Atop the peak of Montpelier Hill, nestled well amongst the Dublin mountains sits a ruined stone building which, for generations has served as a place of ghostly tales and frightening night time retreats. Montpelier Hill, known more commonly as “The Hellfire Club”, is a place where history and urban myth have intertwined to secure the site a place in Dublin’s more dark and mysterious history.
The Hellfire Club was one of many groups of the same name that were appearing across Ireland and Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. These clubs were established in order to serve as meeting places for some of the most wealthy and powerful people in both Irish and British society. In a time of deeply ingrained religious belief and an extremely restrictive culture, young men would join the club to delve into a more decadent lifestyle of alcohol, sex, and outlandish parties. With society upholding a condescending view on such practices at the time, rumours began to spread amongst the public of unnatural behaviour occurring in the club. Many members were rumoured to have been practicing dark magic and performing satanic rituals.
“It required the demolition of an ancient Cairn stone, which locals at the time believed aggravated spirits and left the site forever haunted.”
The building rumoured to have served as one of the group’s meeting places was a small hunting lodge, which to this day still stands on Montpelier Hill. The lodge itself was commissioned by William Conolly, a speaker in the Irish House of Commons in the 18th century. Conolly was one of the wealthiest men in Ireland and his estate attracted much interest from those looking for financial donation, including Trinity and the Irish Parliament. The construction of the lodge stirred up controversy amongst locals as it required the demolition of an ancient Cairn stone, which locals at the time believed aggravated spirits and left the site forever haunted. Even before the club itself moved into the lodge, paranormal activity was already associated with the small building atop Montpelier Hill.
Following the death of Conolly, it was believed that Richard Parsons, the Hellfire Club’s founder, himself a ferociously controversial young man – known to have had an interest in the the dark arts – may have used the building as one of the locations at which the Hellfire Club would meet. Although Montpelier Hill was not the club’s primary meeting site, it is believed to be one of the secondary sites that members congregated at. Parsons himself was known to be in conflict with both the Catholic and Protestant church in Dublin being outspoken in his beliefs, particularly when it came to playing outrageous practical jokes alongside other club members against practitioners of the church, including one where he summoned clergyman and Trinity graduate Samuel Madden to meet him, only to strip naked before him and cause great embarrassment. Madden, who is remembered today as a pioneering writer, graduated from Trinity in 1705 and was similarly outspoken against both Parsons and the club, thus attracting ridicule from the young men. This conflict between the club and church, as well as with more conservative members of 18th century society, led the club to attract a lot of negative attention.
“Amongst the most far fetched of these stories is the well known tale of members playing cards with the devil one dark night upon Montpelier Hill.”
With many strange and peculiar stories circulating to this day about Montpelier Lodge, and the elite young men responsible for the reputation it carries, it can be difficult to find truth amongst fantastical stories and frightening urban myths. Amongst the most far-fetched of these stories is the well known tale of members playing cards with the devil one dark night upon Montpelier Hill, and that of a priest being called to the club in order to exorcise a demon from a black cat they claimed attacked a member. Whilst these stories are almost entirely bogus, there are equally as frightening tales concerning members that are all too true. Lord Santry, the great grandson of 17th century Trinity graduate James Barry, was widely known around Dublin for violent outbursts and his wild drinking. When drunk, the aristocrat was known to develop a far darker personality, where he carried out many crimes. By far the most disturbing of these was the murder of a bedridden servant whom he forcefully made consume a full bottle of brandy and set alight as he lay in his bed. The trial that followed attracted much attention and cast yet further unapproving eyes in the direction of the Hellfire Club and the behaviour of its younger members. Santry escaped prison by paying off witnesses and utilising influential associates, but was eventually exiled from Ireland over the brutal murder of yet another servant a few years later.
“In the years that followed, many other clubs inspired by the debauchery and decadence of the original Hellfire Club were established across Ireland.”
Santry’s crimes, combined with the attempted arrest of club members suspected of blasphemy, only sped up the demise of the club in Dublin. Following Parsons untimely death soon after, along with the gruesome deaths of two other members, the club ceased to meet. However, in the years that followed, many other clubs inspired by the debauchery and decadence of the original Hellfire Club were established across Ireland in areas such Kildare and Cork. However, no other Hellfire Club in Ireland or Britain was ever as well known for its controversy and violence as much as Montpelier Club.
Author David Ryan said in a 2012 article for The Irish Times, which discussed his own research into the club, that he acknowledges the Hellfire Club members for what they truly were – not the frightening devil worshippers the society at the time portrayed them to be, “but in reality freethinkers who believed in neither heaven nor hell”. Ryan stated that whilst there were violent and dangerous members within the club’s ranks, most of the members used their bad behaviour as a way to fight back against the church in Ireland and promote a more modern form of thinking. “They adopted their outrageous moniker in order to stir up controversy and annoy the more devout and strait-laced members of society. And despite the fact that they committed atrocious crimes, in some ways they were ahead of their time.”
Ill-behaved and arrogant as they were, these young men were also well-educated and practitioners of science, with many of the Dublin Hellfire Club members being Trinity or University of Cambridge graduates. Members held discussions in philosophy and science, placing them well out of line with the church and the more traditional members of Georgian society, whom they regularly came into conflict with. Montpelier Hill may be one of Dublin’s best known haunted sites, but it’s also worth acknowledging the members of the club that once met here as being far ahead of their time intellectually. Controversial as they were, the idea of them being satanic delinquents stemmed from a poor understanding of science and intellectualism by society at the time. After all, much what was once considered supernatural was simply the natural world misunderstood.