‘I’ve always been really interested in the darker side of things, the macabre, the gritty, the gruesome’

What I Do: Ciaran Behan takes tourists on Dark Dublin tours of the city, sharing stories of grave robbing, serial killing, cannibalism and more

I fell into tour guiding. I’m from Pearse Street in Dublin, so I grew up in the city centre. I always liked history, but I wasn’t a big fan at school. I studied philosophy, politics, economics and sociology at Trinity. I never envisaged a career in tourism until I started travelling around Europe.

I took some walking tours and I thought, that looks like an amazing job. So I started looking into it. I instantly loved it.

What makes a good guide? A passion for history is at the top, but you also have to enjoy meeting people from different countries, chatting and sharing ideas. You have to be able to put people at ease and make them feel welcome. It’s good to know your history, but if you can’t convey it in an entertaining and relatable manner, it falls by the wayside.

You want people on the tour to look at you not just as a tour guide but just as a guy from this city as well. You are an ambassador for the city while people are with you. You are part of their experience of Ireland, that’s very much at the forefront of my mind.


You want to leave them with a picture of not just our history, but where we are today. You want them to get a feel for what it’s like to live here, what the atmosphere is like, the mentality, the culture, who we are as Irish people. We might not be how you thought, this is how we have changed.

I’ve always been really interested in the darker side of things, the macabre, the gritty, gruesome, less sanitised version of our history – getting to that other layer of a city just below the surface.

I created the Dark Dublin tour for our company, Unearthed Tours, in 2017. There’s definitely an audience for the supernatural and spooky, but also for history.

The tour starts at 5.30pm every night next to City Hall. You’ll see people on it who are goth, people in heavy metal shirts, and you’ll also find the younger demographic who are interested in Making a Murderer. The true crime demographic is definitely there.

A lot of people make a point of doing these kinds of dark tours in cities like New Orleans, or you’ll get chatting to someone who went on a paranormal investigation somewhere, or they will share a supernatural experience they had.

One story people enjoy on the tour, an urban legend crossed with history, is about Billy in the Bowl. He was born in the 18th century without legs. Around the Church Street, Stoneybatter and Smithfield areas, he strangled a lot of women. He was a serial killer. People walk around that area now and know nothing about it.

Many people haven’t heard about Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal. As dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, he wrote the pamphlet as a satire and critique of how poor people were treated. His “proposal” to solve poverty was to raise kids until they were 12 months old and then sell them as food.

There are stories of him haunting St Patrick’s Cathedral now, his footsteps running up and down the staircase.

You’ve got a lot of different grave-robbing stories around town as well. That’s a bit of history that gets overlooked. It started out as a shortage of cadavers in the medical schools. There was a legal grey area around ownership of your body when you are dead. This allowed the industry to grow.

Grave robbing – they liked to refer to themselves as “resurrectionists” – was rife in places like Deansgrange or St Audoen’s. The idea was to get out as quickly as possible with the freshest body possible. You want to get the body to the medical school in a decent enough state, but if you dug up someone with a wedding ring on, that finger was definitely going to be chopped off.

Two Irish guys called Burke and Hare went from being graverobbers in Edinburgh to killers. Burke was executed for his crimes and his skeleton was given to the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School, where it’s still on display today.

There are stories about the ghost of Archbishop Narcissus Marsh too, the founder of Marsh’s library. He is coming back and throwing books off the shelves. He is looking for a letter left by his niece who fell in love and ran away with a local Catholic. He never finds it.

The biggest challenge with tour guiding in Dublin is the weather, but a walking tour is more sustainable. The noise volume of the traffic in some parts can be quite high, but it’s nothing a strong, projecting voice can’t combat.

There have been a couple of strange noises and howls on the tour, or things flying by in the wind, but so far, I’ve put that down to the elements.

I love the freedom to create tours that I’m passionate about and to share that passion with other people. The other part is being outdoors – I definitely don’t think I’m suited to the nine to five.

Being from Dublin, I’m unbelievably proud of this city. I love it. I think it has so much more to it than going to Temple Bar and seeing the pubs.

Growing up, the city centre was my playground. I find a lot of joy in sharing it with people from around the world.

– In conversation with Joanne Hunt. If you have an interesting job or hobby you would like to tell us about, email magazine@irishtimes.com with What I Do in the subject line