A lovely day out, Part 1 – Leap Castle

In which Laura takes me for a day out and we start by exploring a haunted castle…
Leap Castle (pronounced Lep) is situated deep in the countryside just over six miles or so from Roscrea and over the border from Co. Tipperary into Co. Offaly. Back in December 2016, from a shop in Roscrea, I’d picked up a hand drawn map with written directions to the castle ; some of my regular readers may remember the post I wrote about my long walk to get there and my failure to find the place at the time. It was further away than the directions said and I came to the conclusion that Irish miles are longer than English miles. Following that walk I realised that if I were ever to visit this castle at all then I would have to somehow drive myself there, however Michael’s girlfriend Laura had recently said she was willing to take me there and also to another place I’d previously said I’d like to go to so I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity.
Leap Castle has a very violent and bloody history and is said to be the most haunted castle in Ireland, possibly even Europe. Built sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries by the O’Bannon clan it was eventually taken over by the ruling O’Carroll clan but it was a clan divided by bitter leadership struggles throughout most of the 16th century, with one brother against another. The chapel above the Great Hall became known as the Bloody Chapel after one O’Carroll killed his brother, a priest who was conducting a mass at the time – he died on the altar in front of his family. In one corner of the chapel was a small chamber with a trapdoor in the floor ; prisoners and unfortunates were thrown down there into the dungeon, often landing on sharp spikes, and if that didn’t kill them they were literally forgotten about and left there to die of starvation and their injuries. When the dungeon was cleaned out by much later owners it was reported that three cartloads of skeletons were removed.
In the mid 17th century the castle came into the possession of the Darby family. It had originally been a tower house but in the 18th century was extended by the Darbys who added the north and south wings and gave it a Gothic restyling ; it stayed in the Darby family through the years until 1922 when it was set on fire during the Irish Civil War after which it was left dormant for many years. In 1974 the castle was bought by Australian historian Peter Bartlett, a descendant of the O’Bannons, who undertook extensive repairs and renovations until his death in 1989 ; in 1991 the place was bought by musician Sean Ryan and his wife Anne to be their own private residence and they have continued Peter Bartlett’s restoration work over the years since then.
Of course a place can’t be said to be haunted unless it has a ghost or two and Leap Castle is supposed to have several. Emily and Charlotte were two little girls said to have lived on the estate during the 17th century ; Emily died after falling from the tower and it’s said that there are still sightings of a little girl falling from its great height only to disappear before hitting the ground. The ghost of a woman murdered by the O’Carrolls in the 16th century wanders about wearing very little clothing ; she screams twice before disappearing into thin air. The Governess, also known as the nanny, is often seen alongside Emily and Charlotte, and an old man has been spotted sitting in a comfy chair by the side of the main hall’s grand fireplace.
The Red Lady is tall and slim with long brown hair, she wears a red dress and is always seen carrying a dagger in her raised hand. The story says that she was captured by the O’Carrolls and raped ; she fell pregnant and when the baby was born it was taken from her and killed with a dagger. She was so distraught that she killed herself with the same dagger used to murder her infant, and the one her spirit holds is the very one which killed her baby. The Elemental, otherwise known as ‘it’, is described as being about the size of a sheep with a shadowy half-human face and sunken eyes ; it gives off the smell of a decomposing corpse though its menacing and sinister presence only makes itself known to those who provoke it.
The castle is said to allow visitors from 10am until 5pm and various sources of information, including the written directions I got back in 2016, all said that it was advisable to phone or email to arrange a visit, but even though Laura tried several times to ring there was no answer so we decided to go there anyway on the off-chance that we would be able to go in. At first knocking on the door produced no response and we were about to give up and leave when I suggested trying once more and this time the owner, Sean Ryan, came to the door – and in typical contrary Irish fashion, when I mentioned that we had tried to phone ahead as advised he said he didn’t know why I would have been given that information as we only needed to knock! However, he welcomed us in and led us over to a huge fireplace, which he’d built himself, and we sat in front of a lovely fire while he told us all about the history of the castle and the spirits (he doesn’t call them ghosts) which live there.
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Leap Castle with the unrestored part and ruins on the left
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The main hall where we sat to hear the castle’s story
After our ‘history lesson’ Sean took us through to the back of the hall and showed us the conservatory, a long narrow room looking out over the land below and beyond the castle and filled with a hotchpotch of plants, garden ornaments and various things hanging in various places, then he gave us a torch, showed us where the stairs were, and we were free to explore the upper rooms at our leisure.
Halfway up the first spiral staircase was a cubby hole with a small wooden door set in the wall then at the top of the stairs was the Great Hall with its collection of furniture, artefacts and various objects, some very old, others not so much, which Sean had collected while on his travels. On the floor in a window recess I found a sweet little surprise, though it was Laura who noticed it first – behind the leg of a dining chair was a tiny little bat. Knowing that they are nocturnal I thought it must be asleep, although if it was then it had chosen a very odd place for a snooze, but unfortunately this poor little creature was dead – maybe it had flown in somewhere and couldn’t get out again. Never having seen a bat at close quarters before I picked it up gently and put it on the chair to take a photo then laid it back where we found it ; it was tiny, barely two inches long, and its fur was incredibly soft.
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The conservatory
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Front lawn and drive from first floor landing window
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The Great Hall
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Carving on a dark oak dresser
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The sweet little bat we found
Above the Great Hall was a small mezzanine level and the next flight of stairs had a door leading into it, with four steps down onto the mezzanine itself. Most of the space was taken up by a double bed which I thought was rather odd but Sean told us later that it’s where he puts any family or friends when they come to stay. The spiral staircase, which got narrower as we went further up, took us to the Bloody Chapel, a vast space with a rough floor and which, apart from a tin roof to keep out the worst of the elements, was still unrestored. There was a doorway in one corner with a staircase going down but it was dark so not knowing what I was getting myself into I didn’t risk it. With no windows in the chapel taking photos of the landscape was easy though it would have been a long way to fall if I’d leaned out too far.
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The bed on the mezzanine
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Looking down from the mezzanine
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Stairs to the Bloody Chapel with the door to the mezzanine
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The unrestored Bloody Chapel
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Looking down on the ruins
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View beyond the ruins
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On the way back down the stairs we revisited the Great Hall to see if there was anything we’d missed then continued back to ground level where we handed the torch back to Sean. After another chat, during which he told us that everything in the castle had either been restored, recycled or built by him and his wife, we thanked him for letting us look round, said our goodbyes and left just as some other visitors were arriving. Sean plays the fiddle and the Irish whistle and if we’d asked he would have given us a tune or two but to be honest I’m not really a lover of traditional Irish music.
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Leap Castle was a strange place. Compared to the castle at Limerick which has been professionally restored with each room set out as it would have been in the period, Leap was what I would describe as ‘raw’ – with mis-matched furniture from different periods, artefacts and objects from different countries, it was a restoration which didn’t really reflect any one particular period but strangely it worked. The place was unique, even more so because it was actually someone’s home – and to quote Sean’s words “If we’d wanted to live in a modern bungalow we would have bought a modern bungalow”. I’d really enjoyed my visit to the castle, it was certainly different – and as for any ghosts, I didn’t see, hear or feel anything remotely spooky of all the time I was there, but then I don’t believe in ghosts anyway.

17 thoughts on “A lovely day out, Part 1 – Leap Castle

  1. What a fascinating place and welcoming owners. Not sure I’d like to live there myself with it’s bloody history and ghostly sightings. Shame about the little bat 😦

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    1. I wouldn’t mind living there if the interior was refurbished to be ultra-modern but not as it is now, though I suppose Sean and his wife are used to it. We didn’t see their actual living quarters though so maybe they are modern. I felt quite sorry for the little bat, it was a sweet little thing 😦

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  2. What very laid back owners! Leading to a very interesting visit. I’ve only seen one bat really close up and it was very much alive. One of my friends lives in the country and it flew into her house and clung to the curtains. She and the other friend there started yelling and locked themselves in the bathroom leaving me to get rid of it, which I did by covering it with a plastic pot, gently sliding the lid underneath and releasing it out the backdoor. I thought this was very wimpish behaviours for a country girl!

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    1. Living not far from countryside and parkland we get bats flying round here at night. I could never understand why people are scared of them, I think they are lovely little creatures. This was the first time I’ve ever seen one so close and actually handled one though 🙂

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  3. I’m so pleased you were able to visit the castle this time. Although, I would have been glad of a companion to view it with – it looks a bit creepy. Such a fascinating place, however.

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    1. It was definitely a fascinating place and I enjoyed it much more than the properly renovated castle in Limerick. I wasn’t alone though, Laura went first with the torch as I had the camera but it wouldn’t have bothered me to be on my own – I was much too intent on looking at various aspects of the place and getting plenty of photos to think about it being creepy 🙂

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  4. I feel sure I’ve seen this place, Sean and his wife featured in an episode of Grand Designs a few years ago. You’ve written that they bought it in 1991 but I have a feeling ( if indeed it is them) that they didn’t start work on it right away. If I remember rightly they ran out of money during the renovation process, so they finished their own quarters but not the rest of the castle. It’s great that they allow people to look around.

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  5. I think you’re thinking of Cloontykilla Castle in Roscommon, which quite coincidentally is/was also owned by a guy called Sean – it looked medieval but was only built in 1839, where Leap was built centuries earlier. Cloontykilla did feature on Grand Designs but the restoration wasn’t finished due to the bank pulling out of the loan agreement.

    Leap Castle, to my knowledge, has never been on Grand Designs as it’s not the sort of restoration which would feature – what you see in the photos is what you get, and I’m sure Sean would have mentioned it if that was the case. Any restoration is funded entirely by himself, helped by donations of 6 Euros per person from any visitors but as he said himself, it’s a very slow process and will never be finished in his lifetime. The castle has been on episodes of Ghost Hunters and Most Haunted though because of the spirits which are said to be there – if you believe that sort of thing, which I don’t. I’d love to go back again sometime though for another look round.

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