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Monday 18 December 2017

Notorious drinking den where the devil was always served first

Plans for a €19m visitors' centre at the Hellfire Club in South Dublin have sparked protest. Dermot Bolger takes a look at tales of satanic rituals and debauchery at the hunting lodge

The Hellfire Club in the Dublin Mountains, which is set for a €19m revamp by South Dublin
County Council
The Hellfire Club in the Dublin Mountains, which is set for a €19m revamp by South Dublin County Council

It was 50 years ago, but I still recall my palpable sense of terror - as an eight-year-old cub scout - when being led across the dusty threshold of a ruined hunting lodge on Montpelier Hill in the Dublin Mountains.

In anxious, fascinated silence we listened as a scout leader described how the Devil had appeared to drunken rakes engaged in Satanic rites in the derelict room where we now sat.

His story set alight our imaginations, as did his account of how hardened men whom he knew had tried to spend a night in this haunted lodge but fled in terror before dawn, refusing to ever describe what they witnessed up there.

If South Dublin County Council gets its way and spends millions modernising this remote site, then I'm unsure if the ruined Hellfire Club will ever be as scary and intriguing to an eight-year-old again.

Ghosts

While I cannot vouch for the old adage that rural electrification killed all the ghosts in Ireland, I do suspect that - if faced with something as prosaic as a Visitors' Interpretative Centre - any self-respecting, devil-worshipping ghost would tell his poker-playing companion to pack away his cloven hoof and disappear before facing an exorcism by workmen in hi-vis vests.

For now at least, there is still time to venture up and risk spending a night with the ghosts of notorious 18th century Dublin rakes like the Earl of Rosse, Lord Santry, James Worsdale and others, who were summed up by their contemporary, Dean Swift, as monsters, blasphemers and bacchanalians.

To be honest though, if you did get transported back in time to when this hunting lodge was a refuge for rich Anglo-Irish rakes, you would be more likely to die of boredom than meet the Devil.

Your main risk of a heart attack would come not from satanic rituals but from participating in the favourite drinking game of the Hellfire Club members. This was drinking "saltheen" (vast quantities of hot whiskey and melted butter) while standing close enough to a roasting fire to melt the marrow in their bones. The last man to not collapse was the winner.

What happened in Dublin's Hellfire Club was more like inane arrested adolescent behaviour than devil-worship. This is despite the fact that one chair often left vacant for the Devil and the club's mascot - a fearsome black cat - was always served first, because members claimed that he was the oldest creature present.

Folklore suggests that the main criterion for being admitted was a willingness to sell your soul to the Devil.

A demonstration against the proposals for Hellfrie and Massy's Woods. Photo: Doug O'Connor
A demonstration against the proposals for Hellfrie and Massy's Woods. Photo: Doug O'Connor

However, a more important criterion was access to a vast inheritance or estate to drink and gamble away. You didn't just need to be a rake, you had to be a rich and staunchly Protestant one.

Hellfire clubs were not an Irish invention. In the 18th century, sociality was considered the key to happiness and rich men fell over themselves in their haste to establish exclusive clubs and societies.

Debauchery

For every high-minded club with moral or philanthropic aims, a polar opposite club was formed with the sole aim of getting drunk behind closed doors and showing a willingness to engage in sexual debauchery that often involved no debauchery at all.

For every frenzied secret orgy there were dozens of boring male-only gatherings, like the Beggar's Benison Club, whose secret initiation involved a silver spoon and a rather embarrassing act.

The Mont Pelier hunting lodge was built in 1725, but only gained notoriety in 1737, when the Earl of Rosse persuaded his drinking buddies to meet up there in the Dublin Mountains.

Green Party TD Eamon Ryan speaks to the crowd. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Green Party TD Eamon Ryan speaks to the crowd. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Detested for his coarse, blasphemous wit and for such peculiarities as receiving callers to his house while naked, Rosse was a saint compared to his fellow Hellfire Club member, Lord Santry, whose penchants included murder.

In a restful Ireland, festering with poverty and disease, it suited such rich, idle parasites to allow rumours of devil worship to grow up around the club. It kept unwanted callers and starving tenants at arms' length.

Over time, these rumours became enshrined in folklore and were further embellished when written down in 19th century salacious journals.

In reality, the lodge was just a refuge for absentee landlords and the fag-ends of the aristocracy to drink themselves even more stupid than they already were.

The Devil never appeared at the Hellfire Club. But try telling that to an eight-year-old boy gazing at those blackened walls, or to generations of hillwalkers who explored those ruins and felt a sudden chill as dusk came on.

Time may be running out for anyone wanting to experience that quiver of irrational fear.

Only now it is not the Devil but workmen in hi-vis vests who are closing in.

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