Saturday, 8 November 2014

Irish family ghosts

The first face-to-face encounter I had with Halloween was back in the mid-1980's, when 2 young boys came knocking on our front door after dark, with the words "Trick or Treat?"  My husband, who, despite his Irish heritage, knew nothing at all of the tradition, politely replied "no thank you" and closed the door.  Whereupon the little brats smashed our letterbox as they departed!

Growing up in Australia in the 1960's & 70's, Halloween was not something that was celebrated or even much acknowledged.  Our attention at that time of the year was focused on Guy Fawkes Night - November 5th. 
To us, Halloween was an American tradition, and as it began to catch on in Australia when my own children were young, I resisted it fiercely as yet another over the top Americanization of our culture.

It wasn't until 2007, when I visited Ireland and spent the month of October there, that I really became aware of and understood the origins of the Celtic tradition of Samhain, now celebrated as Halloween.  Samhain being the ancient festival which celebrated the end of the harvest and was the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest.  Halloween, or Hallowe'en, meaning the eve of Hallows, is the day before All Hallows Day or All Saints Day, which is a Christian festival celebrating the lives of all the Saints.  The interpretation of this varies between Christian denominations.  In its efforts to convert the population, the early Christian church found it easier to appropriate the existing celebrations and assign a new Christian meaning to them, rather than attempting to stamp out centuries-old traditions.

So this year, following another visit to Ireland, Halloween has prompted me to write about the ghosts uncovered in my Irish family...... and there are a few!

The first is my 6x great grandfather, Robert Kean or O'Cahane, known as Robin of Ross (c1675-1756).  Thomas Johnson Westropp (1860-1922) wrote in "A Folklore Survey of County Clare", about the spectre of a dog which haunted the road between Carrigaholt and Ross in the west of county Clare.  It was believed to be the spirit of Robin of Ross.  Why he would have taken that form and come back to haunt the area is not explained.  Perhaps because he converted to the Protestant religion and was therefore able to keep his lands.

Robin of Ross's 2x great granddaughter, and my 3x great aunt, Charlotte Hickman Keane (c1812-1893) writes in her diary in 1831 about the family's visit to Carrigaholt, where they would stay at Rahona Lodge.  On this visit in July of 1831, Charlotte writes that she has been given "the little back room inside the drawing room", known as the Dark Room by the servants, for the strange noises they heard coming out of it.  Charlotte reports that no ghost intruded on her, but she envied "the happy little ghost who was able to visit that darling little dark room whenever it liked."  It would be interesting to know if the current owners of Rahona Lodge have encountered that ghost of 180 years ago!

Charlotte's older brother Robert Keane, who became the owner of Rahona Lodge after the death of his father, died at his home in Dublin in December 1873.  His grand-daughter, my great-aunt Molly wrote down her mother's reminiscences of her father's life.  She records that on the evening before Robert Keane died, his daughter Annie "wept herself to sleep on a cushioned window seat in a room at the back of the house.  She awoke to find the room dark and the impression that something had awakened her.  Yes, there it was, a wild cry coming from the swamp land behind the house, and there she saw distinctly the form of a woman kneeling, with dark hair floating out behind her, and as she cried she wrung her hands.  Again and again the wild wailing cry came.  Then she disappeared, and Mother immediately thought - oh the Banshee is wailing for Father."

The banshee or bean-sidhe, is reported to mark the passing only of people whose names begin with 'O' or 'Mac'.   The original spelling of the name Keane was O'Cahane, or in Irish, ó Catháin.

The banshee made another appearance for the Keane family, when Charlotte's older sister, Jane Rutherford died in Dublin on 14 April 1875.  Her death was not unexpected, and her niece Amy Griffin writes of it in her 1875 diary.  Amy at the time is away from her Dublin home, and staying in Ennis with her Keane and Pilkington cousins.  She writes of the Keane family at Beechpark receiving a telegram advising them that "Aunt Jane" had passed away at 1 o'clock.  Amy tells how "Aunt Louey" (Louisa, wife of Marcus Keane) reported wakening that morning in expectation of hearing that Jane had died, because she had heard the banshee wailing under her window at midnight.  She described it as a strange sound which seemed to come from the air.  When she heard the same sound that day at midday, she was told the banshee would not be heard during the day unless it was at the hour of death.  The telegram confirmed the time of Jane's death as 1 o'clock.

Amy Griffin, my grandfather's 1st cousin, married at age 28 to the much older, 73 year old widower Dr. John Griffin of Kilkee.  Three years later, he died and she became a widow herself.  Amy's niece Dorothy Griffin has left some notes which record that Dr. Griffin had something wrong with a leg and consequently walked with a limp.  Dorothy reports that after his death, he was supposed to haunt The Baths, a lodge he had owned.  She writes that guests at the Baths often reported hearing someone with a lame leg thumping around the house at night.  She states that she stayed there in 1938 with her young daughter and a nurse - "the nurse heard him, and she hadn't been told about Dr. Griffin or his leg, so couldn't have imagined it."

So there are the ghosts of my Irish family!  or at least those who have been recorded.  If nothing else, they make great tales to pass on.


  1. Hi, I took a photo of Canon Vance’s headstone in Rathronan Cemetery, Limerick, Ireland.
    The headstone commemorates his son Charles Richard Griffin Vance on the Headstone.
    If you are interested I can send you the photograph, simply send me your email address.
    Regards, John.

  2. I have included your blog in Interesting Blogs in Friday Fossicking at

    thank you, Chris