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.
He was roundly hated in Dublin, and the authorities awaited an opportunity to get him. After he stabbed another servant in a drunken frenzy, Santry was convicted and sentenced to death. Influential friends secured a reprieve and he spent his final years in exile in Nottingham. He lived out his days plagued by depression and crippled by gout, having been abandoned by his former friends.
The bad press surrounding Santry’s trial helped to precipitate the demise of the club, which had already been shaken by the attempted arrest of another member for blasphemy. The Earl of Rosse died not long afterwards, while two other members were killed at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745 (one was decapitated by a cannonball).
Although the Dublin Hellfire Club was a distinctly short-lived entity, it cast a long shadow on the popular psyche.
Over the ensuing decades, its name was bandied about with a sense of outrage mingled with awe. Imitative hellfire clubs sprang up in different parts of the country, most notably in counties Limerick and Kildare.
Club members were rumoured to be devil worshippers, but in reality they were freethinkers who believed in neither heaven nor hell.
They adopted their outrageous moniker in order to stir up controversy and annoy the more devout and strait-laced members of society. And despite the fact that they committed atrocious crimes, in some ways they were ahead of their time. Influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, they were in favour of a society based on rational and scientific principles rather than traditional religious beliefs, a sentiment that many would concur with in the more secular Ireland of today.
I eventually concluded my research on the Irish hellfire clubs and published a book on the subject last May. I never found any evidence to definitively link the Dublin Hellfire Club with the ruined hunting lodge on Mountpelier. But there must have been some connection, given the pervasiveness of the folklore and the building’s enduring reputation as the club’s meeting place.
As long as these hollow and crumbling remains continue to mystify locals, hill-walkers and visitors, the most infamous of all Irish clubs well never be entirely forgotten.
Blasphemers Blackguards: The Irish Hellfire Clubs by David Ryan is published by Merrion Books and is available now