Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Irish ghosts aren’t only in the castles

My family and I traveled to Ireland to scatter my parents' ashes at Downpatrick Head in County Mayo. We knew the exact spot because Mom and Dad, who spent many of their post-retirement summers in the land of our ancestors, had brought us here almost two decades before.

The coastline of Downpatrick Head, in County Mayo, Ireland, where the writer's parents wanted their ashes scattered together.
The coastline of Downpatrick Head, in County Mayo, Ireland, where the writer's parents wanted their ashes scattered together.Read moreGareth McCormack / Tourism Ireland)

Ireland is a proudly haunted island, its landscape defined by ancient cairns and standing stones, by ruined abbeys, castles, and cottages.

The spectral comes in many famous forms: the ladies — the White Lady of Kinsale (who threw herself from Charles Fort after her husband was shot); the Waiting Lady of Ardgillan Castle (on a vigil for her drowned husband); the Faceless  Lady of Belvelly Castle (survived a siege but went insane upon discovering she was no longer beautiful) — the incarcerated (Cork District Lunatic Asylum, the Wicklow Jail); and the casualties of war (the Jacobites of the Battle of Aughrim,  and King James II, who is said to haunt Athcarne Castle six miles from where he died in the Battle of the Boyne).

So if you are looking, there are plenty of ghosts to be found in Ireland.

Or you can do what we did and just bring them with you.

My family and I traveled to Ireland in June 2017 to scatter my parents' ashes at Downpatrick Head in County Mayo. We knew the exact spot because Mom and Dad, who spent many of their post-retirement summers in the land of our ancestors, had taken us there almost two decades before.

Downpatrick Head, about 170 miles mostly west of Dublin, is one of the world's dramatic edges, where the wildflower-studded grass runs in sweet green benevolence until it hits the wild wind and a 140-foot drop onto black rocks and white foam.

We have pictures of my then-1-year-old son Danny sitting in the grass, picking daisies while my parents showed my brother, Jay, where they wanted their ashes to go: right in view of the towering sea stack called Dun Briste (Broken Fort) and a few yards from a blowhole where, my father informed us, English soldiers had thrown local villagers during the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

So not, you know, Forest Lawn.

For a time, Downpatrick Head was something of a family joke. We would not make that crazy drive to that crazy cliff, but if we did, we would pitch the ashes down the blowhole.

Then far too soon, it wasn't.

My dad died four years after that trip. When we offered to take Mom and the ashes to Ireland, she said she wanted to wait and be scattered with him. When she died a few years later, neither my brother nor I had the heart to make the journey.

For years.

After that once-upon-a-time 1-year-old went away to college, my brother and I realized we had to get moving, busy schedules and mixed feelings be damned.

My family — husband Richard, Danny, and sisters Fiona and Darby, and I — flew to Dublin, followed a few days later by Jay and his husband, Franco. After what I can only hope is our last argument to end with, "Well, you're the oldest," Jay persuaded me to carry the cremains.


Jay decided we needed to stay in a castle. He showed me a few, and we both loved Turin Castle, a glorious restored keep in County Mayo near the towns of Ballinrobe and Cong (where The Quiet Man was filmed). It slept 12, with five bedrooms and five bathrooms. We were seven, so for once there were no arguments about bedrooms and no waiting for a bathroom.

Turin Castle rose square and solid from bright green fields at the end of a drive that was easy to miss. It has been gorgeously restored, which is not to say renovated. The amenities were modern (and flawless), but the layout was true to history.

All the rooms were accessed by a stone spiral staircase that began on the ground floor, where the doorways were small enough to make male invaders stoop so that residents could cut off their heads.  Along a series of landings were other bedrooms, bathrooms, and the kitchen, which was connected to a breathtaking great room with a fireplace you could stand in.

Jay and Franco arrived at the castle several hours after we did, through the mist at dusk, and Franco immediately informed the kids he felt a definite "atmosphere."

"It better have atmosphere," my jet-lagged brother grumbled, "it's an Irish castle."

Because Ireland is full of places where a ghostly child or a cowled figure would make perfect sense, I wasn't surprised when the "this castle is haunted" stories began.

Franco felt a hand tug his shirt as he got ready for bed. Jay felt fingers tousling his hair. Danny, brushing his teeth one night, heard someone hiss "psst" at him. Fiona heard rustling in the kitchen, and, annoyed when no one answered her, walked in from the great room to find the kitchen empty.

I laughed — until one day when, after spending a quiet half-hour with Fiona and Darby, I went to find Richard, who asked, "What are those two fighting about now?" I told him the girls weren't fighting, hadn't made a sound. "But I heard one of them crying," Richard said. "Crying and crying."

I kept an eye, and ear, out after that, but it was all hard to believe. Turin Castle was not at all like a house that felt disturbed or scarred.  Those who felt the spirit thought it was mischievous, not malicious.

I began to feel snubbed.


The day of the great ash scattering came, and we made our way north to Downpatrick Head with an obligatory, and expensive, stop at Foxford Woollen Mills, where my parents had, years ago, purchased the approximately 387 tweed caps and wool sweaters we were still parceling out to family members.

We finally arrived at the tip of Mayo, about three miles north of Ballycastle, population 219, where the wild Atlantic has carved cliffs and sea stacks.  The geography had not changed in 20 years, but a few things had. There was a parking lot, and there was a viewing area around the blowhole, which we learned is called Poll na Seantine (Hole of the Ancient Fire).

When my parents took us there, I told them their ashes would not be scattered anywhere if there was any chance they would blow all over me. Dumped, not scattered. I had repeated this several times as we prepared for the trip. So it was a good sign that the wind was at our backs, albeit cold and steady, as we faced the sea, so strong that it molded our coats against us.

We went to the spot our parents showed us and got as close to the edge of the cliff as our spouses would allow. Jay took Dad and I took Mom; we said a prayer and on the count of three, shook their ashes onto Downpatrick Head.

Dad flew out in a great cloud and marked the grass up to cliff's edge. Mom flew out and then, after hanging in the air for a second or two, proceeded to defy the laws of aerodynamics and nature by flying against the wind and all over me.

Into my hair, into my eyes, into my mouth. All over my glasses and coat, into my purse.

I was furious, my brother wide-eyed and my kids doubled over with laughter. "She heard you," said Fiona. "She heard what you said."

I spat a few times and we walked around a bit, talking about that long-ago day and how much my parents had loved this country. Then we drove to Ballycastle to have lunch at Mary's Cottage Kitchen, where we had eaten with my parents all those years before.

The sun came out on the drive back, and the castle was bathed in golden light when we got there.  We stayed four more days, and though the wind sighed loudly and the fire threw shadows on the floor, there were no more hints of haunting.

Our family's spirits were sinking into the Irish grass and settling beneath the Irish sea.