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montpelier hill

Five thousand years of death: The secrets uncovered at Hellfire Club site was invited to explore the first archaeological dig into a passage tomb on Montpelier Hill. How could we resist?

Nice Shot0 A view through the larger trench across the cairn, up to the Hellfire Club.

WHEN NEIL JACKMAN climbed up the side of Montpelier Hill near Rathfarnham to take in a spectacular view of Dublin city around this time three years ago, he got more than he bargained for.

At first, he was awed by the ominous structure of the Hellfire Club, a 1700s shooting lodge long associated (in legend, at least) with the nefarious activities of an aristocratic young buck named the Earl of Rosse.

Jackman, an archaeologist who wrote‘s popular Heritage Ireland guides, was exploring the spot for a Halloween special for our site.

The Hellfire Club was primed for inclusion among the most mysterious and infamous heritage sites in the country. Originally called Mount Pelier Lodge when it was built in 1725 for politician William Speaker Connolly, he died a short few years later and the lease passed into the hands of the rakish Richard Parsons.

Inside30 Inside the atmospheric Hellfire Club - whose roof and walls were reputedly built with stones raided from the desecrated passage tomb.

Parsons, aka the Earl of Rosse, was founder of the Irish chapter of the Hellfire Club. Drunken debauchery was the calling card of the Club and while there isn’t written evidence linking the building on the hill to meetings of Rosse and his pals, the assumption is that the isolated location was a safe bet for their wild behaviour to go unchecked.

Urban legends of a visit from the devil and diabolical violence towards servants, and in particular one young woman reputed to have been rolled down the hill in a blazing oak barrel, persist to this day.

Drone0 An aerial view shows the clear outline of the passage tomb to the rear of the Club, with a smaller tomb just to the right of that.

The unusual appearance of the building dominates the hilltop, not least the bizarre cobbled stone replacement to the original wooden roof which had been burned off by anti-royalists or blown off by the devil in a fit of rage, whichever story you prefer.

“The later stone vaulted roof repair,” noted the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage sniffily, “is outstanding in its coarseness”.

That stone roof, and indeed the stones from which the entire building is constructed, hold the key to the deeper history of Montpelier Hill. These rough-hewn cobbles began life a few metres to the rear of the Hellfire Club, and once formed the impressive cairn of a neolithic tomb that could have been seen for miles around. They were raided by the builders of the lodge – a grave-robbing enterprise that no doubt has added to the site’s unsavoury reputation.

The traces of this tomb was the second surprise that awaited Jackman on his trip to the hill. It was immediately obvious to him that the builders of the Hellfire Club were not the first people to have used the site. When he returned to his office, he looked up the National Monuments Service website, which had the hill marked as the location of potentially two passage tombs.

He approached South Dublin County Council and Coillte, who were both very behind the idea of properly examining the site. The team was lucky to find a particularly enthusiastic and knowledgeable support in the council’s Heritage Officer, Dr Rosaleen Dwyer. The National Monuments Service and the National Museum have been “incredibly supportive”, says Jackman.

Neil0 Archaeologist Neil Jackman at the site. was invited to spend a morning with Jackman and the archaeological team who have been given permission to delve into the secrets of the passage tomb – and indeed, establish that a passage tomb is what we’re dealing with here.

After Jackman’s first visit, the investigation began with a research project to collate the information already out there about Montpelier Hill. It then evolved into a geophysical survey of the site, which led onto a small targeted archaeological dig last year. The potential became clear and they got the go-ahead to put in trenches this October.

On a grey day in the week running up to Halloween, we join Jackman on the site as he is moving back the barriers and covers that are protecting the site for the month of the exploration.

A steady stream of hillwalkers and schoolchildren have been visiting the site, all intrigued by the mysteries that might unfold there.

There are two neat trenches carved into the mound behind the Hellfire Club, one perpendicular to and slightly apart from the other.

The team had two very specific objectives for this dig. Jackman explains:

What we are looking to see is can we prove there is a Neolithic passage tomb here, and if we can, can we find anything that will give us a radiocarbon date. None of the tombs of the Dublin-Wicklow mountains have a date as of yet because the last ones investigated were in the 1920s and ’30s.

The technology available to archaeologists almost a century later is obviously much advanced. The day we visit, the Discovery Programme of archaeological innovation turns up to create 3D models of features of the structure which would otherwise remain invisible to the naked eye.

Drone footage shot of the site also yields a view that would not have been available to archaeologists on the ground in the last century. Seen from above, the circular mound of the larger passage tomb, and a smaller one centred near where the current Ordnance Survey marker stone is sited, are clearly visible. The expanse of the ancient site dwarfs the footprint of the current Hellfire Club building.

There is a detailed rundown from Jackman on his company website, Abarta Heritage, of the technology used on this dig.

Cross Section0 Digging in the larger trench, which revealed the stone base of the tomb mound.

Pointing to the first trench, about 20 metres long and two metres wide, Jackman says:

“We wanted to establish how much of the site was left intact, so we put this trench through this mound material to see if it was related, if any of the cairn was still intact.”

Carefully peeling back the sods, and nibbling away at the topsoil, they uncovered the foundation of the cairn. Jackman points at bands of stone that had not seen the light of Dublin skies in around five millenia. He says:

That’s the rubble core of it [the cairn]. It would have stood significantly high, would have been seen for miles and miles around.

The second trench, shorter at 10 metres long, is “to see if we could find any internal features, or to find if any of the northern side of the tomb still remained intact”. It is – just visible at the long edge of the trench are neatly-laid layers of similar-sized stones.

Other Trench0 Cross-section of the smaller trench.

The good news is that the dig has yielded the results they hoped for.

There is charcoal at the base of the rubble which should give a date for the earliest construction at the site. The dig has shown that some of the tomb survives intact, despite the desecration it has undergone, first at the hands of the builders of the Hellfire Club, but also at the time of the construction of the Military Road in the early 1800s.

Historical reviews of the site had noted large standing stones and some remains of the cairn of stones remained even after the building of the shooting lodge. These disappeared after materials were raided for the Military Road.

Jackman likes to say that the monument has had “two deaths”.

In fact, one of the interesting artefacts found by the archaeologists in the past few weeks is an intricately-carved clay tobacco pipe that dates to around the time of the construction of the road over 200 years ago.

Pipe0 The 200-year-old clay tobacco pipe.

It is designed to look like an eagle claw gripping the bowl of the pipe as if it were an egg – “or if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, maybe a dragon’s claw,” jokes Jackman. It has a factory stamp which should help him date the pipe and find the location of its manufacture and confirm suspicions that a workman dropped it at the base of one of the last large stones left at the site.

That stone shows signs of having had a fire lit at its base, possibly to crack it and make it easier to remove. It didn’t work though – the Neolithic predecessors of the workmen had done the job well and the road-builders had to give up and leave it in situ.

If it was one of the guys building the old Military Road and taking the tomb apart, I’m very glad he dropped his pipe and it broke on him for doing that.

Standing Stone20 Uncovering the giant standing stone which survived an early attempt to remove it and use it for building.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is now definitive proof that this IS a passage tomb. The grand passage tombs of the Boyne Valley, your Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth trio, have long harnessed the imagination of the public. The tradition of tomb-building in the Dublin-Wicklow area has not been as largely explored, with the notable exception of the prehistoric tomb at Seefin.

There is a murmur of excitement around the Hellfire site when we visit that something significant has been discovered which further underlines the importance of its passage tomb. We await (impatiently) preliminary results but watch this space.

For now though, this dig at Montpelier Hill is doing the important job of reconstructing an image of the tomb as it was when it once dominated the skyline north of a city that would not yet take shape for a few thousand years.

Drone20001 A giant cairn (of stones) would have dominated the top of Montpelier Hill 5,000 years ago.

The purpose of the cairn is only something that we can surmise at, given that it was erected by a culture without a written heritage. But, says Jackman, the size and height of such a cairn was a statement to visitors and would-be settlers alike: There is a community here. And a community strong and large enough to build a tomb this impressive, so perhaps you should move on.

It was quite the territorial statement; they were designed to be seen. They often had bits of quartz put into the cairn so they would be highly visible.

This construction, says Jackman, is “by far” the largest in the Dublin area, while over 30 metres in diameter, large for an upland passage tomb.

The tomb no doubt had significance within the community too, as a way of honouring the dead, and possibly any deities or higher powers they subscribed to.

One of the most wonderful finds made in the month-long dig is a direct line back to the builders of this tomb – “the star of the show so far”.

Axe0 The star of the show so far - a polished axe head, likely laid as a ceremonial object or offering in the passage tomb 5,000 years ago.

Jackman carefully removes from an evidence bag a polished stone axe-head, its sides smoothed down by the maker’s labours, its sharp edge perfectly intact.

This is not an implement notched and chipped with use – this is an item that was deposited with reverence in the tomb on which we are standing. Jackman traces a fingernail along the back of the axehead, where it should have been attached to a wooden handle.

As you can see, it’s been broken perhaps in antiquity, perhaps when it was made, and it was broken to ceremonially give it to the next life. It was never used. It seems to have been deliberately made to be deposited in this tomb. Perhaps as an offering to a loved one as grave goods to be taken with them into the next world, perhaps as a ceremonial offering to the gods or the ancestors.

What is that like? To uncover something that has gone unrecognised and unloved for around 5,000 years until you touch it in 2016?

“There was a great deal of excitement with it,” says Jackman, “because when you’re all working away together, you’re constantly checking the soil as you’re digging, you’re constantly looking around for things that don’t look quite natural and a hundred times a day you pick up a bit of stone and you’re like, ‘Is it..? No’, and you throw it.

But now and again something like that crops up and it gives great excitement to everyone on the dig. It’s a great reward.

Artefacts, however, are not the be-all and end-all, according to Jackman. He is equally fascinated by the subtle clues a site can give up which paint the bigger picture of what life was like there.

Soil samples have been taken from the Montpelier Hill tomb site in the hope that they have trapped some ancient particles of pollen. Such a discovery would shed light on what the environment was like at the time the tomb-building community lived. These were the first farmers, remember.

What crops did they grow? What did they eat together as a community? The distance created by time dissipates once you can picture a family sitting down to share out a cake of cornmeal bread, for example.

Inside10 Ancient pollen trapped in soil samples at the site could help us picture what the view would have been for our ancestors.

Shortly after we leave, the team on the hill begin the painstaking work of ‘in-filling’ the trenches, returning all but the most precious of finds to the place where they found them. Jackman hopes that this won’t be his last visit to the Hellfire Club.

“Passage tombs are very rarely dug in Ireland and they are very, very important sites. It’s rare to get permission and I think the last one was in the mid-’90s, Knockroe, on the Tipperary-Kilkenny border,” he says.

There is much more to be discovered about the site – and a second phase of exploration could be just the thing to bust the myths of the Hellfire Club. / YouTube

  • Video and stills: Nicky Ryan/
  • Drone footage: Abarta Heritage

Hidden Ireland: The sites where Halloween began>

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