Ghost stories: When things go bump in the night Northern Ireland style
Northern Ireland is a hotbed for all sorts of unearthly creatures - and not just ghosts, according to a new book on our most-haunted locations.
Just in time for a good Halloween fright, Una Brankin meets the author known as Lily Rooney... and hears a few hair-raising tales.
It seems the thirst for the paranormal has become unquenchable all over the world in recent years. The satellite TV channels are full of ghost hunts and more celebrities than ever before are willing to admit to spectral experiences.
Singer Meat Loaf is the latest star to be interviewed for the American hit series Celebrity Ghost Stories, relating his terrifying story about a haunted recording studio, and the US X Factor judge Demi Lovato this week revealed that she regularly saw the ghost of a little girl called Emily in her Texas family home.
Books on the paranormal are popular, too. Within a week of its publication, a tale of the paranormal from the Belfast shipyards became number one on Amazon's free download chart.
The success of Slipways, A Ghost Story from the Shipyard of the Titanic, encouraged its author to set up a website and Facebook page dedicated to the sharing of ghost stories.
In turn, his online venture has become so popular that he has just published his second book, Northern Ireland's Most Haunted Places, featuring spooky yarns from all over Ulster.
"Some of the stories I get sent about ghosts and demons are so vivid they make the hair stand up on the back of my neck when I'm reading them," says the writer who goes under the female pseudonym of Lily Rooney.
"Because we're steeped in a long history of conflict and bloodshed, Northern Ireland is the perfect location for only the most serious ghosts. Negative energy hangs about, in places like the Crumlin Road Gaol, for example, which has a lot of paranormal activity."
"Lily Rooney" is a successful digital marketing expert from Holywood, Co Down who prefers to remain anonymous, given the scepticism that greets his hobby.
He has been intrigued by the paranormal since his grandmother, Nanny Peg, began telling him ghost stories as a child. They included the one from the Titanic slipways, about a Robert Hill who was working lonely nights on slipway number two at Harland and Wolff shipyard in 1910, guarding the half-built Titanic, when he began to hear disembodied voices in the river mist.
The story of the shipyard haunting is quite creepy, but tame in comparison to some of the frights detailed in Northern Ireland's Most Haunted Places.
"There's one in the book, about some sort of gnome in Crawfordsburn Country Park," says Lily. "I was sure it was a wind-up when I read it. It sounded ridiculous, but it came from a sensible, 45-year-old woman who didn't seem nuts. She said her dog is still petrified to go for a walk in the park.
"And then, two days later, I got another report of someone seeing a strange little man there. There was no connection between the two people who'd seen it, and next thing, a friend of a friend said they'd seen the same thing, and they hadn't heard about the other two sightings. That was very hard to explain."
Although he greets some of the more outlandish stories sent to him with a degree of scepticism, the author has had his own paranormal experience
"I grew up in Bangor and as kids we used to play at the old hospital which is now apartments," he recalls. "One day I got locked in a room - I was 11, or 12 - and I thought I saw something move, out of the corner of my eye.
"So, I turned around and this white, sort of translucent figure - it's hard to describe - was coming towards me. It had no face and no defined form; it was like a silhouette. The temperature had dropped and it seemed to take about four steps towards me before it disappeared. It was very unnerving."
"Lily" hasn't seen an apparition since, but feels he has a sixth sense.
"I do have a feeling when something is going to go well or go bad," he says. "I believe we all have a sixth sense, whether it's a Guardian Angel, or a guide prompting us. And that feeling of deja-vu, or of someone watching you - I think in 50 years from now all that will be scientifically proven to have a paranormal basis."
He's referring to the fact that physicists have measured precisely the conservation of energy - which we are, in essence - and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. As Kathryn Clarke, widow of the former Belfast Telegraph political editor Liam Clarke, wrote recently, quoting celebrated physicist Aaron Freeman: "According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly."
Says "Lily": "I think both the scientific and public perception of the paranormal has changed. Five or six years ago, the only show you'd find on the subject on TV was Most Haunted. Now there are loads on, especially American ones. It has become more mainstream.
"The Belfast Cathedral Quarter stories are very interesting. There has been a lot of reports of figures from the 1800s appearing there over the last couple of years. Until about five years ago, the area was virtually unchanged but it is being transformed by development, and that often sparks paranormal activity. Images of the past re-emerge."
Despite the growing interest in spooky goings-on, there's no financial gain for Lily in the ghost stories web-site, and the £4.99 for his book on Amazon will cover only the costs for hosting the site for a year.
Some of the stories in the book are recent; others have passed from one generation to the next are now being shared online.
"Grandparents told their children, who told theirs, who will tell theirs," the author concludes. "Today's children are plugged into the internet like never before, making it possible for their grandparents' stories to be heard for the first time by those outside their family.
"A lot of people like the idea of the paranormal. Personally, it terrifies me. I've been warned, because it's my hobby, that I could attract negative energies. But I'm so fascinated by it all, I'll risk it."
- Northern Ireland's Most Haunted Places by Lily Rooney is available on Kindle from Amazon, priced £4.99
Dark Hedges: the ghost of The Grey Lady
BOOK EXTRACT 1
The famous Dark Hedges at Stranocum on the Bregagh Road near Armoy, is said to be haunted by a ghost known as The Grey Lady, who hides along the gaunt piece of road in the timeworn beech trees, only to reveal herself at dusk. Some believe the ghost is a maid impregnated and abandoned by one of the Stuarts, the 18th century local landowners.
Northern Ireland's Most Haunted Places includes the following terrifying account from a woman who encountered the Grey Lady late one night while out driving with her husband.
My husband and I were driving along Bregagh Road a couple of years ago. It was dark but not yet midnight, and we were lost. It wasn't until we saw the tunnel of beech trees that we knew where we were. But our car suddenly skidded out of control and we were about halfway through when my husband finally got it under control and pulled off to the side of the road.
I'd driven through The Dark Hedges before, but never this late.
It was scary enough in daylight. In the dark, it was almost unbearable.
Creepy is too kind a word for this place.
Maybe it was just my imagination, but the air felt thick under the trees, like trying to breathe through a heavy fog.
The car was up on the jack and I was trying to hold the flashlight steady when a bug flew into my eye and I dropped it. The light went out and my husband scrambled over the ground, searching for the flashlight in the pitch blackness that surrounded us.
It was then that we heard a noise. It was like a low whistling sound, almost like a deep train whistle from far away. A strange buzz began to surround us. I could feel it on my skin, like a warm electric current caressing my face.
Suddenly, a strange, grey mist descended on us. It glowed, giving off just enough light to see what was happening. A thin, pale woman emerged from between the trees. Her eyes flashed with anger. I couldn't see her feet.
It looked like she was floating above the ground as she moved slowly towards us. Her eyes were black. My husband screamed and started running for the entrance to the tunnel. I followed behind him.
We didn't get far. He tripped and fell over something in the dark. The woman descended on him. My husband was screaming, terrified, as she reached out and grabbed his wrist, pulling him up off the ground. He tried to get away, but she refused to let go.
I realised that his feet weren't touching the ground - he was literally dangling in the air. She leaned in close to him. I saw her lips brush his ear as she whispered something only he could hear. His face went white. Then she let go and he fell to the ground. She sailed back into the trees and disappeared.
I saw her handprint burned into his wrist. I asked him what she'd whispered, but he wouldn't tell me. He wouldn't even talk to me. He finished changing the tyre in silence.
Two years have gone by, and it wasn't until a few days ago that my husband finally told me what she'd said. He looked at me in our bedroom, the fear as fresh in his eyes as it had been that night.
"She told me, when I died, I would be hers."
I giggled. "You're not going to die for a long time," I told him. "And even when you do, I doubt you'll be hers. She just wanted to scare you."
He grew even paler.
"Did she say something else?" I asked, getting a strange feeling now. He nodded and took a deep breath. "She said, '40 isn't that far away.' "
My husband turns 40 next week."
Friar’s Bush Cemetery: a crying baby
BOOK EXTRACT 2
Historic Friar's Bush Cemetery in Stranmillis, Belfast is known as one of the most haunted places in Northern Ireland. Of the many local who have shared their ghost stories with "Lily Rooney", one former resident's stood out as the most chilling.
I used to live near Friar's Bush Cemetery. I hated the place. It was old and creepy. There was always a strange mist that hung in the air that made me shiver whenever I walked past it. I didn't care how historic it was, I thought they should tear it down.
One rainy day, I was sitting on my couch, drinking a glass of wine and reading a book. The sound of the rain thumped on my roof, but there was a moment, around nine, when it let up.
The wind still howled though, and through its cries I could distinctly hear a baby's wail. I sat up, listening. None of my neighbours had small children and I didn't know who would take their child out in this weather. I kept listening, my ears perked, but the sound had faded.
I relaxed once more into my book and it was almost 11pm before I finally closed it to go to bed. I had just lay down in bed when I suddenly heard the baby's wail again, louder, and closer. I sat bolt upright, my heart thumping as hard as the rain now.
This time, the sound did not fade. The baby's cries echoed again and again, hurting my ears. Finally, I couldn't take it. I put my raincoat on over my pyjamas and grabbed my umbrella and went outside to see what kind of ninny had taken their baby out for a stroll in this rain.
The night was horrendous. The rain was cold and beat hard against me as I followed the sound of the baby - to the gate to Friar's Bush. I wanted to go back home but what if there was a child in the cemetery, left by some idiot who wanted to get rid of it? I couldn't go home without checking. I walked into the cemetery and began searching for the source of the cries. They led me to an old, twisted tree that the local kids called Friar's Thorn. It was like something out of an evil fairy tale, bent and twisted.
It was pitch-black and all I could hear was wind and rain and this baby's cries. Suddenly, I felt something at my ankle. I looked down and saw a dark blob at my feet. It looked like black jelly, except more creamy than gelatinous. There was no real form to it, except an ill-defined circle atop a longer oval-ish mass. It reached towards me with what I think were its hands, though it was hard to tell. I shrieked and jumped back, tripping over the tree's roots.
The mass slithered towards me while I lay there, panting. In the centre of the black form, that I think was its head, a hole opened up. I don't know how to describe it except to say that it was a light grey hole with streaks of red, like blood, running through it. A long, high-pitched baby's wail blasted from the hole, so loud it made my eyes water.
I stood up and ran. When I got back to my house, I turned on every light and locked every door and window. I listened to that thing crying for me all night long. It was the last night I ever spent in that house."
Crawfordsburn Country Park: animalistic screams
BOOK EXTRACT 3
Past caretakers of scenic Crawfordsburn Country Park, on the coast between Bangor and Holywood, have reported strange animalistic sounds screamed at them through the trees, disembodied voices calling their names through the wooded glens, doors slammed shut and dark figures hovering over their beds in the dead of night.
Here's one of three spooky stories about the park from Northern Ireland's Most Haunted Places, from a dog-walker who was left terrified:
It was a nice day and I decided to walk up to the waterfall. There wasn't anyone else around so I let Maurice, my four-year-old Labrador, off his leash. He ran ahead of me and when I rounded a corner, I saw he had stopped and was growling with anger at some ordinary-looking bushes.
He just stood there, his tail straight up in the air, his back hunched. Goose-pimples broke out on my arms. Something wasn't right. The air began to change. It was suddenly colder than it had been just a moment before.
A strange sound erupted from the bushes, like a hiss, as if someone had just let air out of a tyre. Maurice began to bark and I moved to grab him. That was when I finally saw it. I don't know how to describe it, except as a gnome. It was standing about 10 feet away from us.
It was about three feet tall and very ... dark. I don't mean its skin, which was pale and kind of greasy looking. I mean it emanated a strange, negative energy. I could feel it in the air. I could smell it, like rotting meat.
I tried to convince myself that it was just a child in a fancy dress, but then I noticed its teeth.
They were razor sharp and a horrible brown colour. It had a red, bulbous nose and large, deep-set eyes.
It smiled at me, purposefully exposing every point of those tiny, razor teeth.
Then the gnome began to laugh. This wasn't a regular laugh, but a deep cackle. It bubbled out of him, thick and evil, hurting my ears. I was terrified and frozen to the spot.
Its eyes were dark, almost black, and they were huge. I watched as it walked into some bushes by the waterfall and disappeared. I quickly grabbed Maurice before he could chase after it, and got him back on his lead. We ran back to my car and left.
I'm still having nightmares about that thing and can still hear its laugh."