Leap Castle has long been regarded as one of Ireland’s most notoriously haunted destinations. Located in Coolderry, County Offaly, Ireland, this historical structure has garnished worldwide attention and has been featured on a number of television shows catering to an audience with a fascination for the supernatural including Ghost Hunters and TV’s Most Haunted. But what is the history behind this infamous castle and what is at the root of its sinister reputation?
The dates related to the construction of Leap Castle are a bit ambiguous. Some say the castle was erected in the 12th century while others claim it came to exist in the 15th century. Whatever the timing of its origin, Leap Castle was built over an existing site previously occupied by druids who used the property for initiation ceremonies. Leap Castle was originally named Leim Ui Bhanain which means “Leap of the O’Bannons” which leads to the origin of its name and the calamitous circumstances surrounding it.
The O’Bannons were an affluent clan from County Tipperary. As the legend goes, two of the O’Bannon brothers were contesting the chieftainship of their family. In order to determine who would be reigning chief, the siblings challenged each other to leap from a rock where the castle was to be built. The sole survivor would not only govern the clan but also be responsible for the castle’s construction….and so began Leap Castle’s saga of bloodshed.
The O’Bannon rule over Leap Castle was not a long one, however, as the O’Bannons were subservient to the O’Carroll clan, a ruthless and domineering sect fueled by greed and power. The O’Carrolls’ seizing of Leap Castle launched a gruesome legacy of carnage that left a supernatural scar at the core of the castle’s menacing reputation. According to legend, many a massacre took place within the walls of Leap Castle at the hands of the O’Carroll clan.
When the chief of the O’Carroll clan died and left no successor, a dispute developed between his sons, Thaddeus and Teighe, over who would rule. Thaddeus was a priest and was in the midst of mass when he was slaughtered by Teighe in what is now known as “The Bloody Chapel”. Legend has it the priest’s apparition can be seen wandering the bloody chapel as well as the stairway below.
The O’Carrolls’ reign of torment and murder throughout their years over Leap Castle is one of legend. One of the most wicked slayings tied to the O’Carroll clan was that of the McMahon family. The McMahons were invited to a celebratory feast at Leap Castle in honor of the McMahon’s victory over one of the O’Carroll’s rival clans. Rather than pay their employers, however, the O’Carroll’s opted to poison the McMahons. The ghosts of the McMahons have been seen by many haunting the grounds of Leap Castle.
One of the most notorious spirits of Leap Castle is that of the red lady, a very tall specter clothed in a fluttering red gown clinging to a sharp blade. The story behind the red lady is that she was imprisoned by the O’Carroll’s and repeatedly raped. She gave birth to a baby who was then murdered by the O’Carrolls. Overwhelmed with grief over the loss of her child, the red lady used the knife her phantom bears to put an end to her life of torment.
In the 1900’s, an oubliette was discovered behind a wall in the chapel that contained human skeletons amassed on wooden spikes. So many, in fact, that it would take 3 cartloads to remove all of them. It is believed that the sadistic O’Carrolls would drop unsuspecting guests through the trap door to be impaled by a spear 8 feet below.
In the 1600s the castle again switched ownership. It was not a peaceful passing along of the ownership torch, however. As the story goes, the daughter of the reigning O’Carroll chieftain became smitten with an English prisoner in one of the castle’s dungeons, a captain Darby. The O’Carroll daughter would regularly sneak food down to Darby and the two concocted plans to elope. Late one night she snuck down to the dungeons, freed Darby and the two began their grand escape from Leap Castle. Their getaway was cut short, however, when they ran into the girl’s brother on the stairwell and the two commenced in a sword fight where Darby emerged the victor. Upon the death of the O’Carroll son, the daughter became heiress to the castle.
The newly married Darbys took over Leap Castle to start their own family and invested in expansions and renovations. Captain Darby was a bit temperamental and became known as “the wild captain”. He had amassed his own treasures in battle which he hid in compartments scattered throughout the property. The wild captain was later imprisoned for treason in Dublin but was later allowed to return to Leap Castle. Years of imprisonment had driven the wild captain to the brink of madness and he was unable to recall where he had hidden is fortune. As the legend goes, the fortune still remains in Leap Castle and on certain evenings where the energies favor the spirits, you can see the phantom of the wild captain searching the grounds for his lost treasure.
Mildred Darby, one of the wild captain’s ancestors was a gothic novelist who regularly performed séances within the walls of Leap Castle. It was Mildred Darby’s supernatural practices that awakened an elemental presence of incredible dark magnitude. Just what this elemental presence is manifested from is anybody’s guess. Some say that the elemental was put there by the druids even before Leap Castle was built in order to protect it while others say it is the spirit of one of the O’Carroll’s who died of leprosy. Mildred Darby claims to have seen this evil up close and described it as thin, gaunt and shadowy and emitting the smell of a rotting corpse.
The Darbys abandoned Leap Castle in 1922. At the time Ireland was fighting for its independence from England and given the Darbys were an English family, Leap Castle was a prime target for revolt. Shortly after the Darby’s departure, the castle was bombed and looted by the IRA who hung peacocks from meat hooks along the tower. A friend of the Darbys lived in the castle briefly until she was ravaged by gangrene. And from then on Leap Castle lay dormant until it was purchased in the 70s by an Australian historian, Peter Bartlett.
Bartlett was actually an ancestor of the founders of Leap Castle, the O’Bannons. Bartlett did extensive restorative work for fifteen years and claims to have witnessed poltergeist activity through much of it. He contracted a white witch to drive the spirits out of the castle. The witch claims that the spirits vowed to not cause any more trouble but insisted on staying in the castle. Bartlett’s renovation efforts were tragically cut short when he died in 1989. In 1991, musician Sean Ryan and his wife Anne purchased Leap Castle and resumed its restoration.
The Ryans have been plagued with freak accidents since living in Leap Castle. One resulted in a broken kneecap that delayed restoration of the castle. Once the renovation resumed, another accident left Ryan with a broken ankle. The castle’s malevolent history and creepy inhabitants didn’t stop The Ryans from conducting their newborn baby’s christening in the haunted Bloody chapel. This joyous event was a nice juxtaposition to the carnage and bloodshed that cursed this room for generations.
Today the castle is still privately owned by The Ryans. While you cannot stay overnight in Leap Castle, there are plenty of hotels in the vicinity and Sean Ryan welcomes fascinated tourists who want to experience the grounds firsthand. Mr. Ryan has even been known to open his doors to visitors and grant them a private tour of Leap Castle.
Authentic Ireland offers a number of castle tours that makes stops at many of Ireland’s notorious castles. All self-drive tours are fully customizable so if you want to visit Leap Castle, we can include it on your itinerary! Get started planning and Ireland Vacation today!