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The Haunting of Ireland's Holybrooke Hall

Soon after moving into their stately gothic home, Katherine Kurtz and her husband sensed they were not alone.

It could be argued that fantasy writers perhaps live closer to the edge of reality—whatever that is—than most writers; but I doubt that most of us seriously anticipate having to contend with honest-to-God ghosts. Then again, as Somerville and Ross were wont to remind us in The Irish R.M., "Things are different in Ireland." My husband Scott and I learned, shortly after we moved into Holybrooke Hall, just south of Dublin, that Somerville and Ross were absolutely right. 

In architectural terms, Holybrooke Hall (also known as Hollybrook House or Hollybrook Hall) is a large gothic revival house, complete with gothic arches, Tudor chimney stacks (12 of them!), crenelated battlements, and a vaulted Tudoresque great hall (20 feet high) lit by an enormous stained glass window. The window is said to be one of the finest examples of heraldic glass in Ireland.  

The man who commissioned the house (built 1832-1837) was Sir George Hodson, 3rd Baronet and a hereditary knight. Sir Hodson was a portrait painter of note, a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy, and also an amateur architect. He designed many of the outbuildings on the estate, as well as much of the internal decor of the house. Indeed, Sir George himself apparently accounts for our most distinctive ghostly presence. 

Scott and I should have been alerted to an otherworldly presence the day we took possession of the house, one sunny day in May of 1987. Imagine our amazement when, while looking into a small room designated as a future bathroom but not yet plumbed or even electrified, we spotted a grubby dime-sized object lying on the edge of a salvaged bathtub, looking for all the world like one of those anodized slugs that come out of electrical conduit boxes. 

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Except that under the dust, this one wasn't silvery, as Scott discovered when he picked it up and rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger. 

"There are only two things this color," he said, gently biting at it. "And it isn't brass." 

Indeed, not. It was a mint-condition gold half-sovereign dated 1886, exactly one hundred years before—an interesting find, as the previous owner claimed to have torn up floorboards and even dug up the garden in search of a rumored "treasure" hidden somewhere in the house. Despite his efforts, the owner failed to turn up even a brass farthing. 

Since he'd also intended to subdivide the house into flats, we decided—somewhat whimsically at the time, we thought—that maybe the house was somehow aware that we'd saved it from such a fate, and that therefore the gold coin was a “Welcome!” gift and a thank-you token. 

We then began the process of getting the house ready to occupy, not yet dreaming that the house already had occupants. More clues presented themselves before we could even move in. 

The Haunting Begins

The first phenomenon we experienced was musical in nature. While we were working in the house, cleaning and organizing, both of us independently heard someone singing “It's a Long Way to Tipperary.” 

There was no mechanical or electrical apparatus in the house at the time to account for any such rendering of any song, much less “It's a Long Way to Tipperary.” Furthermore, the version we both heard had the tinny quality of an old gramophone recording. We do own an old gramophone, but it was still in our rented house, several miles away. 

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After we'd moved in we began noticing more traditional ghostly phenomena—mostly sounds, though my husband and Lucy our housekeeper (who has worked in the house for nearly fifty years) have actually seen things, as have occasional guests who stay in the back bedroom. 

One night Edgar, our strapping black-and-white cat, took wild-eyed exception to something that spooked him off my desk chair to cower trembling between me and a friend while we were watching a video, his little heart pounding and paw-pads surely sweating. That was one scared cat. As I tried to calm him, I asked my friend whether she saw anything—because I sure didn't. 

Wide-eyed, she shook her head. “But he does!” she said, pointing at Edgar. 

hollybrook house katherine kurtz
  • Edgar the cat.

  • Photo Credit: Katherine Kurtz

Now, I had absolutely no sense of personal fear. But when it became clear, from Edgar's staring, that whatever it was, was approaching, about to pass between us and the TV, I told “it” that it was perfectly welcome if it was friendly, but please not to scare my cat! At which point, it simply wasn't there anymore—much to Edgar's amazement and lasting suspicion. I think it took him half an hour to stop looking for it, whatever “it” was. 

The Ghosts of the House: The Lady in Grey

The back bedroom seems to be a hotspot of activity, whether it's for footsteps, whistling, or the sound of a door opening and closing, even when the door is closed and locked. When a young friend was staying in the house for us before we actually moved in—for security reasons, one tries never to leave a big house unoccupied overnight—he would hear such distinctive sounds of a door opening and closing that he'd tip-toe down the corridor from the master bedroom where he was sleeping, with hockey-stick at the ready, convinced that he had an intruder. Yet there was never anything to be seen except that the door was still firmly closed and locked. Later, after that room was restored, we became accustomed to having overnight guests report the impression of someone standing in the corner of that room and watching them while they slept. Fortunately, they rarely found this frightening; merely…weird.

hollybrook house katherine kurtz
  • Photo Credit: Katherine Kurtz

There are visual manifestations as well, elsewhere in the house. Most often seen is a tall, elegant woman in a long grey or fawn-colored skirt, a white blouse with leg-o-mutton sleeves, and her hair done up in a Gibson-type coiffure. She's been seen by both Scott and Lucy. I never see these things, drat it all!

Scott's first sighting was a classic one. He was on the phone to America one night, sitting in the library with a clear view toward the great hall stair that crosses from the first half-landing to the second, when he saw a long-skirted woman walk up the stairs and disappear from sight as she turned the angle. A week or so later—and we hadn't mentioned Scott's sighting—Lucy was hoovering on the upstairs landing just outside my office when she saw the lady pass the doorway arch that leads from the landing to the bedroom corridor, heading from the direction of that bedroom into the master bedroom. Since Lucy only caught a glimpse of the woman, though her later description pretty much tallied with what Scott had seen, she initially mistook the woman for me. 

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Now, Lucy is one of those people who is Good with a capital G—and she loves Holybrooke. Though she never finished school, coming to Holybrooke to enter service as an orphan of fifteen, she’s eager to learn and forever asking questions. In a half-day on Wednesdays, she somehow manages to restore order out of the chaos that Scott and I create, so that the two of us can get on with our writing. 

That's what I was doing that day: writing. And when Lucy suddenly realized that's what I'd been doing all along, she came into my office all wide-eyed and told me what she’d seen. Not afraid; after all, she's known the ghosts of Holybrooke for nearly fifty years. While we talked about it, I told her about Scott's sighting and compared notes. And at least for her sighting, a possible explanation occurred to me while we were comparing notes—as logical as such things are likely to be. I realized that we'd had some furniture delivered the day before, purchased at auction the previous weekend. One of the items was an antique dressing table positioned in the master bedroom, with its three-way mirror pointing out the door and down the corridor, where the lady had come from. Maybe, I said, she was a former lady of the estate, who had come to see the pretty mirror that the new lady of the estate had put in her bedroom. It's said that ghosts are sometimes attracted to mirrors... 

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Or it's possible that the woman in one or both instances is a former nurse who used to take care of an invalid who stayed in the back bedroom. We'd heard of such a woman from several sources. A very elderly Hodson cousin who came calling one afternoon told us that he'd grown up in the house between the wars. When he was a child, he and the other children of the household would never play on the upstairs landing after dark, because "the nurse" would stand in the corner and watch them. Whether this is the same entity who sometimes watches people sleep in the back bedroom, I couldn't say. 

The Ghosts of the House: Sir George and the Hung Portrait

The most distinctive presence around Holybrooke, however, is the one we think may be Sir George. Sir George has shown up several times for Scott, usually when Scott was fixing something in the house. The first time it happened, my husband was grappling with a loose electrical outlet on a baseboard, and had the sudden impression he was being watched. When he glanced over his shoulder, he caught just a glimpse of a little bearded man in antique clothing and with hands clasped behind his back, who rocked up and down on the balls of his feet, nodding and smiling approvingly—then disappeared. 

hollybrook house katherine kurtz
  • Photo Credit: Katherine Kurtz

We're reasonably convinced that Sir George was responsible for one of the more startling episodes that Scott and I both experienced at the same time—this one an auditory rather than a visual phenomenon. 

That afternoon, we'd hung a Hodson painting on the upstairs landing: a lovely portrait of a young woman, who may be Sir George’s only daughter, Meriel Anne. I was already in bed, reading, and Scott was brushing his teeth in the adjacent bathroom, when we heard heavy footsteps approach from the far end of the bedroom corridor, clump past our bathroom and bedroom doors, and turn onto the upstairs landing. After walking back and forth several times on the landing, the footsteps receded back down the bedroom corridor. 

"Scott, was that Cameron?" I asked. Cameron is our heavy-footed son, and his room is next to the one at the far end of the bedroom corridor—the one that's so active—but this hadn't sounded like his footsteps. 

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 "I don't think so," Scott said, somewhat warily. 

He went and looked in Cameron's room, but the son and heir was dead to the world, as only fifteen-year-olds can be, and obviously hadn't moved. 

At this point, we became seriously concerned that we might have an intruder in the house—so much so that Scott took a hockey stick and made a room-to-room search of the entire house, doubling back randomly in proper police search procedures learned during his years as a reserve deputy sheriff. There was no one else in the house. 

"Hmmm," we both said. Scott briefly resumed brushing his teeth.

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Then the footsteps came again, from the far end of the bedroom corridor and onto the landing. Once again the steps moved back and forth several times. But this time, when they came adjacent to the bathroom's corridor door, Scott yanked open the door—to nothing. The footsteps simply ceased in mid-stride, and there was no further activity that night. 

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We speculated about the incident, of course. But though we surmised that someone was agitated about something, it wasn't until we were telling a friend about this strange occurrence, perhaps a week later, that the penny dropped. The Hodson painting had come back, and its creator had shown up to inspect its new resting place, pacing up and down in front of it and probably thinking: "Good Lord, what's that doing there? I sold that years ago! Nicely framed, but I'm not sure I like that location."

Fortunately, he did apparently decide it was okay for the painting to remain there, because there's been no more nocturnal pacing, and the painting hasn't fallen down or anything. 

The Haunting Turns Threatening

hollybrook house katherine kurtz
  • Photo Credit: Katherine Kurtz

Let's step back for a moment. What are ghosts? Some speculate that "ghostly" phenomena may be akin to a video-loop that somehow gets triggered and played back under certain conditions. This would account for sightings like the lady on the stairs, in which there's no interaction or apparent awareness by the apparition that anyone else is there. But that doesn't explain the rest of ours—especially the ones that do interact. Fortunately, ours are all benign! 

Only once has the house or its ghostly inhabitants been less than helpful—and even then, we were dealing with momentary agitation rather than any real resistance. 

It was 1988, our first summer in residence, when we planned to have the roof redone and the chimneys repointed. By the time our work began, the stability of the chimney stacks probably owed more to gravity than to mortar. To make the chimneys good, it was necessary to take them down, layer by layer and stack by stack, then reassemble them with new lead clamps, new mortar, and stainless-steel liners to make them more fire-resistant. Our intrepid roofers had begun disassembling the first cluster of three chimneys, carefully lowering each section to the ground with ropes and pulleys. We were getting ready to go on our first holiday since moving to Ireland two years before and moving into the house the previous autumn. As we packed, I can only describe the feeling in the house as one of growing agitation. 

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Well, by now, we had become accustomed to the nocturnal bumpings and Scott's occasional sightings in the great hall. But in all, the house had always felt very peaceful. The agitation was not typical. We discussed possible reasons, given the unique background of the house. We wondered whether, perhaps, the house was agitated because strange men were swarming all over it and literally taking it apart. And here we were, its supposed rescuers, packing up to leave, just like previous owners had done. Maybe it thought we weren't coming back, and were leaving it to the mercies of those strange men! 

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So. What to do? 

What I did was to go downstairs and stand in the middle of the great hall, setting one hand on the center post that supports the upstairs landing. And I had a talk with the house. Or rather, I delivered a monologue—words to the effect of, "Hey, guys, not to worry. We aren't abandoning you. We're just going on holiday for a couple of weeks. And meanwhile, those nice men on the roof, who really like you and think you're beautiful, are going to be working on the roof, so the rain won't come in anymore." Water had run down one great hall wall in torrents during the previous winter. "And they're only taking the chimneys apart so they can cement them back together, with stainless-steel liners, so you won't get chimney fires like poor old Powerscourt, across the road." Powerscourt House, a far grander edifice, burned spectacularly in the early 1970s, and is only now being rebuilt.

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"So, please don't be anxious. We'll be back in a couple of weeks. And soon your roof will be all snug and weather-tight again. Then we can start restoring your insides to their former glory—which we really want to do, because you're a wonderful house, and you deserve to be saved! You'll have to be patient with us, because we aren't very rich, and it's going to take a while. But eventually, we hope you'll be even more beautiful than you were in the old days. Okay?" 

hollybrook house katherine kurtz
  • Photo Credit: Katherine Kurtz

If you think I felt rather silly, talking to a house, you're absolutely right. And yet, it somehow felt right—and it did do the trick. By the time I could get back to the top of the stairs, the feeling of agitation had died away. I can best describe the feeling as something akin to the way a dynamo winds down when you cut the power, or as if someone had heaved a heavy sigh of relief. 

We had no repeats of the agitation, nor have there ever been any other inklings that our co-inhabitants have any objection to our presence at Holybrooke. People sometimes ask whether we aren't afraid to stay alone in such a big old house, when one or the other of us is away for a few days—especially if we have ghosts. But I've never known a moment's fear. 

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Sadly, we no longer own Holybrooke. After a lengthy and expensive renovation, we sold it and moved back to the United States. We could see the economy becoming problematic, and it was time to go home. But we will always treasure the years we spent there, along with our ghostly residents. 

I can only hope that the new owners have made their peace with the ghosts as we did. 

About Katherine Kurtz

Katherine Kurtz was born in Coral Gables, Florida, during a hurricane. She received a four-year science scholarship to the University of Miami and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry. Medical school followed, but after a year she decided she would rather write about medicine than practice it. A vivid dream inspired Kurtz’s celebrated Deryni fantasy novels. She soon defined and established her own sub-genre of “historical fantasy” set in close parallels to our own medieval period featuring “magic” that much resembles extrasensory perception. Among them is Chamber of Culdi, St. Patrick's Gargoyle, The Bishop's Heir, and The Harrowing of Gwynedd. Kurtz further utilized her historical training to develop another sub-genre she calls “crypto-history,” in which the “history behind the history” intertwines with the “official” histories of such diverse periods as the Battle of Britain (Lammas Night), the American War for Independence (Two Crowns for America), contemporary Scotland (The Adept Series, with coauthor Deborah Turner Harris), and the Knights Templar (The Knights Templar Series also with Harris). From 1987 until 2007, Kurtz and her family made their home in Ireland, in Holybrooke Hall, a haunted gothic revival home. They have since returned to the United States and taken up residence in a historic house in Virginia. The ghosts of Holybrooke appear to have remained behind.

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Published on 26 Feb 2020

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