belongs to a type which knows nothing at all about psychical research, and is not aware that some of the cleverest scientists and deepest thinkers of the day have interested themselves in such problems. They have not found the answer to many of them—goodness knows if they ever will this side of the grave—but at least they have
helped to broaden and deepen our knowledge of ourselves, our surroundings, and our God. They have revealed to us profundities in human personality hitherto unsuspected, they have suggested means of communication between mind and mind almost incredible, and (in the writer's opinion at least) these points have a very important bearing on our conceptions of the final state of mankind in the world to come, and so they are preparing the way for that finer and more ethical conception of God and His Creation which will be the heritage of generations yet unborn. The materialist's day is far spent, and its sun nears the horizon.
Another objection to the study of the subjects dealt with in this book is that we are designedly left in ignorance of the unseen world by a Wise Creator, and therefore that it is grossly presumptuous, not to say impious, on the part of man to make any attempt to probe into questions which he has not been intended to study. Which is equivalent to saying that it is impious to ride a bicycle, because man was obviously created a pedestrian. This might be true if we were confined within a self-contained
world which had, and could have, no connection with anything external to itself. But the very essence of our existence here is that the material and spiritual worlds interpenetrate, or rather that our little planet forms part of a boundless universe teeming with life and intelligence, yet lying in the hollow of God's hand. He alone is "Supernatural," and therefore Transcendent and Unknowable; all things in the universe are "natural," though very often they are beyond our normal experience, and as such are legitimate objects for man's research. Surely the potential energy in the human intellect will not allow it to remain at its present stage, but will continually urge it onwards and upwards. What limits God in His Providence has seen fit to put upon us we cannot tell, for every moment the horizon is receding, and our outlook becoming larger, though some still find it difficult to bring their eyesight to the focus consequently required. The marvellous of to-day is the commonplace of to-morrow: "our notion of what is natural grows with our greater knowledge."
Throughout the pages of this book we have,
in general, avoided offering explanations of; or theories to account for, the different stories. Here something may be said on this point. As we have already pointed out, the expression "ghost stories" covers a multitude of different phenomena. Many of these may be explained as "hallucinations," which does not imply that they are simply the effect of imagination and nothing more. "The mind receives the hallucination as if it came through the channels of sense, and accordingly externalises the impression, seeking its source in the world outside itself, whereas in all hallucinations the source is within the mind, and is not derived from an impression received through the recognised organ of sense." 1
Many of these hallucinations are termed veridical, or truth-telling, because they coincide with real events occurring to another person. Illustrations of this will be found in Chapter VI, from which it would appear that a dying person (though the power is not necessarily confined to such) occasionally has the faculty of telepathically communicating with another; the latter receives the
impression, and externalises it, and so sees a ghost," to use the popular expression. Some hallucinations are auditory, i.e. sounds are heard which apparently do not correspond to any objective reality. Incomprehensible though it may appear, it may be possible for sounds, and very loud ones too, to be heard by one or more persons, the said sounds being purely hallucinatory, and not causing any disturbance in the atmosphere.
Some of the incidents may be explained as due to telepathy, that mysterious power by which mind can communicate with mind, though what telepathy is, or through what medium it is propagated, no one can tell as yet. Belief in this force is increasing, because, as Professor Sir W. Barrett remarks: "Hostility to a new idea arises largely from its being unrelated to existing knowledge," and, as telepathy seems to the ordinary person to be analogous to wireless telegraphy, it is therefore accepted, or at least not laughed at, though how far the analogy really holds good is not at all certain.
Again there is the question of haunted houses and places, to accounts of which the
first five chapters of this book are devoted. The actual evidence for many of these may not come up to the rigorous standard set by the S.P.R., but it is beyond all doubt that persons who are neither fools, liars, nor drunkards firmly believe that they have seen and heard the things related in these chapters (not to speak of Chapters VI–VIII), or that they have been told such by those in whose statements they place implicit confidence; while so certain are they that they are telling the truth that they have not only written down the stories for the compilers, but have given their names and addresses as well, though not always for publication. Can we contemptuously fling aside such a weight of evidence as unworthy of even a cursory examination? This would hardly be a rational attitude to adopt. Various theories to account for these strange hauntings have been formulated, which may be found on pp. 199-200 of Sir William Barrett's Psychical Research, and so need not be given here.
Yet, when all is said and done, the very formulating of theories, so far from solving problems, only raises further and more complex
ones, perhaps the greatest of which is, Have the spirits of the departed anything to do with the matter? As we have shown, we hope with success, in the preceding paragraphs, many "ghosts" have no necessary connection with the denizens of the unseen world, but may be explained as being due to laws of nature which at present are very obscure. Does this hold good of all "ghosts," or are some of them to be placed to the credit of those who have passed beyond the veil, or perhaps to spirits, good or evil, which have never been incarnate? That is the problem for the future, for in the present state of our knowledge it would be premature to give a direct answer, either positive or negative.
This book was written with a twofold purpose: first, that of entertaining our readers, in which we trust we have been successful; secondly, to stimulate thought. For, strange though it may seem, authenticated "ghost stories" have a certain educative value. Taking them at their lowest they suggest inquiry into the strange workings of the human mind: at their highest how many strange lines of inquiry do they
not suggest? For it is obvious that we have now arrived at one of those interesting periods in the history of human thought which might be described as the return of the pendulum. We are in the process of emerging from a very materialistic age, when men either refused to believe anything that was contrary to their normal experience, or else leavened their spiritual doctrines and beliefs with the leaven of materialism. The pendulum has swung to its highest point in this respect, and is now commencing to return, so perhaps the intellectual danger of the future will be that men, instead of believing too little, will believe too much. Now is the time for laying a careful foundation. Psychical research, spiritualism, and the like, are not ends in themselves, they are only means to an end. At the present state of thought, the transition from the old to the new, from the lower to the higher, it is inevitable that there must be confusion and doubt, and the earnest thinker must be prepared to suspend judgment on many points; but at a later stage, when all absurdity, error, and fraud, now so closely connected with
psychical research in its various branches, will have been swept away, Truth will emerge and lift the human race to a purer and loftier conception of God and His universe.
256:1 Evening Telegraph for Dec. 10, 1913
266:1 Prof. Sir W. Barrett, Psychical Research, p. iii.