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Travel: Chasing ghosts and spirits in Dublin

The city in Ireland, which prides itself on being one of the most haunted countries on the planet, is blessed with Georgian architecture, museums and expansive public parks

The Dublin Castle
The Dublin Castle (Courtesy Failte Ireland/Tourism Ireland)

Dublin is known for its craic, a somewhat undefinable Irish word that indicates humour, repartee, fun, good times and more. Pronounced “crack”, it involves lively conversation, sparkling humour and good company, and draws writers, intellectuals and tourists to Ireland every year. There’s another thing Dublin, or Baile Átha Cliath (Town of the Ford of the Hurdle), is known for—the celebration of Halloween.

The Irish have been celebrating Halloween for more than a thousand years. Back then, it was a pagan festival, Samhain (pronounced sow-win), or summer’s end, celebrated to welcome the harvest and usher in winter by lighting bonfires to ward off evil spirits. Eventually, the bonfires, or samghnagans, became a tradition, believed to protect families and farms from the fairies, witches, leprechauns, banshees, and fey creatures that populate Irish folklore. Jack-o-lanterns, carved from turnips, made an appearance and were later replaced by pumpkins. “The Irish believe that barriers between the physical and spirit world break down during Samhain, which allows humans and otherworldly creatures to interact,” says Lucy Bolan, who works at Dublin Tourist Information Centre on Upper O'Connell Street.

She adds that the tradition of “dumb supper” began during this time. “People ate the meal only after inviting ancestors, which supposedly gave families a chance to interact with spirits until they left after a sumptuous dinner,” Bolan explains. The adults updated ancestors with the year’s news, while the children played games to entertain. Doors and windows were left open so the dead could come in and eat the treats left for them.

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“The dumb supper, served with dessert first, was romanticised by poets such as Keats and Burns. Young women looked forward to the chance to divine the identity of their future husbands,” says Bolan, adding that if the supper was truly “silent”, the spirits of the husbands-to-be would arrive at the door or the girls could see their likeness in a handheld mirror.

Ireland prides itself on being one of the most haunted countries on the planet: There are tales of Viking violence, deathly plagues, rebel executions, ghostly sightings, spooky superstitions… It’s no surprise Dublin-born Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897. Interestingly, Stoker spent two years at Trinity College, which is home to the ghost of Edward Ford, an unhappy and unpopular professor who was shot by a group of drunk students in 1734. He continues to roam the oldest building on campus, The Rubrics, “dressed in wig, gown and knee breeches”.

The Glasnevin Cemetery, Ireland’s largest burial site
The Glasnevin Cemetery, Ireland’s largest burial site (Courtesy Failte Ireland/Tourism Ireland)

Therefore, when I reach Dublin, I am seeking out thrills and chills, though the city, blessed with Georgian architecture, museums and expansive public parks, is as warm as a village and as welcoming as an Irish pub. I start at Montpelier Hill, infamous as Hellfire Club, a ruined hunting lodge in the Dublin mountains. Stones taken from a nearby Neolithic passage tomb were used to construct the building, angering local spirits and leading to the early death of its owner. Richard Parsons, known for dabbling in black magic, took over the structure and founded the club that became synonymous with amoral behaviour and debauchery. The devil himself is said to have made an appearance at the club’s card games. The building may be dilapidated, but it’s still said to be a hotbed of supernatural activity.

In the neighbourhood of Kilmainham, the county goal, in which many heroes of the Irish struggle for independence were held between 1796 and 1924, has been converted into a museum. “Leaders of the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867 and 1916, along with members of the Irish republican movement during the War of Independence and Civil War, were detained here. Many were executed,” Finn Murphy, a museum guide says. The notorious prison, where some of the country’s most celebrated political and military figures were once held, is now known for unexplained, spooky happenings. “Fourteen leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed by firing squad in the Stonebreaker’s Yard. Legend goes that on a quiet night you can hear the footsteps of marching soldiers, slamming of cell doors, and see the flickering of chapel lights,” the guide adds.

A half-hour drive takes me to Glasnevin Cemetery, Ireland’s largest burial site, which has its share of ghoul and ghost stories. The most famous soul said to haunt the graveyard is that of a Newfoundland dog, a pet who starved to death because he refused to leave the headstone of his master, a ship captain who died in a sea rescue in 1861. The doggie ghost is said to roam the cemetery every night, often making its way to the captain’s statue in nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral.

I make a pitstop at John Kavanagh’s The Gravediggers, a pub that shares a wall with the cemetery. Founded in 1833, the family-run establishment draws mourners for a drink or two after burials as well as thirsty gravediggers keen to grab a pint after a hard day’s digging. “This is a proper old Irish pub; conversation is primary and there’s no television, no radio, no singing,” says Ciaran, who is manning the bar, adding that in the days of yore, gravediggers frequently tossed a shovel of earth against the pub’s wall to “scare up a pint”.

Apart from being haunted by the many Irish souls buried in the cemetery, the pub is said to be frequented by an elderly man in a tweed suit. He’s a quiet one, unobtrusively sipping his pint before disappearing through the wall back to his final resting place next door.

The more active ghosts, I am told, reside in Malahide Castle, about 14 km north of central Dublin. Its famous ghostly residents include court jester Puck, who nurses a broken heart and lives in a turret; the Lady in White, a female apparition that walks the many rooms and corridors; and Lord Galtrim, who was killed on his wedding day in 1429 and wanders the halls in search of his bride-to-be who married his rival.

Back in central Dublin, on Church Street, I explore the cold and eerie basement beneath the 1,000-year-old St Michan’s Church and find four morbid, mummified remains: The Thief (hands and feet missing as punishment for his crimes), The Crusader (a tall man who is said to have participated in the Sack of Constantinople in 1204) The Nun, and The Unknown (an anonymous female). Remains of brothers Henry and John Seares, executed by the English for leading the Irish Rebellion of 1798, are also housed here. This is the Anglican church that is said to have inspired Stoker to write Dracula.

Fuel up at the Brazen Head, Dublin’s oldest pub that has witnessed 800 years of Dublin history and has its own paranormal connection—Robert Emmet, who planned a rebellion against British rule in 1803, but was beheaded on a nearby street. His blood is supposed to have run down the hill to his favourite public house, and he can sometimes be spotted nursing a drink in his favourite spot.

Almost everyone I meet tells me that a walking tour is one of the best ways to learn about the city’s seedy history with “other likeminded folks”. Sandemans Dublin Dark Side Tour offers a 2.5-hour walk across Dublin, showcasing its macabre past. The 90-minute Haunted History Walking Tour, run by guides from Paranormal Study and Investigation of Ireland, showcases the darker side of the city, serving up stories of murder, mayhem, and more.

If you don’t want to walk, sign up for the Gravedigger Ghost Bus Tour, a two-hour ride across the city’s most haunted sites, or the Ghost Ship Bus, which feels like being onboard a coffin ship during the Great Famine. Whether you believe in ghosts or are rather more open-minded about such matters, Dublin provides the right setting for ghostly sightings, ghastly findings, and grisly discoveries.

Teja Lele writes on travel and lifestyle.

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