It was a dark and stormy night… As it always is at the time of the greatest ghost stories. The February winds of Northern Ireland had been afflicting us the whole day. They had thrown the surges of the stormy Irish Sea on the road and washed our car with sea water. They had blown me off the stone fence on the top of a hill in Newry, where I had climbed to photograph the curly coast of Northern Ireland.
After the day of strong gusts, it was such a relief to finally arrive at our hotel for the night. The most haunted castle hotel in Northern Ireland.
*The ghostly night was provided by Tourism Ireland as a part of Finnish Irish Week campaign.
For the above-mentioned reason, a night in Ballygally Castle Hotel was one of the most-awaited highlights of our 4-day road trip in Northern Ireland. Not only is Ballygally Castle the most haunted castle hotel in the country, it’s also one of the most haunted buildings in Northern Ireland.
I’m not saying I believe in ghosts, not until I see one with my own eyes. But I’m not either saying they couldn’t exist until someone proves that there is no such thing as ‘life beyond’. Either or, as I’d rather prove it myself, spending a night in a haunted castle hotel has been number one on my bucket list like… forever.
I always imagined I’d be staying in a haunted castle hotel in Scotland, but Northern Ireland seemed like a perfect destination for it. Especially after I became familiar with the stories of the ghosts of Ballygally Castle Hotel. In addition, I fell in love with the melodious name of Ballygally Castle so badly that I could have chosen my hotel purely based on the name.
The stories tell that at least three ghosts are living in Ballygally Castle. The most famous – and the most active one – is called Lady Isabella. As any lost spirit who is stuck between the two worlds, also Lady Isabella has left behind unsolved issues and sad destinies.
The story of Ballygally Castle
The original castle was built on the shore of Ballygally Bay in 1625. The castle was built by Lord James Shaw and his wife Isabella. The castle today doesn’t look exactly like it used to, but the old parts of the castle are still standing in the village of Ballygally.
The old castle part houses bedrooms, like the bridal suite, among others. The building has been extended with a modern and cosy hotel with a restaurant and lounge bar. In its current outfit, Ballygally Castle Hotel is an exciting combination of old and new.
Part of the old castle and the wall are still standing in Ballygally village. The dark history of Ballygally Castle relates to the tallest tower of the castle that you can see on the right top corner of the old castle building.
During the Civil War, Ballygally Castle was a refuge for Protestants. During the Irish Rebellion of 1641, the Irish garrison tried to take it over several times. They didn’t have any luck with their attempts, but it didn’t mean James and Isabella would have been safe from tragic misfortunes.
You see, at those times the castles were only handed down from fathers to sons. When Isabella got pregnant, it was obvious that Lord James Shaw desperately hoped for a baby boy.
As we all know, you can’t always get what you wish for. Isabella had a beautiful baby girl. Unfortunately, it made James absolutely outraged.
Lord’s rage towards his wife and daughter only grew stronger. So strong that eventually he grabbed his daughter and locked Isabella in the tallest tower of Ballygally Castle.
Isabella was screaming for help, but no one could help her. In deep desperation, she opened the tower window and jumped out to escape. Instead of rescuing herself, Isabella fell to her death.
Another theory is that James Shaw – or one of his henchmen – pushed her out of the window. I guess we’ll never find out the truth.
The tallest tower of the castle is still standing in its place, and the prison room of Lady Isabella has been preserved in its original outfit. But where is Isabella herself?
It’s been told that Isabella is wandering along the corridors of the castle, desperately looking for her child. She’s knocking on the doors and appears in the middle of the bedrooms at night disappearing to nothing. Isabella is making her presence known also through sudden temperature changes, odd smells and a glowing, green mist in the castle yard.
Looking for green mist in the castle yard of Ballygally Castle.
Settling into a haunted castle hotel
When Daniel and I arrived at Ballygally Castle on a dark and stormy February night, we were welcomed by the Assistant Manager Scott and the Restaurant Manager Norma, who has been working at the castle hotel for 23 years. They were telling us stories, reported by the hotel guests, and indeed many visitors had experienced a knock on the door in the middle of the night. The brave ones who have opened the door, have found nothing on the corridor. Besides an odd smell and shivering cold feeling.
I’ve also read that sometimes the guests could hear a laughing child and tiny footsteps on the corridors. I guess it’s Isabella’s daughter who is looking for her mother.
The queue started to form behind us in the reception, so we took the key to our room and started settling down to our home for the night. Before we left, Norma asked me to meet her later.
“I’ve been here for so long that I have some more stories for you. Come back later when there are no other guests nearby, and I will tell you”, she said.
I joked if she didn’t want to scare other guests.
She winked at me. “Come back later”, she asked.
We opened the door to our hotel room that was located in the new part of the hotel. Here we wouldn’t feel unsafe, no matter what is happening on the corridors at night.
A night in Isabella’s room
After a little rest and a delicious dinner in the hotel restaurant, we started climbing to the tower where Isabella’s room is located. Ghost Room signs were directing us upstairs. Old wooden steps were creaking under our feet when we climbed the spiral staircase towards Isabella’s room.
In this tiny room, Isabella’s bed was still in its place. There was also a chair and a small table that was standing under a mirror. Two candleholders and Isabella’s hand mirror were resting on the windowsill above the bed.
The boards on the walls were telling Isabella’s tragic story and described how a few years earlier a BBC reporter was staying overnight in the room together with a medium.
The visit didn’t last until the morning. The presence of Isabella was too much, and the reporter ended up running back to the hotel room.
A strange feeling took me over. I didn’t see anyone nearby, but were Daniel and I alone in Isabella’s room after all?
In the round corner of the room, on the right side of the bed, Isabella was howling in sorrow, missing her lost child. We saw the window from where she fell to her death. A small stool is standing under the window. Is that the stool she climbed on to escape the tower?
We read all the stories and looked at the pictures on the walls. We tried to feel the atmosphere in the room. I was wearing a warm jersey, and yet I felt shivers in my arms. We were completely quiet. And so was Ballygally Castle Hotel.
I took a deep breath and laid myself on Isabella’s bed. I was resting there for a good while, squeezing my jersey against my shivering skin, trying to sense what was around me. I only got up when I heard some other curious hotel guest climbing up the stairs and entering the ghost room.
The visitor looked scared and left very quickly. Did he get scared of me or something else?
We descended from the tower and had a little walk in the castle yard, trying to spot some green, glowing mist. I also tried to look for Norma, but on the first time the reception was full of late visitors, and on the second go I couldn’t find her.
We were so tired from the travelling and driving that day that we just laid down on our bed and watched TV. Daniel started to doze off. I pulled my sneakers on and went for a little wander on the corridors.
It was way past midnight. It was so quiet everywhere. As I was walking in the corridor, I once again felt the cold shivers on my arms. It was so cold I even tried if my breath would steam, even if I was indoors.
Suddenly I noticed that one of the lights in the hallway started flickering. I was glancing around. I didn’t see anyone.
I slowly walked forward and imagined in my head what would happen once I reach the flickering light. Would it smash broken? Would it stop flickering? Would all the lights on the corridor go off at once?
If that happened, at least I would know I wasn’t alone. I also knew, if that happened, I would be running like crazy towards the reception and screaming for Norma.
I arrived at the flickering light. I stood there for a while. Nothing happened. It just kept on flickering. Maybe the light bulb was going.
I felt a little bit disappointed.
In the morning, after the alarm went on, Daniel asked me if I had heard anything during the night. I’m the worst sleeper ever, and I always wake up even at the most silent sound. I tend to wake up even if someone is looking at me. In Ballygally Castle, however, I was sleeping like a log.
Daniel told me he had woken up around 3 am when someone knocked on our door.
Goodbye, Ballygally Castle
No, Daniel hadn’t dared to get up and see if someone really was at the door. Therefore the nightly knock will remain a mystery. Our night in the most haunted castle hotel of Northern Ireland was over. I wanted so badly to stay for another night, but we had to hit the road.
I didn’t meet Norma anymore, but I was able to reach her afterwards when I had already returned home.
She told me how one Christmas the hotel was already closed to guests and the whole staff had gathered around the fireplace in the lounge for a festive drink. Everyone was together, once they heard footsteps from the reception. “The whole hallway was echoing”, she described. In a brief moment, the glasses on the table started sliding on the table. Two of them even smashed on the floor. Was it Santa or the playful elves? Wouldn’t think so.
She also mentions the green mist in the castle garden. It usually appears when something else odd is happening. Often after the guests have left, the cutlery starts spinning clockwise on the tables in the Garden Restaurant. Even if no one is near them.
The weirdest thing happened when two nuns were staying at the Ballygally Castle. At 3 am the nuns run downstairs at the reception in panic. They had felt a presence in their room. The Bible had slid on the table, fell on the floor and opened the very same chapter the nuns had been reading earlier that evening. Just a coincidence? Could be.
Norma reminds that Lady Isabella might scare you a bit, but she is a very friendly spirit. During 23 years the ghosts of Ballygally Castle haven’t harmed anyone. Besides causing sleepless nights, of course.
Would you stay in a haunted castle hotel, such as Ballygally Castle?
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This post is part of Finnish Irish Week blog campaign that takes place between the 12th and the 19th of March 2017.