According to folklore, there are any number of haunted Irish castles, but surely among the most famous of these is Leamaneh Castle. Both the castle and Red Mary, this most famous of all its inhabitants, are well known in Irish folk culture for their notoriously bloody past.
The Grand Castle
Although now little more than a shell, Leamaneh Castle was once a fine building situated between Inchiquin and Kilfenora on the edge of the Burren in County Clare. A stronghold of the O’Brien clan, it was inherited some time in the 1630s by Conor O’Brien. He and his wife, Mary MacMahon, also known as Máire Rua MacMahon or Red Mary, added various extensions and outbuildings until the castle become one of the grandest in the country. These extensive works were possible due to her considerable wealth, which she inherited after the death of her first husband, Daniel Neylon. She and Daniel had three sons, but after his passing she married Conor and bore him several more children. Together they made the castle into a truly magnificent residence. Today it is abandoned, empty and known as one of the most haunted Irish castles. However, it stands proudly isolated, and it is easy to imagine how imposing it must have been all those years ago.
A Fiery Lady
Mary was aptly named, not just for her flaming red hair but also her foul temper, which was legendary. It is said that if a servant were foolish enough to displease her, they would be hung out of one of the castle windows, the men by their necks and the women by their hair. If the maids did not learn to bend to her will, she would punish them by cutting off their breasts. Another story tells that she kept a stallion in her stables and would challenge visitors to ride it. Once the beast was released from its bridle, it would run wild, galloping towards the Cliffs of Moher, where it would suddenly stop, hurling its poor victims over the cliff to their death. The word Leamaneh even translates as ‘horse’s leap.’
Even her husband did not escape her wrath. Mary would often ride with her husband at the head of his troops, but when one skirmish went tragically wrong, she displayed more steel than anyone could imagine possible. O’Brien was extremely vocal in his criticism of Cromwell, leading Parliamentarian General Henry Ireton, also Cromwell’s son-in-law, to send five men to shoot him. Although the attack was not fatal, Conor was wounded. Mary retaliated by ordering the man to be captured, after which she had him hanged. Perhaps mindful of the dangers of provoking such a powerful enemy, she advised her sons to surrender to Parliament, but Conor once again made a move against Ireton. A battle at the pass of Inchecroghnan resulted in Conor being wounded severely. As his soldiers brought him back to the castle, Mary is said to have shut the gates. It is recorded that far from showing sympathy, Mary shouted at them from the top of the tower, saying, ‘What do I want with dead men here?’
She is later said to have relented and nursed the mortally wounded Conor until he died. But realising that she might now lose her home, the ever-practical Mary was forced to go on the offensive. Dressing herself in silver and blue, she called for her coach and proceeded to travel to Ireton’s outpost in Limerick. Stopped at the gate, she cursed and screamed until Ireton appeared. He demanded to know why she was there, and Mary replied that she had been Conor’s wife the day before but was his widow now. Ireton was disbelieving, so in order to prove her claim Mary offered to marry any one of his officers who would take her. Captain John Cooper took her at her word, enabling her to secure her property for her sons’ future.
The Much-Married Widow
This union with the brave (or foolhardy) Cooper was not without its difficulties, the most serious of which apparently occurred when Cooper made a disparaging comment early one morning about her former husband. Mary was allegedly so furious that she leapt out of bed and kicked him in the stomach, and he died.
There are so many stories about Máire Rua and Leamaneh Castle that it is impossible to separate fact from fiction. Whilst it seems likely that she had at least three husbands, it is less easy to verify how many others there were. It is said that after John Cooper died she went on to marry a further 25 men, each for just a year and a day. After this time, each of them could divorce the other. Some stories say that she merely put each unwanted husband into a house with a servant and banned them from entering the marital property, whilst other tales tell that Red Mary simply killed each man once he had outlived his usefulness. It is hardly surprising then that Leamaneh is said to one of many Haunted Irish Castles.
A Grim End
With so many ongoing feuds, it’s no wonder that Red Mary reputedly came to a very bad end. After the death of her last husband, it is alleged that she was captured by a group of her enemies and taken to a hollow tree. Here she was fastened up and left to die of starvation. It is not clear exactly where she was buried, but her red-haired ghost is said to appear in two different places. One of these is a Druid’s Altar near Clare Castle, whilst others say she walks the halls of Leamaneh Castle, giving it the reputation as being one of the most haunted Irish castles.