- Belfast Between The Wars
GHOST COMEDY IN BELFAST: EXCITEMENT ROUND A “HAUNTED” HOUSE
Northern Whig, Monday 18th January 1932
CLUTCHING HAND, SQUEAKS AND BANGING OF DOORS
Creaks on the stairs; shadows on the walls; faces at the window; a clutching hand! Outside in the dimly-lit street, thousands of excited people held back by cordons of police.
This is not the opening of a chapter by the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is an account of happenings during the weekend in one of the most prosaic streets in Belfast – Trinity Street.
Have you ever hunted a ghost? I never did before yesterday (writes a “Northern Whig” representative), and then I hunted until I felt like a ghost. But not some skinny hand or cowled head did I see.
The ghost was said to be in Trinity Street – to be correct, in a house in Trinity Street – but I found on arrival there one of the most solid demonstrations of flesh and blood it has ever been my lot to witness.
The street, like the court at Fagin’s trial, was packed from end to end with human faces. It seemed as if all Belfast had turned out to see the ghost, although the crowd were looking at nothing in particular. The police were there – half a dozen of them – and they were looking at the crowd. And I stood looking at the crowd and the police.
“He’s got no head,” said a lad at my elbow with a Shankill Road accent, “and he flung a door at the fellas that went up the stairs.”
The boy did not look a nervous individual, and I gathered from his complacent appearance that he was not a witness of the brainless, strong-man act he described. But the talk of ghosts which was in the air convinced me that I was on a concrete “story”.
The front door of the house could not be reached by an ordinary mortal, and unless ghosts fly I doubt if it could have been reached by a ghost either considering that some 3,000 people were grouped around it in a compact, happy family party. But the backdoor – ah, the mystery could be penetrated from the back.
SEEKING AN INTERVIEW
So into a dark passage which had the correct ghostly atmosphere I plunged with reckless abandon. “If there’s a ghost,” I muttered darkly, “the ‘Whig’ must get an interview.”
I knew I had reached the right door when I came on a group of whispering people. My high spirits failed me for a moment, but only for a moment. They weren’t reporters! The ghost, then, was to be mine.
I joined the party and talked breezily. No good. Then I talked sympathetically. Better. I began to learn of this ghost which threw doors and did not wear a hat or collar. “It’s in the attic,” a youth told me, “but sometimes it comes downstairs and goes out into the yard.”
“Does it only walk at night?” I asked. This was fine progress.
“Press?” queried the young fellow.
I nodded dismally.
“I thought so,” he said, “directly you started askin’ questions.”
I wished for a minute or two that Press men could wear the transparency of ghosts when asking questions. A chilly silence had fallen. Upstairs, in the haunted attic, a light was burning faintly.
“Do you know,” I said at length, “I was once wakened by a ghost, and he rattled a bunch of keys.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” said the young man.
“But there are ghosts,” I persisted.
“D’ye know,” he said, “I’d take ten bob and sleep in that attic.”
“Certainly,” I replied, “the ghosts couldn’t hurt you.”
“But that ghost,” said another young man, “is different. It doesn’t matter if you tie the doors, he pulls them open, and he kicks up a frightful banging. I hear he chased three men downstairs the other night, and he makes people faint.”
“Well, well,” I said, lighting a cigarette, “do you think I could get into that house?”
“Ask at the front door,” came the reply.
An eternity of pushing and squeezing, and at last I reached the door. A young, handsome constable stood guard over it.
“I’m wanting to see the ghost.” I said.
“Believe you me,” said the constable, “you’ll have to do some looking. We’ve been through the house, and could see no ghost.”
“But I’d like to try.”
“All right, you knock at the door.”
I knocked, and, having knocked, knocked again. (That sounds ghostly, doesn’t it?). “We know no defeat.” I think I heard that at the declaration of the municipal election results last Friday. Anyhow, I’ll apply it to reporters.
I am in a position to announce that I entered the spook chamber – it doesn’t matter how.
To lead up to the great climax properly I must tell of the people in the “haunted” house. They received me courteously, almost eagerly. Who wouldn’t after being haunted by a rotten specimen of a ghost, and having only sceptics to receive the tale.
Now, a reporter believes everything. I mean the more unlikely a story is to ordinary mortals the more likely is a reporter to accept it, and enthuse over it, and investigate it, and embody it in the literature which is the Press. If a dog bites a man it isn’t news but if a man bites a dog!
So I listened to the story of the ghost. Apparently it is at once a silent and a noisy ghost. It heralds its appearance by a nerve shaking, squeaky noise, and then passes silently, as a good ghost should, across rooms and through walls.
It had last appeared twenty minutes before my arrival, and as a divergence had emerged inch by inch from the ground outside the kitchen window. And having raised itself to a comfortable five feet six inches had pressed a pale masculine face against the glass, stared mournfully into the kitchen and, well, vanished of course.
Sometimes it passes across the scullery. It likes the scullery, by all accounts. The other night it flung open a window in the kitchen, and on that occasion only vouchsafed a glimpse of a skinny hand.
IN THE ATTIC
But it has not always been so modest and retiring. Last Friday three young fellows heard it in the attic – ah, that attic. I’m coming to that in a moment.
They climbed three flights of stairs, and tied the handle of the attic door with string. And after they started the descent one adventurous youth turned back to see that the door was secure.
The ghost must have seen him because that door danced about on its hinges, and created a hullaballoo. And the young men quite naturally fled.
And the door-ty ghost played a similar trick in the kitchen a short time ago. It pushed open the door with such a bang that a young man inside was hurled several feet.
There are three families in the house, and a young wife told me that one night she woke up to find a ghostly hand hovering over her face. Her six-year-old son also caught a glimpse of the unbidden guest.
Now to come to the attic. I was invited to go up, and I went, but not by myself. Five other men made the great ascent, and the party was armed with a guttering candle and an electric torch.
IN THE GHOST’S DEN
Up and up, past tied doors and over a barricade of string, we climbed to the spook’s den. It was a depressingly bare, distorted chamber, like a cavern.
But the ghost was out. On the wall was pointed out to me the impress of a hand – nothing every ghostly about it. The candle flickered nastily, and still no ghost appeared. And then we decided with an apparent display of reluctance to go downstairs.
On the way we passed an open door. Inside, a brightly-lit room, were two old-age pensioners, peaceful, interested in the “goings-on” – but not haunted.
They were reassuring, those old folks, and so were the police officers at the foot of the stairs. The crowd had been cleared from Trinity Street by a detachment of police from Glenravel Street barracks, and all was peace.
We talked of the ghost for a little longer – in fact, we seemed to be waiting for him, gathered there in the hall at the bottom of the stairs. But the black robe, and slim figure, and pale face, and clutching hand – not a hint.
“I wouldn’t sleep in that attic for all the Irish sweep,” said a man who frequently glanced up the dark staircase.
But, remembering visions conjured up by a 10s ticket which I burned not long ago, I did not agree.