An investigation into the ghosts of Donegal


LJ Sexton

I ADORE autumn and I just love Halloween. I loved it even more when we lived in Donegal and my kids were younger, because Halloween was such a huge deal over there and the October school break always occurs around this holiday. I’m not entirely sure I even realised that this Pagan festival began in Ireland and it was the Irish immigrants who took the traditions of Halloween around the world where they were then adopted. For example, I had no idea that the Irish made lanterns from cut out turnips, which then became pumpkins in America.

My kids would decide what they were going to dress up as for Halloween and I would begin making their costumes weeks in advance. I never ever bought a costume from a shop! Not once. But that was all part of the fun of it. One time I spent days painting cardboard boxes for my son, Ciarán who was going as Optimus Prime from Transformers. I mean the costume was outstanding, if I say so myself, but he couldn’t sit down in it, so when we got to the school disco he survived all of ten minutes before pleading to get out of it. Boy was I pissed off! I spent days cutting up old pieces of material, ragging the edges then sewing the patches onto an old skirt for Áine who was going as Cinderella. Another year, I swear to God I must have been sewing for hours a day, days on end to create a ‘mummy’ costume; cutting out long strips of bandages then sewing them onto a long sleeved t-shirt and a pair of trousers. I clearly had the foresight that my child would need to pee at some point… and I was right!

In Derry, Halloween is a celebration on a mammoth scale. They have a parade with giant floats, dancers and acrobats and everyone gets dressed up. They have fireworks and bands playing and the whole city embraces the carnival atmosphere. It’s fabulous altogether.

Now, of course, the Irish are famous for many things, and one of them is their belief in all things supernatural. Fairies, giants, banshees and ghosts, mythical creatures and bizarre superstitions, but it’s the traditional folklore surrounding them that is enough to terrify the beejayzus outta ye.

The Irish Celts celebrated the eve of Halloween, Samhain—pronounced sahwin—with a Celtic Pagan Festival to welcome in the harvest and say goodbye to the light half of the year whilst ushering in the dark half. Essentially it marked the end of summer and the beginning of another year, a mystical time where the barriers between the physical and spiritual worlds are broken down and dead spirits walk amidst us mortals, well that’s the premise anyway, I mean I can’t say I’ve come across any myself. Local communities would light bonfires in the hope of keeping the evil spirits away and prevent any bad luck in the coming year.

The following day farmers would scatter the bonfire ashes across their fields to ward off a potential poor harvest. People dressed up in costumes to disguise themselves in the hope that neither the spirits nor the fairies would take them away. Apparently it’s well documented that the festival continued for three days and three nights and people drank booze and ate to excess. Eh really? Perhaps this is where the Irish get their reputation for being fond of the drink. After the bonfire, each family used there hollowed turnip—Jack-o-Lantern —in order to carry home an ember from the communal bonfire. The other slightly scarier version of this story is that Jack-o-Lanterns were named after a blacksmith called Jack, who colluded with the Devil and was denied entry into Heaven. He was condemned to walk the earth for eternity but he asked the Devil for some light and was given a burning coal to sit inside a turnip. Some Irish believe that hanging a lantern in their window would keep Jack’s wandering soul away. “Hit the road Jack!” I say.

Trick or Treating began as a traditional dinner of colcannon on Halloween night before you headed out for an evening of shenanigans. It’s a simple dish made with spuds, kale and raw onion. Coins were wrapped in pieces of clean paper and slipped into children’s colcannon for them to find and keep. Sometimes people also hid a ring and whoever found it was said to be married within the year.

Another dish to be enjoyed was from the Irish name Bairín Breac, which is a sweet bread made with fruit, as well as some other treats/prizes baked inside the cake. Each member of the family gets a slice and each prize has a different meaning: A rag signifies your financial future is doubtful. Maybe that’s where the term ‘rags to riches’ comes from? A coin means you will have a prosperous year. A ring represents romance or continued happiness. A thimble says you will never marry.

Now, you may well be reading this and thinking to yourself, what a load of utter bull, but surely we have to question the orientation and philosophy behind such beliefs and superstitions. I mean why did folk believe you had to cover a mirror during a wake? Why is it bad luck not to salute a single magpie? Why does one bring us sorrow and two bring us joy? Why is it seven years bad luck when we break a mirror? Why can’t we put new shoes on the table? Why do we need to throw salt over our left shoulder when we spill some? Why is a bird coming into your home a sign of death? God alone knows, but I can’t help thinking that it’s all scare-mongering tactics to create a little excitement and mystery in the lives of those who had very little stimulation and enlightenment in their banal lives, and so ghost storytelling and superstition became a form of entertainment as it were.

One such ghost story surrounds the Greencastle Fort in Inishowen, a place we visited regularly with the kids as it was only six miles around the coast from where we lived in Carrowbeg. It was built in 1305 by Richard de Burgh, the Red Earl, and was besieged by years of battle so there was considerable blood shed there. Years later the Red Earl’s grandson, William, inherited the castle and apparently had an archenemy by the name of Walter Burke, who was captured and imprisoned in the tower of Greencastle and left to starve to death. William’s younger sister fell in love with Walter and was sneaking him food and water. When William discovered her betrayal she was thrown from the battlements and died broken and bloodied on the rocks below. Walter died soon afterwards and it is believed that the lovers still haunt the ruins of Greencastle Forte together. Now I can’t say that I ever had any ghostly visions or felt it was haunted, but that’s not to say it isn’t. They can haunt away… so long as they don’t steal my garlic potatoes!

Another place in Inishowen renowned for ghostly goings on is Father Hegarty’s Rock in Buncrana (above). This particular spot is where there have been several reported eerie encounters of a supernatural nature. Father Hegarty’s Rock forms part of the banks of Lough Swilly, so called because a priest, Fr Hegarty was executed by the British in the mid-17th century for celebrating Mass when it was completely outlawed. In very recent times a group of kids were cycling through the area and as they approached the sheer drop on the path they had chosen, the image of a white horse came from nowhere, rising up on its hind legs in distress. The terrified youngsters stayed frozen to the spot in disbelief as the horse leapt from the ledge onto the rocks below, only to fade and disappear before their eyes. This was considered to be a crisis manifestation in what was already considered a most holy of places following the martyrdom of Fr James Hegarty.

I cannot help but think and feel that the Irish were—and to a certain extent still are—fixated with death, illness and bad luck. However, they are also uniquely gifted at expressing such life events in a creative and sometimes black-humorous way. Some of the world’s elite literary talents have come from Ireland. Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, John Boyne, Marian Keyes, Maeve Binchy, Donal Ryan, to name a select few—all of them utilising their conditioning; their history, death, poverty, sickness and immigration. So does it come from their history? Is it in the DNA? The British taking their land, their freedom, their faith, their language, their human rights? Does the grinding down of a nation cause the stirring up of words?

It was St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Brotherhood that said: “Give me a child till he is seven years old and I will show you the man.” If all that any human being knows and experiences is sanctions, poverty, hunger, control and death, then it is no wonder this ethos exists, and it’s no wonder the island of Ireland is still haunted by the ghosts of their past.

L J Sexton, mum of four, returned to university to pursue her passion for the written word. She achieved her Honours Degree in English Literature and Creative Writing and hasn’t stopped writing since. Lyn is born of Irish parents and lived in Donegal for eight years. She is also the press officer for Irish Minstrels CCÉ music group based in St Roch’s Secondary School