By Dave Devereux
Many ghostly tales have emanated from the Emerald Isle over the years, but few have captivated the public more than the grisly details about Red Mary, who resided in Leamaneh Castle in the Burren in County Clare.
The building, which consists of a five-storey 15th-century tower house and a 17th-century mansion, now lies in ruins and, given its isolated setting, it’s no surprise that spooky stories have been told about terrible things that have happened within the walls and beyond.
Today, with the castle reduced to a shell and a shadow of its former self, it may not immediately catch the eye of passers-by, but if you delve a little deeper you’ll find that it has a horrifically haunting past and was home to one of Ireland’s most infamous figures.
In the 1600s it was owned by Conor O’Brien, who lived there with his wife Mary McMahon – the aforementioned Máire Rua (Red Mary), who was given that name due to her flaming red hair and, quite possibly, her fiery temperament.
Mary’s first husband, Daniel O’Neillan died at a young age, leaving his estate to his wife. She married Conor O’Brien in 1639 and her inheritance paid for Leamaneh Castle to be transformed, with the addition of a striking four-storey mansion. The property may have looked beautiful on the outside, but the stunning facade belied the horrible deeds that happened within.
O’Brien met a violent end in 1651, when he was wounded by a Cromwellian soldier and the dying man was brought back to Leamaneh Castle. Rumour has it that callous Mary opened a window and shouted, “What do I want with dead men here?”
After her husband’s death Mary quickly set about finding a replacement, offering to marry any Cromwellian officer in an effort to retain her estate.
She soon wed Captain John Cooper, who gained great wealth with the marriage, and he either led a long and healthy life, or soon met a grisly end, depending on who you wish to believe.
There are those that maintain that Cooper lived to a ripe old age, while local folklore and popular belief paints an entirely different picture.
Some suggest he died after being kicked in the stomach by Mary, while others say he was pushed to his death from a third-storey window after a heated argument with his new bride.
According to legend, Mary may have had as many as 25 husbands, that she would divorce after a year and a day, with a strong suggestion that many came to a more sinister end. She is also said to have been particularly cruel to her employees, hanging male workers that annoyed her by the neck from the castle tower, while female servants were sliced and hung by their hair.
Another widely told tale about Red Mary was that she kept a stallion in her stable and challenged visitors to ride it, and the untamed beast would run wild towards the Cliffs of Moher, where it would stop suddenly, flinging its victims over the edge to their death. That said, the fact that Leamaneh translates to “horse’s leap” would suggest that particular story may be more fable than fact.
Even if the amount of husbands she is said to have had is exaggerated and whether the stories about her being responsible for their deaths is truth or hearsay, the one thing that is certain is that she made a number of enemies during her life and they eventually exacted gruesome revenge.
Mary was captured by her bitter foes, shackled and sealed in a hollow tree, where she was left to starve to death.
There are differing opinions over whether the tree was on the grounds of Leamaneh Castle, or at an isolated spot known as the Druid’s Altar.
A red-haired ghost has been seen at both locations, accompanied by her cackling, evil laughter and the blood-curdling screams of her victims.
Red Mary’s son, Donagh, was the last of the O’Brien’s to live at Leamaneh Castle, before moving the family seat to Dromland Castle in 1689, and the barbican gateways from the estate later followed as it was relocated under the instruction of Lucius William O’Brien.
There were other residents in Leamaneh Castle after that, but it eventually fell into ruin and by the end of the 18th century it was derelict. Leamaneh may have been forgotten about and allowed to gasp its final breath in isolation, similar to its most notorious resident, but the legend of Red Mary and her howling ghost will live on and be whispered about for all eternity.