Like most dreams, Yeats’s nightmare had some basis in reality, as many great Irish houses known to him were set alight. My office chum, Martin O’Shaughnessy, whose grandfather helped burn them down, explains why.
Martin, like his fisherman forefathers, is a natural storyteller, and his yarns enliven even the dreariest of days in our dank hospital office situated next to the morgue. We shiver, even in midsummer, as the temperature suddenly dips, and our bones become as chilled as those of our ever-silent neighbours.
‘Last Christmas, returning to my home village in the Dublin countryside, I noticed wisps of smoke in the chimneys of a now abandoned but once grand mansion,’ he says. ‘As children we had felt uneasy playing in the roofless, cobwebbed ruins – full of silence and emptiness. Sometimes we noticed small balls of light moving within the walls. Upon arriving home that evening I asked my mother if a tramp had set up home in the ruined house. No, she answered, and told me to stay away from that evil place, as it was haunted by the harsh landlord who lived there long ago. He was hated for mercilessly evicting tenants who couldn’t pay his exorbitant rents. But this wicked man got his final comeuppance. Late one night, as he was driving home through the village, the dark street ahead suddenly lit up to reveal a funeral procession carrying an ornate coffin. Astonished, he wondered why his villagers should choose to bury someone at midnight. He did however recognise several familiar faces in the crowd and then experienced an odd sensation of not quite being there. Upon arriving home and feeling rather shaken he questioned his servants about the uncanny procession – but all professed to know nothing.
‘A few days later, as he lay sleeping, his tenants crept through the grounds and set light to his house. It burnt to the ground, and he burnt with it. At his burial, a crowd of villagers, including those he had glimpsed in his vision, formed a procession and bore his fine oak coffin down the very street he had seen brightly lit just a couple of night before, muttering the mantra “Burn everything English apart from their coal.”
‘Ireland is very haunted,’ he continues. ‘Soon after my sister Kathleen moved into her new home, three elderly ladies from the village knocked on her door and she invited them in for tea. “Have you met the inhabitants of this house yet?” asked the eldest. My sister replied that her husband and sons were upstairs watching television. “And how about the weeping dark woman, the ragged boy, the girl in white lace, the tailor and spectral cat – have you met them yet?” asked her visitors. Although she felt a bit unsettled by this, Kathleen soon forgot about it, and little out of the ordinary happened for weeks.
‘But one night as she and her husband were driving home late she mentioned her desire for a hot bath. “Imagine our surprise when we arrived home to find the bath brimming with steaming water and our towels, dressing-gowns and slippers neatly laid out alongside it,” Kathleen had remarked. On another evening, running late for a friend’s birthday party, she called up to her husband to hurry. “He remembers being helped into his dinner jacket and turning round to thank me – but to his great surprise finding no one there.”
‘And if you go to County Carlow, do look out for a spectral, limbless huntsman who joins the hunt when summoned from the underworld by the call of a hunting horn. Members have noticed an extra rider, strapped to an unusually shaped saddle, riding alongside them. He and his mount then vanish into thin air.
‘This apparition is believed to be that of Arthur Kavanagh, later Earl of Clancarty. Despite being born without hands or feet he learnt to ride by the age of three, strapped to a specially adapted saddle, using the stumps of his arms to guide his horse. He also expertly shot, fished, wrote and drew. When his beloved horse, Tinker, died Kavanagh had him stuffed. So his old mount now has two afterlives – one very solid, if a bit moth-eaten, and the other, as the ghostly apparition, still leaping fences with his master on his back.’