Digging up the truth about the notorious hellfire clubs

By Nuala McCann
BBC News

image sourceThinkstock
image captionWhat fresh hell is this? The Dublin Hellfire Club has a notorious reputation

The notorious Hellfire Club in the Dublin mountains is a name murky with ugly rumours, dark deeds, black magic and blasphemy.

It is the last place you'd wish to be on a starless night.

They say that on one such night a fellow was playing cards with a stranger at the club when he happened to glance away from his hand and down to the stranger's foot on the floor.

He spied a cloven hoof... and an icy hand clutched his heart.

Hell-fire clubs have always been shrouded in rumours of devil worship and dark satanic deeds. How do you separate fact from fiction?

Drive out of south Dublin and climb Mountpelier Hill and there, on top, squats the shell of the old hunting lodge built for Irish Parliamentary Speaker William Connolly in 1725.

To build the lodge, they say that Connolly's workmen used stones from the ancient passage tombs - their destruction marks the start of the association of the site with the supernatural.

Local legend has it that the devil was so enraged by the desecration that he blew off the wooden roof of the lodge in a storm.

After Connolly's death, his widow leased the building to the Earl of Rosse, Richards Parsons, in 1735. He was one of the leading figures in the Dublin Hellfire Club - also known as The Blasters or the Young Bucks of Dublin.

They were a group of aristocrats, described at the time by Gulliver's Travels writer Jonathan Swift as "a brace of monsters, blasphemers and Bacchanalians".

image sourceAbarta Heritage
image captionWhat dark deeds took place? Archaeologists are excavating the site of the notorious Hellfire Club in the Dublin hills

Among his other proclivities, it was said that Rosse liked to receive guests in the nude - him, not them.

The club was one of many in both England and Ireland where rich young rakes indulged in ceremonial drinking and dining and gambling and carousing.

But a few clubs crossed the line into sex, blasphemy and sheer bloody badness - or so the rumour goes.

The first hellfire club was set up by the Duke of Wharton and specialised in daring deeds like playing cards on Sunday, reading Lucretius and eating pigeon - known as "Holy Ghost" - pie, as chronicled in The Hellfire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies by Evelyn Lord.

The most notorious club was formed by Sir Francis Dashwood with the motto "Fais ce que tu voudrais" - Do as you will.

Dashwood's club included some of Britain's most senior statesmen and aristocrats. They met in a series of underground caves in West Wycombe and, legend has itindulged in lot of risque behaviour with the strict proviso: "What goes on underground, stays underground."

His club was called the Monks or Friars of St Francis of Wycombe. It was anything but saintly and involved drinking, wenching and banqueting.

Later, there were suggestions of ritual abuse of women and Black Masses - but perhaps people with an axe to grind would be keen to spread such rumours.

Aisling Tierney, from Limerick, who has just finished a PhD in Bristol on the hellfire clubs, has been working on untangling the web of rumour and gossip and establishing the archaeological truth.

Her interest was sparked when she came upon a copy of Geoffrey Ashe's Hell-Fire Clubs: A History of Anti-Morality in a second hand bookshop. The spark lit a fire.

The clubs appeared in waves, first in London in the 1720s, then in Dublin and Limerick in the 1740s and then the Dashwood club of the 1750s, she said.

People associated them with what was going morally wrong in society. "There were parties, revels and prostitutes. There was sexual energy and drinking," she said.

But to what extent were there acts of blasphemy?

She points to a painting of Sir Francis Dashwood by Hogarth.

"He is portrayed as St Francis at prayer, but the Bible in front of him has been replaced by an erotic novel, A halo above his head shows a picture of his friend, the Earl of Sandwich, a miniature naked woman in front of him lies in what looks like the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa."

image sourceThinkstock
image captionBeware the black cat the size of a grown Dalmatian who haunts the Dublin hellfire club

At that time, blasphemy against Catholicism was permitted, she pointed out. But were they actually Satan worshippers?

"The newspapers of the time had stories of the devil walking among them and those stories spread like wildfire in the 1720s and even reached papers in the New World," she said.

"Yes, there was gossip and rumour, but there was no actual physical evidence to suggest they viewed themselves as devil worshippers."

In Ireland, the Dublin Hellfire Club first met on Cork Hill at the Eagle tavern.

In an article for the Irish Times, David Ryan- author of the book, Blasphemers Blackguards: The Irish Hellfire Clubs - calls the founder, the Earl of Rosse " a notorious libertine fond of playing outrageous practical jokes on members of the clergy".

"On one occasion he stripped naked to receive a visit from the eminent clergyman Samuel Madden, co-founder of the Dublin Society (now the Royal Dublin Society)," he writes.

"Another of the club's members, James Worsdale, was an artist, playwright and womaniser. Once, on a visit to Mallow, he made a little too free with his landlady's daughter, causing the irate mother to beat him through the town with a hot shoulder of mutton. So far, so frivolous."

image sourceAbarta Heritage
image captionArchaeologists are excavating the site of the old hellfire club in the Dublin hills

But there was a much darker side to the club - it was a place where young rich aristocrats could get away, literally, with murder.

"When we come to one of the club's younger members, Henry, fourth Baron Barry of Santry, things start to get more sinister," writes Ryan.

"Lord Santry was civil enough - when sober. When intoxicated, as he often was, a much darker side was revealed. One of his most shocking crimes was the murder of an ill and bedridden servant. Having forced the unfortunate man to drink a bottle of brandy, Santry drenched his bedclothes in alcohol and set them alight, burning him alive. He escaped punishment by buying the silence of witnesses."

And out of dirty deeds like this, the hellfire club got its gory reputation and cast a long shadow down the years.

There is a tale that a young local farmer was curious about what happened and was found by club members wondering about. They dragged him inside and allowed him to see - the next morning he was found wondering on the mountain, unable to speak and he remained deaf and dumb for the rest of his life.

There are stories of a black cat with ears like horns and evil eyes who took on a priest and still haunts the place - he is, they say, the size of a large Dalmatian.

However David Ryan states that although the club members were rumoured to be devil worshippers, "in reality they were freethinkers who believed in neither heaven or hell".

Aisling Tierney is equally sceptical about the satanic line. However, there is evidence that the Dublin lodge had an additional room added on.

"Maybe it was about being able to continue the party into the wee hours and collapsing into bed," she said.

Nevertheless, the rumours are rife and the Dublin hellfire club's reputation for black magic and mystery and heinous goings on echoes down the years.