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.
From left to right: Henry Barry 4th Baron of Santry, Colonel Henry Clements, Colonel Henry Ponsonby, Colonel Richard St George, and Simon Luttrell, 1st Earl Carhampton. Biographies of all of them are summarised here – also from the Abarta reports. Their lives in general were debauched and relatively short. Missing from the portrait are father and son Richard Chappell Whaley and Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley, who was to become ‘the most famous Buck of all’. Richard’s nickname was ‘Burn-Chapel’ Whaley because of his hatred of religion and in particular, the Roman Catholic church. He would amuse himself on Sundays by riding around Dublin setting fire to the thatched roofs of Catholic chapels. The Whaleys were related through their ancestry to Oliver Cromwell. Their family residence was Whaley Abbey, Co Wicklow: you can find more on this in Finola’s post today.
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!