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Why are these three successful NI women so convinced they've had a ghostly encounter...?

PR director Eleanor McGillie, from Caledon, fashion designer Sara O'Neill from the north coast and administrator Sandra Mortimer, from Drumsallen, talk to Stephanie Bell about their experiences with the supernatural

It's a topic that has always passionately divided opinion: do you - really - believe in ghosts? Most people tend to know which camp they fall into - either insisting they exist or dismissing the idea out of hand.

Certainly, in the past, some of those who have reported sightings of spooky apparitions and paranormal activity have been met with at best scepticism and at worst ridicule.

Yet the idea there may be something out there that we do not really understand clearly remains alluring, perhaps even more so now, according to recent research - a survey found that 34% of people in the UK believe in ghosts, with 9% claiming to have actually communicated with the dead.

And it may surprise you to discover that those who believe in the supernatural can include intelligent, grounded and, well, perfectly rational members of society.

Indeed, here three successful and respected local businesswomen tell us about their ghostly encounters...

Eleanor McGillie (41), from Caledon, was 18 when she saw her first ghost while staying in the halls of residence at Queen's University in Belfast. Eleanor is a former journalist and editor who is now director of her own public relations company MGMPR. She has one son Patrick (5). She says:

On my first year as a student at Queen's University I stayed in one of the old tower blocks called Ogilvie and it was haunted. I was on the seventh floor and shared a room.

It started with noises and things moving in the room. The wardrobes had those old metal hangers and at night you would hear them scraping against each other, as if they were being moved.

I'd also notice how pages in books sitting on the desk would move and the curtains would open and close. It totally freaked my roommate out and she left.

Apparently there is a small percentage of the population who can see, hear and smell ghosts and the rest can't.

I kept telling my friends what was happening, but no one would believe me.

One night I woke up and saw a figure of a student in the room. I can still see him clearly now. He was wearing an Aran jumper, light brown cord trousers and brown brogue shoes and he had ginger hair.

I didn't know what to do, so I hid under the quilt. Another time he appeared sitting at the end of the bed.

While it did freak me out a bit it didn't scare me, and I actually found something quite comforting about it.

Another night a group of us were revising and we decided to take a break and go up to the garage on the Malone Road. On our way back you could see the window of my room and I had left my window open and my curtains closed.

I looked up and I could see the ghost standing at the window. He had opened the curtains. There were about 15 of us and I told everyone and they all looked up and saw him.

He stood there opening the curtains and closing them again and opened the window. When I got up to the room my curtains were open again and my window closed. I was thankful my friends had seen him too.

I've had a few unusual experiences since then. And, yes, I know there are cynics and you can never convince a cynic.

There are people who believe in ghosts and people who don't. I just know what my experiences are and I totally believe them, as I have seen it with my own eyes, as well as smelling things and hearing things.

I am open-minded, and I know that other people saw the ghost at Queen's as well, and I've seen a shot, so to me ghosts are real."

Sandra Mortimer is an administrator with the Caledon Regeneration Project, who managed the restoration of the old Georgian courthouse in the town which is now offices and a conference centre. Sandra, who lives in Drumsallen and is married with two grown-up children, is convinced the building is haunted. She says:

The courthouse dates back to the 1820s and closed in the 1990s when it lay derelict for some years before it was fully restored by the Regeneration Project and reopened as offices in 2005.

We have three offices which we let out to local businesses and conference facilities for the community. I have been there for 11 years and I am very aware of the ghost in this building.

It is not a frequent apparition, it seems to lie dormant for long periods and usually makes its presence felt when something is changing or happening in the building, like decorating, or new tenants coming or going.

I have personally experienced it twice. Usually you get this really strong smell of old tobacco. It is not mellow but a very harsh and very intense smell, which is so strong you nearly get the sensation of smoke as well as the smell of smoke. Our building is a 'No smoking' one, so there is no obvious explanation for it. People have also experienced things being moved around. Some have locked their offices at night and come back the next morning to find things in places they hadn't left them.

One man had a very frightening experience late at night and left the building very suddenly.

That was the only time anyone reported seeing the ghost. He was on his own in the building when, through a pane of Perspex glass, he saw an outline of a person, but when he went to look there was no one there.

I've always treated the ghost with respect. It is obviously somebody who has been connected to the courthouse building in the past.

One sure thing is that if anyone mocks it, then pretty soon they will believe in it, as it usually will make its presence felt either with a very sharp temperature change or by moving things, or with the tobacco smoke smell.

We know it is definitely there and its strongest link seems to be with a room upstairs which used to have bars on the window and is probably where they held criminals. Maybe he or she was a service user of the old courthouse.

It is an old stone building and it is commonly believed that stone can almost hold memories from the past and some people are more susceptible to seeing things like that than others.

I think on balance the likelihood is, yes, there is some type of energy from the past that does linger in old buildings."

Fashion designer and illustrator Sara O'Neill had an unusual experience while out walking her dog Blyton near Dunluce Castle this month. Sara (34) lives on the north coast with her fiance, surfer Al Mennie (35). She says:

I love ghostly things and the supernatural is a massive inspiration for my designs. I am not easily spooked and while I have a healthy scepticism, I am also open-minded. I am realistic, too, and I think I would need some concrete evidence to believe in ghosts.

Having said all of that, what happened to me recently was really quite creepy.

We were out walking our dog Blyton near Dunluce Castle. The sun was starting to set and there was a lovely pinkness in the sky. I walked over to the fence to try and get pictures of it.

I had hopped over the fence and walked to the part of the castle where I could capture the prettiness of the sky behind the castle.

I found a spot to take the picture and was standing still when I just started to get shivers and my skin started crawling like crazy up and down my back and across my shoulders. It carried on for the whole time I was standing there, which was a few minutes.

I wasn't scared, but it was so creepy that I took the photographs and scooted out of the area. I wouldn't say it was terrifying, but it was certainly an interesting experience.

I think on some subconscious level my body had a reaction to something in that area, when all I was concerned about at the time was the sky being so pretty.

It wasn't really in my mind, it was a physical reaction, and it's interesting that another part of us can pick up on something that our brains aren't picking up on.

I would be down in that area all the time, because it is such an inspiring place and the banshee of Dunluce Castle inspired one of my prints. I had never stood in that particular spot before, though.

I also think the mind can be so powerful that it can play tricks on us. My old school was Dominicans in Portstewart and it was supposed to be haunted by a nun. I had school friends who said they saw the ghost.

I do believe there is something out there, something that we don't fully understand.

But I don't believe that every time someone says they have seen a ghost they have actually done so."

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