CONNEMARA, Ireland -- It was a dark and stormy night. . . . No, really, it was a dark and stormy night on the far west edge of Ireland, overlooking the sea.
Not that there hadn't been darker, stormier nights -- like the one 14 months earlier when the Atlantic had hurled itself right into the hotel, driving all the guests up to the attic and challenging the staff to get breakfast to everyone, which they did, sloshing about in their Wellingtons and generally making a lark of a soggy situation.
But this night was stormy, nonetheless. The wind certainly was howling off the rocks and the rain came in sheets as if driven across that wide expanse of ocean by spirits fast and furious.
And dark! Well, you don't know dark until you've walked along this shore in the dead of night, with the nearest town, Tullycross, asleep a good mile behind you and the nearest city, Galway, two hours by bad road over your left shoulder.
Which is not to say that I was actually out walking along the shore -- I mean, it was dark (did I mention the wind?). No, I had been whiling away the evening in the pub at Renvyle House, a hotel once owned and maintained as a summer home by Oliver St. John Gogarty, Dublin physician, poet and friend of William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and other prominent literary and cultural figures of the early part of this century. Many of them had stayed at Renvyle, mingling with the "paying guests" and generally having a good, if occasionally peculiar, time of it.
I had planned to stay there only briefly, but lingered for four days when I found that Renvyle embodied the best of the country house atmosphere, with a number of public rooms, spacious or cozy, with turf fires burning and rocking chairs or chintz wing chairs pulled up close, and a feeling that the staff knows who you are and when you might want a nice pot of tea. (The tea comes with brown bread scones and jam and a crock of butter and perhaps some fresh whipped cream to "top off.") The services of a good hotel are not to be taken for granted in Connemara.
So there I was: It was dark. It was stormy. It was night. It was also off-season, the only time to visit Ireland properly and understand a bit of the place. I was tired. Perhaps owing somewhat to my evening in the pub? Perhaps -- oh, surely! -- owing to the five-mile walk through the mountains I had undertaken that morning.
Some mornings I headed for the hills, some mornings for the shore. The truth of the west coast of Ireland in November is that you get wet, then you get dry. Gray clouds clear and you see rainbows. Then it rains again. Or not. You see more sheep than people, or you stare at tide pools that have been there since before you were born. Then you hie yourself back to the hotel and have a hot whiskey and take off your shoes by the fire and wait for tea.
But I was not so tired that I was not eager to read a book or two supplied by the hotel manager, who had earlier placed in my hands the guest book for 1930, with its spidery, elegant signatures: Winston Churchill, W. B. Yeats, Eamon De Valera (the republic's first president). These back in the days when guests listed the number of their servants along with the make of their motorcar.
Oh, would that I had not expressed interest in the history of that place! Because it was a dark and -- well, you know -- I lit a fire in my room. Turf fires are difficult to light, but once lit they last long into the night. Thus settled, I began to read a recommended chapter titled "Renvyle" in "The Lively Ghosts of Ireland" by Hans Holzer.
I don't read ghost stories as a rule, being a nonbeliever and a shameless coward on the subject. Maybe you have heard of the Irish woman who, when asked whether she believed in fairies, replied, "I do not, sir, but they're there anyway." Well, that is me about ghosts.
By the light of the fire, I turned on my bedside lamp and began. Sounded simple enough: Yeats and his wife -- like her poet husband, a mystic-- not only had honeymooned at Renvyle House, but had held seances there. They had on a couple of occasions revived the ghost of a long-ago inhabitant of the house who supposedly had hanged himself, and more recently Yeats himself apparently had haunted the room where that early ghost had appeared.
The fire flared and the curtains blew in the wind, and I felt complaisant as the clock edged toward 2 a.m. This was long-ago stuff, and it was literary. Not like rattling bones and rolling heads. I read on.
In "A Seagray House: The History of Renvyle House," by J. A. Lidwell, I learned that Yeats and his wife (the former Georgiana Hyde-Lees) held a seance in the house because "Georgie" had seen a face looking out from the mirror in their room. During the seance, the ghost communicated to W. B. Yeats through automatic writing, saying that he objected to strangers in his house.
Meanwhile, another guest took it upon himself to enter the room where Georgie had seen the visage. He lit three candles and said some prayers in Latin and was immediately thrown to the floor as the room filled with thick mist. Later, he said he had seen a pale boy who had gone through the motions of strangling himself.
Georgie then agreed to confront the boy. She emerged from the haunted room unscathed to report that she had seen a "pale-faced red-haired boy" who had belonged to the family from which Gogarty had bought the house and who "resented the presence of strangers in the home of his ancestors."
Mr. Holzer writes that a previous manager of the hotel had admitted to some considerable "bother" about a particular room in the house, what with people saying there was "somebody" in the room and on one occasion a very "sane and sensible" lady complaining that a man was looking over her shoulder as she put on her makeup.
"There is a strong tradition that this room is the very room in which Yeats carried out his seances," Mr. Holzer writes.
Me, I don't wear makeup on vacation anyway, but I made a mental note -- as I glanced at the oval wood-framed mirror hanging from the high ceiling molding -- to avoid mirrors entirely for the rest of my stay.
Mr. Holzer himself had visited the room (I notice he didn't stay overnight) and described it as being on the second floor in the center of the building (Yikes! I thought. It could be just down the hall!) overlooking the courtyard. (Probably the same courtyard this room overlooks, I mused.) He went on to say that the room is distinguished by a "red fireplace in the center of the left wall." The medium Sybil Leek, who also had visited the room, felt a "presence" there and noted that it might be difficult to keep a fire going in the fireplace.
I recalled, as I read this, that ghostly presences often quell flames, and felt a wash of smug satisfaction in my expertly laid turf fire. I lowered my book to bask in its glow -- and found myself staring at a fireplace stone-dead, dark and cold! It was also surrounded by red brick and set smack in the center of the wall!
In a flash, I leapt from the bed to the heavy wooden door, my feet hardly touching the floor, and shot the iron bolt. Locking out a ghost! I might have laughed aloud at my folly if I had been able to make any sound come from my throat. I --ed over and slammed shut the casement window, stifling what had until a few moments before been a damp, refreshing sea breeze. Oh, I know you can't keep spirits out with locks and bolts (because there are no spirits, right?), but there's certainly no point in issuing them an invitation.
But wait. I'm no ordinary wimpy tourist, after all. I'm a journalist. How could I let the interview of a lifetime (mine, of course, his having been already used up) slip through my sweating palms?
I crept from under the covers and gingerly placed my reporter's notebook and ballpoint pen on the bedside table. I left the lamp blazing: If W. B. Yeats showed up, that was fine -- I had some questions to ask. But I certainly didn't want him to startle me in the dark. Earlier accounts of his manifestation had him as a tall man in a dark hat and cloak materializing at the end of the bed in the middle of the night (too late for that), rhythmically clapping his hands. This I did not wish to see. Of course, it would be just bad luck to miss out on the poet entirely and get the irritable pale-faced boy strangling himself. Some fun that would be.
I dozed fitfully through what was left of the night, the room stuffy with the window shut tight -- a discomfort perhaps compounded by the sheet, two blankets and comforter pulled tight over my head and by the thirst I could not quench because the water jug was in the bathroom hard by the wall-size mirror.
Will it disappoint you to learn that no spirit appeared that long night? Or the next, or the one after that? By the end of my stay I was getting downright cavalier about the whole business, laughing over the "haunted room" with guests in the dining room and proceeding to bed with a sort of casual abandon as the wind whipped around the corners and rattled the windowpanes. One night, I even turned out the light, and I practically stuck my tongue out at mirrors -- in broad daylight.
In fact, in broad daylight, Renvyle House -- with its stable of horses for beach rides, its wind-swept (but you knew that) croquet lawn and tennis courts, its modern swimming pool -- nestled between the mountains and the sea, is as benign and comforting a place as you could imagine.
Perhaps you will be there in the off-season, perhaps you will stay in a certain room, perhaps in the dim, dark past you have been an English major, perhaps you will look upon the scene and recall Yeats' lines from "The Black Tower":
There in the tomb the dark grows blacker,
But wind comes up from the shore:
They shake when the winds roar,
Old bones upon the mountain shake.
Renvyle House is closed Dec. 1-March 11. It is in Connemara, County Galway; telephone (095) 435-11. Be sure to ask for a room in the original building.