The Fassaroe Cross (also know as St Valery Cross, below) is familiar to me from childhood, but I hadn’t realised until recently that it is part of a concentration of four crosses in south County Dublin, all still extant*. We have visited them all now, and this first post will look at these remarkable examples of surviving Irish Early Medieval crosses. In the second post I will study their possible dates, established mainly through association with similar examples from elsewhere in Ireland.
Robert included the Fassaroe Cross in his post East Coast Archaeology, so I refer you to that for additional photographs of the cross in its context. It’s easy to see why this cross would have become the diagnostic ‘type’, since it is the most complete.
Standing incongruously at the edge of a traffic roundabout, the cross is an arresting sight. According to Ó hÉailidhe, It was brought from ‘a glen’ some distance away. He also states:
When O’Curry visited the site in 1838,4 he saw, in addition to the cross, a font, pedestal, and quern, which are still extant, a cross shaft which is now missing and part of a baptismal font which had been removed along with another quern to the farmhouse beside Fassaroe Castle. He was furthermore informed that a circular crosshead had also been removed, and that human bones had been dug up on the south side.
The cross has a circular head on a straight shaft which is set into a semi-conical base. On its front face its a crucifixion image, head tilted to the right. The crucified Christ is surrounded by four wedge-shaped quadrants, as if to indicate the hole-and-circle we associate with high crosses. A carved head occupies a space on the outer circle on the lower right.
The second Cross is in Rathmichael, just outside Shankill, at the start of a woodland walk. It’s my lead photograph, which shows the context. It was moved here from the ruins of Kiltuck Church which once stood, with its associated graveyard, in what is now the housing estate of Castle Farm on the Bray to Shankill road.
Apparently the shaft was in the present location and when the cross was re-united with it – it fit! The front of the cross has the crucifixion image carved in relief, while on the back the image is recessed. Like Fassaroe, the recessed head is slightly tilted to the right. Unlike Fassaroe, in which the top of the cross was circular, this one has very short arms.
The base has a small cupmark. Since walkers regularly use this route, some have taken to leaving small offerings, and it’s good to see this cross as valued and respected.
There were two crosses at Kiltuck, and the second one was removed by the Parish Priest of the newly-built Church of St Anne in Shankill in the early 1930s. In recent time the Rathmichael Historical Society, an active local group, sponsored its erection in its current location in front of the church, on a stone plinth.
The front face has a recessed crucifixion image, head slightly tilted to the right. The photograph below was taken in the church yard and shows the urban environment of this cross.
The back of the cross has a head, with the pointed chin such as we saw at Fassaroe. The head of the cross has the same short arms as the Rathmichael cross.
Our final cross is in a most unexpected location – right in the middle of Blackrock. It may have been used in the 15th century as a boundary marker to separate one medieval Dublin ‘franchise’ from another. Here’s what Ó hÉailidhe has to say on his decision to include it with the others:
The newly erected cross at Blackrock (Fig. 5)26 has been included in this group, because it has several features in common with that of Kiltuck, i.e. a human head in exactly the same position on the shaft and some rather irregular chamfering. This cross does not possess any artistic or architectural merits.
The chamfering is most obvious on the Kilmichael cross, while the head is similar to that at Kiltuck. The shape of the cross, however, is entirely different: rather than the head of the cross being circular, this one is, well, cross-shaped.
It’s impossible to make out what’s on the back on the cross, although Ó hÉailidhe tries manfully to illustrate it.
Ó hÉailidhe includes one more cross, from Killegar in Wicklow, now in the National Museum, but I will deal with that one in the next post, when I will review the literature about similar crosses and come to a conclusion about likely dates. Spoiler alert: although there have been claims that these crosses may be as late as 17th century, as you will see, I agree with most authorities that they are 12th century. As such, they represent a very important monument group.
* Thanks to Chris Corlett for pointing me in the direction of resources for this post
We are used to searching out archaeology in the Irish countryside. More unusual, perhaps, is finding examples in an urban setting. Here’s one – at Cromlech Fields, Hackettsland, Dublin.
This particular example of a prehistoric structure has survived the encroachment of the city suburbs and is, in fact, in good condition and apparently accepted as part of the landscaping in a dense housing community. It is well-placed in a slightly sunken setting within a substantial green area. It is known variously as the Shanganagh Portal Tomb, Hackettsland Cromlech, or Ballybrack Dolmen. And it’s ancient: portal tombs can date back four or five thousand years – some even more. This arrangement of stones has seen civilisations evolve significantly, but it sits there unchanged.
The historic 25″ OS map of Ireland – surveyed from the late 1890s and into the early 20th century. It is clear from this edition that the ‘dolmen’ was still sited in open country at that time.
Illustration from: A Hand-book of Irish Antiquaries by William F Wakeman, 1903.
. . . We cannot conclude our notice of this class of monuments without making some mention of the very interesting example remaining at Shanganagh, near the village of Loughlinstown, and not far from the ancient church of Killiney. Though inferior in size to several which we have already described, its dimensions are considerable; and as it remains, to all appearance, in its original state, the student will find it an object well worthy of his attention. The covering stone measures in length nine, in breadth seven, and in thickness three and a half feet, and is supported upon four stones. The highest part of the pile is nine feet above the level of the adjoining field . . .
William F Wakeman
You may want to be aware of the full range of portal tombs in terms of relative scale. Have a look at my post here from a few years ago: it features the largest of the Dolmens in Ireland (and, perhaps, in the world). That one provides challenges in terms of how it was constructed: the capstone, which has been raised on to supporting rocks, is estimated to weigh over 160 tons. Also, this post from Finola offers detailed information on these structures generally. Here is a nineteenth century view of how such monuments were erected:
Some intriguing arrangements of stones here – and some enigmatic reporting of their significance as history. We are a long way from West Cork – in fact, over on Ireland’s east coast, among the fine estates of Killiney. We can’t help but search out examples of archaeology wherever we go, and a red dot on the Historic Environment map is always a good starting point, as is anything with an enigmatic name.
In this case, the red dot is just to the left of the ‘Pagan Temple’ at the top of the 25″ OS map – but look at all the other intriguing names in the locality!
Here’s a close up -extracted from the 1888 OS map, highlighting the site that we are looking at today. With Templeville, Druid Lodge, Druid Hill and Stonehenge as neighbours, the Pagan Temple demands a closer look!
It was last week’s subject – the writer and photographer Thomas Holmes Mason – who directed us to this County Dublin location. As a significant producer of picture postcards, Mason has left a large body of work, even though many of his photographic plates were destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1963. The National Library of Ireland houses a comprehensive collection, and I am grateful to them for this image, above, which shows an intriguing stone formation on the Killiney ‘Pagan Temple’ site. It is referred to as The Sun and Moon stone by some antiquarians, and the following description appears on the current Historic Environment Viewer:
Class: Megalithic structure
Description: “. . .This enigmatic structure is located within an area enclosed by a hedge on top of Druid Hill. In the E side of the enclosure are three irregular granite boulders that form a façade behind which is a larger boulder containing a setting of stones that form a seat. To the W of this are two large granite slabs set on their long axis. There are tool marks present. This structure appears to be a folly but it may incorporate the remnants of an earlier monument . . .”
Archaeology.ie Historic Environment Viewer
The Archaeology.ie write-up is accurate. In addition to the ‘chair’ (which Finola is elegantly modelling while trying not to sit in a puddle!) there are two further irregular granite boulders – but one of them (detailed in the T H Mason photograph) looks like two circles – hence ‘sun and moon’ – but is in fact a single boulder, here seen from the ‘front’ face:
The right-hand side of this stone has some marks carved on it (by human hand) – possibly part of a large circle that outlines this half, while the vertical ‘groove’, central to the boulder, also appears to have been chased out. It’s worth noting as well, perhaps, that there are two small holes drilled on the back face of this stone, one on each side but not aligned on any centre. Additionally, there is also a small hole drilled on the back face of the second stone:
This article – by William Wakeman – appeared in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland December, 1896. It introduces an element of scepticism, which we should perhaps explore. The excellent Killiney History website has collected together a number of writings and observations about this site.
John Dalton writing in 1858 seems quite satisfied of the antiquity of the Judgment Seat. The Gazetteer of Ireland states “A well-preserved Druidical circle with its priests’ seat and its sacrificing stone, occur within a carefully kept enclosure, behind Mount Druid demesne, and near the Martello Tower, but is made accessible by the proprietor to respectable visitors.”
William Wakeman, a well known antiquarian of the last century, appears to have been the first to condemn these remains as spurious. “Formerly it was enclosed within a circle of great stones and a ditch. The circle has been destroyed and the ditch so altered that little of its original character remains. The seat is composed of large rough granite blocks and, if really of the period to which tradition refers it, an unusual degree of care must have been exercised for its preservation. The stones bear many indications of their having been at least rearranged at no very distant time. Small wedges have been introduced as props between the greater stones. The right arm is detached from the other part, to which it fits but clumsily. The whole, indeed, bears the appearance of a modern antique, composed of stones which once formed a portion of some ancient monument.”
These photographs were taken by William Frazer in 1898. The arrangements of stones at that time are very similar to what we see today – well over a century later – but with far less growth of ground cover.
Above: Druid’s judgement Seat, Killiney – from Library of Ireland archives.
Elrington Ball [1863–1928] confirms this view of the Druid’s Judgment Seat. The stones of which it is composed formed part of a Sepulchral memorial dating from very early times, consisting of three small cromlechs, surrounded by a circle of upright stones about 135 feet in diameter, and, at the time of its first attracting attention, in the 18th Century when everything prehistoric was attributed to the Druids or the Danes, it was assumed to be a Pagan Temple . . . Near the circle was discovered at the same time an ancient burying place, and some stones with curious markings, which are still to be seen. The burying place was of considerable extent, the bodies, which were enclosed in coffins made of flags, having been laid in a number of rows of ten each . . .
Finally Woodmartin [Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland 1902 Vol 11] makes the sweeping statement: the entire structure leaves the unmistakeable impression of very modern fabrication, and it is a mere clumsy attempt to gull the public . . . As seen to-day these relics of antiquity present rather an unlovely picture, in an obscure and ill-kept corner, surrounded by an unsightly hedge, where weeds and brambles share their ancient sanctity; they seem to arouse but little interest . . .
Today, the jury seems to be out on what we are looking at on this site. Time has undoubtedly changed the shape of things: wouldn’t we like to go back a while and see the burying place of considerable extent with all those . . . bodies, which were enclosed in coffins made of flags, having been laid in a number of rows of ten each . . . ? But we do appreciate that a former landowner must have donated the land to excite our interest!
My collections of signs, posters and visual images expands all the time. If I see something quirky, I can’t resist a photo. I share these with you every so often. Today’s selection comes from far and wide: mainly here in Ireland (principally West Cork) with the odd stray from outside. I will only explain something if I feel an image demands it. The example above – from our own Ballydehob – certainly doesn’t, but the one below, which I also came across today in our little village, probably does.
It’s a straw doll representing St Brigid. Often also known as Brídeóg, ‘Breedhoge‘ or ‘Biddy‘, it was once common to see these made to celebrate spring (which traditionally begins on her day, February 1st). This year Ireland has its first ever St Brigid’s bank holiday (tomorrow), to balance out St Patrick’s Day which we have always celebrated around his own feast, March 17th.
Let’s get back to signs. Wouldn’t you expect that one might visit a holy well for health reasons?
This surviving poster in Bray, Co Wicklow, somewhat irreverently makes light of the Bloody Sunday events of 1920. I can’t help being amused by the little insertion underneath Up To 5,000 Male ExtrasRequired – “Women Welcome Dressed in Male Clothing”.
An impressive Christmas tree, built by the artistic fishermen of Greystones, Co Wicklow.
A long way from West Cork, we found this sculpture in False Creek, Vancouver last autumn. Titled “The Proud Youth,” the six metre high figure was created by Chinese sculptor Chen Wenling.
. . . Simple and truthful, this work creates a direct communication between man and nature, and initiates a sincere conversation between people and society. The cheeky expression and arresting pose are a celebratory call to the audiences, inviting them to embrace their inner child . . .
This fine memorial in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, celebrates Mrs Hester Johnson – “better known to the World by the Name of Stella”. There is so much about Mrs Johnson that is enigmatic, not least the use of that term ‘Mrs’. Hester was born ‘Johnson’ and remained unmarried throughout her life, even though she was linked so closely to Jonathan Swift – and many commentators have suggested they were secretly married or, at the very least, lovers.
It is poignant to see the entwined plaques in the floor of the Dublin Cathedral. Both were buried there: ‘Stella’ in 1728 and Swift in 1745: he was placed beside her at his own request. Much has been written about Jonathan Swift – he was a formidable author, satirist and analyst of contemporary Irish life in the 17th and 18th centuries, while ‘Stella’ existed mainly in his shadows. We would probably know nothing of her without the association. Having written previously about Swift – and my part in his life (read it here) – I thought I would tackle the story of ‘Stella’: her name was known to me from a young age. Before going further, though, let’s solve that first little mystery – the use of Mrs on Stella’s memorial. In the Oxford University History Workshop Journal, Volume 78, Issue 1, Autumn 2014 Dr Amy Erickson claims:
. . . Mrs was applied to any adult woman who merited the social distinction, without any marital connotation. Miss was reserved for young girls until the mid eighteenth century. Even when adult single women started to use Miss, Mrs still designated a social or business standing, and not the status of being married, until at least the mid nineteenth century . . .
Dr Amy Erickson
Above left: an alleged portrait of Esther was reproduced in William Wilde’s 1849 book on Swift, and claims for it an “undoubtedly authentic” history, adding that it matches physical descriptions made of Stella during her lifetime:
. . . It was originally in the possession of the distinguished Charles Ford of Woodpark, where Stella was constantly in the habit of visiting, and where she spent several months in 1723, when probably it was painted, Stella being then about 42. The hair is jet black, the eyes dark to match, the fore-head fair, high, and expansive, the nose rather prominent, and the features generally regular and well-marked . . .
Above right: “Stella, From an Original Drawing by the Rev’d George Parnell, Archdeacon of Clogher, in the Possession of G Faulkner”
. . . George Faulkner, Swift’s Dublin publisher, placed this purported portrait of Stella across from the beginning of Swift’s memoir of her in an edition of Swift’s Works. The artist is wrongly attributed, it actually being by the poet and scholar Dr Thomas Parnell, who had been intimate with Swift around 1716, when this drawing was most likely made. Swift had begun writing his memoir on the evening of Stella’s death, on January 28, 1728, just weeks shy of her forty-seventh birthday. Their friend Thomas Sheridan, who was with Stella in her final days, preserved a story about “the secret marriage” of Swift and Stella. If they were indeed married, public recognition of their marriage never happened. According to an old lady who may have inhabited Stella’s former cottage: “. . . some says she was his wife, and some says she wasn’t, but whatever she was, she was something to him . . .“
Esther Johnson was born in Richmond, Surrey, England in 1681. She spent the early years of her life at Moor Park House, Farnham, Surrey (above). This was the home of Sir William Temple (1628 – 1699) – diplomat, statesman and essayist: from 1688 until his death he employed Jonathan Swift as his secretary (Swift’s mother was a distant relative of Temple). Esther’s parentage has been the subject of much speculation. The weight of evidence is that her mother acted as companion to Temple’s sister, Lady Giffard, and that Esther, her mother and her sister Anne were regarded as part of the family. Esther’s father is said to have been a merchant who died young, but local rumour suggested that she was Temple’s illegitimate daughter. I have found no concrete evidence to confirm or deny this.
(Above) Jonathan Swift, painted by Charles Jervas c1710. When Swift first met Esther at Farnham she was only around eight years old, and he was charged by Temple to become her tutor and mentor. He gave her the nickname ‘Stella’, but we don’t seem to know why or when. Now, here’s another enigma: in my younger days I was familiar with Moor Park House and its environs. I remember there was a cottage some distance from the estate, named ‘Stella Cottage’. It definitely existed once (and may still exist) – here’s a postcard showing it:
I was told (by my grandmother) that Swift’s ‘Stella’ lived in this cottage, and that he would walk to visit her there ‘every day’. This doesn’t quite tie in with the account suggesting that Esther Johnson lived in Moor Park House – although she could, of course, have moved away at some point. Also, at what place in its history was ‘Stella Cottage’ so named? It’s possible, even, that Swift gave his pet name to ‘Stella’ because there was already an association locally with that appellation – so the cottage itself may never have had anything else to do with Esther. As our story moves forward, Swift’s employer – Temple – died in 1699 (Swift reportedly said that “all that was good and amiable in mankind had died with Temple”). This left Swift without a job or home. Interestingly – bearing in mind we don’t know exactly where Esther Johnson figured in Sir William Temple’s life – he bequeathed to her a significant sum of money, and some property in Ireland.
Above – Castle Street at Farnham, Surrey in 1788. Swift was an ordained minister of the Anglican Church in Ireland. After Temple’s death, he was unable to maintain his lifestyle in England and returned to Ireland (his birth and upbringing were in Dublin and Kilkenny). In due course (1713) – he was appointed as dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin: a position which enabled him to indulge his many enthusiasms – writing, political commentary and satire – for the rest of his days. He encouraged ‘Stella’ also to move to Ireland, which she did in 1702, ostensibly living with her companion, Mrs Dingley. A further rumour on the relationship between Swift and ‘Stella’ needs to be quoted:
. . . Whether Swift and Stella were married has always been a subject of intense debate. The marriage ceremony was allegedly performed in 1716 by St George Ashe, Bishop of Clogher (an old friend of Swift, and also his college tutor), with no witnesses present, and it was said that the parties agreed to keep it secret and live apart. Stella always described herself as a “spinster” and Swift always referred to himself as unmarried; Rebecca Dingley, who lived with Stella throughout her years in Ireland, said that Stella and Swift were never alone together. Those who knew the couple best were divided on whether a marriage ever took place: some, like Mrs Dingley and Swift’s housekeeper Mrs Brent laughed at the idea as “absurd”. On the other hand, Thomas Sheridan, one of Swift’s oldest friends, believed that the story of the marriage was true: he reportedly gave Stella herself as his source . . .
This lady – Esther Vanhomrigh (1688–1723) was painted by John Everett Millais in 1868. It depicts another rumoured ‘lover’ of Jonathan Swift, who gave her the name ‘Vanessa’. We know very little about her actual appearance, although she was said “not to be a beauty”. She is holding a letter, which we are to assume was written to or from Swift with whom, from what we can gather, Vanessa was infatuated – although her feelings were apparently never reciprocated. The expression on her face in Millais’ imaginary portrait could imply her frustration. The artist painted ‘Stella’ in a companion piece (Sudley House, Liverpool):
It can be no coincidence that Stella is also holding a letter. In this case, perhaps, the expression which the artist has chosen to depict is less severe. Jonathan Swift kept up a remarkable correspondence with Stella while he was away in England between 1710 and 1713. He certainly never intended it for publication in his lifetime. The Journal to Stella appeared first in 1766 and consists of 65 long and detailed letters – thousands of words in all, ranging from minute accounts of his daily life, through witty commentary and some mildly intimate deliberations.
. . . If the Journal shows us some of Swift’s less attractive qualities, it shows still more how great a store of humour, tenderness, and affection there was in him. In these letters we see his very soul; in his literary work we are seldom moved to anything but admiration of his wit and genius. Such daily outpourings could never have been written for publication, they were meant only for one who understood him perfectly; and everything that we know of Stella—her kindliness, her wit, her vivacity, her loyalty—shows that she was worthy of the confidence . . .
This small account of the story of ‘Stella’ – Mrs Hester Johnson – reveals a little of what we are able to piece together of the lady and her possible (probable?) relationship with the towering figure of Jonathan Swift, a matter which has fascinated scholar-historians over the generations. We can make assumptions, but reach no firm conclusions. The enigmas of the tale remain, and are certainly celebrated wherever local geography and lore are able to relate to some aspect of the oral traditions. As an example, I was pleased to find a pamphlet dating from 1991 which tells of a ‘Stella’s Cottage’ far, far away from Moor Park, Farnham. This one is near Trim, Co Meath. It suggests that this was where Stella and her companion, Mrs Dingley, lived ‘just down the road from Laracor,where Swift had his vicarage on his half-acre of Irish bog‘.
The pamphlet is, in part, an appeal to save what was then left of the cottage, and to fund a restoration of this important piece of Irish history. The appeal was apparently unsuccessful: today the spot is marked by some low stone walls and a plaque. This is a drawing of Stella’s Cottage in 1847:
Many have been fascinated by the Swift / Stella story. In 2020 Michael Billington edited a series in the UK Guardian titled ‘Forgotten Plays’. This is one:
. . . Few plays are more forgotten than those of WB Yeats. Revered as a poet, he’s ignored as a dramatist yet he deserves to be remembered for a number of reasons. He cofounded the Abbey theatre in 1904, he put Irish legend and history on stage, and he sought to create a drama “close to pure music”. His output was huge – his Collected Plays runs to more than 700 pages. The Words Upon the Window-Pane (1930) is in many ways exceptional: it is Yeats’s only play with a realistic modern setting. Its subject is a seance held by the Dublin Spiritualist Association in rooms once occupied by Jonathan Swift’s Stella. Yeats has much fun at the expense of the visitors – one of whom wants advice about setting up a teashop in Folkestone – but the main concern is to expel an evil spirit who has been haunting past sessions. It turns out to be that of Swift whom we hear – through the medium, Mrs Henderson – bitterly rejecting offers of love from the two women who most adored him. What is astonishing is the way Yeats pulls off a double trick. Far from being an attack on Swift, the play is a defence of his refusal to beget children because of his dread of the future. But, rather like David Mamet’s The Shawl about a phoney clairvoyant with psychic gifts, the play suggests that the money-grubbing Mrs Henderson may actually have conjured up the crabbed spirit of Dublin’s celibate dean . . .
The Guardian 27 July 2020
Lastly, consider this ‘alternative view’ by Michael Foot: Debts of Honour (Faber 1980) –
. . . British politician Michael Foot was a great admirer of Swift and wrote about him extensively. In Debts of Honour he cites with approbation a theory propounded by Denis Johnston that offers an explanation of Swift’s behaviour towards Stella and Vanessa. Pointing to contradictions in the received information about Swift’s origins and parentage, Johnston postulates that Swift’s real father was Sir William Temple’s father, Sir John Temple who was Master of the Rolls in Dublin at the time. It is widely thought that Stella was Sir William Temple’s illegitimate daughter. So Swift was Sir William’s brother and Stella’s uncle. Marriage or close relations between Swift and Stella would therefore have been incest, an unthinkable prospect. It follows that Swift could not have married Vanessa either without Stella appearing to be a cast-off mistress, which he would not contemplate. Johnston’s theory is expounded fully in his book In Search of Swift . . .
It’s taken me a while to visit this notorious site which is situated on a summit of the Dublin Mountains. The view across the city from the 390 metre peak is stunning:
It’s the stories and the folklore that attracted me to this place, long known as the Hell Fire Club. In the eighteenth century ‘Speaker’ Connolly built it as a hunting lodge. According to tradition he used the stones from a prehistoric monument that was previously on the hill. It’s now known from recent excavations that at this location was one – or two – passage tombs dating from the Neolithic Period (4500 – 2000 BC). This – or these – were surrounded by a circle of large boulders known as a cairn. Today, some fragmentary traces of the earliest use of the site can be detected. The best information on the neolithic site is found in the Abarta Heritage report, here. An earlier description, dating from 1779 in fact, was written by Austin Cooper, who visited in that year:
. . . Behind the house are still the remains of the cairn, the limits of which were composed of large stones set edgeways which made a sort of wall or boundary about 18 inches high and withinside these were the small stones heaped up. It is 34 yards diameter or 102 yards in circumference. In the very centre is a large stone 9 feet long and 6 feet broad and about 3 feet thick not raised upon large stones but lying low with the stones cleared away from about it. There are several other large stones lying upon the heap . . .
William Connolly (Speaker of the Irish House of Commons) was one of the wealthiest men in Ireland; he had a house in the city and a country estate at Castletown, near Celbridge. It is said that he deliberately used stones from the ancient tomb in the construction of the hunting lodge at Mountpelier. Shortly after it was built the roof, which was originally slated, was blown off in a great storm. Locals attributed this misfortune to the work of the devil, in revenge for the destruction of the cairn. Following this event the lodge gained a reputation as a place where evil prevailed. However, Connolly replaced the slated roof with a stone vault which still exists today, although the building is effectively a ruin.
The Irish Hell Fire Club members were some of the elite of society, and included peers of the realm, high ranking army officers as well as wealthy gentlemen and artists. Here is a portrait of some of them by James Worsdale (himself a Club member); it is in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.
Mountpelier is a significant mountain top overlooking Dublin, and is now fully accessible to all. A warning, though – in good weather the Coillte car-park very soon fills up (at all times of the year) and there is nowhere else nearby to leave your vehicle – get there early!
It could be said that the ruin of the lodge is ‘maintained’ in that it is stabilised and unlikely to fall down. If you are exploring, look out for the lintel over the large fireplace, which is supposed to be a standing stone removed from the passage grave site.
The Hell Fire Club is, of course, haunted! Not that we saw anything untoward when we visited on a glorious spring day. But the stories abound. They are probably best told through the accounts in the Schools Folklore Collection:
. . . About six miles from Dublin the Hell Fire Club is on a hill. It is a medium size old castle.When the owner of it died nobody else claimed it. All the men of the district came to play cards in it every night. One night when all the men were playing their nightly game one of the men cheated. The men rushed upon him over-powered him. The bound him hand and foot and put him in a barrel of whiskey. Then they set fire to it burning him alive. That was a cruel thing to do but then men did not care. From that day on that old castle was called the Hell Fire Club . . .
Stewart Somerville, Dundrum School
. . . There is an old ruin called Hell Fire Club on the very top of one of the Dublin Hills. This house was built by a man named Connelly, during the time of the Famine. It was built to give employment to the men. Many men used to got to Hell Fire Club to gamble. It is said that one night they were playing cards and there was much money on the table. One man dropped a card on the floor, and when he stooped down to pick it up he noticed a man with cows feet, and he wore a red cloak. The men were very frightened and they made a great uproar. The man turned into a ball of fire. All the men were burned in the fire. There was one man who had a bunch of medals attached to his coat and he was the only man who escaped from the burning house . . .
Mr Finlay, Rockbrook, Co Dublin
. . . The Hell Fire Club, or the Brass Castle is situated near Rathfarnham in the Co Dublin. My Great-grandfather used to pass by the Brass Castle on his way home from work, (he was a mason) he had a habit of hitting the wall with his trowel to hear the ring of the brass. One night a priest had to go on a sick call. When he was coming home through the mountains he lost his way. Seeing a light he went in that direction. He knocked at the door of the house, which happened to be the Brass Castle – The door was opened by a man who was dressed in black with a black mask on his face. The priest was brought in to a room. Sitting at a large table were twelve men dressed the same as the first one. The men were playing cards. On the table was seated a large black cat. The men defied the priest to put the cat away. The priest ordered the cat down, but it never moved. Again he ordered it down, but the cat did not move. The men laughed at the priest and jeered him. The third time the priest said “Begone Satan”. The cat jumped from the table and disappeared up the chimney with a loud roar. The priest told the men that the cat was the devil. The men were never heard of again. The priest got home safe, and from that time onward the Brass Castle was called the Hell Fire Club. This story is true. It was told to me by mother, because the Brass Castle belonged to her ancestors . . .
Seán Ó Nuamáin, Kilbride, Co Wicklow
The Mountpelier Woods consist of around 5.5 kilometres of forest roads and tracks. The woods offer nature trails and a permanent orienteering course. Lord Massy’s Estate and Mountpelier Hill are also traversed by the Dublin Mountains Way hiking trail that runs between Shankill and Tallaght. It’s an attractive walk at all times of the year, with easy access from Dublin city centre.
A comprehensive application to An Bord Pleanála was submitted in July 2017, seeking permission to establish a Dublin Mountains Visitor Centre with associated works relating to tourism, leisure and recreational activities which would embrace the Hell Fire Club site and the mountain trails. Permission was granted, subject to conditions, on 25 June 2020. Another chapter in the story of this notorious locality unfolds . . .
As a tailpiece, I found this image of a ‘Hell Fire Club Goblet’ dating from c1745. It’s currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but it must originate from Ireland: James Worsdale, whose name appears on this glass, was appointed Master of the Revels in the Dublin Hell Fire Club in 1741. It was also he who painted the portrait of Club members illustrated in this post: look at their goblets in the painting!
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