Playwright and UB prof Kimberley Lynne travels to Ireland with students each summer–and, frankly, she sometimes encounters specters in her hotel room. Not that she minds, mind you. Happy St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow, readers.
We request the most haunted room, but 21 isn’t available—it’s very popular in summer. Instead, we reserve the adjacent room 22 in the 700-year-old Dobbins Hotel in quaint, Protestant Carrickfergus, just beyond Belfast at the gateway to the Antrim Coast (or as my favorite Catholic poet calls it “north of the wall”) and guarded by a dark, hulking Norman citadel. Two round stone towers flank crenulated walls. Brightly painted mannequin warriors point replica rifles out of battlements. Belfast Lough laps on one side of the castle and a wide expanse of lawn the other. King William of Orange’s diminutive statue guards the parking lot, fenced and life-sized, considering the Marine Highway’s constant traffic. In 1690, King Billy landed at the Carrickfergus sea wall on his way south to the Battle of the Boyne. Fresh bundles of flowers lie at his boots.
We (my roomie Joan and I) read online that a two-block-long tunnel once connected the fortress to the crooked hotel. Somewhere in the 14th century, the hotelier returned from Crusades to catch his wife, Elizabeth Dobbins, and a Norman soldier in an embrace and killed them both, maybe with a sword and maybe in the mythic tunnel. The Irish consider a house ghost as good luck; certainly this one sells rooms. In the fort gift shop, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency stocks thematically appropriate postcards of Frederic William Burton’s romantic painting The Meeting on the Turret Stairs. A man in light armor and a broadsword plants his lips inside the soft arm of a voluptuous maiden on curved steps. Her plaited head turns from him, into the stronghold, but even their closed eyes betray simmering, blind passion.
Elizabeth and her soldier risked everything for that brief sugar kiss, for that sweetness beyond all judgment that’s too big to hold for any length of time. Their meetings proved too few and brief, like fleeting rain after drought.
Did they fight back? Did he die first as she watched in horror? How does one swing a rapier in a tunnel? Is it worse to have known something that true only to feel the loss of honey coursing through veins?
The past and future didn’t exist for them in the tunnel; they lived intensely and completely inside the wavering plane of the present, so impossible to balance in the now and breathe. Their romance defined them and ruined them. They loved the wrong people. I understand; I’ve loved the wrong men for decades. I wish I could take some potion to cure me. My current boy toy likes me but doesn’t love me—he’s said so, yet we continue… Sex alone pales in comparison to Elizabeth’s passion that after six centuries still torments her husband killer’s hotel in Room 21, the age she reached at death.
We ride the Northern Ireland Translink through quiet, hedged suburbs. At the end of the line, we roll our luggage down hilly streets clogged with shops to the snug, darkly paneled hotel lobby where a polite, frumpy lady checks us in. We lug our bags up uneven stairs and down a long, twisting hall. Up three steps more and outside the troubled room, the stirred air turns suddenly frigid.
Guests claim that they awoke to someone or something holding their hands. This tale reminds me of Cathy’s tragic phantom in Wuthering Heights. I sleep clutched, my arms wrapped around each other in a tight pretzel. I awake once to the sound of my glasses knocked off the bedside table. No clammy hand searches for my bunched fingers, but, in the morning, wee objects dot the floor: spectacles, bits of tea wrappers, Advil packages, and receipts. I’m a compulsive; there’s no way I would’ve fallen into unconsciousness with pens and keys scattered across the thin and wavy carpet. Joan blames the narrow beds. Our shoulders ache.
At breakfast, we ask Edith, a buxom, blonde, halfway-through-this-life waitress about the ghost stories. She also serves as the Dobbins Inn housekeeper; she knows its legends, but she doesn’t think that the tunnel was ever real. She adds that military specters march through the bar at midnight…
“You mean Elizabeth’s soldier?”
“Who’s to say?”
And a waifish dead boy makes it hard to rent a meeting room. The whole floor’s tangled. She says a baby was stillborn in our room, and its blood soaks the floorboards.
Joan wrinkles her nose.
“Maybe that’s why everything was broken on the ground,” I murmur.
Edith doesn’t completely believe in the after life, but she feels uncomfortable in the most haunted room. She won’t clean it alone. Light and shade pulls swing on their own accord, and she regularly finds the Monet print face down on the carpet. She’s heard a cry of “Help!” She nods knowingly at us and leaves the milk on our table.
After a full Irish breakfast and its matching coma, we return to our room where the phone clangs. We frown, puzzled. Joan tentatively answers and chuckling, she holds the receiver out to me so I can hear the housekeeper wailing ghost pleas.
“You’re hilarious,” we call in return and rest the receiver in its cradle. The Irish are very funny; they have to be. They’ve been conquered a lot.
Later, when we squeeze past Edith’s maid trolley in the hall, she moans again like a phantom in greeting, and we laugh. I tell her that I plan on writing later in the meeting room with the little dead boy. I require a wide, flat surface.
She wishes me luck. “Tell him hello for me,” she calls.
Joan’s off to Belfast, and I itch for inspiration and a walk. I ask frumpy at the front desk directions to the nearest church.
She raises a thick eyebrow and leans in, smashing her uni-boob into the counter. “Which one?”
I realize I’ve tipped my hand. “Umm, the Church of Ireland one,” I say slowly, remembering I asked this in Prot country.
She smiles, approving. I passed. “It’s down street and up hill. The main aisle, it’s tipped to match Christ’s head on the cross, did ya know that?”
I find that rather sad.
St. Nicholas’ Church has ruled that jagged hill since 1180. Besides the angled aisle, the church is full of relics: a cannonball in the graveyard, bog oak chairs, a leper window, and an entire family buried under the Donegall Aisle topped by a Jacobean memorial monument of Italian marble. I find a nautical poem on a bronze tablet that might work for the end of my Siren’s Call play when the abandoned mutant girl imagines her mermaid mother drowning under the waves without her magic cloak. Ireland influences my voice again and again.
I return to the hotel. Play revisions swirl out of my fingers despite something draughty in the meeting room that chills even July. “Edith says hello,” I say in the dead boy zone, trying to keep my tone even. I wonder if his passing involved something freezing. Outside prophetic gulls cry. Phrases float up from the Carrickfergus streets, and horses clop where there are none. Slapping seals and their wrenching screams bleed into my play. Goose bumps blossom. Time leaps.
When Joan returns from her BBC meeting, she pushes through the suctioned and sealed door and takes in the room. “…Cold in here.”
“We are not alone,” I declare, closing Apollo, my beloved laptop. “The dead are among us.”
“No doubt. There’s some right here.”
We investigate period prints of 18th-century Carrickfergus on the walls. The town hasn’t changed much.
One corner by the fireplace seems particularly breezy. When icy breath flutters our hair, Joan declares, “That’s enough of this.” She opens the door—whoosh!
We need to be reminded that we’re alive and human. “Let’s eat,” I propose.
After a cheap and delicious fish and chips feast at PaPa Brown’s Grill by the sea, we stroll along the seawall and then watch zombie film Sean of the Dead in our room. Outside our warped window barks and yelps echo up through the space between the leaning buildings.
“Those sounds are not made by pigeons,” Joan states. She snuggles under the blankets of her skinny twin bed so to block out reaching spectral hands.
“Local kids. Or seals.” I scan the room. “There’s nothing on the floor. I’m just saying.”
I dub our room the Pigeon Coop because they flock outside the window and coo and flap. Maybe they protect us because there’s no trash scattered come second morning. All is quiet and carpet bare.
After breakfast, Edith’s maid assistant knocks on our door. She’s plump, and her hands glow raw with scrubbing. “Do ya want to be seein’ the ghost room?” she asks, tilting her head along with her vowels.
We sense the icy aura immediately in Room 21; all our hairs stand up, pushed by palpable movement in the arctic air. I feel unsteady. I lean against the wall that vibrates through my open palm, tingling with an electric current. I think of my ancient and forbidden romance and his twinkling eyes and lopsided grin. I know how that bittersweet can torment, even after five decades, and we didn’t die together. We’re both alive and that might be worse, not to die from a broken heart, to be the Juliet who lived.
The maid assistant backs away into the hall. Suddenly, Edith explodes out of the wardrobe, groaning, covered in a sheet. We howl. We’re quaking with mirth when the TV turns itself on across the room and not to the standard hotel menu page but to a French cooking show. The housekeeper stops laughing, startled. Some brunette in an apron explains egg separation in French.
Elizabeth’s Anglo-Norman soldier lover might have hailed from the rich territory of Alsace Lorraine between France and Germany for the Normans (north-men) were Vikings who settled in France, and they crop up in local history. When they invaded in 1760, they stole the silverware and knocked over the baptismal font at St. Nicholas’ Church.
“Maybe she haunts this room because it gets good reception.”
“We don’t get any French channels,” slowly says Edith.
“That makes absolutely no sense.”
“What!? Are ya expectin’ logic outta death?”
“No, I guess . . . that we know our death’s coming is the most surreal part . . . I mean, we know it’s going to happen–”
“It’s all your fault,” Joan says to poor Edith, somewhere between jocularity and accusation. She suspects that dead Elizabeth flicked on the television because live Edith was messing with us and mocking her.
“I need me a new job,” says Edith, shaking a dusty rag at us. “But I’m an old dog.”
The French lady cook adds pads of butter to a sauce. We silently process in the wintery room.
I randomly think: eggs in French or oeufs sounds a bit like eyes in French or yeux.
We didn’t turn on that TV; its remote rests on its top. Some channel unbolted, opened, watching. You never know who’s going to open the door or how or when.
“Maybe I do believe,” mutters Edith.
The door has been opened and the wink is enough.
I’m glad Elizabeth took the trouble to send us this message from the Other Side for penance or as a warning or reminder. Vestigial energy lurking in this 700-year-old pile of bricks tunes us into a spiritual radio band, and its music sings: love’s much more powerful than death. Death is a transition, a door, but love lingers on like a chronic cough or cloying honeysuckle or the brine of the Irish Sea or the lingering soup of bed.
They died; their love didn’t.
Kimberley Lynne is a writer, teacher, and arts producer. For the past four summers, she’s taught playwriting to American students in a month-long creative writing residency, the Armagh Project. “Carrickfergus” is one memoir piece from her evolving collection of true stories of Irish magic, Portals.