Writer and Author

Tag: Archaeology

Dublin Stories 1: The Haunted Dustpan

Today I’m trying something a little bit different. Since I’ve stopped writing from the courts the blog has been in need of an injection of alternate subject matter. Since I’ve been spending most of my time up to my eyes in history books for the years pop culture didn’t really seem like a good fit. So instead, you lucky, lucky people, I give you this…

This is the first post in a series. Well, as you can tell that from the title. You can probably also tell that I’m not planning an exhaustive account of the social history of Dublin Town. This local history is going to be much more relaxed. Since I moved to Dublin over twenty years, I’ve loved living in a city with such a rich history. I want to tell some of my favourite Dublin stories. This isn’t a history of checks and balances, of historical facts and figures. I’m interested in the stories that have lived, that find their way into the fabric of the city itself, that have bent and flexed into the collective consciousness – in other words, the nitty gritty history of them might have gone lost in the telling. The Ireland’s Eye murder is one of these that but I’m not starting there.  I’m starting my stories with a ghost in a castle. It’s one I know particularly well.

Drymnagh_castle_Dublin_1820

Back in the early 90s I was working as a tour guide in Drimnagh Castle. If you don’t know the area Drimnagh is a suburb in the south west of Dublin. The modern streets have crept right around the 12th century castle that stands on the Long Mile Road. It’s still got its moat and until the 50s it was the longest inhabited castle in Ireland. When the last family to own it, dairy farmers by the name of Hatch, died out the castle passed to the Christian brothers. They turned it into a school but as the school grew the pupils were moved into new buildings next door and the brothers moved out. Slowly but surely, over the next few decades, the castle began to decay. By the 70s it was a shell. Somewhere where local kids would sneak in to go drinking.

In the 80s, conservationist Peter Pearson started up the Drimnagh Castle Restoration project and FÁS were brought in to provide manpower for the restoration work. The work was all done using traditional methods. I used to draw visitors’ attention to the wooden pegs used to hold the roofing joists together and the fact that the figures of medieval workmen carved at the bottom of those joists had the faces of those involved in the restoration, some of whom still worked on the site. We were very proud of the work that had been done so far. The foreman Godfrey, in pride of place at the end of the hall, had been carved wearing a digital watch. Just to make the point. Legend had it that even our resident ghost knew Godfrey’s name. A few years later, when I’d started working in radio, I met someone who’d recorded a show out there, talking about ghosts for Halloween. I even heard the master. It could have been a woman’s voice. But then, standing next to Godfrey’s wooden form, you’d also be rather close to the window, and the chimney. They can be draughty places, medieval castles.

We all believed in the castle ghost, Eleanora. Supposedly one of the Norman Barnevale family who had built the place, Eleanora was reputed to slope around the castle sighing, as she looked at the mess her love life had ended up. She had been supposed to marry her cousin Edmund, we used to tell the tourists, but as is often the case in these kinds of tragic love stories her heart belonged to another. Unfortunately for all concerned the particular other in this case was Sean O’Byrne, the younger son of the Irish clan that had been making it their mission to make the Barnevale’s feel less than welcome in their chosen domain. The wedding day arrived and the wedding party made their way by carriage to St Patrick’s Cathedral. They never made it. After a savage battle both Sean and Edmund lay dead and Eleanora was somewhat persona non grata. Her uncle, you see, had an inkling of her fondness for the O’Byrne lad and blamed her for the whole fiasco. Eleanora was brought back to Drimnagh Castle and locked away but she made her escape and pined herself to death on her lover’s grave. We all knew the story of Eleanora off by heart – it was one of the chief selling points of the place after all. None of us ever heard any heartbroken sobs but our younger cleaner swore blind that one day as she was cleaning the Great Hall her dustpan stood up on its handle all by itself. Who knows, it might have.

The rest of us were more worried about the Man in Black who was supposed to haunt the 17th century tower. Back then the tower hadn’t been restored and was kept locked as it was still a building site. According to the story the Man in Black had been an alchemist who made a deal with the devil. Before I sat down to write this post I went looking for the notes I had kept from my tours. Unfortunately they’ve been lost somewhere across the intervening years so my remembrance of this particular story is a little hazy. I remember I used to have fun telling it. There was a crow involved and a mysterious disappearance. It used to scare young school children, that story, and that was the simplified version. Of course those of us working there had other details that were completely unverified so had never made it into the tour. We heard the local story that a tramp, finding the derelict tower in the 60s or 70s, had been found dead with an expression of abject fear on his face. One of the other tour guide claimed he had seen a dark figure there one night when he had been closing up after an event. Personally I never liked turning my back on that locked door whenever I was turning out the lights after a late night gig (the castle hosted TV shows and concerts even in those days).

Drimnagh Castle was a wonderful place to work on hot summers’ days. Sitting in the courtyard waiting for tours to arrive you could hear the bees in the herbs growing near the sun dial. There was a very irascible, balding peacock there too who would wander over to you and peck your ankles. He’d outlived three hens at this stage. We wondered if he was depressed at his habitual single status. I remember one Saturday in the old church on Andrews Street in the city centre helping to tear up the floor. The church was being turned into the tourist office it is today and they had donated the tiles to the castle. I have a tile from that floor and a couple left surplus from the Great Hall. They’ve come with me to various flats and houses over the years. A physical reminder of a memorable time. That year the sun always seemed to be shining although this being Ireland that simply can’t be true. I had wanted to write a proper account of the ghost stories to sell to visitors and one of the other other tour guides was an artist who was going to illustrate it. On the slow, hot days we spent more time sitting on benches avoiding the peacock. The artist sketched me, the only long haired female present and years later I visited and saw the Eleanora mural that now decorates the yard. Something in the eyes still looks like me, I think. I’d like to think I’d left a little something there.

Painting of Eleanora at Drimnagh Castle

Painting of Eleanora at Drimnagh Castle

The castle’s still open for tours though the restoration work’s stopped now. You can even hire it out for weddings or filming – even book launches. You can find them here. Though I presume the peacock’s long dead by now.

Do let me know in the comments if you like the piece. I’ve lots more in the pipeline

The Past Under Our Feet

 

A child's body found on May Street Dublin

A child’s skeleton found on May Street in Dublin

When I was a child growing up in London I got a tremendous kick out of the fact that, in some people’s back gardens, you could dig down and find a layer of black soil.  That soil, perhaps a little richer, a little grittier than the loam above, down where only the deepest roots reached, was the scorched earth that was left when Boudicca, the Queen of the Iceni, attacked the Romans at Londinium.

When you live in a city that has stood in the same place for hundreds and hundreds of years you live on the past.  When you walk down the street you are walking on top of history.  In a city like London, or here in Dublin, that history can reach back hundreds if not thousands of years.  Most of the time we don’t pay attention.  We go about our lives in blissful ignorance.  But sometimes history breaks through.  Just as gardeners can dig down and find those ancient London cinders, so those who crack the modern surface can touch a more visceral time.

Yesterday workmen digging ditches for drainage pipes under cobbled streets near Smithfield made the grim discovery of a pair of legs.  The arms and the skull had been lost but what indications there were suggested that they were male legs.  Work on the drainage pipe stopped and the gardai were called.  It didn’t take long to work out that the shiny, heavily stained bones did not belong to a victim of recent violence and the investigation was passed to the archaeologists.

 

Franc Myles archeologist

Archeologist Franc Myles at the May Street dig

The area was fenced off and this morning a crowd of locals and tourists on their way to the Jameson Whiskey Distillery peered through the metal links at archaeologist Franc Myles hunkered down in front of a large gaping pipe, wielding a makeup brush.  Once the legs had been removed for further examination another even grimmer discovery had been made.  There in the clay, right in the path of the drainage pipe, was the skeleton of a child.  Impossible to tell the sex, all that can be known is that he or she had only lived till three or four and had lived it’s short life in the 1600s.

The skeleton of a child is so much more interesting than a pair of grownup legs and a torso (when foul play isn’t suspected).  Peering down into the shallow ditch were locals shocked at the thought that such small death had lain beneath their daily route for so long, children transfixed by a skeleton that somehow didn’t look remotely Halloween, tourists happily snapping away at a splendidly macabre addition to their tour.  Occasionally glancing up from his work Franc threw up facts when he was asked, or to stop the steady stream of intermittently hysterical speculation.  He didn’t mind working with the crowd, he said, the job had become so sanitised by health and safety regulations in recent years the public didn’t get the opportunity to see archaeology in the field much.

Lying half exposed, it’s little arms crossed demurely in front, the little skull cocked to the side in an accidental approximation of infant piety, the small skeleton was the centre of attention just as it would have been when it was laid to rest in the 17th Century.  It’s easy to imagine the pudgy hands grasping at a mothers hair in life, the grieving parents standing over the grave, which would have stood then within the graveyard.  The church, St Michan’s, is still there – it’s home to a celebrated crypt with a lanky crusader and fallen revolutionaries.  The graveyard though has shrunk over the years and forgotten bones it seems lie beneath the streets in the area.

It would have been so different in those days.  I’ve cut down May Lane so many times on my way to the Four Courts but they weren’t even built when the child was buried.  Ireland’s first Inn of Court was in an old Dominican priory near the spot where the Four Courts now stand back then.  In the 1600s the Inn’s gardens stood where the Four Courts are “with knottes and borders of sweet herbs, pot herbs, flowers, roses and fruit.” The scents from that garden would have been carried on a summer breeze to the graveyard so close behind, where the child’s grave lay.

These days, where the churchyard would once have stretched, the large glass King’s Inns building lies empty.  I’ve only ever seen someone in it once, when hurrying home to write up the day’s proceedings, I saw white suited swordsman fencing for a film crew in the cavernous ground floor.  The barriers that now surround the child’s resting place usually ring the empty building – god forbid rubbish should gather in it’s white elephant corners.

In another four hundred years what will be left of our world?  What relics will we leave under the roads of our descendents? The child will be gathered up and taken away for further study.  We’ll never know whether  boy or girl, what was its name, perhaps even why it died so young to end up under a busy side road.  It’s sad but it’s what it means to live in a city as ancient as this one.  We walk on what came before, we live on top of the lives of those who lived here before.  The life of a city is vertical. You rarely get the chance to see so except on days like today.  Sometimes history really feels all around us.

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