VANDALS have desecrated one of Ireland's most important historic and religious sites at St Michan's Church in Dublin, smashing mummies which were, hundreds of years old and plundering graves.
One of five vaults in the church crypt in Dublin's north inner city has been completely destroyed after vandals set a fire in one of the chambers, using rags and paraffin. Firefighters called to the scene yesterday evening poured water on the smouldering coffins, unaware of the damage this could do. The vault, where about 80 remains were naturally preserved will never open to the public again.
St Michan's, which dates from 1095, was built on an oak forest and it is thought that tannin from the wood reacted with the lime stone walls to produce a gas which kept the remains of the bodies mummified. The temperature in the vaults remains the same all year round and the lime stone absorbs the moisture in the air, leaving the vaults extremely dry.
The vandals, believed by gardai to be young people staying in the area, broke open the neatly stacked coffins in each chamber, disjointing corpses and smashing skulls.
Stacks of bones, earth and broken wood lay in a tall heap at the entrance to one chamber. The intruders had worked their way through the coffins, throwing remains towards the doorway.
The head of a child, kicked from its body, lay on the floor of another burial chamber. A plaque on the coffin showed that a four month old girl named E.E.H. Hall, had been laid to rest there in 1838.
The coffin of another young child lay at the foot of the stone steps leading from the vaults. It looked as if the vandals tried to steal it but it began to break up.
Canon David Pierpoint and the sexton, Mr David Teixeira, made frantic efforts to transfer some of the least damaged coffins to another crypt before the moisture began to affect them. Only six of the 80 mummies could be saved. The vault will now he closed and the bodies will be allowed to rot.
It is believed the vandals entered on Saturday or Sunday night, but because of the lack of oxygen in the vault, the fire did not take hold but smouldered until yesterday evening. The curator of the church, which is opposite the Bridewell Garda Station, noticed smoke coming from the vault at about 5.45 p.m. Two fire tenders were on the scene within minutes.
Garda forensic experts examined the scene and urns, which were relatively new, were taken away for fingerprinting. The families of those whose ashes were in the urns will be notified.
Last night Canon Pierpoint said he was horrified. "It is so upsetting to think that people could not leave the dead in peace. It is just sheer and utter sacrilege, a disgrace," he said.
St Michan's Church is steeped in history. Edmund Burke was baptised there, Charles Stewart Parnell's funeral service was held there and Handel is said to have played the church's organ at the first performance of Messiah.