Uncovering the origins of Dublin's Hellfire Club
The rumours of dark deeds on a hilltop in the Dublin Mountains are well known, but is there any truth in them?
MOST PEOPLE in south Co Dublin have heard of it, or know where it is. Coming from Rathfarnham, drive south along the Ballyboden Road, turn onto Stocking Lane and follow the road for a mile or two until you reach the car park at Killakee. From here, hike up a steep trail through a coniferous wood, emerging near the grassy summit of Mountpelier Hill. And there it is, squatting ominously on the hilltop, framed against the glowering clouds of the Irish summer. The old stone hunting lodge, the Hellfire Club.
Many strange tales are told about this mysterious building and the elite 18th-century club that gave it its name. It is believed Hellfire Club members played cards with the devil, burned a servant to death and were visited by a priest who exorcised a demon from a black cat.
Some years ago, I looked into these strange tales, wondering if the Hellfire Club even existed. And if so, who were its members and what did they get up to?
Most published accounts of the club are brief and scrappy, mainly variations on the stories above. So I began trawling for material and slowly a picture emerged. A group calling itself the Hellfire Club was indeed active in Dublin, in 1738. It was not the only such club – there were similar groups in Ireland and England – but the Dublin version was the most violent and extreme.
The Dublin Hellfire Club’s usual meeting place was not the lodge on Mountpelier but the Eagle tavern on Cork Hill, one of the more insalubrious parts of the 18th-century city. Its founder was the first Earl of Rosse, a notorious libertine fond of playing outrageous practical jokes on members of the clergy. On one occasion he stripped naked to receive a visit from the eminent clergyman Samuel Madden, co-founder of the Dublin Society (now the RDS). Another of the club’s members, James Worsdale, was an artist and playwright and womaniser. Once, on a visit to Mallow, he made a little too free with his landlady’s daughter, causing the irate mother to beat him through the town with a hot shoulder of mutton. So far, so frivolous. But when we come to one of the club’s younger members, Henry, fourth Baron Barry of Santry, things start to get more sinister. Lord Santry was civil enough – when sober. When intoxicated, as he often was, a much darker side was revealed. One of his most shocking crimes was the murder of an ill and bedridden servant. Having forced the unfortunate man to drink a bottle of brandy, Santry drenched his bedclothes in alcohol and set them alight, burning him alive. He escaped punishment by buying the silence of witnesses.