Tuesday 13 November 2018

'We've had people passing out in the graveyard, seeing things, speaking in tongues' - Ghostbus tour guide

There are scares aplenty on board the Dublin Ghostbus, as nervous passenger Katie Byrne found out

Actor Gary Egan brings passengers on a haunting trip around Dublin on the Ghostbus Tour. Photo: Mark Condren
Actor Gary Egan brings passengers on a haunting trip around Dublin on the Ghostbus Tour. Photo: Mark Condren
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

There was a time when Gary Egan was on the fence about ghosts and other spooky phenomena. He wouldn't have described himself as a believer, but he wasn't a disbeliever either. Then he got a job on the Ghostbus. The actor has been working as a theatrical guide on this 'tour of terror' for the last 13 years, and he says he has seen enough to make up his mind.

"We've had people passing out in the graveyard, people seeing things, people speaking in tongues," he says. "If I had any doubts in the beginning, I have no doubts now."

Egan, who goes by the stage name 'Vincent', is the ghoulish master of ceremonies when I climb on board the Ghostbus on a cold October night. The Dubliner is dressed like a gothic pallbearer, and he looks strangely at home in the sinister surroundings of the purpose-built double-decker.

A lot of thought has gone into the design of the Ghostbus. Downstairs looks like a scene from The Conjuring - think damask wallpaper, antique clocks and black and white photographs in ornate gold frames. Upstairs looks like a vaudeville parlour. Crimson velvet curtains keep the light out and a couple of Tiffany lamps cast dancing shadows on Egan as he gets the show on the road.

It would be hard to have a Dublin ghost tour without a mention of Bram Stoker, but Egan takes it further by drawing comparisons between Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla and Stoker's Dracula.

"Carmilla is the grandmother of all vampires," he tells us. "Without her, there would be no Salem's Lot, no Vampire Diaries..."

Next there's a quiz. Egan plays the scores of iconic horror films and a passenger has to identify them. If she gets it right, she wins a copy of Dracula. "If she gets it wrong, we kill her," adds the actor, employing a creepy downward inflection for maximum effect.

It's no surprise that Egan is a horror fanatic. His favourite author is Edgar Allan Poe - "the master of horror" - and he spent his teens getting lost in the gothic world of Hammer films with his Dad. In later years, he led a "macabre" walking tour through Dublin and it was on these expeditions that he spotted the Ghostbus creeping along the city streets. Eventually he got in contact with Dan O'Donoghue, the writer and artistic director (and magician by trade) who founded the Ghostbus 20 years ago. Needless to say, the pair hit it off immediately.

O'Donoghue's scripts are woven with historical trivia, but it's clear he has taken some artistic licence. When we pass the Royal College of Physicians on Kildare Street, Egan tells the story of Dr Samuel Clossey who was alleged to have dissected cadavers supplied by graverobbers. "They say the sides of Clossey's mouth could not conceal his pleasure as he flung these innards," says Egan with a grimace. "People who work there late at night - doctors, porters and students - say that the college has a memory," he continues. "At night, people hear things. Some people hear footsteps. Others hear a whistle..."

Next we pass The Shelbourne Hotel, which is Egan's cue to launch into another story about Sybil Leek, an occult author and psychic who allegedly contacted the ghost of a seven-year-old girl called Mary Masters when she spent a night on the fifth floor. The accompanying Sixth Sense-style soundscape helps me understand why this tour isn't suitable for under-14s.

Onwards we trundle, past St Patrick's Cathedral, which looks like something from a Tim Burton film at night, and through an area of the city that was once known as 'Hell'.

It isn't long before we arrive at our first stop: the crypt of Dublin Castle, where Dan from London is chosen to demonstrate a medieval torture instrument designed to crush a man's testicles. He's a good sport.

It's also here that I get a better look at my fellow passengers. The crowd hails from all over the world - Italy, France, Germany and the US - and while ages vary, it's mostly made up of twenty- and thirty-somethings looking for a detour on the Dublin tourism trail.

It's getting late when we make our second stop of the night. The bus pulls up on Heytesbury Street and we walk the short distance to St Kevin's, a former church and graveyard that opened to the public as a park in 1971. According to the bus driver, William from Lagos, some passengers are too scared to get off the bus at this point on the tour. The hustle and bustle of Camden Street is only a few metres away, but St Kevin's Park is eerily still as we walk past stately gravestones and step through the ruins of a once-imposing 12th century church.

"How many people here believe in ghosts?" asks Egan. About a third of the group raise their arms. "And who here tonight does not believe in ghosts?" he asks. Around half the group raise their arms. Skeptics and believers identified, Egan segues into his next bone-chiller.

"I must have done at least a thousand tours of this building over the years," he says. "And let me tell you, strange things happen to passengers."

First comes a story about a woman from San Francisco who passed out at the gates for a full 10 minutes. Afterwards, Egan asked her if she had been drinking. No. Was she ill? No. "She explained to me that she was a psychic and she felt a very strong presence in the building as she entered," he says.

Last Halloween, a man from Germany was "in floods of tears" after seeing what he said was a very clear apparition on the bell tower. And just last month, a man from the US said he felt "someone or something" pulling at his jacket. Egan wasn't surprised. A local boy called Tommy Powell was found dead in the graveyard in 1961 and, according to Egan, he often appears to people who have a psychic ability.

Egan concludes his tour of terror with what he calls a "Ghostbus crash course in the art of grave robbing". We hear stories of body snatchers recruiting children from the local slums to dig down to the coffins, and sack cloth being put on the hooves of horses so as not to wake up the neighbours.

One of the braver passengers, Rebecca Teale from Yorkshire, agrees to get into a makeshift coffin so he can show us how the bodies were exhumed. "That was my favourite part of the tour," she tells me afterwards. Her friend, Molly McKay from Liverpool, says she preferred seeing Dublin Castle by night.

As for me, I'm just glad to get back on the bus. They say you have to suspend your disbelief to really get lost in a horror story, but I'm not sure that Egan was spinning us a yarn…

Irish Independent

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