Haunting times around Donegal’s hills…

HEADLESS horsemen, cloven foot strangers, wailing banshees – Donegal’s storytellers have long held audiences spellbound with their tales of the nether world.
In his book ‘The Foot o’ the Hill’, which focuses on Lough Salt and the Kilmacrennan countryside, author Jim Nisbet recounts some of the anecdotes and fables that have been handed down through the generations.
With Halloween almost upon us, what better time to explore some the characters and events said to have sent a chill down the spine of unsuspecting locals through the centuries and decades…
Workhouse Woes
The Workhouse – Even now the name lends to sinister images of savagery and shame. Thankfully Milford Workhouse is no more. By 1923, after almost 80 years service and no heart-felt regrets, this austere Victorian regime’s doors had closed.
Sicknesses such as smallpox, fever and tuberculosis were endemic in this “mansion of the dead”. The paupers’ cemetery behind Milford Mart marks a melancholy reminder of those dreaded days.
Curiously, there exists a ghoulish belief that the last occupants left a legacy far beyond the grave. A good deal of this demolished poorhouse was plundered for its quality dressed-stone and scores of structures contain memories of Milford Workhouse within their walls.
Popular legend asserts that one gentleman commandeered a discarded door-lintel to construct a fireplace. In a short space of time he, his family and even visitors to his home began to suffer mysterious maladies. As all afflictions corresponded with the arrival of the lintel, the family began to suspect it was cursed.
Sceptics scoffed at the notion. But indeed the trouble was traced to the decrepit workhouse. Subsequent painstaking investigation established that a lingering presence had clung to the macabre stone, lying dormant until the warmth from the flames awoke the diseased spores from their slumbers.
Weird or what, as they say.
The Ghost at the Gap
Most of us when walking along a lonely road without even a pallid moon for company have suffered the shuddery foreboding all is not well. The mysticism of the dark can be a huge stumbling block towards reason and only the brave would mock it.
However as most Donegal ghosts’ departures coincided with the commencement of the Rural Electrification Scheme, the ensuing hair-raising happening seems quite ironic.
Winter 1936 witnessed intense excitement at Barnes Gap due to a startling, spectral visitor. Each evening crowds made nocturnal jaunts to this isolated pass between Termon and the Owencarrow River, on chance of glimpsing sight of a ghostly motor car. Speeding swiftly towards onlookers, headlights beaming, the vehicle suddenly veered and vanished into thin air.
Subject to considerable supernatural conjecture, some surmised that it was the dead from the Owencarrow viaduct disaster 11 years earlier returning to haunt this desolate spot. Others offered scientific theories regarding this creepy car, putting it down to the mischievous mist in the ‘Gap’ or even the outlandish practice of drivers switching off their lights to conserve batteries.
However a few wary souls were having none of it. In their eyes these phantom lights were related to an incident that occurred a few years prior when a Mr McCrae, an employee with the Land Commission, was belting through Barnes Gap with a cargo of gelignite in his car. Whether McCrae lit his pipe or hit a pothole – no one knows for sure – but man and machine were blown to smithereens.
Rumourous tongues tell that the only trace remaining of the unfortunate fellow was the sight of his trouser braces dangling overhead from the roadside telegraph poles.
The Bog Man of Skreen
Looking back, death was decidedly busy in the Foot o’ the Hill. John Cannon disappeared one night after a profitable outing at Kilmacrennan Fair. His Knockabollan neighbours assumed he had made a sudden departure to America without so much as a fond farewell. Donkeys’ years passed yet not a hint of his whereabouts was heard.
Then one morning a cooper called McGettigan was combing for bog wood in the townland of Skreen near Lough Keel. A trick of the trade was to rise at dawn’s crack when the ground was bathed in the chilled morning dew. As the dewdrops did not settle over a solid object, this was a sure sign that timber lay beneath the heath.
Blessed with the eye of an eagle, the cooper soon found a likely location, marked his claim and returned later with a few spadesmen to dig up his prize. Little did he guess as the dull thud of shovels cut deep into the moss that a grim discovery awaited. To the horror of all, instead of a tree trunk, a mummified creature wrapped in a rug was unearthed. Those of lengthy memory affirmed the gruesome, peat-stained head spookily resembled the man who had disappeared decades beforehand.
Who the perpetrators of this act of skulduggery were is shrouded in secrecy. One version whispers that John Cannon was ambushed on his habitual homeward path near Kilconnell. Then, having relieved him of his bulging wallet, his attackers covered up their dastardly deed by crudely concealing Cannon’s corpse in the dark bog.
One Suit in the Grave
According to oral tradition two McCafferty brothers from a long-standing Casheleenan family were noted for sharing a claw-hammer suit – a fashion reminiscent of 19th century rural Donegal.
Each Sunday morning presented a pantomime. The first sibling would attend Mass dressed in his Sunday best, trousers worn to a shine. On returning he would remove his attire, swap it with his younger brother who would then grace a later Mass. This system worked splendidly for a number of years until the elder brother died and was “waked” and buried in the sober black suit.
Shortly afterwards the other brother was summoned to his final reckoning. Now his friends faced a pressing plight: What finery would he wear for the funeral? As nobody was willing to lend an outfit, only one option remained.
In the dead of night the wake committee crept into the burying ground, dug up the skeleton of the elder brother, shook out the bones and retrieved McCafferty’s claw-hammer suit.
The Car’nasaul Call
The banshee has been long and logically banished from the modern mind. Even so, in the past, the shrill shriek of this scrawn death messengr would make men – many who had won medals for valour – afraid to dare the dark.
A foretelling female manifestation was frequently spotted amongst strangely-shaped rocks in the townland of Carrownasaul – the banshee’s favoured beat.
Here, with the tortured wailing lament of a gaunt cloaked figure with lank streaming hair of silver, announced that some pitiful sould was for the obituary column.
The banshee was believed to follow families with the prefix ‘Mc’ and with McGettigans, McMonagles and McAuleys all over the neighbourhood, there was no shortage of mortal dread at the sound of the ‘Car’nasaul Call…’

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