This story is reproduced with the kind permission of the Westmeath Examiner.
The name ‘Bobby Bawn’ may not be widely known across Westmeath – but it will take a long time for his name to disappear from the lore of Rochfortbridge, Dalystown, Gainstown and Gaybrook.
For 30 years this ghost terrorised locals – until finally banished into the waters of Lough Ennell by a priest still revered today.
‘Bobby Bawn’ was believed to be the ghost of Lieut Col Robert Rochfort (1743-1797), who was known by that nickname, presumably because he had white hair.
Rochfort,– who lived at Dunboden Park, was the son of ‘The wicked Earl’ Robert Rochfort, 1st Earl of Belvedere, and his wife, the unfortunate Mary Molesworth, who was kept prisoner at Gaulstown House.
Legend has it that at the instigation of Lt Col Rochfort, a man named Peter Dalton was tried and wrongly convicted of burglary.
The unfortunate Dalton was sentenced to be hanged, and it is claimed that as he approached the gallows he turned to his accuser and gave him a chilling warning: “It’s me today, but it will be you tomorrow.”
Rochfort did indeed die – not the next day but around a month later, on October 17, 1797. He was murdered on his own doorstep, at Dunboden Park, and it’s said that for years, the stain of his blood could not be removed from the stone steps.
The story goes that there was a big party at Dunboden that night. In the course of the evening, a stranger knocked at the door asking to speak with the master of the house.
A footman fetched Lt Col Rochfort, but very soon afterwards an unmerciful scream was heard, and Rochfort was found lying in a pool of blood: his throat had been cut.
Not long afterwards, rumours began that Rochfort’s ghost could be encountered at a lone whitethorn bush on the Carrick Kilbride Road, between the two gates and the lodge to Dunboden Demesne.
The ghost was dreaded, and he enjoyed a 30-year period of terrorising the locals.
The end of Bobby Bawn’s reign of terror began when a member of a family with the surname Fahy, who lived at Carrick, opposite the Tudenham Deerpark, was dying. The family sent for the famous Fr Timothy Shanley, parish priest of Milltown and Meedin, who lived at West Lodge Kilbride.
Fr Shanley ministered to the dying parishioner before giving the happy news that the person would recover.
The head of the family left with Fr Shanley as the priest set out for home, to accompany him some of the way.
After a time, the two men parted company, but a few minutes later, Fr Shanley came back in search of Mr Fahy, telling him he had just encountered what he described as “the devil himself” on the road.
The priest asked Mr Fahy if he believed in God, and then whether he was a brave man or a coward.
“I hope that I can be seen as a brave man Father,” Fahy responded.
Relieved at Fahy’s answers the priest said next: “Well come with me and don’t be afraid. The devil himself is down the road.”
Together, the two men proceeded to the spot on the road where the lone whitethorn tree stood and there in front of them was the ghost of Bobby Bawn, who refused to let the two pass.
Fr Shanley turned to Fahy and told him not to be afraid, and assured him if he followed his instructions, no harm would come to him.
The two stood close to each other and Fr Shanley poured holy water in a circle around them to protect them from the evil spirit. Fr Shanley began to pray and this infuriated the ghost, which then began spitting fire and brimstone, before it transformed into a ball of fire, rolling furiously to Lough Ennell.
Locals claim that the point where the ghost of Bobby Bawn entered the lake, “between the froth and the water” – at Rinn Point, in the parish of Moyliscar – is always choppy; a sign that the tormented soul still haunts the waters.
The exorcism took its toll on Fr Shanley: he aged quickly, and his hair turned white.
Fr Shanley asked Mr Fahy to promise him that he would not tell the story until after Fr Shanley’s death. Mr Fahy kept the promise, eventually telling the story at the priest’s graveside on the day of his funeral at Carrick graveyard.
The murderer of Robert Rochfort was never identified, but in the story handed down in the area, it was held that the murderer was actually the ghost of Peter Dalton.
The legend was examined and researched for the Gainstown Gaybrook book Children of the Mounds, published in 2003, and the writers were able to verify Rochfort’s part in the arrests in September 1797 that led to the hanging of Peter Dalton and 10 others at Mullingar Gaol.
Out of Fr Shanley’s actions grew a devotion to him, and the annual Good Friday pilgrimage to his grave.
Robert Rochfort was married twice: firstly to a daughter of John Nugent of Clonlost, and later to a daughter of William Smith of Drumcree. He left no descendants. His Dunboden estate passed to the Cooper family of Markree Castle in Sligo. The house was burned to the ground during the troubles of the early 1920s.
The McDonnell family (Patrick and then his son Beenie) owned the estate for a while; a syndicate bought it after the McDonnells and the next owner was Greville Arms proprietor Christy Maye prior to its acquisition by the O’Callaghan family of Tallyho Stud.
Cover image: by vectorpouch on Freepik