Ghost Hunters: The Hauntings of Castle Leslie.

Photo by Sean MacEntee
Mark Leslie: Living ten years in London with the noise, and the traffic, and the underground, one had got used to a very different – you know, the madness that the British take for reality, the sort of standard Greenwich Mean Gloom, everything’s normal, and anything’s a bit eccentric that doesn’t conform with this. It’s a particular form of English madness, which is different from the Irish madness.  When you live in the Irish countryside, you take the presence of fairies or banshees when people died, as not at all odd. Because in the Irish country it’s sufficiently dark and sufficiently quiet for the other world to make its presence felt.

Desmond Leslie: We came here, we were just married, and we were up in the greenhouses, picking grapes. And she had her hand out, and she suddenly felt little fingers pulling off her wedding ring. And directly below her there was stone, and it never hit the floor. It should have gone ‘ping’! So we searched, we searched, we searched, we dug up the greenhouse. And I knew that greenhouse had often childish laughter been heard, so I said ‘Well it’s the little people who live just one octave up, and they have a naughty sense of humour.’ So I went up and I said ‘Well very funny, we’re all very amused, and here’s some silver for you,’ and I buried half crowns, and I lit some incense, and said ‘And now can we please have our wedding ring back!’ I went back to the house, and a few days later Helen was turning out some old bags, and in this inner zipped pocket here, there was our wedding ring. [laughs] Explain that if one may! But it was the sort of thing you expect to happen in Ireland.

Narrator: Castle Leslie lies in the rolling green countryside of County Monaghan, almost on the border between Southern and Northern Ireland. It stands on the edge of a lake, a huge neo-gothic pile that was built in the middle of the last century, on the site of a much older castle. Like so many of these houses in Ireland and elsewhere, it seems to be an extraordinary focus of paranormal activity. People talk, for example, about the eighteen ghosts of Castle Leslie, and link them to various generations of the family and their servants and retainers, stretching back across the years. Like for example the story of Old Ned, the gardener.

Ann, Local Resident: Well my two uncles, Uncle Ned and Pat both were the top gardeners here, and I think they were here from about when they were 14 to about 75 or so. And I remember we had moved from the village up to a new set of houses in the village, and we took them with us because they had got asthma. And my uncle Ned was dying, and he couldn’t be left in the room on his own, and each night we sat there and he would be pulling at the bedclothes and I would say “What are you doing?” and he would say “I’m washing the roses,” because the roses were fabulous here, and his job see was really looking after all the flowers and the hedges. And he’d be always watering the roses and it fascinated us, we’d look at him and say “God he thinks he’s really in the garden, he’s watering the roses now.” We’d go and say “Mum, he thinks he’s in the garden,” and she’d say “Leave him alone, he probably is there.” And one day, he was still working away, as he thought, in the garden, and he said, round about ten o’clock, “Ann, I’m going to work.” And we used to tell him, “Right, yes, ok.” And just a few minutes after I looked and he seemed to have just fell over, and I ran out and said “Mum, I think Ned’s dead.” And she “Oh not at all,” but she went in, and he was. And about twenty minutes after that, the doorbell rang, and I went to the door, and I was in tears because we loved him. And Desmond Leslie was standing there with a red rose in his hand, and I said, “Oh you’re late, he’s just died.” And he said, “No, I just met him in the roses, I’ve just come from the gardens and I just met him down there. He was walking through the rose bed.” I couldn’t believe it.

Narrator: The Leslie family goes back a long long way. They claim to be able to trace their ancestry back to Attilla the Hun, one of the men that came out of the East to bring down the Roman Empire. But the estates in Ireland go back to the time of Charles the Second, they were part of a gift for fighting Cromwell. Originally they were vast, but over the years they’ve shrunk to about a thousand acres, around the village of Glasloch, which was built to house the workers on the estate. Generations of people in the village have worked at the Big House. And many of the stories of paranormal events would suggest they are woven into the very fabric of the place.

Photo by Lukiebaggs
Mark Leslie: Well there was an extraordinary continuity, because many of the people about the place had been right back from the time of my great grandmother. In fact only last year, Brigit, the housekeeper died, who’d joined my great grandmother’s staff, you know, Lady Leonie Leslie, one of the Jerome sisters, and effectively ran the house – you know Leslies came and went, but the staff were sort of permanent, it was their house really. One felt one was there on sufferance, one would creep down to the basement level, which within my lifetime still had Annie the cook, and the boy who polished the boots and lit the boiler in the morning. There was still the kind of last vestiges of the upstairs-downstairs Victorian set-up.

Sammy Leslie: The kitchen which we have now for the dining room used to be the butler’s bedroom and the corridor along it seems to have quite a lot of activity along it. I think maybe one of the reasons is it was the corridor between the male and female servants. And the butler’s bedroom was on the corridor, and what the old cod used to do was loosen the tiles so as they used to sneak up and down the corridor after hours he would hear them, and of course there was great war if they were caught. So eventually what they realised was that if they got out one window and crawled along a parapet, they could avoid his bedroom. But, both Jacqui and I work in the kitchen, and quite often you’ll see a fleeting shadow go up and down the corridor, or get a sensation of somebody walking past. And when we had a freezer in the corridor about two years ago, I was counting something in the bottom of it, and the corridor has a door at either end of it, and I heard somebody walk through the door and walk down the corridor behind me. And I saw the figure start to go past, and I thought it was Elton wearing his grey sweatshirt. And I called up to him that I wanted something, and the figure walked behind me and out the other side, and he didn’t respond. So I stood up and looked round, and the figure had gone. And the door coming out of the corridor was shut firmly, and it was no way that it was a person that had walked past me, and that gave me a little bit of a fright.

Judy, Personal Assistant: I was actually showing  a group of children around the basement, and we’d been here in the wine cellar. And you have to remember that this was a very normal run – I could have done this a hundred times. But on this particular occasion, and it was five o’clock on a sunny day, a summer’s afternoon, high summer, as I said this had all been done before. We finished the tour in the wine cellar, and I stepped outside just to finish off with a little talk about the historical aspect of the basement. And just as these things happened, we just slipped into that other time, and I looked up and he was standing there, looking at us. And I knew he was a servant who had always been here. And my feeling was not a feeling of those dreadful horror stories, it was a feeling of ‘I’m trespassing here,’ and he’s telling me that. And I also felt foolish – ‘What are you foolish people doing?’. You see this was their territory, this was their home, and it still is.

Narrator: Castle Leslie was in its heyday in Victorian and Edwardian times, and throughout the place there is the sense that those times haven’t entirely gone away. There are countless examples of incidents that would seem to link the characters that occupied the house then, with the people who live in it now. The story of great aunt Constance is a typical example.

Sammy Leslie: The house was built by Lady Constance, and it is still very much her house, I think. If you see her portrait, I think she is still quite a strong presence here. She died, I think, in 1927. And in around 1944 her son, Sir John Leslie, died, and his young wife was very ill, and she was in the mauve bedroom, just literally the one above here, and quite literally that was her favourite room and where she wanted to spend the last of her days. And her nursemaid was sitting in a chair by the door, and the door opened, and a figure swept in and came over to the bed, and Leonie recognised here. And shortly after, Leonie passed away very quietly and peacefully. And the nurse assumed it was a member of the family, and hadn’t said anything until after the funeral, she was in the dining room. And she pointed to the portrait to the left of the fireplace, and of course it was Constance that she’d seen at Leonie’s bed. But it’s the third time in this house alone, where somebody has come back to take somebody else with them.

Narrator: As several psychic investigators have put it, it’s as though the entire fabric of the house has absorbed the colour and the flavour of the people who’ve lived and died here over the generations.  Every room has its story, and it seems they can be witnessed other than by members of the family. Many visitors to the house, for example, have very strange stories to tell.

Marion and Lucy, house guests.
Marion: Lucy and I were down here for the evening, and had gone to bed early, and had decided to read books, and we were cuddled in bed and I was reading her one of her Beatrix Potter books. I’d left a pile of the books on the side of the table. I suddenly heard this dragging sound, and I thought  - had one of the dogs come in? or what had happened? And I heard it coming from the far side of the bed, where Lucy was. And we both looked over at the same time, and I noticed that the books on the top of the pile were sliding off one by one and just falling to the ground. And for no reason they just stopped, and Lucy then said to me, “Mummy, can you see the people?” but I couldn’t see anyone there.
Lucy (about 5?): They were children. They were dressed in shiny jumpers and dresses. I saw them moving the book.   They were sliding down to the ground. They fell down and disappeared. I assumed they went through the wall because they were magic. They were ghosts.
Marion: How did you know they were ghosts?
Lucy: Because I looked at their faces and they were ghosts.
Marion: It was frightening, the sound, when we first heard it, because we didn’t know what it was, but when I realised the books were dropping off the edge of the table, I knew there was no reason for it, and when Lucy said “Look at the children,” then it dawned on me that we were experiencing something really strange and inexplicable. But she was comfortable looking at these children that I couldn’t see.

Photo by Sean MacEntee

Part Two.
Narrator: Here at Castle Leslie in Ireland, one of the families most recent heroes is Uncle Norman. He became heir to the estate around the turn of the century, about the time when he joined the Irish Fusiliers. When the Great War came he went to France, and took part in some of the very earliest fighting. He was never to see Castle Leslie again, because he died in a furious charge on a machine gun post, wielding his officer’s sword, in October 1914. But around the time of his death there were many reports of his actually being seen walking the gardens in his family home.

Sammy Leslie: I think one of my favourite stories here is about my great uncle Norman. He was the second Earl [?] at the turn of the century, and his older brother [Shane?] didn’t want the running of the estate so it was passed to Norman. And Norman had joined the army and then graduated in 1906. When the First War came and he set off dutifully for war, and on the 18th of October that year, 1914, he was seen back here – he was seen along by the lake by Jimmy Vogan[?] the old gamekeeper, and checking round the grounds.

Desmond Leslie: Uncle Norman, you see, was killed at the very beginning of the First War, leading a charge with a sword, because the war office didn’t think it was quite good show for officers to carry guns, by gad, it was up guards and at ‘em. It’s not a very good thing for attacking a German machine gun nest. He came walking down that garden path there in broad sunlight one afternoon, and the old gamekeeper said “Oh Mr Norman, you’re home!”, and he smiled, and walked on in.

Sammy Leslie: And it was assumed he was home on leave and checking his estate before he came to the house. And his room was got ready and his mother was told, and there was great bustle in the house to prepare his meals. And there’s still a little note in her diary saying ‘Norman’s home’. And that evening he never came to the house, and everybody feared the worst. And within a week the letter would come from the War Office to say he died early on the morning of October 18th, hours before. He was seen here hours after he died.

Narrator: The Norman story is typical of the ghosts of Castle Leslie. They all seem to involve people who had a profound spiritual or emotional connection to the place. And perhaps because there are so many people around the house, there are almost always multiple sightings.

Mark Leslie: None of the stories or sightings of hauntings in the present Castle Leslie are sinister. The old Castle Leslie that was stood on the same site, that was demolished in the [? Years] – there apparently was a sinister presence in the back stairs. And interestingly enough, one of the few spooky, frightening experiences that happened when I was living there, was when they were repairing the roof in the sixties, the workmen refused to come after night because right where the old castle stood in front, white figures were seen moving about where the back stairs had been, and they refused to carry on working on the house after dark.

Sheila St Clair, Paranormal Investigator: I don’t think we have ever found that Castle Leslie was ever associated with anything unpleasant. I think  that has to be said first off, because so many of the houses of Ireland have really bloodthirsty, unpleasant stories attached to them. Castle Leslie is what you see – a lovely family estate with a kind of feeling of being cared for.

Mark Leslie: The fact that the Leslies were able to stay put in one house for 350 years, and it was a big enough house, 96 rooms or whatever it is, it could accommodate all their clutter – most people have to sort of purge to stay sane, they have to keep purging the clutter of their lives. But somehow at Castle Leslie the sediments of each generation remained, to be hopefully not too much of an impediment to the next generation.  It meant that the family memory, the folk memory extends back over a much greater number of generations. So the feeling of reality of people in the past, because you know what they looked like, their pictures are there, their clothes might be in a cupboard, “This is the chair fat Charlie Leslie  had made in 1780 when he developed gout“ – you can see the leather patch where it was worn away, and you can see how fat he was because his breaches and waistcoat are still hanging in the cupboard  – it made him a real person. I think that was the unique element to Castle Leslie, it’s like a time capsule with the vibrations and objects of 350 years of interesting life – it remains, there’s nothing to disturb it.

Narrator: Many psychic investigators would argue that what you find at Castle Leslie is exactly what you’d expect to find. The house is filled with the relics and paraphernalia of people who have lived and died here over the generations. And so you find a long history of coincidence and association, building up to a very high level of expectation – creating an anthology of ghost stories, you might say, around births, marriages and deaths.

Dr Richard Wiseman: In many stately homes there is a real sense of history. There are big portraits of ancestors, there are lots of stories about what the ancestors have achieved. And so it’s not difficult to believe, you know, that those people are still around. That they would have had strong emotional links with the house, and that’s why their ghosts are there. But obviously the stories, the pictures, the books have a big influence on the people living in the house. There is a feeling those people are still around. They see an apparition, a figure at the top of the stairs, and so in their mind they convert that to be the great grandfather who was killed in the battle of X, and that’s why he’s still coming back to see us. It doesn’t mean these things are true, it may just be that the expectations bring on this sort of experience.

Narrator: But that having been said, it’s very important not to write off sightings of the same event by several different witnesses. And there are many stories that are immensely difficult to explain away. The witnesses are sane and balanced people – the events are apparently impossible. Take Patch the dog, for example.

Sammy Leslie: Late one night I was sitting on a box painting the skirting boards in the bathroom. And the next thing I saw a Jack Russell jump off the floor and land on my knee. And just as he landed on my knee he disappeared! And I looked at my friend, and we both decided it was too late and we needed some sleep, and that we both should go to bed. So that was fine, we both went to bed and didn’t think too much about it. And a few days later she was in the bathroom and the radio was on the bathroom floor, and it was tuned out of any station – it was just making lots of noise. And as she walked in, the next thing she heard was someone go “Patch! Patch!” and it was like someone calling quite desperately. And she shouted at me and I ran up, and I just heard one or two calls at the end as it faded out.  A number of weeks later you’d be lying in bed and the next thing you’d hear something scratching on the floor. You’d hear the scratch, scratch on the floor. One particular night I was sitting in bed reading my book, and the light was on and I could hear where the scratching was coming from, and I assumed it was mice or something, so I threw the book at it. Nothing happened, and a few minutes later the scratching resumed, so I shouted to my friend who was in the other room and she came in and the two of us shared the bed that night. And the next thing in the middle of the night she woke me up because she heard the scratching on the floor. And all these little fragments didn’t really make sense until one day I bumped into my aunt. And she said “Oh I hear you’ve got a new small dog – we hear him yapping and barking sometimes.” And I said, well we haven’t really got a small dog, but we do have a small problem! And I started to tell her of the dog being seen, and the scratching and the barking and everything else. And she said “Well that’s very strange”  because her father, my great uncle Seymour, as a small boy had a little brown and white Jack Russell called Patch. And he’d had TB as a child. For some reason some of the boys were taunting him and teasing him, and they decided they would taunt his dog, and things went badly wrong and they killed the dog by mistake – and of course, the dog’s name was Patch.

Narrator: The events surrounding the burial of Aunt Anita are of a very different category. All we can say is that there seem to be a surprising conjunction of nattural events witnessed by many people. It was a still, calm summer’s day. Aunt Anita was about to be buried, across the lake.

Photo by Sean MacEntee
Mark Leslie: My aunt Anita was the primary person in residence there when I was a young child, and she was a remarkable and charming beautiful woman, a great writer of historical works, and was a great focus of the family. When she died, ten years ago, she insisted on being buried because of her Red Indian heritage in the family, she wanted to buried between the roots of two trees. And we had a very remarkable and moving burial service for her, on the bank of the lake, opposite the castle. And at the climactic moment, when my father read  out a particular poem that my aunt had wanted read, about her soul rising and going home – a sort of wind spout came up the lake, which until then had been mirror calm, and all the autumn leaves got sucked off the trees and it formed a great golden vortex that came right over where the funeral was, and sort of shot up, cascaded up into the air. Now this is a perfectly natural phenomenon. The strange thing is that this tornado should pass up the lake at the climactic moment of the funeral sucking all the leaves, and the lake which up til that moment had been mirror calm, boiled, you know. If a hand had come out the lake with a sword and taken the prayer book away, nobody would have batted an eyelid. And all the Irish were saying “Ah, there goes Anita’s soul,” and they all sort of waved bye-bye to the leaves. We, coming from London, were like “What, this, this can’t be happening – look, good grief!”  and everybody thought we were just a bit, you know. It was the difference between passing between the psychic force field of a busy urban life to rural Ireland.

Narrator: There is no doubt that Castle Leslie is a beautiful and romantic place. A place where it’s immensely difficult to unravel fact from Celtic mystery. But many of the stories that cluster round it are little different from the kinds of stories that in our research we find linked to old family houses right across Europe. Most of them can perhaps be written off as coincidence or anecdote, or embroidery of a half remembered event – but not all. We are left with that mysterious core of stories that would seem to defy rational explanation.