Roamer: The chilling tale of the Cooneen Ghost

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Century-old spook chills the hearts of visitors to the house that it haunted

Over three decades ago, on a lengthy assignment that lasted for several years, I spent a substantial amount of time recounting the life and times of people all across Northern Ireland.

It was a great privilege to travel the highways and byways, compiling stories about the past and the present and meeting all sorts of folk in all sorts of places!

Just as it is on this page, there were regular themes that enthused people from all six counties, such as our defunct railway system, our local poems, songs and folklore and how times had changed.

But in every corner of the country there was one thing that everyone talked about, knew about, or had actually experienced - ghosts!

And one in particular was often mentioned – the Cooneen Ghost.

I never really believed the spooky stories that people told me and on the two or three occasions that a haunted house or an ‘other-worldly’ incident unnerved me, I attributed it all to coincidence or imagination.

Though I never researched it any further, the Cooneen Ghost and the ‘reverence’ with which people spoke about it has often crossed my mind.

Last week Roamer was the invited speaker at the monthly gathering of the Banbridge Historical Society.

Former biology teacher Doreen McBride, a member of the enthusiastic local history organisation, presented me with two books that she’s compiled, packed with folk tales about counties Louth and Fermanagh.

Doreen, a member of the International Storytellers Association, has travelled the world sharing her well-researched local tales, and has written so many books and documents that she can’t easily put a figure on her total output!

But there it was again, on page 54 of her Fermanagh Folk Tales collection – the Cooneen Ghost!

“The entry in the 1911 census of Ireland for Cornarooslan, County Fermanagh,” the relevant chapter begins “records that Mrs Bridget Murphy, her son James (21) and her four daughters, Anne (18), Mary (16), Bridget (12), Catherine (7) and Jane-Anne (3), lived in the town land, but the entry hides a dark secret. The family was soon to be plagued by a poltergeist, which became known as the Cooneen Ghost.”

Since I first heard about it 30 years ago, the Murphy’s ghost has been the focus of great local interest. Indeed, as long ago as 1939 the BBC broadcast a network radio programme about it.

Prize-winning documentaries, chilling films and unsettling articles have attempted to unravel the mystery which has featured in studies and reports, here and further afield. Paranormal experts, respected churchmen and impartial investigators have visited the Murphy’s now-dilapidated tin-roofed farmstead, departing with a discomforting conundrum best summarised by two RTE radio investigators as “the most authentic and disturbing poltergeist account in Ireland.”

Their radio documentary “took on a life of its own with inexplicable happenings and terrifying consequences.”

Doreen McBride’s book recounts that shortly after Ireland’s 1911 census “the Murphys moved into an isolated farmhouse in 1913.”

Shortly afterwards “Mrs Murphy’s husband Michael fell out of a cart and was killed,” Doreen’s book continues.

This was only the start of a relentless onslaught of events that many people believed was “the work of the ghost.”

The children were in bed one night, still grieving after Mr Murphy’s death. His widow and daughter Anne were sitting beside their cottage’s turf fire when “they heard the children screaming in terror and a loud tapping on the walls and heavy footsteps.”

James and his mother searched the house but could find nothing untoward.

Similarly alarming occurrences became frequent; loud knocking on the door when no one was there; heavy footsteps on the stairs when everyone was in bed; pots and pans flying around the kitchen and crashing onto the floor; blasts of cold air when all the doors and windows were shut and furniture rising and falling while mysterious shapes “appeared and disappeared through the walls.”

Neighbours, priests and politicians who came to console the Murphys also experienced these terrifying ‘visitations’.

Doreen McBride was told that MP Cahir Healy recounted “I simply could not believe what I was seeing.”

One of the numerous churchmen who “attempted to help”, Maguiresbridge priest Father Eugene Coyle, said “I stood in the children’s bedroom and watched bedclothes on an empty bed rise and fall. I felt a cold, evil presence…At times the bed lifted several inches off the ground before falling back down again.”

Many who came to comfort Mrs Murphy and her frightened family heard unexplained noises from “far below the ground.” They often detected hissing, whistling, scraping, tapping and “a sound like a kicking horse.”

The Murphy children were traumatised.

Holding her hand to her stomach one of Mrs Murphy’s daughters whispered “I can feel something pressing down here.”

The little girl had woken, screaming, when her bed started sliding across the floor.

Neighbours were convinced that it was all due to a ghost and claimed that there’d once been a murder in the house.

Others suggested that James Murphy had “an unhealthy interest in the spirit world.”

Following two unsuccessful exorcisms by a local priest, and hoping to escape from their perilous predicament, the Murphys sailed for America.

Passengers in the cabin next to them complained bitterly to the ship’s Captain about the constant night-time banging and scraping!

Published by History Press, Doreen McBride’s Fermanagh Folk Tales, illustrated by the author, is available at Amazon and most book shops.