Ireland’s Most Haunted Castle

I love ghost stories. From the haunted vaults of Edinburgh to the castles of Ireland, and from New England battlefields to the streets of New Orleans, I’ve taken every opportunity to scare myself silly. I even went through a phase in which I watched Ghost Hunters every week on the SyFy channel just to get travel ideas.

Years ago, before I’d ever set foot on Irish soil, Ghost Hunters investigated Leap Castle in County Offaly. With a gruesome history dating back to the 1500’s, it’s supposedly the most haunted castle in Ireland, if not all of Europe! So, I added it to my mental itinerary of terrifying places to go.

One of the reasons Leap (pronounced Lep not Leep) Castle is so haunted is because of the Bloody Chapel. The original owners, the O’Carroll family, once invited a rival clan to dinner and murdered the whole lot of them in the chapel. The O’Carolls tossed their bodies down an oubliette to rot. This was a fate that befell many unfortunate souls over the years; hundreds of skeletons were discovered in the 1920’s. (You can read the complete history on Leap Castle’s website.) Because of this, it’s believed that many spirits now haunt the castle, including something called The Elemental, the granddaddy of all big bad evil entities. (Some of you are now probably thinking, oh hell no! I’m never going in there!)

The towerhouse in the middle would have been the original structure (similar towerhouses can be found all over Ireland). The extensions on either side are relatively new and wouldn’t have been a part of the original castle.

I finally gathered up the courage to visit last year.  I called Sean Ryan, the castle’s current owner, and asked for a private tour. Tours are by appointment only; he keeps the gates closed to control access to the property. Otherwise, I imagine he’d have wanna-be ghost hunters and curious people like me wandering around at all hours of the day and night.

Sean Ryan is exactly the kind of person you’d expect to live in Leap Castle. A musician, he has long white hair that falls to his shoulders and full white beard. He’s a friendly man with a serious disposition who seems mentally formidable enough to take on a towerhouse full of ghosts.  He invited me inside to sit by the fireplace, and as the wood cracked and hissed, he regaled me with stories about the castle. Then, he lead me to the stairway and gave me a flashlight.

“You’ll have to go up on your own,” he said. “I’ve had a little trouble with my knee.”

“But, the ghosts…” I said, joking. “They might get me!”

With an eerie, deadpan look he said, “There are no ghosts.”


Ghosts or no ghosts, walking up a narrow staircase with a flashlight by yourself can be a little unsettling. Especially when Sean closes the door behind you to “keep out the drafts.” And especially when the flashlight batteries start to fail, producing a strobe light effect in the darkness.  After wending the stairs in the photo above, there was no electricity. I couldn’t imagine climbing those stairs at night like all those crazy people from numerous ghost-hunting shows. It was better than any makeshift haunted house experience back home!

Sean’s living quarters
Artwork detail
The only source of light in the darkness.


The Bloody Chapel was at the top of the stairs. You’d think that with a name like “bloody chapel”, it’d be a bit scarier–that the air would be heavier and you’d feel a sense of foreboding or sadness. Maybe in the middle of the night when imaginations get the best of you, but during the day it felt…peaceful. With the sun shining, there was plenty of light in the chapel and a beautiful view of the Irish countryside.

Sean continues to work on renovations, and I hope to return some day to see how they progress. In the meantime, I hope he continues to welcome visitors and that people will consider donating to help with maintenance. (Castles are an expensive investment. I’ve looked into it!) Regardless of what ghosts may or may not haunt the place, Sean owns an interesting piece of Irish history, and I’m happy he’s chosen to open his home and share it with so many.


The Bloody Chapel
Section of the castle Sean hopes to renovate (view from the Bloody Chapel).

What’s the spookiest place you’ve ever visited? Tell me in the comments below!



40 Days

My mom turned 40 at Kramer’s Supper Club in Evansville, Minnesota, a no-stoplight town in the West Central farmlands. It was a surprise party. I was 17-years-old at the time and the only one of my 4 siblings to snag an invite because I had a car and agreed to sneak in the cake ahead of time. The room was decorated in prerequisite black and white graveyard-inspired decor because turning 40 means you’re about to die, and that’s obviously something you should joke about. My friend Missy came along, and we sat by ourselves when things got started, plotting to steal a taste of someone’s unattended beer. We got our chance when all the adults cleared out after dinner. No one noticed us hanging back, taking swigs of Miller High Life from half-empty bottles. That night defined for me what a 40th birthday was supposed to look like. I assumed it would take a lot longer to get there myself.


I recently polled my Facebook friends to see how they spent their 40th birthdays, and here were some of their experiences:

  • Had a hysterectomy
  • Took a two week trip to the UK
  • Had too much sushi and wine
  • Cut off very long hair for Locks of Love
  • Enjoyed a farm to table dinner
  • Took a long weekend on the Olympic Peninsula
  • Forgot because brain dumped out pre-divorce memories
  • Had tea and played with kittens
  • Went to Disney World and then went on a rafting trip to see Grizzly bears
  • Turned 40 in a Chicago hotel room
  • Started a random tradition of spending every birthday somewhere I’ve never been before, doing something I have never done before
  • Disneyland!
  • Husband planned a surprise party
  • Went off to an island alone and considered how I wanted to live the next 40 years
  • My wife left me
  • Saw Queen Latifah
  • Cooked dinner for a few closer friends
  • Parents took me to Italy


Now it’s my turn to summit that infamous “hill” and start the gradual decent into old age. I’ll be 40 at the end of March, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to celebrate it. I don’t have any scheming daughters to sneak sips of my wine (Miller High Life was something I never tried again), and my life hasn’t followed a traditional path with a husband, kids, and whatever else we attach to the American Dream, so I don’t really feel 40. Maybe no one ever really feels 40. Is it even really that significant anymore?

Scrabble 40.jpg

It must mean something—the number 40. It’s the number of weeks human beings gestate before birth. And then we grow up listening to American Top 40 before settling into 40 hour work weeks after college. In the Bible, people were always spending 40 days wandering around or getting tempted or rained on.  40 must mean something.

Today marks 40 days to my 40th birthday. And while I don’t know how I’d like to celebrate the actual day yet, I’d like to take that time to meditate on what I’ve accomplished so far and to think about what I’d like the next half (or so) of my life to mean. Over the next 40 days, I’m going to seek out new experiences, make new connections, strengthen existing connections, and hopefully finish a few projects that I started in my 30’s. This was inspired by my friend, Renata, who had one long, continuous celebration. And why not? If we’ve made it this far, shouldn’t we take some time to celebrate ourselves?


I’ve come up with about 20 things to do so far, so I’m in need of some ideas! Big or small. Feel free to comment with suggestions or simply share what turning 40 means to you.



I couldn’t resist the title. The word conjures up a fond memory for me. (And where did your mind go just then?!)

I last made it home for Christmas in 2008. My oldest niece and my nephew were both 4 at the time. Just before Christmas Eve dinner, Ella tore down the stairs from my mom’s playroom and through the house screaming. She stopped dramatically in the dining room, brushed the hair from her face, and declared, “Isaac is trying to screw me!”

My siblings and their spouses all looked at her with confusion. Screw? What!

Seconds later, Isaac ran up behind Ella with a devilish grin on his face…and with a giant, orange plastic screwdriver in hand.

In Love with Clare

The Cliffs of Moher in the morning!

On Monday I drove from County Kerry to County Clare, Ireland, and I’m now staying in the little tourist town of Doolin, a 5 minute drive from the Cliffs of Moher. After a grueling 4 hour drive, I checked into The Half Door Bed and Breakfast. If ever you happen to be in Doolin, you will want to stay here. Upon arrival, the owner, Anne, made me a pot of tea – which really hit the spot as the rains rolled in and the wind picked up. I felt right at home!

Last night, the wind blew so hard the rain stung when it hit my face, so taking pictures was out of the question. I camped out in Mcdermott’s Bar and Grill instead, where a young man asked if I would hire him to be my leprechaun. He said for a meager $100 a week, he would grant all of my wishes and cook me bacon and cabbage. I told him I wasn’t hiring. He told me my Irish accent wasn’t that good. After 1 1/2 Guinness, I returned to my B&B to get some peace and quiet.

When I woke up this morning, the sun was shining! Even though I wanted to chat with the other guests and enjoy my full Irish breakfast, I ate quickly and then hit the road to see the Cliffs of Moher and some other popular destinations before the hordes of tourists descended upon them.

Another rainbow!

The Cliffs of Moher were easy enough to find, but Poulnabrone Dolmen was hidden out in the middle of County Clare, and I can’t tell you how many wrong turns I made trying to find it. Finally, I asked a tour driver, who had stopped his van to let his passengers take a picture of the castle above with the rainbow. He said he was heading there next, and because I was a redhead I could follow him. Ha. Good thing, because I would have driven right past it!

Poulnabrone Dolmen
Example of limestone pavement in The Burren (Poulnabrone Dolmen in the background)
Random building along the road

Jet Lag

Sheep grazing on the mountains just before the Ring of Kerry

Irish travel log, day 4.

My jet lag has been terrible this time. I didn’t blog for the first two days because of the fog. I had to force myself to walk around Dublin and even to eat because I just didn’t feel like it. Writing? Ha! Balls to that! (Irish expression.)

So, what happens to an American woman who is jet lagged? Someone will actually rent her a car. Once the car is rented, she will proceed to sit in the passenger side seat, expecting a steering wheel to be there and then, pretending like she meant to do that, she will get out and then re-enter on the right (wrong) side. Later, when she tries to enter Bailey’s Hotel car park, she will enter on the right side and wonder where the hell the key code entry pad is located. Then she’ll back up and enter the left (wrong) side hoping a camera wasn’t recording it, lest she end up on Tosh.O with a web redemption.

Today I am less jet lagged and think I’ve gotten the hang of driving, even though the signs aren’t very well posted. I’m very surprised to have actually made it to Portmagee, my final destination for the evening. Tomorrow – boat trip to Skellig Michael. No driving required…

Some photos from the day:

I never said I was a good driver to begin with…
Cahir Castle; Cahir, Ireland
Cool Door at Cahir Castle
Portmagee, Ireland

Oh, Muddy Hell!

When I threw open my blinds this morning, I saw fog blanketing the Cashel countryside. This was exactly what I had been hoping for. I wanted to revisit Hore Abbey and capture it in fog, so I wasted no time getting ready and driving over there. Lucky for me, there was no one on the road or at the crumbling abbey; I had it all to myself – a photographers dream!

I had a particular shot in mind, and it required hiking out into a cow pasture. As I sloshed further out into the marshy field, I had the faintest idea that I may have made a bad choice. I tried to stay on the most solid-looking pieces of turf but soon realized I was in big, muddy trouble. And then it happened…My right foot sunk deep into a slurping pool of something I can only assume came from the back-end of a cow. Muddy hell!

Of course, I couldn’t let a little bog juice spoil my fun. Even though my shoes and pant legs, up to my knees, were soaked, I carried on and got my shot. Photographers will understand – certain sacrifices must be made in the name of composition.

BelleWood Acres

With 25,000 apple trees, BelleWood Acres is the perfect place to spend an autumn afternoon with a good friend (and my Nikon).   Andy introduced me to owners, John and Dorie, who planted the first trees back in 1996.   Today, in addition to their primary commodity, visitors can find a pumpkin patch,  a gift shop, and some amazing baked goods and apple cider.  Andy bought an apple pie, which we drooled over and devoured later. 

The majority of our time was spent walking through the rows of the orchard, snapping pictures.  I had an unfortunate encounter with a rather large spider that had cleverly strung a web with the consistency of small guitar string across my path.  As I stood strumming the odd web, he jumped on my leg.  Spiders are my only known phobia, and the sight of it on my leg threw me into a panic.  In the half second it took me to realize he was on me, I’d swatted him off.  This was immediately followed by blood curdling screams and a mad dash back to wherever Andy had disappeared so he could inspect ever inch of my clothing.  I was safe, but I insisted Andy walk in front of me the rest of the trip.   He’s such a good friend!   

Spider incident aside, it was a fun trip, and I’ll definitely return to BelleWood.  Enjoy the photos!

The Incredible Andy! Spider killer. Apple levitator.

Misadventures in International Dating

Disclaimer:  This will be a slightly different post that what my readers are used to, but I felt it was a story worth telling, plus it’s somewhat cathartic.

Living a stone’s throw from the Canadian border makes the Vancouver dating scene a viable option. Sure, there are a few raised eyebrows from CBSA officers at the Peace Arch Crossing when they ask me what my business is in Canada. Yes, I blush profusely on my return trip into Washington when chatting with the border guards about the same questions. But, I’m lured to Vancouver anyway and have experienced everything from a David Puddy wannabe in a Magic 8 Ball jacket (remember Seinfeld?), to being fed sushi from a guy who wanted to impress me with his chop-stick skills, to one perilous encounter in which a date was attacked by a raccoon in Stanley Park.

When Raccoons Attack...(captured on my camera phone)

This weekend I decided to make the trip again for a British-Canadian who promised me tea in the Kitsalano area at a place called Kit’s Coffee Company. My intuition was screaming at me this time as I waited in the border queue. But when the green light flashed, and I pulled forward to the CBSA officer, I decided to ignore it.

 “Take off your sunglasses, Ma’am. What is your name?”

Removing my sunglasses and handing over my passport I reply, “Jolene Hanson.”

 “What is the reason for your visit to Canada?”

 “Meeting a friend.”

 “How do you know this friend?”

 “Um…” I turn several shades of red. “The internet.”

 Raised eyebrow. “How long do you plan on staying?”

 “Well, if it goes well, until tomorrow. Haha.”  Wink, wink.


I can’t explain I’m just kidding about that last part, and as the officer hands back my passport with a stern look I feel a tad naughty. I quickly get over it and drive away.

The drive into Vancouver was a relatively easy one. What my date did not warm me of however, was that on this particular Saturday a giant street fair in the Kitsalano neighborhood had blocked 4th Street and Kit’s Coffee Co. No problem. I’d park and walk.

And I walk, and walk, and walk uphill until I hit 4th and Yew Street. Sweating, but keeping my composure, I look around Kit’s for the wiry Brit. Nowhere to be seen, I send a courtesy text announcing my arrival.

18 minutes go by, and then my phone vibrates. “Just parking the car. 2 minutes.”

I’d like to point out here that I’m the one who had to drive over an hour to get to Vancouver and then walk 10 blocks, yet I managed to be exactly on time. And yet, more time passes, and the British man remains unseen. Finally, my phone vibrates again with a text. “I’m on the back patio.”


I walk through Kit’s and spot him. Curiously, he’s sitting in the sunshine reading a newspaper with two empty coffee cups pushed to the edge of a small table.

“Julian?” A thin, 40-something man with the blondest eyebrows I’ve ever seen looks up. “Have you been here long?” I ask sarcastically, motioning towards the paper.

“Oh just a couple of minutes,” he says, folding it up.

And you decide to read a newspaper at a dirty table when you are 20 minutes late instead of looking for me, Jerk?

 “Can I get you a tea?” He asks, rising from the table and neglecting to apologize for the growing list of faux pas.

 “A latte would be fine,” I reply. I’m annoyed and hot, and have no interest in him at this point for being rude, but I set my purse down and get comfortable.

A fascinating article about the ubiquitous nano particles poisoning the planet distracts me once he’s out of sight, and I don’t realize 10 more minutes have passed. How long does it take to make a damn latte?

I can’t get a proper view of the front counter, so I pick up my purse and head inside.

No Julian.

I check the bathroom, scour the patio, and the mob of people in the street outside. No Julian.

Well, maybe he’s a time traveler and was sucked inconveniently and painfully into another century? I hate it when that happens.

Or, maybe he’s a villain, and I’m his arch-nemesis, whose mind was long ago erased of my super-hero exploits? But, he remembers me and my secret power to arrive places on time. Of course!

Or, maybe he’s Superman – a skinny Canadian version who rescues men on Davies Street from white leather and duty called?

The reality though, is that Julian had ditched me.

I’m not a hulking gorilla of a woman, but I’m no supermodel either. I’m just a normal person with awesome hair, so I chose not to take this personally. I knew another British guy who was rather skittish and frightened easily, so maybe my enormous personality simply overwhelmed him. Maybe he’s crying in the bushes because he’s ran out on yet another woman, and more than anything he wants to be a normal boy. Poor little guy. He probably still lives with his Mum and wishes he can grow up to be a fireman one day.

No. He’s just a maladjusted asshole who was probably pissed off that I’d ordered a coffee drink instead of tea.  

The border guard on the U.S. side didn’t seem very interested when I told him I’d been on a bad blind date. He simply handed back my passport and said, “Welcome home.”

Indeed. I love Canada, but Canada can come to me next time.

Oh yeah, I sent him a follow up text to thank him for the opportunity to make the lovely drive to Canada and get some exercise.  Or, something to that affect…

Mr. Isaac’s Penny-Squishing Adventure

Meet Isaac, my 6 year-old nephew and professional mischief maker.   Prior to my arrival in Minnesota last week, he’d scaled my sister’s refrigerator and downed a half bottle of Disney princess gummy vitamins.  Luckily, they were iron free. 

My sister, Carole,  is now on a first name basis with both poison control and the Disney princess gummy vitamin people, who are sending her a free replacement bottle for her troubles.  Someone there must have a six-year-old boy.

Carole will have you know, Isaac isn’t much of the Disney princess type.  The vitamins just taste good.   In his spare time, while not sneaking large quantities of supplements, he can be found playing with spiders, hunting snakes in the yard, and beating up other little boys behind his school. 

So, my sister and I decided a little trip to the railroad tracks up the street from my mom’s house to flatten some pennies would be the perfect thing to distract him from any misadventures on the first day of my trip.  

We used to do it all the time as kids…

Of course, maybe teaching him to play around boxcars hauling 1000’s of pounds of potentially toxic material at high speeds wasn’t the best idea. 

Walking to the train tracks on your hands is much more fun!


Carole and Isaac


A view of the trains


Prepping for penny squishing


Run Away! (Isaac and his dad, Caleb)


Squishing complete! "Look what I got, Auntie Jojo!!!!"


I wanted a better angle, but will a 6 year-old boy stand still for a second shot? NO.


He writes his name in the dirt with the newly flattened penny. The adventure is complete!

Viking Invasion of Ireland – Day 2

Alley off of the Meeting House Square

I just arrived in Belfast and want to explore, so I’ll be a bit more concise with my story-telling today and then post a few pictures from day 2 in Dublin…

Yesterday I took what seemed like a very long walk to the Guinness Storehouse after Paul and I visited Steve McCurry’s exhibit.  This lead me past old cathedrals, Dublin’s first pub, and countless other little points of interest. I wanted to visit the Jameson Distillery as well, but I didn’t leave myself enough time and ended up at Dublinia to experience Viking and medieval Dublin.  It was a self-guided tour, which I enjoyed immensely because I learned a lot about my Viking ancestors.  Interestingly, there weren’t really full-time Vikings.  Mostly they were farmers who were just part-time sea terrorists looking for extra income.   Definitely worth the price of admission. 

I didn’t go out with Paul’s friends yesterday evening.  On my own instead, I visited Oliver St. John Gogarty for the second time and struck up a “conversation” with a man from Barcelona.  He didn’t speak English, so by conversation I mean pantomime, over exaggerated hand movements and pretty much just saying words neither of us understood LOUDER.   This was too exhausting for me despite his good looks, but he was really excited about having an amigo and decided to follow me around for a while.  Not really wanting a stalker that I couldn’t understand, I ducked back into the Clarence where I ended up meeting two older brothers named Liam and Colin in the hotel bar. 

Liam and Colin were your traditional Irish story-tellers who kept me entertained until well after midnight.  By the time they left, I’d struck up a conversation with the bar supervisor, who after closing it down, kept it open for the two of us so we could chat.  And chat we did!  Over Midleton Rare until 6 a.m.  He may have gotten into a weeee bit of trouble for that one, but he gave me his phone number.   Unfortunately, there really wasn’t time to connect after my three hours of sleep because I had to catch the train to Belfast.  But, who knows?  Maybe we’ll cross paths again.  I really don’t want to book a THIRD trip here.  I love it, but really.

That’s the reader’s digest version.  Enjoy the pics!

The oldest pub in Dublin
She looks a little thirsty...
Guinness and a horse with a wig made of the Irish flag colors. What more do you need?
Guinness Storehouse Exit

Dublinia exit towards the cathedral