Leap Castle is one of Ireland’s oldest structures, and it’s featured in many modern resources as Ireland’s most haunted castle. Leap has one of the most fascinating and well-established structural histories in the country.
Names for the castle include Castle Leap, Leap Castle, Leim Ni Bhanain, Leamyvannan, and O’Bannon Leap. The original tower was built either in 1250 or 1514, possibly by patriarch Ely O’Carroll. Old texts state that the land belonged to the O’Carrolls even as far back as the 600s. Many historic sources state construction occurred in 1250. One legend states it was named after an abbot in Roscrea, four miles north of Leap, who died in 1128.
Another popular legend regarding its construction claims the name developed from two competing O’Bannon brothers. Both wanted the fertile land for their stronghold, so they decided to jump from the nearby mountainous rock. Whoever survived would be the victor and lord of the estate, hence the name “O’Bannon’s Leap.”
After the Norman invasion, land ownership exchanged hands often between the O’Carrolls and the surrounding Butlers and Fitzgeralds. The centuries of fighting over the fertile land ended when the O’Carrolls not only reclaimed it, but also obtained a royal patent for the land.
Whatever the origins of the structure, archeologists discovered a second stone site beneath the castle. An unknown structure once existed there, believed to be a public structure or ancient stone house. Anthropologists note the area has been perpetually inhabited since at least the Iron Age (500 BC), perhaps even during Neolithic times.
By the Seventeenth Century, a legend emerged that the castle was built by the Danes prior to the English invasion. The reasons given for this assumption was the masonry techniques used. Pre-Normal arches, narrow defense holes for arrows and javelins, and walls that ranged from 15 to 25 feet in thickness. According to this account, the O’Carrolls constantly wrestled the castle from Danish clutches. A proclamation from 1154 stated Henry II granted a portion of Ely O’Carroll’s property to Theobald de Walter, but de Walter only obtained a lower portion of the kingdom.
It should be noted that this is not a positive indicator because the castle’s wings were added much later on. The arched embellishments could’ve just as easily been added during renovation.
The Families Involved
The O’Bannon clan was “secondary chieftains.” In essence, they were primarily members of the O’Carroll clan and subject to their rule. Ely O’Carroll is often referred to as the castle’s original builder and patriarch of the O’Carroll clan. The O’Carrolls gained a notorious reputation for their thievery, particularly when it came to sheep. They became notorious for brutality and murder.
The Darby family came into ownership of Leap via marriage or via royal order, depending upon which source you consult. Captain Jonathan Darby was the original Darby to possess Leap. The Darby family held onto the castle until the Twentieth Century.
Note: Another common legend was that all children raised in Leap were forever “ghost proof.” No supernatural activity anywhere in the world could frighten or disturb them.
The original structure has changed throughout the centuries. The main tower house is the original part of the castle. Over time, more was slowly added to the structure. The wings were added a few centuries later. It is ironic that the eldest portion of the castle remains in the best condition, because the “newer” wings fell into ruin.
The castle underwent extensive expansion in the Seventeenth Century and another major renovation in the Nineteenth Century. To date, the castle has survived sieges, fires, and cannon fire.
The castle is privately owned today and the family is heavily involved in the structure’s restoration.
Note: The original structure sits beside a mountain called “Knockshigowna,” which came to be known as the, “hill of the fairies.”
Many paranormal groups today believe Leap Castle was constructed in AD 800. This is not true. The original structure was built in Thirteenth Century at the earliest, or the Sixteenth Century if you consult modern references. Legends say the O’Carroll family members were all giants and this is why so much of the castle is so large.
Plague swept through the area in the Fifteenth Century. John O’Carroll succumbed to the disease in 1489, and several accounts say he died at Leap. Hundreds of corpses in the surrounding land were left unburied because no gravediggers remained.
Gerald Fitzgerald, the 8th Earl of Kildare, and Lord Deputy of Ireland, set his sights on Leap in 1513. He laid siege to Leap in hopes of thwarting an O’Carroll uprising. His attempts failed and he retreated to obtain new forces.
He returned three years later to attempt to overtake Leap. Unfortunately, most in the region hated him almost as much as the O’Carrolls. Fitzgerald stopped to water his horse, when a member of the O’Moore clan noticed him. He shot the earl.
It remains unknown if the O’Moore was an ally of the O’Carrolls, or the Butlers. Fitzgerald had also accused fellow Lord Deputy, and rival, Sir Piers Butler with lending the O’Carroll clan a cannon to use against him. The accusations were debunked, but the public attack was enough to stir animosity.
Mulroony O’Carroll died at Leap in 1532. His death signified the end to the family unity that had existed within their clan. Suddenly, relatives began seeking power for themselves. His son, Fergainainm, or “Ferg,” took over leadership after Mulroony’s death. The inheritance was protested by a senior family member, who also had possession of Birr, possibly the one Ferg was rumored to have murdered at the dinner table. The O’Carrolls’ primary castle sat a few miles from Leap, in Birr. Birr Castle, first constructed in 1170, was O’Carroll castle from the Fourteenth through the Seventeenth Centuries.
Ferg enlisted the help of his father-in-law, the next Earl of Kildare, and the ensuing battle left many wounded and four dead. Involving others didn’t offer a great deal of help. Ferg was murdered in 1541, by the O’Mulloys.
With Ferg gone, the time had come for his son, “One-Eyed Tiege,” to assumed control. Teige’s many exploits included inviting a number of family members from a rival branch of the family to dinner in the guise of peace. He massacred them all.
The O’Carroll ownership was not to last. Due to constant warring within the clan, the door opened for new ownership. Most accounts go straight from the O’Carrolls to the Darby family, but there are historic mentions of several owners in between them. Lord Leonard Gray took over the castle in 1537. Lord Justice, Earl of Sussex, took possession from Gray in 1557. The castle was deliberately set on fire in 1558, a move to prevent Elizabethan forces from capturing it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work.
Ownership of the castle was lost in 1620, when Sir William Parsons obtained the grant for the castle and its respective village from King James I. Parsons renovated castle, enlarged the structure, and made numerous improvements to the town. Renovation didn’t come cheap, he raised the rent on all his tenants to pay for it, and many resented him for it. He was charged with treason in 1643, imprisoned, and died there in 1650.
Note: This may be where history becomes muddled through various sources. Like the information about Leap, the O’Carrolls lost Birr to the Parsons in 1620. So, were the sources confused, or did two different Parsons actually come to possess two different castles? Sir Laurence Parsons obtained possession of Birr, while William Parsons obtained Leap, both in 1620. Laurence completely rebuilt Birr Castle, while William performed a series of total renovations on Leap.
Captain Jonathan Darby assumed ownership sometime between 1649 and 1659. Some sources say there was a marriage between Captain Darby and one of the O’Carroll princesses. Other sources state Darby espoused the king’s cause during the Parliamentary Wars.
It is worthy of mention that Darby is recalled by most contemporary history states Darby was a soldier of Cromwell, who was granted Leap and its land in lieu of pay.
Older accounts offer conflicting information, accounts that the “Wild Captain Darby,” was actually targeted by Cromwell. In this version, Cromwell issued Darby an ultimatum: surrender in 24 hours, or he would bring the castle down.
Whatever the circumstances, Darby fled the castle, but not before he enlisted two servants to help him hide his wealth throughout the structure. When the hiding was done, he sent one servant away while he pushed the other from the battlement. He then found the other servant and murdered him with his sword. He also killed the messenger that provided Cromwell’s threat. Most historians believed he committed the murders so enemy soldiers couldn’t torture or coerce the servants into revealing where the wealth was hidden.
Unfortunately, Darby’s fate was already sealed, regardless of the murders. He was soon arrested for high treason and imprisoned at Birr. Due to his status as a noble, he was reprieved several times before he was eventually pardoned. Unfortunately, by the time he was pardoned, he’d suffered irreversible damage from imprisonment, both physically and psychologically. His legs had “mortified.” Mortification is a common term used throughout history for prolonged gangrene, when necrosis sets in. Darby’s legs had become gangrenous, to the point that they were dead. The only words he could speak were, “My money.” He remained unable to tell anyone where it was hidden.
Charles I gave Leap back to the O’Carrolls in 1664 for their loyalty. His son, Charles II, reversed the decision, and the property came back to the Darbys, who held control over Leap until the Twentieth Century.
In 1898, an intensive series of renovations were ongoing at the castle and mysterious discoveries ensued. Among them, a stone spiral staircase that was 100 feet long was found behind a brick wall. It ascended from the first floor to the top of the great tower.
Another find was an entrance to an unknown guardroom. Builders cut into what they believed was a solid stone wall and found a door, the areas within were a dungeon. The rooms within held many human bones.
Perhaps most bizarrely, they also found coins from Edward the Confessor’s era, which was 1042 through 1066. They also discovered flints and spearheads. Could the workers have stumbled into a dungeon area from the original stone structure? This suggests that the original structure, before Leap, was a castle, as well.
The Nineteenth Century saw many new revelations about Leap. It was finally released that one of the state bedrooms was so active that female servants could not stay within its confines. One of the O’Bannon princesses was murdered in the room, by her own father, around four centuries earlier. Could the murderous and power-hungry Tiege have turned his craze towards his own children? The princess’s blood had stained the oak hardwood floor and no amount of cleaning could wash away the discoloration. Over time, the room became particularly active with events attributed to the paranormal.
The large dungeons beneath the keep were likewise opened and explored. Workmen discovered many other bricked up passages and rooms that had been sealed off for centuries. Bodies were likewise found throughout these dismal realms.
Just before dawn on July 30, 1922, eleven arsonists set the castle ablaze. It destroyed the largest wing, the North wing, and all contents within it. Sadly, one of the most historic structures on the island was one of the victims in the Irish Civil War.
The castle remained in the Darby family until 1974, when it went to the Bartlett family. It exchanged hands again in 1991, and today the Ryan family still owns the property as a private residence.
The Bloody Chapel
The ancient chapel was restored around the 1890s. The roof caved in during the early Nineteenth Century. They found a large, orate English window that had been hidden for decades. The chapel contained a little room that no servants would enter. The chapel was also a victim of the 1922 burning, and all that remained was a burned-out shell. Passers-by still noticed (and often reported) strange lights, sounds, and smells from the little structure.
The chapel earned its name from Teige O’Carroll, notorious clan leader. O’Carroll’s brother was a priest. He was conducting mass with the family. Teige, obsessed with the leader position in the clan, burst into the service and murdered his brother in front of his family members. His brother fell across the alter and died.
The chapel was considered desecrated after the murder. Reports of the spirit of Teige’s brother walking around the chapel have been around since the murder.
One corner of the chapel contained the oubliette. This spring-loaded door led to a chamber that was opened at the turn of the Twentieth Century to reveal a scene of slaughter. Workmen removed three carts of human bones from the bottom of the pit, as well as a variety of watches and relics.
The O’Carroll family is said to have employed a number of mercenaries to keep rival clans where they wanted them, which usually meant murder. Once the task was completed, the mercenary was invited to the castle for a dinner. He was poisoned, his throat cut, and his body dumped down the oubliette. Groups by the tens were said to have met the same fate, in the same way, during the O’Carroll reign. One old legend states nearly 40 members of the McMahon clan were disposed in the oubliette, at the same time.
Leap is rich in reports of paranormal activity. This should be expected from any structure with such history or such savage events. Even in the Nineteenth Century, reports surfaced of what visitors and owners had encountered. Voices were a common manifestation, as were sounds of fighting or struggling, the echoes of someone being forcibly dragged across the floor, sounds of someone being thrown into a deep pit, followed by screaming.
It is also said no direct heir ever inherits the castle. Misfortune befalls whatever family owns the property, and then a phantom sheep appears and scratches at the door. This signifies the property will soon change hands due to tragedy.
Human apparitions are reported to be rare, but activity is common: books open and pages turn by themselves, doors slam open or close, often echoing throughout the castle. Bells ring, locks are thrown, lights appear at all times, the sounds of women whispering, or cruel laughter. Sometimes visitors hear sobbing.
Mildred Darby was the primary reason Leap received so much attention. Mildred claimed she witnessed a creature at Leap around the turn of the Twentieth Century. She said it was a horrific, sheep-like creature with a horrible stench emanating from it. This was the start of what would become known as the “Elemental.”
The Murder Hole Room, also called the “Muckle Hole,” at Leap was reported to be haunted, but no one knows exactly where the room was or why it’s haunted. The only evidence of its existence came from Mildred Darby, herself. Perhaps Mildred deemed the Bloody Chapel was the “Murder Hole Room.”
The spirits of numerous children have been witnessed playing around the castle and its grounds. There’s also a legend about a “Red Lady,” that haunts the property. Is she a victim of the O’Carrolls’ brutality? Or could this be the O’Carroll princess murdered by her father?
There are also spirits of a Governess or “Nanny,” and an older gentleman who are frequently spotted in the castle. The governess seems to follow the children.
By 1908, the British Psychical Research Society had given up on locating a source of Leap’s activity. Editor William Snead stated it would take a book of writing to describe the supernatural events that had occurred there.
Leap is often said to be the home of an “Elemental” named “It.” What is this, you might ask? Good question, as most paranormal investigators can’t seem to agree on even a basic definition, despite throwing the term around. The use of the word often seems to be more for drama or effect, than truth or practicality.
Some investigators claim elementals are fairies, sprites, or brownies. Others claim it’s nature’s forces based on the elements of wind, water, earth, or fire. The term was created in the Seventeenth Century by an author with a strong interest in alchemy. Leap’s Elemental is said to be a druid curse, a malevolent force (which would make it a demon), a strange presence, a benevolent guardian, and countless other deities or supernatural species.
Based upon the available documentation, it’s far more logical and honest to say Leap is haunted, with a tremendous combination of both residual activity and intelligent activity. However, it is the same kind of activity found in other similar locations throughout the world. There is no overt “natural” force behind it, beyond what is found in other similar places. It should also be noted that after decades of living there, the current owner has never acknowledged an “Elemental,” or sinister force living in his castle. They do freely admit to witnessing apparitions and hearing supernatural sounds. There are no foul-smelling sheep monsters.
In actuality, Mildred Darby was noted for playing around with the occult. She routinely held séances and practiced automatic writing. Since it was the Victorian era, she likely experimented with Ouija boards, tea leaves, and tarot cards. Based upon her writings, she was somewhat excitable when it came to spirits at Leap. They appeared everywhere for her. A friend, who likewise dabbled in the occult, suggested it was an “Elemental” and Mildred took it for fact.
In hauntings around the world, most are exacerbated when the residents decide to “play” with the supernatural, as if it were a toy. They usually take no precautions, and have no respect for what they might unleash.
It’s unlikely that there is an “Elemental” at Leap, as we aren’t even certain of what it is, but it’s very probable that there is a significant amount of paranormal activity.
- Borderland: A Quarterly Review and Index, Vol. 3, William Thomas Snead, 1896
- Wanderings in Ireland, Michael Meyers Shoemaker, G. P. Putnam, 1908
- Walker’s Handbook of Ireland, James Godkin, 1873
- “Discoveries at Leap.” Natchitoches Populist [Natchitoches, LA] December 2, 1898
- Castles of Ireland, Constance Louisa Adams, Elliot Stock, 1904
- House Beautiful, Volumes 22-23, Hearst Corporation, 1908