Ardgillan Castle

Two versions of an Irish ghost story

A locked door at Ardgillan Castle in North County Dublin.

A locked door at Ardgillan Castle in North County Dublin.

One of the best things about living in Ireland is how eager people are, often complete strangers, to tell stories. I was lucky enough to be picked to work on a film set at Ardgillan Castle in North County Dublin earlier this summer and, in the quieter moments between shooting, we discussed the history of this beautiful demesne, now restored and run by Fingal County Council. The castellated house with walled garden and parkland has sweeping views of the ocean and is open to the public. As with most castles and grand old houses in Ireland, the stories inevitably involve a ghost.

The ghost who waits on the railway bridge is called The Lady of the Stairs

The Lady of the Stairs is the spectre who lurks on the railway bridge at the lower end of the property nearest the sea. The Dublin to Belfast railway line runs along the edge of the demesne and I was warned not to go near the bridge after dark. This warning was, of course, accompanied by laughter so I didn’t take it too seriously but I was inspired to find out who the Lady of the Stairs was.

It turns out there are two versions of this Irish ghost story. The first reminds me of a novel by John Fowles called The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which was made into a film starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. You probably remember it: The beautiful social outcast Sarah Woodruff standing on The Cobb at Lyme Regis, gazing forlornly out to sea while she waits for her French Lieutenant to return. I listened to the audio version last week and it is well narrated by Paul Shelley and more humorous than I remembered. It is a classic worth reading, especially if you’re interested in the Victorian era and society. It is set about 1860.

An old unidentified railway bridge, possibly on the Dublin to Belfast line. This is not the one at Ardgillan Castle but it conjures up the right atmosphere. (Photo: National Library of Ireland)

An old unidentified railway bridge, possibly on the Dublin to Belfast line. This is not the one at Ardgillan Castle but it conjures up the right atmosphere. (Photo: National Library of Ireland)

A heart-broken wife gazes out to sea

The first version of the Lady of the Stairs is that, long ago, the husband of this woman was a keen swimmer and one day he went for his usual swim but never returned. His heart-broken wife searched in vain for him and waited day after day and week after week for him on the steps of the railway bridge from which she gazed out to sea. Eventually she faded away from grief and died. Locals will tell you that on dark Halloween nights you would be extremely foolish to go up on the bridge because the Lady of the Stairs waits there to hurl you to your death.

A new bride drowns

The second version is more plausible. A certain Lord Langford visited Ardgillan Castle with his new bride and left her to stay with the family while he travelled to Scotland to go hunting. Lady Langford was tempted to swim in the sea at the edge of the demesne and, in spite of warnings from others that this was a dangerous idea, she couldn’t resist the urge.

She drowned and it is said to be her ghost that haunts the railway bridge, dressed in her white wedding gown as she waits for her husband to return.

The ghost of a white lady in my novel

My own novel has just returned from its final editing stage and also mentions, in traditional Irish fashion, the story of a local ghost at Glanesfort. The white lady is rumoured to stand at the side of the lake as the daylight fades. She plays a small but puzzling role in the novel. Locals say that she was a daughter from the big house who waded into the water and drowned. Is she real or is she just a figment of vivid imaginations? You’ll have to read the book to find out. I’ll give you a hint: She might be more real than you think but for a different reason.

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If you’re interested in reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles or watching the DVD, here are the links:

The French Lieutenant’s Woman - Kindle, hardback and paperback options

The French Lieutenant’s Woman - The classic DVD or Amazon Prime video