combing the ruins

Archaeologists hope to uncover the secrets of the Hellfire Club with tomb dig

So far, they’ve removed the top layer of grass and soil at the site.

Hellfire 2 Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

A TEAM OF archaeologists are undertaking a dig at the Hellfire Club in the Dublin Mountains, where they hope to uncover some of the secrets of famous site.

Four archaeologists, as well as students from UCD, are taking part in the Hellfire Club Archaeological Project, which is supported by South Dublin County Council (SDCC), Coillte and Abarta Heritage.

The dig is aimed at uncovering the story of Montpelier Hill, where the ruins of the Hellfire Club are located.

Neil Jackman of Abarta Heritage told that they’re aiming to discover the condition of what is believed to be a passage tomb near the Hellfire Club ruins.

“The tomb itself is quite large, over 30m in diameter,” he explained. “It was largely destroyed when they were building the Hellfire Club.” It’s believed that stones from the tomb were used in the creation of the building, which has long been linked by some to supernatural happenings.

Even for those who don’t visit to be spooked out, the site provides a remarkable view of Dublin.

The archaeologists are opening a quarter of the tomb and have already dug a strip of about 2m wide across the area. They’ve taken off the grass and topsoil from this area and will soon begin to dig deeper into the site.

“Then we will start opening a bigger area and find out the complexity of the area,” said Jackman, pointing out that they need to do it “in a very manageable way” as the site needs to be returned to as it was when the dig concludes at the end of October.

They’ve already made a few interesting finds – no bones, but they have found everything from bags of crisps from the ’90s to pottery from the early 1800s. They’ve also found the remains of sparklers and fireworks.

“We’re finding quite a lot of stuff which shows how many people have come up there to enjoy the view,” said Jackman. “It’s the sort of rubbish you can imagine from people partying up there, which is part of the Hellfire Club story.”

As they get deeper through the layers, they are hoping to find prehistoric items. The holy grail, so to speak, would be a piece of bone or charcoal which could be dated.

It’s thought the passage tomb at the site is one of a string of such tombs which goes through the Dublin/Wicklow Mountains.

They include the Seefin tomb in the Wicklow Mountains:

AbartaAudioGuides / YouTube

“They’re very interesting sites,” said Jackman. “The last one of these to be excavated in the Dublin Mountains was only done in the 1920s.”

It wasn’t done using modern techniques – there was no radiocarbon dating, for example.

Before [the tomb at the Hellfire Club] was largely destroyed, we believe it would have once been a large circular mound, with a stone lined passageway that led to a burial chamber.

“We know quite a lot about tombs in Boyne Valley but we know nothing about tombs in the Dublin Mountains, we don’t know how old they are,” said Jackman. “The big hope is a bit of charcoal, a bit of bone, something we can date. Are they older than the tombs in Boyne Valley, are they younger?”

It’s an exciting and unusual opportunity to get to excavate a site like this, said Jackman.

“It’s really exciting to get a chance to answer a few of these questions. It’s a beautiful place to be when you’re digging.”

Besides the age of the tomb, they’re also trying to figure out what is left of the site. “Did they completely destroy it or are we going to see the chamber area?”

The dream is to find the original passageways within the tomb. “The ultimate dream is if we can get something to date it – perhaps some megalithic art.”

Passage tombs largely date to about 5,000 years ago, but they became important places once more around 1,000 years later, during the Bronze Age.

Members of the public are invited to visit the site to see how the archaeologists are getting on, but those who can’t pop up can also keep up to date through the Abarta Heritage website, Twitter and Facebook.

In addition to the dig, Jackman is also taking part in a folklore project with schools and SDCC, which involves gathering the local stories people tell about the Hellfire Club.

The dark history of the Hellfire Club

Hellfire 3 Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

The Hellfire Club was built as a shooting lodge for the politician William Conolly in around 1725.

Explained Jackman:

To build the lodge, his workmen destroyed two large tombs, and utilised their stone as building material. The destruction of the tombs marks the beginning of the association of the building with the supernatural.
Legend has it, that a devil was so enraged by the desecration that he blew off the original wooden roof of the new building. As one of the richest and most powerful men in Britain or Ireland, William Conolly was not to be deterred by a mere phantom, and had the roof reconstructed in stone, giving the lodge its unique appearance.
The building is thought to have been idle until 1735, when it is said that his widow, Katherine, leased the building to Richard Parsons, the Earl of Rosse. Parsons was one of the leading figures in what was known as ‘Dublin’s Hellfire Club’, ‘The Blasters’ or the ‘Young Bucks of Dublin’.
This was a group of aristocrats, described at the time by the famous Jonathan Swift as “a brace of Monsters, Blasphemers and Bacchanalians”. The Earl of Rosse in particular was infamous for obscenity, blasphemy and for his habit of receiving guests in the nude. The main meeting place for the Hellfire Club appears to have been The Eagle Tavern on Cork Street.
Though no direct records explicitly state that they met on Montpelier Hill, it was certainly a plausible meeting place given that it was leased to their leader the Earl of Rosse, and that it was far enough outside the city for their debauches to go unnoticed.

Read: 4 more off-the-beaten-track places you really should visit>

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