March 18, 2008 — Every bar, restaurant, and hotel older than you is haunted. It’s not hard to figure out why. The longer a place is around, the more of a chance that a mortal tragedy of the kind that results in a ghost or two will occur...or ghosts are just good for business.
Now, judging by every ghost story I’ve ever read, the opposite should be true. In those tales, the person who patronizes a haunted establishment ends up either dead under mysterious circumstances or running white-haired and jibbering into the night. In reality, though, the person who patronizes a haunted place of business just gives them business. Of course, the legitimacy of your spiritual infestation claim might go up a little when your establishment is located in a country whose organized history goes back thousands of years and is Siamesed with a 400-year-old medieval castle...oh, and you keep a permanent room set aside just for the ghost.
Such is the case with the Ballygally Castle Hotel in BallyGally, Northern Ireland, a village about a half an hour above Belfast on the coast of County Antrim. About four hundred years ago it was built as a defensible residence by a Scotsman named James Shaw. A few years later his wife Isabella Brisbane Shaw either fell, jumped, or was pushed out of a tower window. At some point after that her ghost started appearing. Fifty years ago it was expanded and turned into a hotel. A week ago I spent the night there.
I way lucked into this little experience, folks. Originally, Ballygally was just a place to hide from night. It was stuck on my itinerary by a travel agent to be a nice change of pace after three days straight in small beds and breakfasts. However, a week or so before the trip, I was perusing some books on a Barnes & Noble table and came across a book entitled The World’s Most Haunted Places. Guess what was in there? Yup, the Catacomb Museum in Paris, France. But the Ballygally Castle Hotel was also on the list. Upon further research, what should have been just a night of recuperation and BBC watching turned into an O.T.I.S.-worthy event all its own. I didn’t mean the word event there at all.
The castle hotel touches Ballygally Bay on the Irish Sea, as the waters of the bay lap against the wall of its parking lot. In the distance you can see a lighthouse winking suggestively and cursing the inventions of radar and satellite that turned it from a lifesaving tower vital to coastal life to a thing to be painted by the likes of Thomas Kinkade and to be forever subjected to the word quaint.
From the outside, the hotel looks exactly as I’ve already described it and even more exactly like the picture of it in this article. At one end is a tall, thin stone castle that, much like most of us, is probably a remnant of its original self, and stretching away from the castle like an inhaling accordion is a white, two-story hotel. The interior of the hotel just looks like the interior of a hotel, except that if you walk too far to one end, you’ll end up in a castle tower. More importantly, though, you’ll also miss the hotel bar, which is located at the opposite end of the hotel.
Although I never really checked the manual to make sure, I was pretty sure that there's no reason to visit a ghost room during the day, so we didn’t go check it out right away. We spent some time in our own non-ghost room and then ate a leisurely meal at the hotel restaurant, the décor of which featured the mounted head of some large cervid, a fireplace, and a suit of armor. I had the venison, she had the salmon, and you get a heaping portion of irrelevant facts.
Finally, back in our room, the window panes turned night-colored, and we were ready for our foray. It was strangely exciting considering that up to that moment the most stimulating thing that I’d ever done in a hotel is to make an ice run. The Ghost Room is, of course, located in the castle tower part of the hotel. But even if you didn’t have the logic of that already worked out in your head, you just have to follow the sign. That’s right. The sign. Rooms 201-212 this-a-way, Ghost Room that-a-way. More or less, anyway.
It’s exactly that moment when I first saw the sign that I felt cheesy. Up to that point I had convinced myself that I was about to undergo something on the more obscure end of touristy and that I might even have to bribe hotel staff to find the room and gain access. The sign told me otherwise. As did the place’s website before that, but I just didn’t pay any mind at the time.
Part of me (my left arm and my only kidney) wishes that I hadn’t known in advance about the Ghost Room, and that I would have just stumbled across the sign in the hotel. That would have made it more of a revelation, and that, along with scruples and a giant moon-bounce, is one thing my life decidedly lacks. Other parts of me that have been with me longer know better that I probably would have missed the sign entirely, as my hotel tunnel vision usually only has one eye for the bed and the other for the bar.
Despite the obvious external demarcation of the castle tower from the hotel, thanks to modern plaster and paint, the interior of the two section don't seem to be separated at all. The castle is even wired for electricity. You can end up there by accident. Which, I should mention to protect me from copyright issues, is the actual state slogan of Indiana.
There are no locks, no posted policies, and you don’t have to get permission or pay a fee. Unrestricted access for all, apparently. Hotel pools usually have more rules. You just go to it like it was the vending machine room.
In the tower are located a few special rooms with alliterated names like Glenariff, Glenaan, Glencoy, and Glenarm that guests can reserve. I was in the much less romanticized but still adequate Room 212 in the hotel portion. Once we entered the tower, we found a door that opened onto a spiral staircase. We headed down it first, and it deposited us at the Dungeon Room, which by the looks of it is set up for meetings and private gatherings.
After that we went to the top of the stairs, which ended a small door that opened onto another, smaller spiral stairway that ascended to the Ghost Room. Outside of this door is a plaque explaining the history of the haunting and the purpose of the Ghost Room. Here is the text of the plaque in full. I'm not sure why "friendly" is in quotation marks instead of about a dozen other more likely words.
Every castle has to have a ghost of some kind, and the ghost of Ballygally has been around for the better part of 400 years! The popular theory is that the ghost is that of Lady Isobella Shaw, wife of Lord James Shaw. Lord Shaw wanted a son, and when his wife delivered his heir, he snatched the baby from his wife and locked her in a room at the top of the castle. While trying to escape to search for beloved child, Lady Isobella fell to her death from the tower window! Another theory is that she was actually thrown from the window by the cruel Lord Shaw or one of his henchmen!
Lady Isobella’s ghost is reputed to be a ‘friendly’ spirit who walks the corridors of the old Castle. Over the years many guests have reported strange experiences and have felt a presence in their rooms! There are also endless stories of unexplained noises in the night, and an eerie green mist over the Castle. The hotel is so fiercely proud of their permanent resident they have even given her a bedroom, ‘The Ghost Room’ here in the tower in the oldest part of the Castle.
The Ghost Room itself is small and furnished with antique-looking pieces including a bed, a desk, a couple of chairs, and a chest, all of which have seen better days but shouldn’t complain because if they weren’t furnishing a ghost room they’d probably be junked in a landfill somewhere.
The ceiling is painted black with a white compass design in its center, and the room itself has a pair of windows. Just off the room, like a small closet, is the interior of a cylindrical turret with another window, the outside of which you can see in the first picture of this article. The infamous tower window inside that cylinder is tiny, and while a human being can fit through there, they’d have to be determined to the point of desperation, which is actually how some of the stories of Lady Isabella Shaw go. Then again, there’s no evidence that this room is the exact room where the tragedy happened. Then again, there’s no evidence that the tragedy happened. Then again, when was evidence ever relevant to a good ghost story. Or a bad one.
The only other bit of notableness in the room is that on the wall is a pencil drawing of a severe-looking woman that I assume is supposed to be of the Lady Isabella, although it wasn't labeled.
For those of you who are wondering, even though I saw the room part of the Ghost Room, I didn’t get to see the ghost part. In fact, I saw no ghosts during my stay at Ballygally Castle Hotel at all, Lady Isabella or otherwise (the place is also supposed to be haunted by other ghosts from its history). My patronage of the hotel establishment only resulted in an exchange of money that made me curse the American dollar and a complimentary rubber duck. It's too bad, though. I've always wanted to run white-haired and jibbering.