A hundred years ago before television and radio entertained us, at Christmas time, people gathered together and told ghost stories. Charles Dicken’s famous Christmas Carol is one such famous ghost story. The full title is called ‘A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas’. It was first published in 1843 and recounts the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, an elderly miser who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.
We have reached a stage where people are unbelieving, when the poor Christmas ghost, who was once an institution, finds it increasingly hard to keep his hold in the minds of a scoffing and cynical generation. Let me hasten to assure you readers that this is no introduction to a mere idle tale, to be hastily read and thrown aside. It is, rather, a plain, unvarnished account of one of the most weird and horrible tragedies ever enacted, and, further, the supernatural occurrences which have been witnessed by people still living, it cannot be explained away by any ingenious theories of ‘thought transmission’ or the insinuation of too much alcohol or hallucinogens.
Within a stone’s throw of the old defunct bathing place at Gibraltar rocks near Cummeen less than three kilometres from Sligo town, once stood the imposing ruins of a large dwelling house known by the people of the countryside as “The Ghost House”. Few now living are acquainted with the details of the fearful story of how this splendid house so favourably situated came to be left derelict and allowed to fall into a pathetic ruin.
Two centuries ago, Gibraltar House was owned by the Williams family, the occupants, at the period of which I write, were the widow Williams and her two sons, Michael and John. With these lived also the orphan niece of the widow lady, Mary Williams, a fresh bright-eyed, golden-haired beauty, light-hearted and gay, typically Irish then aged about twenty-one. She was courted and admired by half the young men in the neighbourhood. But her town cousins, unfortunately, were both deeply in love with her. It is said she was gladsome and bright as a sunbeam and brought joy and happiness wherever she went. She acted as the lady bountiful for her widowed aunt, and the poor for miles around blessed the ground she trod on.
There was much speculation as to which of the brothers she favoured, but she had never shown any decided preference. The brothers were both fine, strapping men in the prime of young manhood, Michael, the elder, was of a quiet, easy-going disposition, constantly attending to the business of the farm. John, on the other hand, was all for gaming, sports of every kind, and spent two or three days a week in the winter time following Sir Robert Gore with his pack of hounds.
The fair Mary, no doubt, was well aware of the passion which she had excited in the bosoms of her cousins but seemed unable to make up her mind whom she preferred. She would walk alongside the plough or the reaper with her cousin Michael, or with equal readiness spend all day riding to hounds with John. The brothers were not content with this state of things, and bad blood gradually grew between them, without, however, coming to open strife. They made a pact that on the next Christmas Day they would draw lots, and the winner might then put his fortune to the test, and ask for the hand of the fair lady.
Christmas Eve broke cold and stormy, with heavy hail showers racing along Benbulbin and Knocknarea. Sir Robert Gore, in honour of the day, had a meet of hounds at Cashelgarron, finishing the evening with a hunt dinner at Lissadell. John Williams could not miss this great event, so he persuaded his cousin Mary to accompany him. They set out early in the day, crossing Cummeen Strand to Ballincar by way of the old ford at the Castle Field. It was pretty late when they arrived home. John apparently having enjoyed the good things provided by Sir Robert, and in a quarrelsome mood. Mary was out of sorts. It looked as if there had been a tiff between the two. Michael, who had been at home all day making preparations for the comfort of his work people for the Christmas festival, wondered if his brother had the temerity to break the pact and spoken to his cousin.
The storm had now increased to hurricane fury, and nothing is known of what happened in the house during the night. The terrible gales roaring in the chimneys and the continuous rattle of the hailstones must have drowned all sounds within.
The widow lady, descending the stairs on Christmas morning making ready to drive to early church service on entering the drawing room was horrified to find the table overturned and chairs lying around broken. She shrieked, and the servants came running with lights, when it was found that the whole room was in confusion, signs of a fearful struggle everywhere, and on the hearth rug an ugly brown stain plainly blood. A great outcry now arose, and it was soon discovered that both Michael and John were missing, also that their bed had not been slept in. Michael’s great wolfhound, too, had mysteriously disappeared. The gale roared outside, and the heavy seas lashed to fury, whirled past with in fifty yards of the door. Lights were procured, but it was found impossible to venture outside, so with heavy hearts those within doors waited for the daylight, fearing and hoping for they knew not what. The sickly dawn at length arrived dull and leaden, a ghastly light which seemed to forecast calamity. When the gale had somewhat moderated, they ventured forth, to find the body of the wolfhound stretched cold in death, on the avenue, only a few yards from the door, a great gaping hole behind the shoulder showed how he had met his death. The animal lay facing the house, and a look of almost joy seemed to sparkle in the wide open dead eyes.
Messengers roused the country and bog, mountain and strand were searched and searched again, but all in vain, for not the faintest trace was found of the missing men.
The mother was heartbroken and now only lived for her good works. Mary, who had lost all her gay and winsome manners, sobered down into a quiet and dignified woman, still continued to be the right hand of her aunt, and both spent much time in vigils and prayers for the lost ones. They had arranged to keep a solemn vigil on the Christmas Eve, the first anniversary of the mysterious disappearance, and I venture to assert that anything to equal the horror of the experiences which befell them cannot be looked for outside the pages of fiction.
After the servants had retired to rest both ladies knelt before the shrine, in humble supplication that the Redeemer of the World, on the morning would give them some sign or token from the vanished loved ones. The hours crawled slowly onward until the mystic hour of midnight approached when suddenly they were startled by the deep baying of a wolfhound, and both were horror stricken to recognise the voice of the dead hound, which now had changed to a snarling roar, with which other and more fearful noises were mingled. The uproar appeared to have come from the drawing room and the frightened women could hear the voices of men in loud dispute. Clinging together they went into the hall where a fearful sight met their eyes. John, with the look of a demon in his eyes, emerged from the drawing room with the body of Michael on his back and a large knife covered with blood in his hand; a great gaping wound in Michael’s throat showed where the cruel knife had done its fatal work. Opening the hall door he staggered forth with his ghastly burden, and the fierce wolf hound, chopping and snarling, dashed madly at his heels. The door swung fast behind them and the horrid sight was closed from the eyes of the now helplessly terrified women.
Next day they related their story and the bog holes were again searched for traces of the bodies of the men, but without success.
The poor mother, sickened with the horror, failed in health, and in a few months was laid to rest in the little graveyard at Killaspugbrone.
Mary Williams being now left alone, sold the house and farm, which held such sad and awful memories for her, and went to live with some relations in the south of Ireland.
The new owners of the property, in due time, heard the stories of the disappearance of the two William brothers and of the apparitions said to haunt the place on Christmas Eve, but paid little heed to them. There were four sons and a only daughter with the father and mother. A marriage had been arranged between the daughter and a neighbouring gentleman, and in honour of the approaching event a grand ball was to be given, commencing at 12 o’clock midnight on Christmas Eve. It was in vain that friends attempted to persuade the old man to give up the idea, urging that if there would be any disturbance it would be looked upon as an evil omen for the marriage. The old man, however, scoffed at the idea. Little he cared for any ghosts. The house was his and he would do as he liked. A splendid feast was prepared, musicians arrived, and a gay company of the youth of the country assembled to grace the proceedings. All went merry as the proverbial ‘marriage bell’. Twelve o’clock arrived, and they were to open the ball. The old man, laughing heartily, proclaimed that good, healthy, hearty people were able to drive away all spirits except the half-dozen kegs in his pantry, which, he said, had never paid a penny duty. The prospective bride and groom took the floor to lead off the dance, when without a moments warning, all the candles flickered for an instant and then went out. At the same time a horrible snarling growl seemed to come from the middle of the room and before the terrified people could stir, there on the middle of the floor could plainly be seen two men in deadly grips while a great wolfhound with shining teeth and blazing eyes danced around as if seeking an opportunity to seize one of the combatants. Up and down the fight raged, now one and now another seeming to have the advantage, when at last one of the men, snatching a hunting knife from a stand on the wall, plunged it into the other’s throat. At the same moment the hound seemed to have got his opportunity and seized the murderer by the neck. The spectators were dumb with horror and fright. All narrated the above took place in the space of a few seconds though it takes some in the telling. A slash of the knife in the side beat off the hound for a moment and the murderer then raised the body on his shoulders and disappeared through the door, followed closely by the furious hound and suddenly all was still and dark. Needless to say the party was broken up in the wildest confusion and sad to relate, the daughter of the house was found to be hopelessly insane.
House and farm were sold again a second time, and from that day to this no tenant has ever had the hardihood to occupy the dwelling and the place has gradually fallen into ruin, being only used by a neighbouring farmer for storage purposes.
A generation after the events related above the bodies of the missing brothers were found within a couple of hundred yards of their own door. The manner of the finding was indeed, strange. It will be remembered that in Black ’47, the terrible famine year, relief works were started in many parts of the country, and one of such works was the building of a road connecting the road from Seamount with the Cummeen road. When cutting through a bank of sand and shingle which had covered a portion of the old turf banks between Gibraltar rocks and Cummeen, the workmen were surprised to find lying together the skeletons of two men, the bony fingers of one clasping what had evidently been the horn handle of an ancient hunting knife. The story of the disappearance of the brothers was then fresh in the minds of the people, and there could be no doubt as to the remains, which were interred in the old family burying place at the sandy banks of Killaspugbrone.
It is thought that when John was trying to hide the body of his murdered brother in the bog, he was followed by the wounded hound which managed to tear the throat out of him before crawling back to die on the doorstep. The great storm rolled up the sand and the shingle many feet high, covering the bodies together and obliterated all trace of disturbance.
According to all the recognised theories of psychical knowledge the ghosts should have been laid after the discovery of their bodies and their internment with a Christian ceremony in consecrated ground but nothing of the kind happened in this case, and there are not wanting, at the present moment men who will say they have heard the deep baying of the ghost-hound at Gibraltar on Christmas Eve.
The last authenticated appearance of the apparition took place about seventy years ago and almost had a fatal ending.
A young man had been out Christmas Eve on the strand, at Cummeen, after wild fowl, which are plentiful, it is said, in that place, but being caught in a heavy snow storm, and unaware of the particular history of the ruin, ran to it for shelter, a farmer, who used the ruin as a granary, happened to be nearby sitting up attending a sick cow, and going with a lantern to get a sheaf of straw, was frightened to find the apparently dead body of a man lying on the floor with a gun beside him, on closer examination revealed the fact that the man was not dead, only in a faint, so the farmer ran home and roused his sons and between them they carried the helpless man to their home where he was carefully attended to, after some time he was fully recovered. Had he lain in the mud all night he must certainly have been frozen to death. His story was simply repetition of the tale already told, the scene had taken place exactly as already related. The fight, the stab of the hunting knife, and the frenzied baying of the spectre hound, related all with minute accuracy. He had fainted with pure fright, and had lain insensible from midnight until found after two o’clock in the morning. It now once again the season of Christmas .
Will the fearful scene of the crime, caused by insane jealousy. be acted by phantom actors? Will the spectre wolf hound snarl and bay and the brothers once again be locked in each others arms in a deadly fury ? Or, is it the will of the Most High that the days of their penance; are over, and that thev will now sleep peacefully? pray it may be the latter..
Source: Newspaper Archives