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My Ireland: grand and ghoulish tales at Charleville Castle

Jane Cowen took a trip to one of Offaly’s hidden gems for a whirlwind guided tour through over 220 years of history, hauntings and heritage in one of Ireland’s finest neo-Gothic castles.

Charleville Castle, County Offaly

From the moment you enter the gateway to Charleville Castle, you know you’re somewhere special. On our right stood the famous King Oak tree, said to be over 400 years old, with sprawling boughs that stretch out above the forest floor.

Legend has it that once a branch fell from the tree, a member of the Bury family – the original owners of Charleville Castle – would die under mysterious circumstances. And it’s a superstition that held true for several generations. Considering druids once practised their strange rituals in this forest, it may be no wonder such spooky coincidences occurred within the family who claimed the land as their own.

After a bumpy drive through ancient oak woodland, Charleville Castle suddenly came into view. Located at the edge of Tullamore town in County Offaly, this stunning stronghold is an imposing sight. And as a native of Tullamore town, I’m amazed by its hulking grandeur each time I visit. Our guide, Michael, greeted us warmly, pleasantly surprised by the group of eight visitors who found this “hidden gem".

Grand Oak Staircase, Charleville Castle

The grand oak staircase in the entrance hall is reason enough to visit, having stood the test of time for over 220 years. Charleville Castle was once home to Charles William Bury, Earl of Charleville, and this 18th century Gothic-style fortress holds an incredible history, including grand balls, tragic deaths and ghostly encounters. It’s been slowly restored, thanks to the efforts of volunteers, along with current owners, the Vance family. As it’s a family home, it’s best to pre-book your visit to ensure tour guides are available.

It’s clear that Michael has a passion for the castle. In the Ball Room, with its intricate plasterwork and beautiful marble fireplaces, he regales us with tales of opulent parties – Lord Byron was a frequent visitor. You can almost see the couples whirling across the oak floor and hear the swish of silken ballgowns. It’s remarkable that these original features still exist considering the castle went without a roof in the late 60s for several years.

Music Room, Charleville Castle

Renowned architect Francis Johnston was the man responsible for designing Charleville Castle, as well as the General Post Office and the Chapel Royal in Dublin. And as we examined the intricate woodwork and gorgeously sculpted ceilings in each room, it’s easy to see why it took a team of talented craftsmen 16 years to finish. The Ladies’ Powder Room was one of the highlights of our visit, as Michael explained how keen suitors would have passed notes between the panelled door to their sweethearts.

When we reached the dark staircase to the now dilapidated nursery wing, an American lady in our party asked about the ghost of Harriet – the youngest daughter of the third Earl of Charleville. This is a well-known story to locals. Harriet is said to have fallen to her death while sliding down the bannister to the second floor. Many people claim to have heard her singing around the castle, or seen a glimpse of a little girl with golden ringlets. And while Harriet didn’t make an appearance, the family’s friendly black cat did choose to dart through the group while we were here!

Harriet's Staircase, Charleville Castle

From ghostly monks to eerie bumps in the night, and the sinister dungeons below, it’s no surprise that many paranormal experts and film crews have flocked to Charleville Castle to experience otherworldly happenings for themselves.

I can say that we left completely unscathed and thoroughly enthralled by the history and beauty of the building. At just €8 per person, this tour gives a fascinating insight into County Offaly’s past. And as we drove away, I felt an immense sense of pride and gratitude for the tireless work of the volunteers who keep its stories (and spirits) alive today.

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