Eerie Ireland: a Short Guide for the Magic Realist Visitor
Our resident Irish author, Moïra Fowley-Doyle, author of Spellbook of the Lost and Found and The Accident Season, is a genius when it comes to writing beautiful, creepy, atmospheric stories set in the Irish countryside. We asked her to share her expertise with us, and she bestowed this eerie travel guide to Ireland upon us! Read on for the must-visit places, then book a trip to Ireland ASAP!
Ireland is a magic realist country, rich in standing stones and megalithic forts, ancient abbeys and crumbling churches. Everybody knows of somewhere that’s haunted, wherever in Ireland they live. Everybody has an uncle who swore he saw the lights of a wisp trying to lead him lost in the bog. A great-aunt who always refused to cross a certain field. A second-cousin’s great-grandfather who heard the scream of a banshee on the night before he died.
To visit these four places you will need: pockets full of salt, small stones to find your way home, nuts and berries to avoid eating fairy fruit, ribbons to tie around wishing trees, a talisman worn around your neck to protect you from the types of spirits that will want to follow you home.
Come in October, with the wind and the rain. The days are still long but the nights are longer. Take a flashlight; it’s dark out here. Follow me.
The Hell Fire Club, County Dublin
There’s a hollowed-out mansion in the mountains south of Dublin called the Hell Fire Club. Before the mansion was built, the hill on which it stands was a burial mound. They stole the stones of the passage tomb in the 1720s to build the hunting lodge that was used as a meeting place for a society of murderers and devil-worshippers. Stories say they slaughtered animals in the middle of the floor, that they killed and ate a farmer’s daughter; stories say the night the roof blew off in the 1730s was retribution; stories say the fire that burnt it out in the 1770s was set by the devil himself.
To get there you leave the city and head into the mountains. You park your car in the parking lot off the R115 road and then walk through silent woods up slippery mountain paths. The view of Dublin and its surrounding countryside is misty and beautiful. If you take one of the shortcuts through the forest, look out for the ghost of a black cat. If it looks at you, don’t look back.
Once you reach the Hell Fire Club, you can go inside. Walk the wounded rooms, trace the scorch-marks on the stone walls with your fingertips that won’t stop tingling until you get back into your car. You’ll smell the rain and the trees. But there’ll be a strange taste at the back of the mouth when you breathe—like salt and sulphur.
Bring salt in your pockets and a talisman around your neck. If something beckons you deeper don’t follow. If you do, watch your step. Don’t listen to the wails of a woman wanting to worm their way into your dreams. Pretend that scream you hear is just a black cat yowling. When you leave, make sure nothing follows.
Hill of Tara, County Meath
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In ancient times the Hill of Tara was the seat of the High King of Ireland. From the top on a clear day it’s said you can see half the counties of the country. There’s undeniable magic here. The hill itself was believed to be the entrance to the land of the gods, the mythical Tuatha de Danann. According to legend, when St Patrick came to Ireland to convert the people to Christianity, he traveled to Tara first, because this is where the Pagan gods were said to be most powerful.
To get to Tara you take the M3 motorway towards Navan, County Meath. The exit for Tara is just past Skryne. It will be clearly signposted. Park beside the coffee shop and pay the admission price. If you go on an October weekday you could be the only soul around. Take the path from the parking lot up the hill, past the church and the statue of St Patrick. Follow the circular grooves of the land. The birds overhead can see them clearly even if you can’t—huge grass spirals in the earth.
One of the hill bumps on which you walk is actually a tomb. You’ll see the entrance cut into the earth and the two standing stones that border it. This is the oldest part of Tara, a passage tomb called the Mound of the Hostages, thought to have been built around 3,000 BCE. Twice a year, the rising sun shines right through the passageway, lighting up the main chamber inside, illuminating the spirals and circles carved into the stones. Listen to the whispers coming out of the mouth of the tomb if you want. They’re not speaking a language you can understand.
At the top of the hill is a grave and a great grey standing stone. This is Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny. It’s said that when a rightful king of Ireland stepped foot on the hill, the stone would begin to scream.
Stand on the summit and close your eyes. It’s hard not to feel something—some energy that coils up from the soles of your feet, some whispering that comes down on the rain. It feels like calm. It feels like centuries. Once my friends and I stood on the hill under black clouds and my two small daughters led us in a run around the top in tight circles, led us in a chant of “clouds break, clouds break, clouds break” until the clouds dispersed and the sun came out and we all stood in wonder.
Follow the small valley that works around the hill. It used to be a road that stretched to every part of the country. Press your ear to the ground and hear the hoof beats of ancient armies. Bring ribbons with you, scraps of paper and pens. When you find the fairy tree you’ll know it. It’s the gnarled and windswept hawthorn with ribbons tied around the branches. Wind your ribbons and make your wishes. Write your notes to the fairies and tree spirits. When the ribbons blow away, your wishes will come true.
Kylemore Abbey, County Galway
The region of Connemara is arguably the most beautiful part of Ireland. It’s all mossy bog lands, fields full of sheep, lakes full of trout, and small, colorful villages. Its coastline is part of the Wild Atlantic Way and it’s made up of islands and inlets, and breath-taking cliff faces.
To get to Connemara you drive to Galway. From there, take the N59 road north-west past Clifden and along the stormy sea until you reach the village of Letterfrack and the Connemara National Park. Continue on that same road past rocky hills and green fields bordered by low stone walls until you reach Kylemore Abbey.
It’s an enormous, elegant grey Gothic building nestled into the side of a wooded hill. The dark lake in front of it reflects the abbey, and if you look closely, you’ll see figures in the windows of the reflection that aren’t in the real windows themselves. Built as Kylemore Castle in the 1860s, the building was a gift and a love story to the owner’s wife, who died suddenly on a holiday overseas a few years after the castle was built. In the twentieth century, the castle became an abbey to house Benedictine nuns fleeing Belgium in World War I. It then became a prestigious girls’ boarding school. Inside the main building, you can still hear the footsteps of schoolgirls clattering up and down the stairs.
Take the path around the lake through dappled woodlands. Make the three-hour hike to the statue of the sacred heart at the top of the mountain and breathe in: that smell, damp and foresty, is the same air that Cúchulainn, the boy-hero of Irish mythology, breathed in his youth. It’s said that the flat, iron-shaped stone that stands on the estate was thrown there by the hero from the other side of the valley, narrowly missing the warrior giant Finn Mac Cool. If you touch the stone, even on the coldest day, it is still warm. Stand with your back against it and close your eyes. Throw three pebbles over your shoulder. According to local folklore, any wish you make this way will come true.
If you take the lake path below, you can see the perfectly round, flat pebbles on the lake shore. You may be tempted by the dark, mirrored surface of the water which seems so perfect for skimming stones. Don’t disturb the water and do not touch the lake. It’s called Pol a Capall, the horse’s leap, and its black depths are known to be home to a kelpie: an evil water horse, a great dark demon who pulls children into the lake and eats them alive. Legend has it that every seven years the kelpie surfaces and takes somebody from the shore. The staff of the abbey reportedly saw a great horse emerge from the water some time in 2011. If you visit in the next few years, give the lake a wide berth.
Inishglora Island, County Mayo
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I’m bringing you now almost as west as you can get, out here on the mid-section of the Wild Atlantic Way, to the tiny, uninhabited island of Inishglora, County Mayo. To get there you take the N59 road north through Westport and Newport and all along the coast, watching the hills of Achill Island out the window and continuing further, past Belmullet and all the way to Cross Lough. There are several companies that charter small boats for island day trips.
You’ll know Inishglora from the moment you see it—first from the mainland shore, then from the boat cresting the waves. It’s said to be the holiest island in Ireland, but there’s sadness built into its stone walls, threaded through its grasses. You can hear a keening on the wind, even when the waves are still.
The remains of three churches (St Brendan’s Church, the Women’s Church, and the Men’s Church), three beehive huts used by ancient monks, and a holy well are all that live on the tiny island. Legend has it that mice can’t survive on the island’s holy soil, that whenever they came over on boats, they would inexplicably run into the sea and drown. Legend has it that no human corpses rot on the island’s consecrated ground.
Touching the cross slabs and stones of the island is said to cure illnesses and provide relief to women in labor. But take care never to pull water from the well: stories say that if the water is disturbed it will turn to blood, writhing with red worms.
Sit in the silence with the ancient stones. You may see four white shapes in the sky above and think that they are seagulls, but when you look again there will be nothing there. You may think you hear the call of swans.
These are the ghosts of the Children of Lir, who died on this island. The legend goes that King Lir had four children with his wife, and that when she died he was remarried to her sister. This new wife was evil and wanted her four stepchildren killed, but could find nobody willing to do the deed. So she used her dark magic to transform them into swans. Until the king died, he could hear their human cries out of the beaks of four great white birds. Finally, at the end of nine hundred long years, the four siblings heard the bells of St Brendan’s church toll, and they were turned back into their human forms. But so many years had passed that they only had time to embrace each other, before they fell to the ground and withered away into dust. They are said to be buried on the island, and when you walk over their graves you can feel the soft touch of feathers on your skin.
You might carry that touch home with you – that sense of Ireland as a place where the present and the ancient past overlap, where myths and legends and ghost stories are maybe a little closer to reality than you might have thought.