Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Day 6: The Face of Leap Castle

We left the pockmarked coastline of Cork to travel north, up through the fertile midlands to Ireland's hidden gem: the Slieve Bloom Mountains, a gently rising range densely clad in fir forests and crowned with heather and blanket bog. Nathan and I intended to spend the next two days hiking to our heart's content through the sanctified serenity of Slieve Bloom. Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas.

On our sixth morning, Nate and I crossed ourselves, armed ourselves with whatever psychic regalia we had and headed a few miles up a country road to Leap Castle, one of Ireland's most haunted sites. Now, you may have already heard of Leap Castle, maybe even seen it on television. The castle's bloody history and reputation for the paranormal have landed it many a headlining role on various 'haunted' shows, the best known of which would be Ghost Hunters, Scifi channel's docu-series following TAPS, The Atlantic Paranormal Society, and their all-night vigils trying to capture evidence of the other side in some of the world's most haunted places. Don't worry though, Nathan and I have experience at this as survivors of the Myrtles Plantation and Salem, Massachusetts.

When we pulled into the circular drive, we began to think we'd arrived at the wrong place. Leap's crumbling facade was partially boarded with plywood. An aging motor-home sat to one side and a heap of rubble along with several ladders sat to the other. A sheep dog with some kind of skin condition greeted us reservedly (is that mange?). Surely this was not the ghost ridden hot spot of legend, praised and filmed on American t.v.? It was.

Sean Ryan, Leap castle's current owner met us at the giant studded, wooden door after I clacked the knocker a few times. I was instantly charmed. Mr. Ryan looks a bit like Ireland's version of Jerry Garcia: husky, hairy and happy. He led us to his fireplace where a crackling flame perfumed the air with a mingle of peat turf and incense and bid us sit down in one of the well worn chairs gathered round. For the next couple of hours, we sat spellbound, listening with rapt attention as he laid out the history, both normal and paranormal, of the place he now called home. Like any landmark that has survived a good many years, Leap Castle has seen its fair share of tragedy. It only follows then that at least a few of those who'd lived and died there might want to stick around. Listening to Mr. Ryan spin his tale I felt certain the television shows were both right and wrong. Leap Castle is haunted, but a hotbed of demonic activity, it's not.

Whatever spirits linger there, they were wholly eclipsed that morning by the castle's living resident. As he played us a tune on the Irish whistle I realized, Leap Castle hosts something rare indeed and it's not just the ghosts. Sean Ryan is a modern day bard, part storyteller, part musician, part historian. As he weaves his enchantment over you, you walk away entertained and enlightened. A couple of hours as his audience is worth however many euros he'd like to charge, though he only asks for six. It is no small leap (pun intended) of the imagination to see how in their day, bard's were a very hot commodity amidst the ancient Celtic societies where they lived and loved.

My story should end here, but it doesn't. Before driving away, we snapped off a couple of pictures of Leap Castle. I didn't ask to take any inside, feeling it disrespectful to the privacy of our host. After all, the castle is now a warm and loving home, not just a tourist trap. After we returned to the States and I plopped down the $50 it took to develop over 350 memories on film, I noticed something unusual in one of the Leap Castle photos. In a window to the left, where the castle is still decrepit and unlivable, is the pale silhouette of a person. Zooming in, I expected the form to dissipate in a play of shadow and light, looking less human upon close inspection. Instead, it looks more human. Using zoom on the computer, a face begins to emerge, with two shadowy eye hollows and a distinct forehead, cheekbones and shoulders. It appears to be leaning around the edge of the window, watching us drive away. It looks young and feminine. Not unlike how I imagined the face of twelve year old Charlotte Darby as she fell from one of the castle's watchtowers to her death centuries ago.

Before that picture caught my eye, I thought I'd just met the real face of Leap Castle. Now I wonder, is the ghostly image in the window a trick, a pattern played by the leaves and vines slowly pulling the castle's wing back into the earth? Or is it the real face of Leap Castle, watching silently from the shadows as another unsuspecting car of visitors pulls innocently away? You decide for yourself...

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