Cangort house

Some haunting memories of Offaly

Cangort, near Birr, Co. Offaly, was built on the ruins of a castle that was on the site in pre-Cromwellian times.

Part 3

By Joe Fegan

There was something odd about Cangort, the manor house near Birr, Co. Offaly, in the midlands of Ireland, where I stayed three times in the 1990s as the guest of my now-deceased novelist friend, Campbell Black, aka Campbell Armstrong.

Something in its bones? Or in the ground under it, upon which an Irish castle had stood before being reduced by Cromwell’s men? (You could still climb the remains of the ancient gatehouse, and you could see where the moat had once run.)

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I can’t say exactly, but it definitely had that phantasmagorical je ne sais quoi: loud sounds spilling from the empty attic late at night; pictures randomly slipping off hangers; the portrait over the creaky, four-abreast stairs whose eyes followed you; the nearby “headache stone” and ancient roofless chapel that had been grown through by the druids’ favorite, oak trees; I never saw a ghost at Cangort House, but maybe that was for lack of trying.

I did hear odd stories from credible sources, including from Black himself – and he was a staunch skeptic who didn’t believe in ghosts! Nevertheless, as he admitted, there was much he couldn’t logically explain. He told me of two friends who’d visited during his early months in the house, when extensive renovations were under way. They were given a remodeled bedroom next to an odd, walled-off space that contractors wouldn’t touch. But Black and his wife didn’t worry because they thought the tales about “the Devil’s room” were nonsense. About 3 a.m., he said, there was a huge ruckus; their guests were literally running screaming from the house. He said he tried to talk them out of leaving because, at that hour and miles from nowhere, they weren’t likely to find anyplace else. Why not just stay in another bedroom? “Thanks very much,” one said, “but there’s no way we can stay in this house!” Then they ran to their car and drove into the night.

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I’d seen something strange in my own room, far from the Devil’s, after my first night there, too, though it didn’t send me screaming. When Black and I had gotten home from the airport, I’d flopped onto my bed to sleep off the jet lag. Later, after dinner, we decided to visit the local drinking establishment. Back in my room to change, I put my traveling clothes in the wardrobe at one end, maybe eight feet from the bed. Since I wouldn’t need my American coins for the duration, I put them on a small table next to the bed and then joined Black for my introduction to a classic rural pub. (A genus that later became almost extinct after Ireland clamped down on drunk driving.)

When I got back to my room I noticed a funny thing: Although I’d put the change on the night table, several coins were on the floor near the wardrobe. “I must have dropped them,” I thought, “and not noticed.” But then I realized it would have been impossible to drop coins on that hard wood floor, in a high-ceilinged room with plaster walls, without making a loud clatter. It bugged me: How had the coins crossed the room without my agency? The next day I asked whether anyone had been in my room while we were gone. No, I was told; after I’d left, the door had remained shut until my return.

I’d also been told a story by the cleaning lady, Rose, during my first visit. She’d been waiting for a ride home one afternoon when we struck up a conversation. Asked if she sometimes stayed over, she looked me in the eyes. “Oh, no,” she said. “I’d never stay overnight in this house.” She told me she and her young daughter had been coming up the walk one day when they’d heard riders galloping toward them in the side yard between the house and the adjoining farmland. They expected to see them round the corner, but no. The sound had stopped, to their amazement, but then the approaching hoofbeats had started again. Again they had expected to see riders, and again nothing. “This happened four times,” Rose stressed, after which she couldn’t resist peeping around the corner of the massive house. “But,” she said, “there was no one there.” I was expecting a punchline, but Rose went silent.

Then it dawned on me: My friend must have set up this odd interview and would come bursting into the room in a second, laughing with Rose about how they’d had me believing their tale of the phantom Cangort riders. But no; like the riders, he didn’t appear. And Rose just kept staring straight ahead.

I spent the better part of a month in Ireland overall in the 1990s, including several days traveling around the country before leaving Cangort for the last time in 1998. I took the family to Clonmacnoise, Dublin, the Vale of Avoca (my family had enjoyed the “Ballykissangel” TV series on PBS), Glendalough, Galway, the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher.

I’d never really identified with my Irish heritage before then. But meeting Black’s Irish friends and visiting Dublin — where the Fegan family had lived before moving to America — made me feel as if I’d come home in way. I’ve never tried to connect with distant relatives or research the Fegans of Dublin, but I do wonder why my Irish ancestors left Erin and started the new lives that eventually led to my life.

I’m sure there was more reason behind it than a ghost story, but there was, indeed, a ghost story in the Fegans’ past. It seems they owned a butcher shop, but their fresh meat kept spoiling prematurely — which finally led them to hire a “fay,” or sensitive, who urged them to dig in the cellar. And what they found there … let’s just say they, too, felt they couldn’t stay in that house another moment.

Joe Fegan is the pen name of Jeff Durstewitz, author of “The Devil’s Room” (thedevilsroom.com), an Irish gothic comedy available on Amazon.com. (He comes by his Irishness naturally; his great uncle was named Joe Fegan.) He’s also the co-author, under his own name, of the award-winning Bantam dual memoir “Younger Than That Now — A Shared Passage From the Sixties.” Part 1 of this series can be read here and Part 2 here.