SATURDAY READING: The Voice From The Dead, by Sheila St. Clair

The Voice From The Dead Sheila St. Clair

From Mysterious Ireland

This seventeenth century account of a very unusual haunting comes from Drumbeg, County Down.  In those days the area was known as Drumbridge, as the road passed over the River Lagan.  The time is the autumn of 1662.  One Francis Taverner, a servant of Lord Chickester, was riding homeward from Hillsborough to Mallon (Malone), County Antrim.  Mallon is now on the edge of what can be called Greater Belfast, on the south side of the city.

Suddenly, there appeared on the road beside Taverner an apparition in a white robe and on horseback, with two other riders beside him.  The apparition bore a resemblance to James Haddock, whom Taverner had known slightly in life and whose remains now lay in the churchyard at Drumbeg; the wall that Taverner was passing belonged to that churchyard.  It is believed that Haddock died about 1657.  The apparition identified itself to Taverner by recalling some trivial incident that had taken place in Taverner’s father’s house, while Haddock was still alive.  The apparition became increasingly agitated and begged Taverner to ride with him, as he had a favor to ask.  Understandably, the terrified Taverner clapped spurs to his horse and fled, while from behind him came the sound of a “mighty wind” and other violent noises that scared him out of his wits.

After a week or so, as the memory of the ghastly encounter began to fade, Taverner assumed that the visitation was unlikely to be repeated and he regained his customary good humor.  However, once more the apparition appeared before him, this time at his own fireside, begging most piteously that Taverner would give him aid.  Partly through fright and partly through pity, Taverner agreed to listen to Haddock’s story.

The ghost complained that, after his death, his widow, Eleanor Walsh, had married a man called Davis.  Davis had known Haddock all his life, and was in fact one of the executor’s of Haddock’s will.  This duty included guarding the rights of Haddock’s young son, David, until he came of age.  Davis, however, had abused that trust with regard to some property and had defrauded the boy.  Haddock now wanted the matter to be laid before the justices, and this was the “aid” that he required of Taverner – to act, as it were, “in loco parentis.”

Despite the pity that Francis Taverner felt for the apparition, he was loathe to get mixed up in Haddock’s affairs, especially if Davis was involved – a man notorious for his violent ways.  Taverner was also a logical man, and could see no reason why anyone should believe this bizarre tale.  He protested that, much as he would like to, he really could not help.  Then the apparition fell into a terrible rage and told Taverner that “he would have no peace,” a threat it proceeded to carry out by tormenting Taverner night and day with music, yells, and bangs, and hammering on the furniture.  The crowning terror was when Francis woke in the night and found Haddock bending over him, threatening to choke him if Taverner did not contact Elanor Walsh at once.  With the threats of being “torn to pieces” ringing in his ears, Taverner confided his plight to Lord Chichester’s chaplain, a man called James South, who advised him to carry out the apparition’s wishes, such requests from the departed being regarded as sacrosanct in those days.

For some days after seeking out Haddock’s widow, Taverner had peace.  Then Haddock came again, and this time demanded that Taverner inform the executors, and these, of course, included Davis, that he was to make a complaint.  When the terrified Taverner pointed out that to tell Davis was more than his life was worth, the apparition promised, somewhat vaguely, to protect him and put the fear of God into Davis.  By now Taverner was so beside himself with anxiety that he sought advice from no less a person than the great divine Bishop Jeremy Taylor, who presided over the diocesan court of Down.  The bishop, however, was more interested in eliciting spiritual information from the apparition than concerning himself unduly with Taverner’s plight.  He required Taverner to question the apparition, asking such questions as: “Whence came you?” and “Where is your abode?”, which the apparition refused to answer.  Furthermore, that same night, as Taverner rested at the house of Lord Conway, the apparition crawled over the wall and manifested itself to several people.

One ray of hope for Taverner was that the worthy bishop decided to take up the case and bring it to court.  Naturally, the apparition was delighted and assured Taverner of signs and wonders to back up his story.  One of these “wonders” was that the grave slab on Haddock’s tomb refused to lie straight, no matter how often it was put right.  This was meant to be a token of the “crooked dealings” that Haddock had had to suffer.  It is true that if one visits the grave the stone is turned at a curious angle against the general inclination of the surrounding ground, despite efforts to rectify this.

At last the case came to the church court in Carrickfergus, presided over by Bishop Taylor.  Meanwhile, Davis had hired a clever attorney, who intended to get Taverner laughed out of court.  Taverner realized, gloomily, what a figure of fun he was, and that as sole witness to this extraordinary complaint his evidence would be untenable.  Having set the court sniggering at some witticism, the attorney for Davis inquired sarcastically if Taverner wished to call a witness.  Taverner, now at the end of his patience, appealed to the bishop.  “Call James Haddock!”

There was uproar in the court, but after momentary hesitation the bishop, determined to show justice being done, instructed the court usher to do just that: “Call James Haddock!”  Bishop Taylor said gravely to the court, “I must allow it, for assuredly this man is known unto God, whose servant I am.”

“James Haddock, come into the court!” the usher called out three times.  On the third call there was a clap of thunder and a man’s hand was seen on the table of the clerk of the court while a voice demanded, “Is this enough?”

It seemed that it was, both for the bishop and the hushed courtroom.  The case was accepted and matters set in motion for Davis’s affairs to be looked into.

It is said that David rode away from court swearing all kinds of vengeance on Francis Taverner, and matters might have fared ill for him if, on the way home past the Drumbridge churchyard, Davis’s horse had not taken fright at “something” in the road and thrown him to the ground, breaking his neck.  Five years later a man called Costlett, who had aided and abetted Davis, also died from a fall from his horse, in approximately the same spot.

There appears to be some grounds for this unusual tale, based on historical fact.  The bishop’s secretary at that time was Thomas Alcott, who set down details of the case in a letter, and certainly there was an account set down by Joseph Glanville, Chaplain-in-Ordinary to Charles II.  There were minor variations, but in the main, the story remained the same.

There is a postscript.  In the autumn of 1973, the author received a call from an elderly lady who, passing by the church at Drumbeg in the early evening, saw a man’s head bobbing up and down inside the old churchyard wall.  “He appeared to be trotting on a horse,” she explained.  “He wore a coat with a tall collar.”  She did not stay to investigate further but fled to the safety of her car.  It is interesting to note that the front wall of Drumbeg Church today would approximate to the location of the road from Drumbridge to Mallon that had been frequented by both Taverner and Haddock.  This witness was quite convinced that she had seen James Haddock, whose body lay beyond the wall.

Down Patrick (Dun Padraig: St. Patrick’s Fort) is an ancient and interesting town standing near where the widening River Quoile enters Strangford Lough.  Here in the chruchyard of the Church of Ireland Cathedral is an enormous block of granite that traditionally covers Saint Patrick’s grave.  In fact the old rhyme says: “Three saints one grave do fill, Patrick, Brigid, and Columcille.”

Near to Down is the little townland of Saul, a site given by the chieftain Dichu for Patrick to build his first church.  Outside the town is a stretch of road haunted, it is said, by an old woman in a shawl and a phantom coach.  Three Mile Hill is haunted by two children, believed to be famine victims.  And then there are the gates of Finnebrogue House.

These famous gates once adorned the chief entrance to the house, not far from Inch Abbey on the banks of the Quoile.  All that may be seen of them now are two crumbling stone pillars standing behind the present wall of the demesne.  The present entrance to the house has been moved a few yards down the road, leaving the gates to stand alone amid a tangle of shrub and weed.

Local legend has it that the stones used to make the gates were taken from the ruined abbey of Inch, and from the moment that the gates were hung on the pillar stones things started to go wrong.  The first curious event was that the gates refused to hang properly.  Workmen would erect them one day and the next day would find them lying on the ground.  Keeping guard to watch for the culprits responsible proved fruitless, for under the astonished eyes of watchers the gates detached themselves!

Trying to persuade horses to pass through them was a wasted effort, and many a gentleman had to dismount and throw his coat over his horse’s head in order to walk the frightened animal through the gates.  Eventually, the masters of Finnebrogue House bowed to the unknown power and the gates were abandoned and a new entrance built.  The fact that the stone had come from a sanctified spot was cited by local people as the reason for these strange disturbances.

A more recent report surfaced on an event that took place at Inch Abbey itself.  Inch was founded in 1187 by John De Courcy, a Norman knight, on the site of an older Celtic monastery.  It was occupied, at De Courcy’s behest, by monks from Furness Abbey in Yorkshire.  Here in this beautiful and tranquil spot on the river bank the Cistercian community cultivated its land and tended its flocks in one of the most revered sites in Ireland.  For many years they spent their days in prayer and thanksgiving, until the dark days came and the abbey lay desolate.  Yet here is still a sense of peace and tranquility among its ancient stones.

In the late summer of 1980 two visitors were strolling about the abbey ruins and enjoying the sights and sounds of the river, occasionally stopping to look across the fields to where the spire of Down Cathedral could be seen.  The husband, a keen photographer, was taking shots of the ruins and was standing with his back to the river to get a good angle; his wife was standing at the water’s edge, admiring a family of swans.  While she watched the swans, a small boat came round the curve of the bank, and on board were three men.  They were sailing about one hundred yards off shore; two of the men were seated while the third, half standing in the stern, was trailing a piece of rope in the water.  The boat appeared to be drifting with a prevailing current.

The wife watched the boat idly as it crossed her line of vision and then sailed gently around the edge of a small grassy island.  She found herself speculating on what the men were doing and, turning, tried to catch her husband’s attention.  “I wonder what they’re fishing for?” she queried.  “They seem a bit close in.”

“Who’s a bit close in?” asked her husband, giving the river a cursory glance.

“The men in the boat, of course!” responded the wife with an exasperated edge to her voice.  Her husband looked mystified.  “What boat?  What men?  What on Earth are you talking about?”

She could see the tail end of the boat just disappearing out of sight behind a grassy headland.  The wife gave a snort of disbelief.  “Have you gone blind, or what?  That boat over there!”

“I can’t see a boat,” replied her husband, a trifle nettled by her tone.  “There’s no boat or men.  I can only see the river.”

Without replying the wife hurried along the river bank to a vantage point where she was bound to see the boat emerging from around the headland.  But the river was empty; no boat, no men.  Nothing.

Ahead of the woman two elderly men were strolling along the river bank.  The woman ran up to them.  “I’m sorry for troubling you,” she said, “but can you tell me, did you notice a small boat a moment ago, out there?”  And she indicated the spot where she had first seen it.  The men looked puzzled.  “A boat?  What boat, we never saw any.”  “I can’t have imagined it,” the woman blurted out.  “It was real, solid, and so were the men!”  She described what she had seen and added, “They were dressed in sort of grayish woolen jersey.  I could see that they nearly reached their knees.  One was standing up, he had a rope in his hand, while the other two were sitting down.  I thought they were fishing.”  The older of the two men looked at her a trifle oddly and said, “Ah well now, maybe it was the brothers you saw fishing.  A wee bit of fish for the supper, likely.”  He smilingly refused to elucidate further but winked at his companion.  The man and his wife turned away, still confused at what the woman woman had seen.

Some months later the same couple were attending a meeting on local folklore, when they got into conversation with the speaker for the evening and they told her about the “three men in a boat.”  She became quite excited.

“How extraordinary!” she declared.  “You are not going to believe this, but I had an almost identical experience at Inch.  I saw a boat with three men in it that I took to be fishing.  Just like you, I drew my husband’s attention to it, only for him to say, “What boat!”  I knew he wasn’t pulling my leg.  He really could not see it.”

The two women began to confirm details about the men’s clothes, and the lecturer suggested that what they had thought were “jerseys” could have been the top half of cassocks, and the “rope” in one of the men’s hands could have been a girdle.  Neither woman had heard any noises from the boat and it had had no distinguishing features.

The interesting slant on this event was that this was a perfect example of someone experiencing an event which, had they not mentioned it to another person, they might never have known that they were seeing an apparition.  It makes it doubly interesting that another person could confirm the sighting and gives added weight to the view that many people will declare that they have never had a paranormal experience simply because the experience was so “normal” that they would not have had any reason to question it.  One wonders how many other visitors to Inch Abbey had seen “the three men in a boat” on other occasions.

One associates hotels with the quiet clinking of glasses and the hum of conversation in the bar.  While the Slieve Donard has no history of the paranormal, there is a bar in nearby Holywood, county Down, that had quite a lively “visitor.”  Chiccarinos Bar was a popular and thriving restaurant, but it had inherited a poltergeist along with the bar room fitting.  Both management and guests would hear voices and noise coming from rooms that were unoccupied.  Some mornings bottles would be found half-empty, and yet the bar staff could swear to cleaning up the bar thoroughly the night before.  This practice extended more worryingly to the kitchens and the gas appliances, which were sometimes found turned on, even after they had been twice checked.

The bar had once been part of the old Lynch’s hotel, but was sold as a separate establishment and the communicating doors to the rest of the building closed off.  The paranormal disturbances began almost before the new owner had had a chance to open the doors.  Most of the staff could attest to unusual happenings and were reluctant to go up to the storerooms after dark.

While it was true that none of the incidents were harmful, there was a potential for physical injury.  Staff had plates and tumblers hurled at them and a crate of cordials were knocked over in a disused passage and the contents hurled down the stairs.  One morning the member of staff deputed to open up could not get in the door, as “someone had stacked crates against it from inside.”

One of the more amusing incidents might lead one to speculate on the gender of the unwelcome guest, because after the bar was closed at night and before the owner or his wife had left the building, they would hear the toilets in the “Gents” being flushed not once but several times.  The owner’s wife explained to a reporter, when asked if she had investigated the incidents, that she was “too much a lady” to go peering about the Gents loo!  It did have a social conscience, however, for sometimes “someone” would carry the cleaner’s materials from the Ladies to the Gents to help the early morning cleaner on her way.

Grey Abbey, County Down, was, like Inch, the site for a daughter house to an English community in the twelfth century.  In 1193 Affreca, daughter of the King of Man and wife to John De Courcy, founded a community at Grey Abbey, a daughter house to Holme Cultrum Abbey in Cumbria.  Located seven miles from Newtownards on the Strangford peninsula, it was a beautiful and well constructed building that would rival her husband’s foundation at Inch.

By the time the wars of Edward the Bruce were over the abbey was controlled by the O’Neills of Clandeboye, and when the infamous dissolution of the abbeys took place in 1541, Grey Abbey was but a shadow of its former self.  It was burned down in 1573 and only rescued from complete decay when the property was granted to Sir Hugh Montgomery in 1607.  Thankfully, at this time the roof was restored and the building established as a parish church.  For those visitors interested in architecture, there is a beautiful and elaborate thirteenth century west door, and a fine triple lancet window over the high altar.  Included in the buildings were a chapter house and cloister, day-room, parlor and kitchen offices.  In all respects it was a typical Cistercian house.

It is self-evident that Grey Abbey exudes a certain tranquility that can often be found in such locations.  There is none of the brooding, sinister atmosphere to be sensed at monastic ruins elsewhere, for example at Quin Abbey, County Clare.  As one visitor remarked, a “holy calm” pervades Grey Abbey.  Nor does it have a long or harrowing paranormal history.

There are two incidents, however, worth mentioning.  In the early 1960s, a photographer taking pictures in the cloisters suddenly became aware that he was being “watched.”  Turning his head slowly, he saw, standing in the shadow of an archway, a young man clad either in black or dark brown garments.  In his arms was what looked like a parcel of books bound with a strap.  He was quite well-defined, although the photographer got the impression of a certain wispyness about the edge of the figure.  The encounter only lasted a few moments; then the figure walked out of sight.  The photographer made a valiant effort to get a shot of the figure, but when the film was developed only the archway appeared clearly.  In its center there was a fuzzy darkness.

The second manifestation was quite unexpected.  One evening a friend of the author was waiting for a companion as they strolled about the abbey ruins.  He saw on the path to the west door a trio of ladies in full length gowns.  As they walked towards him they were chatting together, and the color of these figures was a misty grey.  While the witness was collecting his senses, the figures simply faded away into a mist.  His impression of them from a distance was that they were real people.  Not having had an experience like this before, he was ill equipped to observe them in detail, but he did get the impression that the costumes worn dated from the early nineteenth century.  “Perhaps they were earlier visitors to the abbey,” he conjectured, “or a time slip.”


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