Meet the ghostbusters
Eoin Butler spends a spooky evening with the paranormal researchers looking to make contact with spirits that stalk the Wicklow Gaol corridors
On a wild and windy night in the bowels of Wicklow Gaol, a crack team of specialists are assembled with a single purpose in mind - to terrify the ever-living sh*te out of me. Well no, that's not strictly accurate.
With Halloween approaching, the members of Paranormal Researchers Ireland are here ostensibly to help make contact with some of the spirits they believe still stalk the corridors of this historic building.
These hobbyists arrived together tonight armed with a baffling array of ghost-hunting gadgets and gizmos: thermal cameras, motion sensors, electromagnetic detectors, as well as something called a spirit box. Their leader, Tina Barcoe, a hairdresser by profession, regularly investigates reported paranormal activity around the country. She describes herself as a skeptic and admits the vast majority of cases she and co-founder Wayne Bolger are called out to do turn out to have perfectly rational explanations.
"In 99pc of cases, it's something completely organic," she says. "It could be creaking floorboards caused by change of temperature in the house. It could be a mental health issue on the part of the person who's called us out. It could be drug use. It could be an old person on their own who just wants to talk to someone."
"It could also be a carbon monoxide leak," her colleague Billy Cullen, a golf course maintainance man by profession, chips in. "Carbon monoxide leaks produce many of the same effects - headaches, paranoia."
Earlier this year the team did claim their first confirmed paranormal phenomenon. At a private house in the midlands, Barcoe tells me, where they'd set up camera to observe, they filmed a fridge door apparently opening of its own volition. I wonder if the spirits might have been rustling up a late-night snack? Barcoe suspects I'm unconvinced. "What I always say to people," she suggests, very reasonably, "is if you don't believe, that's fine. Just be respectful."
Tonight, the team may be right to feel they are on firmer ground. This 18th century prison in Wicklow town has been called one of the world's most haunted buildings. Tens of thousands of people - many of them Irish rebels and freedom fighters, others common criminals and murderers, but most just unfortunate people trapped in grinding poverty - met ghastly ends at this unhappy location.
Team member Chris Hill describes the horrendous manner of those deaths. Some were flogged, some were subjected to ghastly punishments like the thread wheel or the shot drill. Others were thrown in baths of boiling water and some simply succumbed to disease. The team never refer definitively to having encountered ghosts or spirits, only "anomalies" or "points of interest".
But it's clear they believe many unfortunate souls are now trapped within these walls for all eternity.
All lights in the jail are extinguished before we descend. "The reason we insist on total darkness is because people's senses are raised," Barcoe explains. Then she adds, ominiously: "There's definitely something down here."
For all my skepticism, I have to admit I'm pretty uneasy right now. The group hosts regular nightime tours here for the public. "We've had people vomit," admits Barcoe. "On Friday the 13th, we had someone faint."
At €50 per ticket though, customers must be entitled to expect some bang for their buck? "Absolutely not," insists Cullen. "From the start, we always explain that this is a serious paranormal investigation." "We can't just click our fingers and make something happen," adds Lead Investigator Chris Rush. "We could fake everything and scare the hell out of you," concedes Barcoe. Rush finishes that thought. "But we'd lose all credibility if we did that." "If something happens it happens," says Barcoe. "If it doesn't, it doesn't."
We gather in a circle in the darkened basement. Trish Doyle, a holistic therapist and the group's resident psychic, notes some lights flickering on the electromagnetic reader. All of our phones are turned off. "There's definitely an energy here," she concludes. She addresses the spirit. "Come into the circle," she requests. "We'd like to talk to you. We mean you no harm or disrespect." "Were you a part of the Wicklow militia?" asks Rush. "Do you want us to leave? Give us a sign." Nothing happens, but the temperature in this drafty basement does drop a couple of degrees. The team feel this might be significant.
Next the team produce the PSB7 spirit box, which uses radio frequency sweeps to generate random white noise.
When any sound it emits is deemed even vaguely to resemble a word in the English language, it's assumed to be a message from beyond the grave. This seems a little far-fetched to me. How likely are people who died here in the 18th and 19th centuries really to have become ham radio enthusiasts in the afterlife? But I don't express my doubts this time.
Next I'm shown to a dingy cell where I'm told an unfortunate Catholic priest was once held in solitary confinement. For some reason, his jailors seem to have forgotten he'd been locked up here. When they returned weeks later, he had starved to death. Just in case that isn't rib-tickling enough, Rush mentions that the floor and wall of the cell in question are mostly comprised of the bones of other inmates who died in the prison.
I'm told I'm going to be locked in solitary confinement in this cell for 10 minutes while the group sit upstairs summoning the spirits to poke me in the neck or kick me in the arse or whatever they want to do. "Are you sure you're comfortable doing this?" Rush asks, as they lead me into the cell. Of course, I'm not [expletive] comfortable, I think to myself. But I can't exactly volte-face from sneering cynic to cowering coward quite that quickly. "Lead the way," I suggest.
Truthfully, nothing whatsoever occurs while I'm locked up in the cell. It's cold and a little uncomfortable. I ask them in advance to let me out after five minutes rather than 10, but that's mostly to ward off boredom. The group are so patently likeable and sincere, I'm tempted afterwards to pretend I had some supernatural experience just to give them a little gratification. But the truth is I didn't.
Before we go our seperate ways, I repeat an observation that's perhaps been made by others before. That is that, prior to the invention of the camera phone, there were lots of phenomena that were strongly rumoured to exist... ghosts, UFOs, police brutality against African-Americans. The latter of those is now proven unequivocally to be a real thing. The former two seem to have dropped off the radar.
Barcoe shows me a thermal image she captured in the guard house of one of the major Dublin museums last year. She says she heard crunching sounds of footsteps outside a room she was in alone. Then she took the image. I must admit, it does indeed look very much like a person is standing there. On the other hand, it could just be a shadow.
Cynicism is something she brushes aside. "We've got 18,000 Facebook followers. We've got audio technicians on our team. We've got professional photographers. We've got history buffs and psychic mediums. That's a pretty good team I think."
Five Irish haunted houses
For anyone interested in doing a little ghost hunting of their own, here are five locations open to the public.
Leap Castle, Coolderry, Co Offaly
Billed as Ireland's most haunted castle, Leap Castle (right) in Offaly is Grand Central Station for ghost activity in the midlands.
Malahide Castle, Co Dublin
Malahide Castle is said to be home to the ghost of Sir Walter Hussey, a 15th century baron who died in battle. He is said to walk the halls, clutching his wounds.
Charleville Castle, Co Cork
This castle is said to be haunted by the spirit of an eight-year-old girl, Harriet, the daughter of the Earl of Charleville, who died after falling down the stairs here.
Cork City Gaol, Co Cork
During night tours of this 19th century gates, visitors report hearing the shuffle of former inmates' feet and the jangle of the jailer's keys.
Loftus Hall, New Ross, Co Wexford
In 2014, a photograph apparently showing the ghost of a young girl standing inside the house as a tour group walked past went viral on the internet.