Dublin’s dark side

Jean Morley looks at the murkier side of the city’s history books

Jean Morley looks at the murkier side of the city’s history books

We all love a good ghost story. Remember cowering under the bed-sheets with a neon copy of Goosebumps by RL Stein? Or watching the mesmerising opening credits of Are you Afraid of the Dark? I often wonder how many other people out there still have flashbacks of that creaking swing.

For overgrown children of the nineties, Trinity is a gothic wonderland. Roller-discos aside, the college is at the centre of Dublin’s ghostly tradition, having had more than its share of phantasmagorical happenings. Read on and you’ll never again walk alone to the Pav.

Trinity College campus

Of course, we all knew that there was something foreboding about this place. Take the interior design of the Museum Building. A university forcing its natural scientists to study under the shadow of a huge dead elk is merely breeding morbid tendencies. Indeed, as Brian Showers points out in his fascinating book Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin, Trinity has mothered five great writers of the tradition. Charles Robert Maturin (author of the often emulated Melmoth the Wanderer), Joseph Sheridan le Fanu (often hailed as father of the modern ghost story), Fitz James O’Brien and Oscar Wilde all hobbled across the cobblestones at various points. The college’s most famous gothic son, however, is Bram Stoker. Creator of the world’s most famous vampires, he deserves a lifetime achievement award for services to Transylvanian tourism and uninspired Hollywood directors.

But where are you most likely to find the ghastly remnants of Trinity’s past? No, not the meetings of the University Historical or Philosophical Societies; although Stoker did preside over both at various stages in his academic career. Nor should we look to Dublin’s smallest burial site; the Chaloner Cemetery, in which Trinity’s provosts and fellows are buried. Instead, try the extension to the Berkeley Library. Excavated in 1999, the site was found to contain dozens of human remains, many dating to the late eighteenth century.

The severely dismembered state of the bodies and their cumbersome arrangement in shallow pits, suggests the handiwork of medical students. Prior to the 1830 Anatomy Act, medical schools relied on covert means of acquiring corpses. Having received the bodies in the dead of the night in order to carry out dissections, the students would have been eager to dump the proof of their work. However, before chastising Trinity meds as an over-zealous lot, we ought to see their actions in the context of the time.

Body-snatching was as common as cricket, with far gorier examples in neighbouring colleges. The Royal College of Surgeons was famous for its use of “sack-em-ups” – men with the extrememly useful ability to produce bodies on demand.

Edinburgh Medical School, however, brought the practise to more morbid depths. Two Irish emigrants moved to the city, eager to profit from the academic demand for bodies. Preferring to avoid any arduous digging, they captured “waifs and strays” passing their door before selling their bodies for hefty rewards.

Despite goings on elsewhere, the Trinity burials remain particularly strange – for reasons unknown to the most experienced of archaeologists, camel bones were sprinkled among the remains.

Unfortunately, accounts of supernatural phenomena in the college are often confused, with a Long Room Ghost, a Rubrics Ghost and even a New Sports Hall ghost batting each other in the credibility stakes. Thankfully, college history enthusiast Professor Garrett Fagan of Pennsylvania State University, is on hand to differentiate between accounts. He recounts the “only authentic” Trinity ghost story, the unfortunate murder of Edward Ford.

A college fellow and famous academic, Ford occupied House 25 of the Rubrics building. As controversial as he was talented; he was described by one colleague as an “obstinate and ill-judging man.” One evening, a group of typically rowdy Trinity students threw stones at his window, rousing him to anger. Pulling out a gun and muttering profanities, he shot into the taunting crowd. Although uninjured, the group was furious and decided to retaliate. Having collected their (illegal) firearms, they returned to fire through his window. Unfortunately, the prank was fatal, as Ford died from his gushing wounds. To this day, a man dressed in a wig, gown and high knee breeches wanders beyond the rubrics at dusk. Often taken for a misguided arts student, he ambles down to Botany Bay before fading into the air.

But Ford is not the only wandering soul associated with Trinity’s stony walls. Archbishop Narcissus Marsh was provost of Trinity in the 1670s, before rising to his clerical post in nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral. A quiet and bookish man, he spent much of his time in his churchyard library. He was also a guardian to his niece Grace, an innocent young girl of whom he was very fond. Unfortunately, Grace fell in love with a Curate, from a far-off English parish. Worried about leaving her loving uncle, Grace avoided revealing her plans to marry and eloped with the dashing curate. She left a note for her loving uncle, who died soon after, a heartbroken man.

To this day, librarians in Marsh’s Library report sightings of a forlorn phantom. Trawling through stacks of books, he is desperate to find his niece’s words. Similar ghostly spectres are also to be seen in our own Lecky Library. Flicking aimlessly through books as essay deadlines approach, they shuffle through handouts in eternal despair.

Dublin’s inner city churches

From meetings of Yeats’ Hermetic Society, to the reformation of Boyzone, Dublin has been home to some truly freakish happenings down through the years. Nowhere is this more evident than in the gothic interiors of the city’s churches. Where else in the world would tourists queue outside a chapel in hopes of shaking hands with some mummified remains? Tradition dictates that visitors to St. Michan’s church, beside the Four Courts, shake the hands of its mummy for luck. The eight hundred year old templar knight is not only a weathered veteran of the crusades but a more recent victim of repetitive strain injury.

The “black church” is a name ascribed to a number of Dublin’s ecclesiastical buildings, including Holy Trinity in Rathmines, St. Lukes of the Coombe and the Chapel of Ease on Mary Street. Repeatedly walking around such a church in the light of the midnight moon will guarantee an audience with the Devil himself. It will also make you very dizzy.

St Stephen’s Green

You thought rogue pigeons were the only threat to a peaceful lunchtime sandwich in the Green. But the park has been home to more ghoulish sights. According to seventeenth century reports, the park was choked with weeds and severely overgrown. Worse still were the exhibits in the park’s southwest corner. Not only could on take in the pleasant view of a leper colony here, but there was also gigantic gallows pole to behold. The park served as a public gallery for the remains of Dublin’s less fortunate criminals.

Copper-faced Jack

There are a number of adjectives commonly used to describe Dublin’s premier culchie nightclub but “sinister” is not usually one of them (Ed. – I beg to differ, Jean). However, learning about the real Copper-faced Jack forces a reassessment of the nightclub’s aims. Lord Clonmel (1739-98), as he was otherwise known, was one of Dublin’s notorious “hanging judges.” Determined to execute at all costs, he is most famous for his actions in 1792. In sentencing a boy for petty theft, he also decided to convict the father. The innocent man was hung and drawn to compensate for the actions of his reckless son.

Bram Stoker later occupied Lord Clonmel’s home, which is two doors up from the infamous nightclub. Unfortunately, without the rancour of the nightclub’s music in the late 1800s, ghosts were the only things going bump in the night. To conclude Ghost stories are the monkey nuts of the literary world; insubstantial treats to be enjoyed at Halloween. But is there truth in their cadaverous folds?

We’ll end with the words of one college librarian, asked to confirm the existence of a Long Room ghost. “Sometimes, if it’s twenty past nine on a cold, wet Thursday evening or something and the lights flicker, you think maybe, just maybe, there’s something out there…”