Last Squire of Craigbilly:
A Christmas Eve Ghost Story
by Dr. Robert Simpson
submitted by Joe Simpson
(Vancouver Island - Nov 05)
There are those who say that Squire O’Hara’s
last rest in Ballymarlow graveyard is disturbed. They say
that at midnight on Christmas Eve the squire, on his favourite
white mare, rides the road from the graveyard to the Kennel
Bridge, jumps the white gates and disappears into the water
Henry Hamilton O’Hara was the last squire of Craigbilly
[or Crebilly] Castle near Ballymena. For six hundred years
the O’Haras had been established as landed gentry in
the county. By accommodating their convictions to circumstances
and by suitable marriages, they had come to own fourteen townlands.
Throughout their history a wild riotous spirit was contained,
but only just. Theirs was the spirit of Gerald O’Hara
and his remarkable daughter, Scarlett, in “Gone With
The last squire was the son of John Francis O’Hara, himself
a blackguard and rake. In 1786 John Francis had replied to an
advertisement in a Dublin newspaper in which a young French
girl, Mademoiselle Madeline Collet, sought a position as companion
or governess in a gentleman’s family. After correspondence,
she was given an appointment at Craigbilly Castle.
Squire O'Hara's -
the Craigbilly ghost
On her arrival, she was horrified to find neither lady nor
children, for O’Hara was a young bachelor. The French
girl could speak little English and, in her dilemma, she fled
the house and sought refuge with the parish priest.
The priest set off to see the squire. O’Hara would
put matters right immediately, he said, he would marry the
girl. In due course, the marriage was solemnized in the drawing
room of the castle by the parish priest and, to legalise it,
O’Hara took his wife over to Scotland by boat from Donaghadee
to Port Patrick and re-married her under Scottish Law by declaration
in the presence of witnesses.
The first child, a son, was born in 1788 but even then the
squire began to weary of his wife who was known in the countryside
as Madame O’Hara, because of her French origins.
One day he announced that they should go on a visit to London.
She would travel from Port Patrick and by stage coach to London.
He had some business to do in Dublin. He would go there first
and join her. But he never did, nor would he send her money
for her sustenance. A few weeks after Madame O’Hara
got to London, her second child, Claude, was born. She maintained
herself by dressmaking.
In time, some of his Irish friends prevailed upon him to
contribute to her support. He went to London and gave her
money, but on condition that she sign a promissory note for
the amount and give up the elder boy, to which she agreed.
She signed the note, the contents of which she didn’t
understand. It was made out in her maiden name of Madeleine
Collet. When it became due O’Hara had her arrested and
she lay for eight months in Newgate Prison.
Eventually, he himself paid the debt with the accumulated
costs, but a few years later, by a similar trick, he had her
imprisoned in Marshalsea Prison.
With Madame O’Hara out of the way, he married a niece
of the Lord O’Neill of the day but that didn’t
prosper either and they separated. Then he married Eliza Duffin,
18, good-looking, and a daughter of the yardman. On the wedding
night there was a feast for all, drink, dancing to fiddles,
and a bonfire on Pigeon Hill.
The last squire, Henry Hamilton O’Hara, and his sister
May were the children of that [third] marriage. The father
died while he was still a boy and the estate, worth £40,000
– a significant sum in those days [well over £1.5
million today] – and bringing in an annual rent of more
than £4,000, was left in trust until he was of age.
The young O’Hara ran up vast gambling debts while at
Cambridge and, on his return to Craigbilly, the estate had
to be mortgaged, but this in no way curtailed his pleasures.
He rebuilt the castle and the stables, and established a small
stud and his pack of hounds. To this day the old blackstone
bridge near my home is known as Kennel Bridge.
One night he arrived home very late to his wife with a number
of his drunken friends from Ballymena. Mrs. O’Hara remained
seated before the drawing room fire and refused to get up
to greet the squire’s cronies, some of whom had game
cocks tucked under one arm.
O’Hara was insulted. He went over to the blazing fire,
filled a shovel with red-hot coals and poured them into his
wife’s lap as she sat. “Maybe you’ll get
up now,” said he. She did, and left him for good.
Year by year the finances of the estate worsened. Eventually
the place was taken over by a John Wardlow who had married
O’Hara’s sister. The squire disappeared from Craigbilly
to work in London as a groom. On Christmas Eve 1875 he died
of a big liver and too much whiskey and was buried here in
the churchyard at Ballymarlow, the next townland to Craigbilly.
There is an impressive monument to him.
Since childhood I have known the story of the O’Haras
and the Craigbilly ghost, of the white mare and the squire
on Christmas Eve as they jump the white gates.
“Is it true about the ghost?” people keep asking
ad I tell them that when my time comes, I shall be laid within
fifteen feet of the squire in the dark churchyard at Ballymarlow
and I wouldn’t want to say anything now that I would
be forced to regret at a later date.
This article by Dr. Robert Simpson,
Ballymena doctor and one-time Minister of Health in the
old Stormont Government, originally appeared in the Belfast
News Letter some time during the 1960s. Dr. Simpson passed
away at a ripe old age a few years ago, and as he predicted
above, was laid to rest in the very same churchyard at Ballymarlow
as Henry Hamilton O’Hara, the last squire of Craigbilly.
After this article appeared - and Ulster Television ran
a programme about the Squire’s ghost that (presented
by Dr. Robert Simpson - to the dismay of the Anglican rector),
Ballymarlow churchyard was inundated by a large crowd of
curious onlookers on Christmas Eve, seeking a thrill from
a glimpse of the ghostly squire galloping off from the churchyard
towards the white gates at the back of the old O’Hara
estate a mile away down a straight road.
Note by Joe Simpson who submitted
grandfather, who was Dr. Robert Simpson’s uncle, and
who died in 1987, used to tell the tale of how as a young
Crebilly (Craigbilly) farmer during the later 1920s he was
offered the chance to buy the O’Hara Estate and its
fine old house with Georgian furniture, for a relatively
modest sum. On the way home to talk it over with his wife,
my grandmother, he encountered an acquaintance in Ballymena,
another local man, and in casual conversation told him about
the offer. Next day Grandpa Simpson went to the bank to
borrow the purchase money, only to find out that the acquaintance
had beaten him to it, and bought the O’Hara Estate
literally under his nose! Soon afterwards the Depression
hit, and – mysteriously – “Irish Lightning”
struck the O’Hara mansion not once, but twice, the
insurer paid up, but the old house and all its antique contents
were gone forever, reduced to ashes.
Jim Kelso believes that the column
of the Squire's monument wasn't sheared off by a bolt
of lightning in a storm, but was in fact made that way.
Read More on Ballymena's Squire
Click here to read "Ballymena's
Click here to read Mark
Telford's memories of the 'Legend of Squire O'Hara.'
James A. Simpson - May '07
As I remember my late Father (Thomas Simpson)Telling
us about all these things which has been mentioned.I
also remember as a young lad that at 12oClock midnight
each night the Devil was supposed to walk through Crebilly
graveyard with his chains rattling behind him.I remember
one night as I was walking pass the said graveyard,I
heard what was supposed to be the Devil and his chains
but the chains were rattling behind the hedge on the
other side of the road,I was terrified and my hair seemed
to stand up on my head .I was completely frozen I was
so afraid I could not run as the chains came rattling
along I stopped and as I looked over the hedge,what
do you think it was, A bull walking along with a long
chain attached to its nose
Raphael MacWilliams - Apr '07
This all sounds typical of a thousand yarns
spun and embellished by firesides throughout the North
to help while away the hours of long winter evenings.
Sometimes the stories were about folks known to the
listeners and had a moral to impart. One such tale was
passed on by my mother, whose parents left Antrim around
1890. In context, the family was Catholic, but strongly
influenced by Calvinistic tenets of many of their Presbyterian
neighbors concerning evils such as card playing, drinking,
and carousing. As this story goes, my mother’s
Uncle Robert was spending Saturday night, as he usually
did, drinking and playing cards with his comrades in
a local – unofficial – pub. What was unusual
this night was that Robert was winning. Late in the
evening a stranger entered and ordered a drink. Thinking
they could fleece the newcomer, the boys invited him
to join the game. For a while, Robert’s luck continued,
but soon the tide turned as the stranger began taking
pot after pot. In his!
haste to keep up with the pace of the game, Robert dropped
a half shilling. Bending over to retrieve it from the
floor, he caught a glimpse of the stranger’s lower
extremities. What he beheld, to his horror, were not
the gum boots of a farmer, but cloven hooves –
he had been gambling with Satan!
And another time as Robert headed home from a night of frolicking he stumbled into the same imposing personage. This time, however, the encounter was brief, as the stranger seized him bodily and hurled him into the roadside hedge, where he lay trembling most of the night, fearing the return of his macabre adversary.
Ballymenaroolz - Oct '06
It's halloween night he comes out!
Patrick O'Hara - July '06
My name is Patrick Geoffrey Andrew O'Hara I am in Australia
and I find this very interesting. Thankyou maybe I might
be a distant relative I'd say.
EdwinBallymena - Mar 06
Jim Kelso should know, because it was my Father who
told him why the monument was made that way.
Coming from Harryville, I was always fascinated
by the stories of Crebilly as a youngster. It was quite
a distance from where I lived, but fequently my father
would take us a either for a walk, or a trip in the
car on Sunday afternoon, and Crebilly would usually
be visited at some point in the journey...probably because
there was a splendid view of Ballymena from the Chapel
However, as I read this article, it reminded me of a
story my father told, and still recounts to this day.
It wasn't a story to scare us away from Crebilly (although,
to be honest I was petrified of the place), but my father
insisted it was true, and indeed the main person involved
testified to his dying day that it had really happened.
As I recall, my father was in his early twenties, and
it was just after the second world war. Quite often
on a Sunday afternoon, after Church, he and some of
his friends would go for a walk. On one bright summer's
day, they journeyed up to Crebilly, and feeling warm
from the steep walk up the hill, decided to shade from
the sun by walking under the trees, through the Crebilly
estate. I faintly recall the name of one of the men,
although in honesty I don't recall to whom this incident
happened. As the 3 of them walked through the trees,
my father turned to one of his friends, and they noticed
that their other friend had 'parted company'. They turned
to see where he had went to, and saw him lying face
down on the ground, about 20 yards back. They rushed
to his aid, thinking he had stumbled, but when they
got to him, he was as white as a sheet, and was 'out
cold'. They revived him, and asked him what had happened.
He said that as they walked along, through the grove
of trees, he felt a hand on his shoulder, and as he
turned to see who it was, he saw a tall dark figure,
dressed in a dark coat, and wearing 'an old fashioned
hat', but he had no face! The young man obviously passed
out, but as my father recalled, they were the only people
in the vicinity, and despite the attempts to blame the
'vision' on the warm sun, and the heat, that man never
ventured through Crebilly estate for the rest of his
Flower - Dec '05
I don't really think that this is true. I live near
here and went to a speach about it, and this story is
totally totally different! This sounds more like a dream