Ghost Hunters: The Haunting of County Wicklow

This is my own transcription, but I've made it as accurate as possible. This episode was first broadcast in March 1997. I love Irish folklore and it's so tempting for me to think the veil's a bit thinner over there and ghosts, fairies and other strangeness seems more possible and plausible.

Michael: I was dozing off and suddenly I heard this sort of noise [bangs and clinks two mugs together] - this sort of stuff going on on the bedside table. A freezing feeling, I could feel the room actually freezing, I could feel a cold chill coming into it, and feel a tingle up my back. So I woke her up and she could hear the same thing going on, this movement. So I started to tell her, it was going for a few minutes, I started to tell her about some of the things that are happening here, you know, and then it stopped. And then you could hear this movement down on the floor of the bedroom. I said “Jees whatever is it playing with [indistinct] alarm clock. You could hear the clock being moved around. So I turned on the bedside light being quick, and there it was, over by the door, at ten to three in the morning, the clock on its side.

Narrator: Michael is a tough hard-working Irish farmer. He and his family have been working the Ballyphillip Farm in County Wicklow in the east of Ireland for over 50 years. The farm itself goes back much longer than that, over 350 years to the beginning of the 17th century. So it’s been through some of Ireland’s most troubled and turbulent times. There were three generations living in the farmhouse: the grandmother, Michael and his sister and a clutch of children. And all of them have been touched by the strange unexplained series of events that have been going on at the farmhouse for as long as anyone can remember. Eileen the sister for example, still has a vivid memory of an event that occurred way back in her childhood.

Eileen: I must have been about 13 at the time. I was going to bed and I hear this noise out here in the garden. And like, we’re a large family, so we’re used to big birthday parties with half the neighbourhood in. And I thought “That is strange, there shouldn’t be anybody here at this hour of the night.” Looking out the window, I was seeing it was like a mass of colours - all kind of swirling around like children at a big party. You could hear the laughter and the shapes, but I couldn’t really identify one particular shape as such. It was a like a big kaleidoscope of colours, you know, and laughter. I thought “That’s odd.” I didn’t think anything more of it, and years later -  I mean I didn’t really speak about it either, because I thought they’d send me to a mad house! - and years later, my other sister said she’s also experienced the same thing.

Narrator: Strangely enough, in more recent times a friend staying at the house claims to have seen a very similar event, as if it were a cluster of child dancing around a maypole.

Simon: Well about possibly 10 years ago I stayed down here regularly, and I got up about 1 o’clock, half one in the morning to go to the toilet, in that bathroom window there [he points], and I could see this silhouette of, it looked like children playing out in the garden and I could hear them. And I looked out the window and thought no more of it, went to bed, got up the next morning. And I said to my friend Connor, “I see Robert’s kids were out last night, playing for the party or whatever,” and he says “Oh no, they didn’t, they weren’t here last night. They weren’t staying in the area, and there’s no neighbours near us here.”

Narrator: More strangely still, during some construction work in the mid ‘80s when an old plum tree had to be dug out, they found tangled in its roots a large block of stone. It had a hole in the centre [something like a millstone is shown] as if it were the base for a pole - could it perhaps have been the site of an old maypole?  Indeed it was during this construction work, particularly the digging out and draining of a stream, that the strange unexplained activity in the house began to increase, to such an extent that nobody could avoid talking about it. A constant succession of small slightly disturbing events that nagged away at the mind. The sort of experience for example, that Michael’s mother had in her kitchen.

Michael: It was about half past nine, she heard these footsteps, running along down the landing and down the stairs, the front door opening, and slamming shut. And she ran into the dining room, so she could see up the avenue, and she didn’t see any of the family running up the road. And she thought, maybe it was one of the kids come back for some schoolbooks or something. So she phoned up the school, and they were all there at 9 o’clock. Later on that morning she was cooking the dinner and she felt something in the scullery. She happened to look around, she saw the lid... the potatoes were boiling and the lid was… maybe a foot above the pot and it just went gently back down again. And she was saying to us at dinnertime, she thought we might have a poltergeist in the house. And certainly my father said “Don’t be silly, things like that don’t happen you know, that’s only in the movies.” So dinner was just about over, I was waiting for the half one news to come on, my father was reading the Independent, I was reading the Irish Times and my mother was getting the coffee ready when suddenly all three of us could hear these footsteps going along the landing right over head. Our mother came charging into the kitchen saying “Now you heard that, it is true, I’m not imagining things.”

Eileen: My sister Christine was home once, and we’d leave the door between the bedrooms open in case something would happen, you know. So the door was left open, anyway, and she comes into me, “There’s a noise on the back stairs” you know. So I grab a stick or something, and the two of us were standing there. I said “Right, let’s get him now!” and at the top of the stairs there’s a doorway down, and we hear the footsteps. They’re like big, heavy, plodding footsteps coming up the stairs. Half way up, we open the door to catch whoever it is. We open the door - and nothing. That was common to hear these footsteps, you know.

Michael: My mother thought she saw a child at the end of her bed, and she sat up in the bed and she saw this child. And the child seemingly had wet curly hair, about 8, 9, 10 years old. It had a long old-fashioned nightgown on it, and my mother assumed it was my brother’s daughter, and said “Go back up to your own house, you shouldn’t be down here - your parents would be fuming if they knew you were out of bed.” And so with that, my mother lay down and was facing the wall. And suddenly the child came round to the side of the bed, and put his nose right down to my mother’s, and then smiled, and with that my mother turned towards my father in the bed… and just - my gosh what’s happening?

Narrator: The story of a boy with wet hair became a recurring theme, and it linked towards one of the strangest sequence of events that involve the children. Barra for example, Michael’s son, talked of playing around the house with a phantom child, a child who came to acquire the name of Thomas.
Sandra, childminder: It was absolutely lashing rain out there, really thundering rain, and Barra said to me (because the window of the curtain was over) and I was in the kitchen making the lunch. And he said to me, “There’s a small child outside and he’s really really wet, will you let him in?” and I said, “God it must be Sean (one of the nephews), I’ll go out and get him - he shouldn’t be out in the rain.” And I went to the window, and there was no one there. And he was really persistent, really getting into a temper about it. And I said “Ok, he’s run down the avenue there, so I’ll go out.” So I got an umbrella and one of Michael’s coats and I said I’ll go out. But there was no child there, but he was really persistent that there was a child there. And then he explained that he was about, he was a little bigger than him, but really really wet. And that’s when things really did start then.

Eileen: Now myself and my son lived in Denmark for several years and didn’t know of all these comings and goings of Thomas and god knows who else, you know. And I was out picking onions and little Sean was only three. He was playing away in the treehouse, and he came up to tell me all about Thomas. I said “Who is Thomas?!” but there was nobody actually in the treehouse, at all, so it was only later I discovered who he was - I didn’t encourage it! The treehouse playmate.

Sandra: We were sitting in the kitchen one day and we were at the table. I was doing drawing with Barra, Barra loves drawing. And I could feel this real cold breeze on my legs. And all the doors were closed, and the heating was on because it was a winter’s day. And it was really getting cold now, and Barra says “My friend’s under the table.” And I said “Oh, is he?” because at this stage I was thinking this could be an imaginary friend because children have this. Next minute the door flung open of the cupboard in the kitchen. And I said to Barra, “Tell your friend to close the door, because I’m not getting up to close it.” And he told him, and he said “Well he won’t.” And then it got real warm again, and then the child had obviously gone. So I said to Barra, “The next time your friend’s here, tell me, and I want to meet him.” So it was after lunch one day, and he came out and he goes, “Oh, my friend’s behind the sofa.” And he was laughing his heart away, like someone was tickling him. And I remember looking in, and I saw Barra (he always sits with his feet crossed) and I remember him sitting here on the carpet, and seeing a shadow of it was like a little boy, well I couldn’t tell it was a boy - it was like a little child.

Narrator: These strange events disturb Michael perhaps more than anyone else. And he began to dig into the history of the farm. He found that in the 1700s, it’d been owned by the Livesey family, and then towards the end of the 1800s it was handed over to a family called Mckee, and they did have a son called Thomas. The story in the village is that in 1902, Thomas, aged 10, was drowned in the river along the banks were Michael was carrying out his landscaping work. And in the churchyard there is a gravestone where the remains of young Thomas lie with those of the rest of the Mckee family.

Part Two:

 Narrator: All through the 80s, in a lonely farmhouse in County Wicklow where strange happenings went on, a whole series of out of the ordinary unexplained events. Not enough to alarm people, but enough to raise the question, “What on earth is going on?” And steadily the events became more obvious and more dramatic. There was the time for example, when after it’d been locked up securely, the whole house was found wide open with the television going full blast.

Michael: So when Sandra came in I told her this: “When I go out to work and you go up to the village with Flora her friend and with the kids, to make sure that she locks all the windows and doors.” So I came in for my 10 o’clock tea break, and every door and window downstairs was wide open. The radio was on and the television was on. I was actually very angry, I was fuming at Sandra for leaving it open like that when I’m telling how concerned I was.

Sandra: There was one time  - Michael was always telling me to lock all the doors when I was going out, and I had locked them all, and he [?] me when I came back, saying I hadn’t, but I’d locked every single one because my friend was with me.

Narrator: Things really came to a head when whatever force it was, that was active in the house, began to interfere with the children.

Michael: My wife had gone to work in Dublin and left in the car, maybe 7 o’clockish. So I was down here around half past seven with the kids getting their breakfast and having my own breakfast. I was waiting for Sandra the childminder to come in, and my youngest boy was playing on that seat over there. And he was trying to scramble up it, and suddenly it seemed that something had just pushed him off, and he landed right here on the floor beside me.

Sandra: I came in and Michael said that [his son] had been flung - at this stage you would really only be getting used to walking. But then my friend was over with her little daughter, and we were having a cup of coffee, and next minute [the son] and this little child just were flung up against the wall and that was the end of it... that wasn’t a child’s spirit, but he was a very evil spirit. Because if anything wants to hurt children it’s obviously evil.  So I got the two children up and we ran out, and I said to Michael, I’m not staying in there any more, because that’s not a joke any more.

Narrator: Michael felt he had to take some action - but what? He happened to know someone that practised as a psychic medium in Dublin, and in some tension he spoke to her on the phone. She was also called Sandra.

Michael: I was on the phone, Sandra the childminder was there with my youngest boy and Fleur our friend was inside with her daughter. And I was chatting away to Sandra, and told her what had happened, and she said “Don’t worry about it! I’ve just been reading about this chap in England, and he’s made friends with his poltergeist. He can make him tea and coffee and get books down from bookshelves, even open at the right pages.” She says “Well, you can even get some money.” I said, “Don’t be stupid. How can they get you money?” and with that, out the corner of my eye, I saw Fleur in that room in there - bolt straight upright. The lining was out of her pocket, and at my foot was a bundle of money. I’m assuming she’d been up to collect her child allowance. And there was ninety pound wrapped up in a rubber band. She didn’t rummage in her pocket, stand up and throw it at my foot, she was - I just saw it as quick as that, she was upright and the money was at my foot, and the lining was out of her pocket.

Narrator: So what was going on at Ballyphillip farm? All those strange, seemingly impossible events. Scientists in the field have two main theories to explain so-called poltergeist activity, and they’re both pretty remarkable. One is that this is essentially internal, the result of deep underlying psychical activity in the people involved. Something they may be completely unaware of. Having an effect on their environment, it’s the mind (if you like) affecting matter - they call it ‘psychokinesis’.

Bernard Carr, Professor of astrophysics: If poltergeist affects are real, if they’re not just due to fraud or due to natural physical phenomena. It’s amazing - even if they are due to psychokinesis. If it really is true that the mind is affecting the room at a physical level, that is amazing anyway. You don’t have to adopt a spiritualistic interpretation of poltergeist effects - to say that is amazing, it really is amazing anyway, and for that reason of course, the majority of physicists and scientists probably would refuse to countenance the reality of these phenomena. But my own view is that one should not be that dogmatic. I think there is at least some evidence that there are, perhaps, unexplained phenomena occurring in poltergeist cases which might be attributable to psychokinetic powers.

Narrator: The second - no less remarkable - is that it’s external. An unexplained, often whimsical focus of energy perhaps linked to a troubled spirit, moving this around, and causing strange events.

Archie Roy, Professor of Astronomy: It’s almost as if it is an external or independent entity which is playing tricks - terrifying the whole family. And the question is why? Is it because it is an earth-bound (if such things exist)? Is it someone who actually, in their confused state is actually saying “What are all these people doing in my house? I shall get rid of them - I will scare them out.” Then you get a sort of interaction, and quite often, you find that you have to take that theory seriously.

But whatever the source of the disturbances, eventually, in 1993, an exorcism was carried out at the farmhouse, and it seemed to have some effect. Things quietened down. But the happenings over the past 10 years have had their effect upon the family. Michael in particular has a sense of an altogether darker, more sinister undercurrent that lingers on. In his mind it’s linked to the history of the area- the record of extraordinary violence and brutality going back to the civil war of 1798.

Michael: If the truth be known, during this part of Irish history, 1798 was just like one horrendous civil war. You can compare to it to [?] and Bosnia in the recent past. It was brother against brother, father against son, neighbour against neighbour, plus Catholics and Protestants and Presbyterians fighting on both sides. What they did to each other doesn’t bear description, it was wanton terror. 

Narrator: He has identified, for example, houses and indeed the burial places of some of the ringleaders of the worst atrocities. One lived on his farm. But it seems that in all cases there has been a long record of unusual activity.

Michael: The most notorious of them were Griffith Jones, Bob Livesey and Moses Fox, and of course the hangman [?]. And the strange thing is that to this day, all these places where these people lived, all their houses, there seems to be a problem of paranormal activities. And we don’t know what it is exactly, but I’m convinced it is because of their wanton cruelty in the past, that’s still trying to say something today…

Sheila St.Clair, paranormal investigator: It’s quite often that farm houses would acquire a kind of sinister atmosphere if there were incidents recorded there during the 98 rebellion. And if they had associated with them personalities from that time, for anyone who knows a little about the 98’s, they were savage, and both sides were savage and cruel. And there was a tremendous amount of ill will, because you had brother against brother, and father against son. And the whole ethos was a kind of bitterness, it would have infected the house.

Narrator: Michael believes this violent and bloodthirsty heritage accounts for some of the psychical events in which people claim to have experienced real fear. Susan, for example, was staying with her son Danny, in a mobile home on the farm.

Susan: This night I woke up and I found Danny in the bed with me, and he was completely rigid. He was in an upright, sitting upright position, and he was completely rigid and ice cold. His eyes were open wide but he wouldn’t respond to me, he was in some kind of a peculiar trance. And there was the usual very cold atmosphere in the mobile. Which you always associate with stories about ghosts and things. And I was filled with a terror - an absolute terror - and a kind of a loathing feeling. And I knew in my heart and soul if I didn’t get Danny out of this situation, that somehow he would be harmed or something would happen - I just knew that. Now, to get him out I had to go down the length of the mobile into the sitting room area, to collect my handbag which had my car keys in it, right. Now the lights were flashing - there was like static electricity all over the caravan. The lights were flashing, the radio was all static. And I swung my legs out of the bed and stood up, and it was like somebody had poured glue over me. I couldn’t get myself moving. And the more frightened I got to get down and get the bag - this was the main objective, get out - the more I thought about that, the heavier this sort of oppression got. And it was like fighting my way through glue. Now I suppose the mobile would have been about 32 feet in length, which would take you a couple of seconds to walk from one end to the other. It took me nearly 20 minutes - because I had a clock on the wall and I could see. I got down eventually and I got the keys and I got back and Danny was still in the same position, completely rigid and ice cold. And really I don’t know how I did it, but I just wrapped a blanket around him and got him out into the car. And I took off like a bat out of hell.

Narrator: The story from County Wicklow is undoubtedly a strange and puzzling one. The psychic activity has gone on for so long. It’s been experienced by 14 or15 different people, of all ages and personalities. And the events continue to this very day. It would seem that this case is destined to join the large number of mysterious cases that science cannot yet explain, but (as several leading scientists have put it), can no longer be brushed aside.