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Back in December 2009 I joined the Irish Paranormal Investigation crew for a poke around one of Ireland’s most haunted buildings. Here’s the piece I wrote for DIT Journalism Soc’s Skills to win the Bills feature writing competition.

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I had resisted the urge to start writing my introduction to the story in my head on the train down to Tullamore. That was good as the scene was practically setting itself. The wind threw a torrent of rain at me and hissed ominously in the nearby trees. My taxi bumped along the driveway, the headlight beams illuminating a spooky tunnel of branches around the road. The harsh neo-gothic edifice burst from its hiding-place in the trees and stared us down; its round turrets framing the door like a giant fireplace.

The Paranormal Research Association of Ireland (PRAI) was formed in 2004 with the aim of investigating unexplained phenomena using scientific methods. Tony Beattie, the group’s deputy head, said their first objective is “to find a rational explaination for a phenomenon.” He and Traze Shallow of the PRAI had organised the open investigation with the help of another group called the Irish Paranormal Investigation Crew (iPIC).

Charleville Forest Castle was constructed during the early 19th century by Sir Charles William Bury, the First Earl of Tullamore. It’s said the primordial oak forest that remains in the area was the site of druidic ceremonies. We heard stories of mass plague graves in which the infected were sometimes buried alive, as well as the gruesome torture of ‘undesirables’ in the cellars of the castle and Masonic rituals in the castle’s library. There is a violent, disturbing and mystical folklore surrounding the castle, and I was eager to know more.

The guests split into groups of five or so led by one or two of the investigators. Our first area to investigate was called the Red Room. The Jane Eyre reference is apt; this was a genuinely creepy place. A circular bedroom on the ground floor of the castle’s north turret, the walls are painted a bloody red and a brass chandelier hangs from the vaulted ceiling. It has been the site of reported paranormal phenomena on several previous occasions. One man claimed to have had a poker thrown at him while on an investigation there a few years ago. Another time, a sleeper in the room fled it in a panic in the middle of the night, convinced the tower was falling on his head.

We turned off the lights. The other teams radioed in to say they were in position. As Garret Byrne of the iPIC explained that the room was haunted by the spirit of an architect who preferred to be addressed formally as “Sir Robert”, we heard the sound of heavy, running footsteps upstairs in the Castle. The radio squalked into life the other two teams called in. “Was that youse?” came Traze’s voice. The answers were all negative. We’d all heard it, but nobody could explain it.

We asked Sir Robert to change the temperature of the room a number of times as a means of manifestation. Astonishingly, the temperature did indeed go up or down — according to our request — by a tenth of a degree or two.

“Sir Robert, the last time we came here you told us that there was an evil presence in this castle,” said Garret. “Sir Robert, should we be wary of the Shadow?”

There came a single knock from the corner behind me. “Sir Robert, is the Shadow nearby?”

Another knock came, quieter this time. “Sir Robert, is he in the room with us?”

We heard nothing but the rustle of pines outside and the sound of our breathing. We asked more questions, but got no response.

Our next location was the dungeon. This was supposed to be the haunt of a jailer named O’Reilly, or the Shadow. With a name that terrifying, it’s no surprise that many have reported being pushed or prodded in the dungeon. Garret issued a challenge: “I hear you’re a big man around here, O’Reilly,” he said, “Prove it.” We had set up a motion sensor in the doorway, but it remained mute. We experienced nothing at all in the dungeon proper but the sound of dripping water.

Things got weird as we poked around the kitchen. We heard a loud metallic clicking sound at the same time the two teams upstairs heard a loud crash, like scaffolding being thrown around. Then I felt like someone was gripping my forearms, and said so. Perhaps it was an ache from of sitting still in a cold room for a quarter of an hour plus an element of suggestion, and perhaps wishful thinking. Call it what you will, I felt something that I still can’t explain.

Sightings of a young girl wearing a blue dress are often reported in the castle. Children have said she held their hands as they went down the rickety wooden stairs. Harriet Bury died aged seven in a two-story plunge from the staircase in the southern corner of the Castle some 150 years ago. They say she was trying to slide down the banisters.

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At three AM we went looking for Harriet. Climbing the stairs, someone mentioned this hour of the night was considered the lowest ebb of the human psyche. The talk turned quickly to the fact that most deaths occurred around this time as well.

Two large statues of the Virgin Mary had been stowed in the nursery, along with piles of tents from the Castlepalooza music festival. Religious statues have something distinctly unnerving about them in any context, but in the freezing, moonlit nursery of a haunted castle at three in the morning, unnerving becomes rather scary.

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Scary becomes terrifying when one of the statues looks like it has been attacked with a broadsword. One of the Marys was missing her head and half her torso, which lay smashed on the floor. “I think someone threw a tantrum,” said Garret to the room in general. Perhaps all the talk of death frightened poor Harriet, because she just wasn’t coming out to play. Nor was anything else; after a final, fruitless round of investigation in the library we retired to our sleeping bags in front of the well-stoked fireplaces of the drawing-room.

The morning brought cold embers, cold breakfast, and a twist. The old Panasonic mini-cassette recorder I had used to record notes and quotes for this article was gone. The skeptic in me says I must have dropped it somwhere in the castle. The cynic in me says one of the others in the group took it. I haven’t decided, but Garret seemed to know something.

“Harriet,” he said, “Are you playing games with us?”

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