If you take the constituent parts of this blog you could probably claim that we form some sort of Anglo-Irish ascendancy. Well, we’ve got the right words but in the wrong order.
But in the hills to the south of Dublin, some way from the old Georgian city centre but close to the mangy fringe of the new Celtic Tiger suburbs, there lies a chunky building that reminds us of the real Protestant ascendancy. The building known as the ‘Hellfire Club’ is perched on the edge of Montepelier Hill and is originally a hefty hunting lodge built by the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons at an outlying point of his estate.
Yeah, we hear you: sod the blood sports! Give us the tales of debauched orgies and satanic rituals! Never fear: we know our audience, it’s coming. This Is Pop prefers rumours to facts; legends to reality. And the antics of the Hellfire club provide some good copy.
Built on an ancient site of worship, the remaining cairns and standing stones were removed to make way for this solid lump of real estate with views across the Pale. Whatever its original purposes, this site has become permanatly associated with the Georgian rakes who bounded out of town in the 1740s to indulge their less socially-acceptable habits. These denizens of high society conform to my theory that those at the top of society are always the ones who most desire the debauchery at the bottom.
Of course, we don’t have a bloody clue what they got up to. But we can make some educated guesses.
The founder of the British arm was Old Etonian Francis Dashwood who, to steal someone else’s research, was alternately described as a “Rapist, sodomite” and a “Gentleman, scholar” who “fornicated his way across Europe”. There’s definitely a touch of the Blackadder there. He ended up as Postmaster-General, which makes him my favourite Royal Mail employee since Jon the Postman. And a damn sight more interesting that Adam Crozier.
The English version seems to have been largely a dining club, officially operating under the brilliantly obscure title of the “Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe”, and whose main purpose was drinking and eating to excess. If this involved slaughtering a hog, paying tribute to the Greek gods and bringing in a few ‘nuns’ (the sort that hang around the docks and charge by the hour) at the end then so be it. The likes of the Earl of Sandwich, Laurence Sterne and Hogarth were supposedly in on the act.
The connection to the Irish arm was informal and in the spirit. It was headed by the Earl of Rosse, described elsewhere as a “sorcerer, dabbler in black magic… and a man of humour and frolic” who, pleasingly for those of us who love a weird secret society, was a sometime head of the Irish Freemasons. it did its best to terrifying the population. And every so often ventured up to the top of this hill for a bit of fun.
Aside from your common or garden tales of orgies, appearances by the devil and abuse of young maidens there are a few choice cuts. Accounts of the footman who was burnt alive at the end of a drunken night. The time that the building was burnt down in anger. And the time that more people were burnt alive when the building was burnt. The Hellfire club don’t seem to have had much safety training.
The locals have certainly got in on the act, adding colour to the legends and piggybacking on the tale – such as when a local hotel buried a dwarf skeleton on the site. You can’t blame them, especially since history turns debauchery from a criminal matter in a subject for whimsical travel blogs. But I reckon they must have been up to some pleasingly debauched stuff: you wouldn’t trek all the way up to the top of this hill – and the secrecy it provided – for nothing.
Nowadays it’s a ruin, a heavy-set construction of granite slabs that rises out of the mist as you climb the hill. The roof lacks tiles but the crypt-style ceiling stays up, seemingly through sheer stubbornness. It’s dank and muddy and families consider it a pleasant place to go for a walk, telling strange bowdlerised tales about secret societies. I wonder whether they mention the supposed tradition of pouring “scaltheen over a cat” and lighting the feline prior to every meeting? Nah, thought not.
Photos/captions by Fuchsia. Obvs.