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The Last Squire of Craigbilly.

Since childhood I have known the story of the , on the white mare on Christmas Eve jumping over the white gates

Squire O'Hara - The headless Horseman
The Last Squire of Craigbilly:
A Christmas Eve Ghost Story
Article 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 below.

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 Wind”.

Squire O'Hara's - the Craigbilly ghost
Squire O'Hara's - the Craigbilly ghost
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.

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.


Author notes:

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 the article:

My late 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 O'Hara

Click here to read "Ballymena's Headless Horseman"

Click here to read Mark Telford's memories of the 'Legend of Squire O'Hara.'



Your Responses

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 there.
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 life.

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 than reality.

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