An Irishman’s Diary: Dublin’s spooky tourist spots

Revisiting the crypt of the St Michan’s Church in Dublin recently, after many years, I was disappointed to see that the tour guides no longer invite you to “shake hands with the crusader”.

The last time I was there – back around 1990, I think – hand shakes were still the norm. And an Australian visitor who accompanied me was deeply impressed.

After a weekend in which I showed him the Book of Kells, the stained glass windows of Bewley's, and many of the capital's other treasures, my Aussie friend's declared highlight was the glad-handing of an 800-year-old mummified skeleton. It's probably the only thing he remembers now.

Alas, the era of health and safety has since caught up even in St Michan’s, although it’s not the public’s safety that motivated the change, it’s the crusader’s. Some eejit must have shaken too vigorously in the intervening years because at some point one of the skeleton’s fingers got broken.


Now, the most you can do is touch the back of the crusader’s bony hand (a gentle fist bump might also be acceptable). But the good news is that this is still said to confer luck on the visitor.

As for the explanation of why the remains are thought to be those of a crusader, that’s about as well fleshed-out as he is.

It seems to be a mixture of his suspected age and known size. At nearly 2m, he was so tall that – never mind his broken finger – they had to break his legs when burying him. Otherwise he wouldn’t have fitted the coffin: 12th-century coffins coming only in medium, apparently.

It’s by similar, broad deduction that one of the crusader’s neighbours is known as the “thief”, because he’s missing both feet and a hand. This might indeed have been the result of medieval justice, although if he was a former sinner he must have repented spectacularly to have earned such an honoured burial place, under the church.

In any case, my fellow visitors on the latest tour – mostly Italians – were just as entertained by the crypt as my Australian friend had been.


As grisly exhibits go, St Michan’s pales in comparison to at least one Italian site I know: the Capuchin monastery in Palermo. There, for centuries, it was the practice that dead monks were embalmed and preserved, then dressed in everyday clothes, and displayed in the catacombs, many in standing positions.

In later years, well-to-do lay locals paid for the posthumous privilege of joining them. The practice no longer continues but the necropolis – population 8,000-plus – remains open to visitorsand there is never any shortage.

“Dark tourism” is the term applied to this sort of thing, although the reasons for visiting such places range enormously.

For some, it’s about learning from history. For others it’s about reflecting on the impermanence of the present. And for many, no doubt, it’s about finding interesting backdrops for selfies (although, as it happens, the taking of pictures is discouraged in both St Michan’s and Palermo).

As befits a country that invented Halloween and made wakes an art form, Ireland is well represented in the dark tourism market, although we seem to have a tendency to stress the funnier side of the phenomenon.

I did the Dublin “Ghost Bus” tour too recently and our guide – a medieval ghoul who was suffering from leprosy, the plague, and various other ailments – played it mostly for comedy. But even the more serious tours, like the ones held occasionally in Bully’s Acre (an ancient cemetery in Kilmainham) have an element of grim humour.

Much of this relates to that grisly former trade of grave-robbing – or "resurrection", as it was sometimes known. There are many colourful stories, but the practice was summed up in all its grubby glory by the case of one now-permanent resident of Bully's Acre: the famous boxer Dan Donnelly.

Not all of his is remains now rest there, of course. They did, briefly, for a while after his death in 1820. But having been a freak of nature in life, he was of too much interest to anatomists to escape being resurrected.

Unfortunately for them, he was also too well known for the outrage to be tolerated. So a surgeon who had bought the body was forced to return it. But first he deducted a commission – his “cut”, if you will – of about 15 per cent. The remainder of the great boxer was reburied. His arm has been displayed in various places ever since.