Episode 147: ContainedLore
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- 20 Jul 2020
Humans have long practiced the art of building walls and fortresses in an effort to gain control or find safety. But no place is safe from the danger we bring upon ourselves, and sometimes those tragedies stay right where they started.
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It was a moment I will never forget, we had just rounded the curve in London's Trinity Square Gardens and there it was, a massive stretch of Roman wall in the middle of a modern city. Every single brick seemed to have been highlighted by centuries of erosion and exposure, but it still stands tall, bringing history into the present. Of course, the more knowledgeable would be quick to point out that only the first four meters of the wall are original, the top 60 percent or so, while still ancient, only date back to medieval times.
But beyond the numbers is a larger message. Long ago, this wall contained a city and now, well, that city has swallowed it whole. And I think that's the thing that jumped out at me the most when I first saw it, not its age or its ancient design, but its place in our world today. Walls are meant to create boundaries, to hedge people in and even to defend against outside forces. So it felt odd to see this fragment of a wall surrounded by gleaming modern office buildings instead of wrapping it all up in a protective embrace.
Maybe that's because the walls of history often seem larger than life. The Great Wall of China, for instance, is visible from space. The walls of Troy are some of the oldest in the world. While the ruins of Hadrian's Wall still cut across the countryside between England and Scotland. And then, of course, there's the Western Wall of the temple in the old city of Jerusalem and the Berlin Wall of the Cold War era. Walls might protect or divide or even just serve as a reminder, but at the end of the day, they're a simple design meant to do one thing to contain us.
The trouble is, whenever you bring people into the picture, you get more than you bargained for because humans have an almost supernatural ability to leave a trail of pain and suffering behind them. Yes, walls can hold cities or kingdoms or objects we want to protect, but they can also hold something darker. The shadows of the past. I'm Aaron Manque, and this is Laura. I hadn't intended to visit that wall, it's situated just to the north of the one hundred, which passes right by our real destination that day, the Tower of London, and talk about walls.
That place is rich with them, of course, much like the Roman wall I mentioned a moment ago, the Tower of London is a product of many eras of building, but at its core is something significant. A Norman castle. The Normans were incredibly good at building stone forts, the core of the White Tower in London is considered by many to be the best example of their work. But there are more all around England. It was all part of their strategy.
After invading the country in 10 66, first wooden four would go up as quickly as possible, and then a massive stone version would follow, setting their dominance firmly in the pages of history. But the Normans weren't content to stay in England within a century of their arrival, they were looking elsewhere with hunger and then in the second half of the 12th century, two things happened. First, Pope Adrian, the fourth who just happened to be the only English pope in history, granted King Henry the second permission to invade Ireland to bring the disobedient church there back in line.
A few years later, an Irish king arrived in England, exiled from his throne and looking for help to retake it. Together with the pope's wish list. This was the perfect opportunity for King Henry to cross the water and extend his rule. So in 11 69, the first wave was sent and it crashed over an unprepared Emerald Isle. At that time, Irish settlements were not much more than ring forts, either rings of earthen mounds or a circle of low stone walls in the face of the militarily advanced Normans, they were practically defenseless.
Some Irish warriors were even reduced to throwing rocks at the invaders. But soon enough, England was embedded and it would never go away. Once settled, the Normans built their own forts on Irish soil, just as they had in England a century earlier. They started with castles of earth and wood, but then soon replaced them with permanent stone structures. These new castles looked exactly as you might imagine, with a central tower or keep surrounded by curtain walls and wide ditches compared to what the Irish had been using, these buildings were practically impenetrable.
It wasn't all about military might and power, though these castles served a number of practical purposes that don't often get mentioned. They were residential buildings for local rulers. They served as the administrative center for government over the surrounding people and sometimes even guarded artificial fish ponds, stockpiles of provisions and other valuables. But no matter what role they played, they were there towering over the small wooden structures of the Irish people and making a point each and every time someone glanced at them English power, it was right there inside those thick stone walls and no one was going to take it away from them.
What no one could predict, though, was that uncontrollable forces would begin to chip away at those Cassells. The first wave happened in 13, 15, when the great European famine arrived thanks to extensive crop failures. This was a gut punch to both sides, really. The English felt their belts tightened everywhere, including Ireland. But right when the Irish were rising up under the banner of Edward Bruce, brother of Scotland's Robert the Bruce of Braveheart fame, the famine took the wind out of their sails.
Edward died in battle in 1918 and the English held on 30 years later. The plague arrived in Ireland. Roughly a third of the population there died as a result, although it wasn't evenly spread across the island. It seems that because the English preferred to live in close quarters inside their castles and the small support communities around them, they were the hardest hit by the plague. The native Irish, though, tended to live more spread out, and that distance helped them fare better than their oppressors.
And finally, the introduction of gunpowder changed the fate of these Norman castles. It seems that while those keeps and curtain walls were fantastic for repelling sword wielding warriors on foot, they were less resilient against cannonballs. And so the English rulers in Ireland began to change their strategy, leaving their imposing castles behind in favour of new, smaller structures. No now as tower houses. In 14, twenty nine, King Henry the sixth offered ten pounds, a small fortune back then to anyone who built these small tower houses around Dublin, but don't imagine these as tiny buildings.
No tower houses were just as impressive as the buildings they replaced, just crafted with more of an eye toward residential living. In fact, one of the best known castles in Ireland, Blarney Castle, with its legendary Blarney Stone, is a tower house. So are many others that still stand today. It's estimated that during that phase of castle building, upwards of 30000 of them were constructed. All across Ireland. They became homes, yes, but they also became focal points for some of the worst of humanity.
And just like a piercing scream in the night, some of those tragedies have echoed well beyond their original moments. To explore them is to revisit some of their prior owners most painful moments. And if you're ready. I'd like to take you there. The transition made a lot of sense if those enormous Norman Towers were no longer defensible against new methods of warfare, then why were the people inside them putting up with uncomfortable living conditions? The tower house was the answer, a fortified home that offered comfort and space.
But no amount of renovating or expansion could eradicate the darkness inside the people who lived there. Home is where the heart is, yes, but it's also where people can be at their worst. Countless stories about those families make that perfectly clear. Take James, for example. In 16 25, he oversaw the construction of a fortified home in County Antrim known as Balgownie Castle. But in an era when the success and health of a family line was based upon whether or not there was a male heir, there was an unhappy home.
After years of waiting for a son, Shah apparently became furious with his wife, Lady Isabelle, and had her locked in one of the tower rooms. Legend says that she either took her own life by jumping from the window or was thrown to her death. Either way, it was a tragic end to a horrifying situation. Today, the castle is a hotel, but you can still see elements of the original fortified home at its core. And those who stay there have made some unusual reports.
Visitors have heard mysterious noises and witnessed human like shapes inside their rooms. Locals even claim that a green mist can be seen hovering over the castle at night. Whether it's real or not, it's clear that the history of the place isn't easy to get rid of. Richard Nugent, the fourth lord Delvin, was a man cut from the same cloth as James Shaw. In fact, he spent his entire life scrambling for the top rung of the ladder, no matter what sort of pain it caused the people around him.
He sat in the Irish parliament and eventually rose to become commander in chief of a good portion of the English forces there. And finally, in fifteen, twenty seven, at around the age of 70, he became Lord Deputy of Ireland.
But he reached that position just as England's grip on Ireland was at its weakest. Shortly after becoming Lord Deputy, he was kidnapped by Irish rebels and forced to pay for his freedom. After returning home, he decided that it was time to build a safer residence and began construction on what would become Ross Castle in County Meath. The fortified home was completed in 1036 about a year before his death, but that doesn't mean it escaped the family legacy. Nugent's grandson was said to have inherited that ruthless ambition in order to keep the Irish from invading his lands.
He was said to have gone on many raids throughout the region, burning crops and homes and killing without prejudice. He developed a reputation for having people hanged without reason and became a terrifying figure in his day at home. It was more of the same. According to legend, his daughter Sabina fell in love with a son of a local Irish chieftain from the O'Reilly clan. They met while she was out on a ride along the edges of her father's land, and the two hit it off instantly.
For weeks, they repeated their secret meeting and soon enough they were discussing marriage. But marriage to an Irishman wasn't something her father would ever agree to. So the young couple packed one night and met along the shores of a lake. Their plan was to row across, leaving her father's land and authority behind and allowing them to build their own life someplace new. But as they crossed the dark waters, a fierce storm blew in and overturned the boat. Both of them washed back to shore, but while Sabena survived, her lover drowned, sending her into a fit of grief and sorrow, knowing she would find no sympathy from her father.
She locked herself inside one of the rooms in the castle's tower and refused to eat or drink for days. She may have starved herself, yes, but the true cause of her death, according to the legend at least, was a broken heart. And then there's County Wexford, centuries before Sean Nugent, just a year after the English invaded Ireland in 11 69, in fact, one of those English lords set about building a fortress for himself on a peninsula of land at the southeast corner of Ireland known as Buckhead.
It wasn't the last castle he would build in the region, but it was the one to inherit his name. He was Raymond Fitz-Gerald, a Welsh commander and the great grandson of the last independent prince of South Wales, at his side were 10 knights and 70 archers, and together they ravaged the south of Ireland. But he was also a bit of a black sheep among the other commanders set by the English crown and was known for being overly brutal. Some of his peers even claim that Raymonds true goal was to take Ireland for himself, not the king, although that's difficult to prove definitively.
Regardless, his trail across the southern portion of Ireland earned Raymond the nickname Redmond, hinting at the blood he was so eager to spill. But Redmond, like all of us, was mortal and passed away sometime in the 90s. Over two centuries later in 1950, that Norman Tower of his unhook head was also torn down and its powerhouse was raised in its place, a house they called Redmond Hall. As the generations flickered by, lives were lived and lost in and around those walls.
Eventually the Redmond was dropped and it just became known as the hall to those who live there, it faced cannon fire in the Irish rebellion of sixteen forty one and the blood of over one hundred men was spilled on that land around it. But surprisingly, those aren't the events that the hall is remembered for the most. Instead, it's a series of events that began in the seventeen hundreds that put this fortified home on the map, at that point, the home had passed into the ownership of a different family in the name of the hall had followed suit.
But while names can change, darkness tends to remain the same. And in Ireland, it's hard to top the darkness. Of Loftus Hall. It was as the well-worn introduction always states, a dark and stormy night, the year was 1775, and the Loftus family had hold themselves inside their ancient home to shelter against the hard rain and howling wind. Lanterns had been lit and a fire burned on the hearth. And the evening was destined to be a quiet one, which is why the knock at their door was so surprising.
Upon opening that, they found the drenched figure of a young man standing hunched over as if the rain were pelting him to the ground quickly, they invited him in and asked his business. It turns out that he was caught in the sudden storm and their house was the only light he could see through the gloom. So he had pressed his horse to reach out as fast as it could. Knowing the storm might rage all night, the family invited him to stay until morning after changing clothes and returning to his guests, the group was said to have had a lovely evening together.
Even Charles, the patriarch who had been known to be cold and unfriendly, took a liking to the young visitor, and together they enjoyed conversation and drinks. We don't know how long he stayed or whether or not he turned that one overnight into a longer visit. But we do know that Charles daughter and fell in love with a young man her younger sister had already married and left the house, and she was the last child left. Being unmarried at 30 wasn't hopeless by any means, but in 1775, it certainly might have felt like that.
But here was a lovely suitor, someone she connected with and the pair seemed to have hit it off. When her father, Charles, found out about their budding romance, though, he sent the young man away, some say he caught the couple in bed, while others say it was just one of his general fits of anger. Either way, the young man left and and was heartbroken. And once he was gone, Charles sent her to her bed chamber and locked the door.
And that's according to the legend, is where she stayed for the rest of her life, although that death came within a year. It's a story that invites all sorts of questions. And as we all know, questions are a breeding ground for folklore. And soon enough, new details flooded in to fill in the gaps, details that take the story to a whole other level. They say that one of the nights the guest was staying at Loftus Hall, they decided to play a game of cards and the guests worked as a pair against her father, Charles, and her stepmother.
And the young man turned out to be unstoppable, almost supernaturally so, but at one point in the match, and apparently dropped one of her rings and bent beneath the table to grab it. When she noticed something about her guest's feet, they were cloven like the devil and screamed. And the young man panicked. Thunder suddenly shook the room and then in a cloud of smoke, their guest vanished, leaving only the scent of brimstone as a reminder that he had been there at all, shocked by what she had discovered and went mad that her father was forced to lock her away.
At least that was the new version of the story. But whether Anne's confinement and death were the result of seeing the devil in her own home or punishment for an illicit love affair with a guest, it's the aftermath that has echoed through Loftus Hall ever since, because not long after Anne's death, strange things began to happen all around the house. And despite being Protestants, the family became so desperate that they called on a local Catholic priest to come and perform an exorcism.
They say that a man named Father Thomas broadeners arrived and cleansed the house for the family. He moved from room to room over the course of a few days, but when he was finished, the house was safe again, all except for one room that is, try as he might father brooders wasn't able to complete his work in one room. Anne's former bedroom. After that years went by, that bedroom was redecorated with a number of large, beautiful tapestries earning at the highly creative nickname of the Tapestry Room, it still had a bed in it, but there were a number of other guest rooms in the house.
So it went unused for the most part. But one evening in 1790, the family hosted so many visitors that the last one to arrive had no choice and they were assigned to the tapestry room. That guest, a local man named John Reed, happily settled in for a night of rest. But moments after he'd blown out the candles and climbed beneath the blankets, something large and heavy jumped onto the bed at his feet and it was growling. Reid practically ejected himself from the bed, fumbling through the dark.
He found his luggage and pulled his pistol from within. And then he waved it around while shouting at the intruder, threatening that he would use it. After receiving no reply, though, it said that Reid assumed the intruder had entered and exited through the chimney. So he fired a shot straight up into the darkness.
Amazingly, John Reid would return to Loftus Hall years later, sometime around 1815, he came back for another visit, this time with his son, George. And it seems that George wasn't told about his father's prior experience there, because when he saw the beautiful tapestries in that room, he picked it as the room he would stay in without a word of warning from his father. That night, rather than falling asleep, George stayed up late reading, but at some point his eye movement and he looked over to see the door to the room open all on its own and then shut again just as quickly passing through.
It was the figure of a young woman in what he described as a stiff dress who walked past the foot of his bed, opened one of the closet doors and then stepped through. The following night, George stayed awake with the goal of seeing the young woman again, and sure enough, at the same time she had the night before the woman appeared silently entering the room before making her way toward the closet, hoping to ask her who she was and why she was in his room.
George leapt from the bed and reached for her arm, but was shocked when his hand passed right through her. A moment later, she vanished. Over the years, more and more people had unusual experiences in that room, in 1858, another minister named Charles Dale visited the House and claimed that something invisible jumped onto his bed and growled at him. Others repeated similar claims, but none were as chilling as the experience had by one of the servants. A decade later.
The current lord of Loftus Hall at the time, John, had inherited the title when he was just a boy, but by his late teens, he was traveling with his own Vallet Shannon and conducting business for the family in both Ireland and across the water in England. And in 1868, John returned to Loftus Hall to visit his mother, Lady Jane. It was apparently Shannon's first time staying at the house, so he didn't know the risks involved in being assigned to the tapestry room.
Later that night, though, a series of screams woke the entire household who rushed out to see what had happened in the process. They found Shannon writhing in terror on the floor of a room down the hall from where he had been sleeping. When asked what had happened, Shannon told them that he had been fast asleep when a sound woke him up, he sat up to see the curtains around the bed moving as if someone were playing with them from the other side.
And then without warning, they were torn wide open to reveal the figure of a woman. A woman, he said. In an old stiff dress. We build walls for a lot of reasons, most people use them to define a space to separate one room in their house from another. Some people use them for privacy or protection or a general sense of ownership, and some throughout history have used walls to assert dominance over others. At the end of the day, though, walls contain things, whether those things are family memories or collections of real objects, the walls seem to wrap them up and hold them tight like a lover's embrace.
And that's a good and natural thing. But walls can do more than that. They can also contain shadows. The fortified houses of Ireland are stark reminders of the dual nature of walls, yes, they were built to keep people out and to protect those within. But in the end, thanks to the darker side of human nature, they also ended up holding on to something more. And for many of the people who visit or live inside them today, that something is still noticeable.
Back in the 60s, John's mother, Lady Jane, had hopes that the contents of Loftus Hall might entice the queen to pay a visit. Lady Jane had become friends with Queen Victoria and even held the title of Lady of the Bedchamber to Her Majesty. So sometime around 1861, Jane told the queen the details of the legend of Loftus Hall, hoping that she would want to come and see it all for herself. The plan failed, though, and Lady Jay moved on to more drastic methods in 1870.
She had a large portion of the hall torn down and then built a new, more modern manor home around it. Everything was bigger and better and more beautiful than ever, except for a few of the rooms which were preserved and reused. And that list included the tapestry room. It said that Lady Jane turned the bed chamber into a billiards room. It was a great idea, really, because it removed the room from the list of available spaces to sleep in.
New guest to Loftus Hall wouldn't know what they were missing out on. And that was mostly a good thing, except for George Reed, who returned to see the house later in his life around the mid 70s. When he arrived, he was shocked that the tapestry room was no longer available as a place to stay. Maybe he hoped to see the ghost, the young woman one last time. Or perhaps he simply wished for a familiar space inside the renovated mansion.
So he asked around about the changes. One of the longtime housekeepers there nodded knowingly at the question. Yes, she said that was young and you saw, but then she seemed to withdraw from the conversation. We shouldn't talk about her. The housekeeper told him she made a horrid noise last night knocking the billiard balls about. One last thing, it said that something was discovered during the renovations of 1870, something that hinted at a clue to the origins of the legend.
It said that inside one of the walls of the tapestry room, workers discovered bones. But they didn't belong to an adult. It was the skeleton. Of a baby. Ireland is a land of story from its ancient past to modern times, there seems to be no end to the tales that have spilled out from the shores of the Emerald Isle like some sort of magical well. And while we're still visiting, I'd like to take you to one last castle, because the story that surrounds it is one of my favorites.
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And while they might have only been stories, the true details of her life make those rumors a lot easier to fall for. Mary McMahon had been married just once before, as far as historians can tell, in 16 34, she married Daniel Neylon and the couple built a life together. But within five years, Daniel was dead, leaving her with three young children to care for. Thankfully, her next husband was a man of status, Conan O'Brien was from a long line of Irish rulers, hiking's.
In fact, marriage to him also meant moving into the family townhouse. Lemonnier Castle, which had been built in the fourteen hundreds by sixteen 40, though it was a little worse for wear. So the couple made some renovations which added to its size and scope. But life was more complicated than that, it seems the Conan O'Brien was a bit of a hothead who had no problem reading English settlements in the area. In fact, Mary often wrote alongside him participating in these missions in one document from 42, we are told that Mary and Connor led a small band of fighters out on one such raid in February of that year and brought home a wagon full of household goods, 14 pigs and over 400 sheep.
Mary, it seems that a thirst for adventure and if the stories were true that violence came home with her, it said that she would hang her servants by their necks or hair if people trespassed on their land. She was rumored to murder them. And when she wasn't killing people, they said she was happy to engage in a bit of torture. Of course, these were the same rumors that said that she had married and killed over 20 men. The truth isn't found in the ravings of the mob or the propaganda of the jealous.
No truth is found in the historical record. And while it might not include nearly two dozen murdered husbands, Mary's real story is more than terrifying as it is. In 16 41, a conflict arose in Ireland that became known as the 11 Years War. It was part of a larger conflict all throughout Ireland, Scotland and England, known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. If you've ever heard names like the Irish rebellion of 16 41 or the first, second and third English civil wars, these were all smaller pieces under the larger umbrella of the wars of the Three Kingdoms.
Naturally, everyone had to pick a side. Mary's husband, Conor, eventually gave up his life of raiding local English settlements and became a commissioned officer in the royalist army. But in 1951, during a particularly bloody skirmish, Connor was badly wounded and in an effort to save him, some of his men carried his body back to his home and to marry. It said that Mary looked out her window and saw them approaching and assumed Connor was dead, according to the legend, she leaned out the window and shouted at the approaching soldiers, We want no dead men here.
But after a quick conversation, they informed her that her husband was still alive and in need of help. Sadly, Conan O'Brien died in the castle a short while later. When he did, Mary did something unusual, she put on one of her best dresses, climbed into a carriage and made the perilous journey to the nearest parliamentarian camp, the very same forces that had killed her husband. And if the legends are true, she did it for two reasons, both of which require a bit of explanation.
First, she did it to make an offer being newly widowed, she was free to marry again and had decided that the first officer in the enemy camp to come forward would earn her hand in marriage. We don't know if anyone stepped forward that day, but we do know that a short while later she was recorded as being married to a parliamentarian officer named John Cooper. I think it's safe to assume he was the one who took her up on that offer.
But why do this? Most historians think that Mary saw the writing on the wall, at least for the moment. The parliamentarians were the horse to bet on, and Mary had an estates and children to look after. Marrying into the conquering side was a way of buying a bit of insurance against tumultuous times. But there's a second reason for her visit to the enemy camp that day. It gave her a chance to ask around and identify the man who fired the shot that killed her husband.
And Mary wasn't the sort of woman who let go of a grudge or to let anyone else do the dirty work when it mattered. It said that a short while later, Mary herself hunted down the man responsible. I can picture her riding through the night on a black horse, gun and sword hanging at her side and creeping into the parliamentarian camp to abduct her targets. It said that she then hanged the man to death, putting an end to her quest for vengeance and allowing her life to move on.
Today, she's known as Red Mary, maybe because of the color of her hair or perhaps due to all the blood she was rumored to have spilled.
Either way, she's managed to leave a mark on the past and found a way to stick around all these centuries later. History, like life, isn't always neat and tidy. There are a lot of things we don't know about Mary McMahon or whether or not the rumors about her were entirely true. But we do know that she was fierce, powerful and more than a little bloody. And if history has taught us anything, it's darkness like that. That can never be contained.
This episode of law was written and produced by me, Aaron Manque, with research by Robin Miniter and Carl Nilus and music by Chad Lawson, more is much more than just a podcast. There's a book series available in bookstores and online and two seasons of the television show on Amazon Prime video. Check them both out if you want more law in your life. I also make two other podcasts, Aaron monkies cabinet of Curiosities and unobscured, and I think you'd enjoy both.
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And as always. Thanks for listening.