16 Jun 2014
"It’s apparently haunted” he said to me. Looking around the gloomy, shadowy entrance hall of Woodlawn house its easy to see why it has a reputation for being haunted.
On entering we (I was with a mate) were struck by the eerie mix of dilapidation and ruin side by side with reminders of betters times – scraps of surviving wall paper or the odd piece of furniture. It is unnerving.
Eeriness aside, even though its scattered with building debris and a bizarre random toilet bowl, the entrance hall (below) still makes a grand impression. Amid the dereliction the remains of a massive stone staircase, framed by two columns, illuminated by light flooding from a large window above the stairs is still imposing.
Either side of us are two alcoves, which once housed statues presumably.
Even though the former glory of Woodlawn is still evident in its architecture, the days when the notables of Irish society were entertained by resident aristocrats – the Trench family are long past.
Woodlawn house today looks like its on its last legs, something that only adds to its mystique. The boarded up windows, barricaded doors and collapsing ceilings only add to an spectral atmosphere.
Leaving the entrance hall we turn to our left into what may well have been a ballroom given its size.
Light peers through the shutters baring the windows and even more disconcertingly from a hole in the floor above. This is the stuff of ghost stories without doubt, but I have to say, even though I am skeptically superstitious, I didn’t feel it. Its disquieting alright but nothing more.
Despite having been stripped of most fittings and valuables there are constant reminders of its past grandeur through Woodlawn. Randomly I stumble across what seems to be a capital from a column strew across the floor.
The remains of a couch perhaps a relatively recent addition, perhaps not, but nonetheless its an unsettling reminder of Woodlawn’s past.
Houses in Houses
When we make our way to the west wing of the house, the reality of life in Woodlawn during its ‘glory days’ is laid bare. From the outside, this mansions drips of grandeur and eloquence but this masks a very different story inside. Woodlawn in reality contains two houses – the big house of the Trench family and another house where its servants lived.
In the western wing accessed by this staircase, a far cry from the stone stairs of the Entrance hall we found ourselves in what can only be best described as “the small house”. It is almost prison-like with claustrophobic narrow corridors and then cell like bedrooms. It was here where Woodlawn’s servants lived. These remind me of prison cells in Kilmainham Jail rather than someones living quarters.
The sheer inequity of life inside this house is brought home in Woodlawn’s 1901 census return. On Sunday March 31st 1901 (the night of the census), there were five members of the Trench family at Woodlawn. They were waited on by fourteen live-in servants ranging from a Butler to a hall boy, all listed in the census.
While the Trenches occupied the vast majority of the house the servants at a days end, retired to these small cramped quarters. If ghosts are souls of bitter people then the west wing of Woodlawn would be a good place to start any hunt. However I suspect this is the last place in the world a former servant would want to spend eternity.
A few minute later having passed through what seems a labyrinthine maze of rooms and passages, gently toe-poking the floor ahead to ensure it wasn’t going to collapse we found ourselves at another staircase. There we came across this candidate for a ghost story – a dark shaft that plunges into the bowels of the house…
Even for a skeptic of the supernatural, its impossible to stop the mind rambling when peering into the darkness….
It is only a dumbwaiter shaft – a lift which transported breakfast, fresh bed linen or whatever was needed up through the house. Nevertheless it is unsettling.Following the shaft down through the house along more passageways, through centuries and down staircases we arrived in the basement. This has to be where Woodlawn’s ghostly reputation originated. It’s darker and even gloomier than the floors above.
Depressing is the only word. Natural light struggles to find its way in here.
The basement also has the most vivid reminders of Woodlawn’s past as a home to things other than rats, lichens and the ghost. The Aga cooker in what was presumably a busy bustling kitchen once upon a time and in another room, an old boiler.
Then the house store in the days before fridges – beautiful brick lined alcoves in a dark and extremely creepy room.
Rising out of this disconcerting space we head to across the house to the East wing. It’s a great distance in length from the west wing where the servants rooms are located. Its much further than the length of the house – it was a world apart. Although the upper floors of this wing weren’t safe to access – due to a collapse, what rooms can be seen are far more spacious and pleasant. This strikes me as a place of chez longues where the Trench family may have read their freshly ironed newspapers. The corniced ceilings are still remarkably elegant.
Finally the bedrooms
Once last circuit of the house takes back to the entrance hall and we take a wander up the grand staircase.
It’s stone, incredible craftsmanship, each step is keyed into the wall, this will be one of the last things to fall in this house.
Even in its now rapidly deteriorating state – as you descend the stairs illuminated by light flooding in from windows above, its still impressive. At the top of the stairs a landing opens out before you surrounded by several doors.
These doors lead to what must have been the bedrooms of the Trench family . These are definitely eerie. The wooden window shutters, the light fighting its way in and the missing at floor boards; all very unsettling.
Having spent the best part of an hour in the house we depart making our way back through what was the farmyard associated with the house. This is in an even worse state, but again enough survives to give you a good idea of its past.
A few days later and I’m back in Dublin looking through the Woodlawn photos and my opinion of the house is changing. It’s a little freakier than I remembered but this is retrospect fuelled by what I have found out about Woodlawn and the Trench family. If you believed in such things there’s plenty to base a decent ghost story around. When you start putting names to those who walked the corridors it paints the house in a different light.
For example I think this census return form for 1901 puts the servants quarters in a different light.
These are the actual people who lived their lives in those quarters some of whom had come from Scotland (more on this below). Many other lives of servitude in Woodlawn are recorded in the National library where the house’s account books between 1799 and 1804 are held. There was one entry that was particularly poignant.
On Christmas day 1799 the servants did not return home but instead as one might expect they were still in Woodlawn, serving. The account book mentions a ‘gift’ from the Trench’s – four shillings and four pence was spent on two quarts of spirits for the servants – a miserable bonus.
Woodlawn in Frederick Trench’s day (c.1900)
The darkest inhabitant of Woodlawn I came across was Frederick Trench, Baron Ashford in the late 19th and 20th century. Educated at Eton he returned to Ireland to run the family estates at Woodlawn. After attempting to overhaul the working conditions of the herders on his estates, he ran into widespread opposition. The herders opposed the changes and the manner in which they impacted their lives. This resulted in a battle which lasted years.
The herders organised a boycott whereby the wider community were encouraged not only to refuse work but also shun Trench. Unfortunately Trench had the resources to withstand the boycott importing scab labour from Scotland which shows up on the census returns. In 1901 and 1911 there were no Catholic servants resident in Woodlawn. Of the protestants in 1901 six were of the church of Ireland, while the remaining nine had come from the church of England or the church of Scotland presumably the scabs brought in.
Aside from his ruthless attacks on the poor of his estate Trench had an even darker side. In 1924 Trench was charged with sexually assaulting two children in Dublin on a train in the city centre. While the case went to trial he evaded serious prosecution on a technicality. Knowledge of these events paints what is already an eerie house in an even darker light.
Woodlawn like many similar houses has its dark past of gross abuse of power and inequality. While these histories fuel ghost stories, my experience of the house is that its all about the power of suggestion. It was only after I found out about its dark past that I really began to think about it from that perspective, but would I spend a night there?
Not a hope.
Woodlawn is on private property and is not open to the public which I discovered as I was leaving. It’s also a highly dangerous building.