Dublin City has had it’s fair share of hell-raisers in the last century or so, mostly a product of purveyors of Arthur Guinness’ finest. But the history of hell- raising goes back well before the birth of the black stuff; most infamously in Irish history in the half-century before the good man himself poured his first pint and let it settle when Dublin was host to it’s own Hellfire Club.
The first Hellfire Club was founded by the Duke of Wharton in London in 1719 and was and was an exclusive club, mainly populated by a class of rich, landed Gentry called “Bucks” who chose to pursue a certain type of enjoyment which generally involved a pious mix of gambling, blaspheming, whoring, drinking, violence and even the odd touch of Satanism. (Though there is little evidence of this, it is something that is seen to go hand in hand with the original Hellfire Club and seems to stem from them calling each other “Devils.”) Their behaviour was seen as an affront to the ideals of the church and the sacred principles of religion; corrupting to the minds and morals of young people. Wharton’s club came to an end in 1721 when George I put forward a bill “against ‘horrid impieties'” (or immorality), aimed specifically at the Hellfire Club. (1)
From their ashes, The Dublin Hell-Fire Club was founded by Richard Parsons (1st Earl of Rosse and founder of the first Irish Lodge of Freemasons,) and Colonel Jack St Leger (The son of a rich landowner from Kildare, notorious for gambling large amounts of money on ridiculous wagers.) The Club motto was “Fais ce que tu voudras,” or “Do as thou wilt,” a nod to Rabelais’ Theatre of the Absurd. Meetings started with all members sitting around a circular table upon which was placed a huge punch bowl of scaltheen, a rancid mixture of Irish whiskey and melted butter. After toasting the Devil and drinking to the ‘damnation of the Church and its prelates’ the bucks would pour scaltheen over a cat, obtained for the occasion, and set fire to the poor feline. After this, the decadence could begin in earnest.
The club had various headquarters around Dublin such as the now demolished Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill, founded by Parsons sometime around 1735. The Eagle Tavern and Cork Hill are now no more, lost in the regeneration of Temple Bar. We do know that the Tavern was situated close to the IFI and the Quakers Hall in Temple Bar. (2) Another favorite meeting place was Daly’s Club, College Green. Here, shutters were kept closed in the morning so that members with hangovers could gamble and drink by candlelight. One notorious incident occurred here when a member, Buck Sheely was caught cheating at cards. A ‘court’ was convened presided over by Buck English; His verdict was that Sheely was to be hurled through the window of the third floor gaming room- he died in the fall, impaled on the railings below.
Perhaps the most famous of the meeting places of the Hellfire Club was on Montpellier Hill, in the Dublin mountains, not far from Rathfarnham. It was built around 1725 on land purchased from the Duke of Wharton (founder of the first ever Hellfire Club) by William Connolly, a speaker in the Irish House of Commons. According to local legend, an ancient Cairn erected to the old pagan gods of Ireland had been demolished to make way for the lodge. Many of the stones from the Cairn were used in the construction of the house. Shortly after its completion, a powerful storm blew the slated roof away. It was replaced by a stone roof which remains intact today. For at least 20 years Mountpelier House flourished until the Bucks ruined it sometime around 1740. The story of the disaster is well known. As with the roof blowing off during its construction; local myth held that its destruction was a punishment for the desecration of the Cairn it was built upon.
At this time the ‘Principal’ of the Hellfire Club was a man of huge wealth called Richard Chappell Whaley. His nickname was ‘Burn-Chapel’ Whaley because of his hatred of religion and in particular, the Roman Catholic church. He would amuse himself on Sundays by riding around Dublin setting fire to the thatched roofs of Catholic chapels. It was he who caused the downfall of Mountpelier House. “After an unfrocked clergyman had performed a Black Mass in one of the two upstairs rooms in Mountpelier House, the ceremony ending in the usual drunken revelry, a footman picking his way through the sprawling bodies spilt some drink on Richard Whaley’s coat. Whaley reacted by pouring brandy over the footman and setting him alight. The man fled downstairs clutching at a tapestry hanging by the hall door, trying to douse the flames. Within minutes the whole house was ablaze.” (3) Many Bucks died in the fire, but Whaley managed to survive by leaping out of a window. At the age of 59, he married a woman 40 years his junior. Their son, Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley was to become the most famous Buck of all. “Born in 1766, it was Buck Whaley who rallied the Hell-Fire club from the low ebb to which it had sunk after the burning of Mountpelier House declaring his intention of ‘defying God and man in nightly revels’.” (4)
Before I go into the Buck Whaley himself, here’s a piece of poetry about the Limerick Hellfire Club pictured above and it tells us a little about what shenanigans they, and the other Hellfire clubs around the country got up to:
‘But if in endless drinking you delight,
Croker will ply you till you sink outright.
Croker for swilling floods of wine renowned,
Whose matchless Board with various plenty crowned.
Eternal scenes of Riot, Mirth and noise,
With all the thunder of the Nenagh boys;
We laugh, we roar, the ceaseless bumpers fly,
Till the sun purples o’er the morning sky.
And if unruly Passions chance to rise,
A willing Wench the Firgrove still supplies’. (5)
Buck Whaley inherited a huge fortune after the death of his father, being granted a yearly allowance of £900 at the age of 16. He had an eventful upbringing, jumping between tutors in England and France before returning home having spent some time in jail. Obviously having inherited some of his fathers hatred of the church, he was thrown into jail in Marseilles, having “insulted, violently assaulted and raising his sacrilegious hands against a Priest.” He escaped a long sentence by being secreted out of the country by friends of his lawyer. While his inheritence at the time was huge, arguably, he won an even greater fortune at the gaming tables as well as partaking in some bizarre wagers. In one wager he won £25,000 from the Duke of Leinster by riding to Jerusalem and back within a year. While seeing the sights, this was not a pious pilgrimage and he later boasted of playing handball against the Walls of Jerusalem and having drunk his way there. On another occasion, for a bet of £12,000, he rode a beautiful white Arab stallion in a death-defying leap from the drawing room on the second floor of his father’s house on Stephen’s Green, over a carriage parked outside the door, and onto the street, 30-odd feet below. He won his wager, surviving with a broken leg, but killed the horse.
Remorse, however, befell Buck Whaley as his life went on and so he resolved to seek absolution for his sins. Whilst praying in St Audoen’s Church, just off modern day Thomas’ Street, he had a vision of the Devil creeping down the aisle towards him. Seized with terror, he ran from the church and fled Ireland forever.
He lived the last few years of his life, with his mistress, now his wife, in a mansion he built on the Isle of Man, where he wrote his memoirs. Repentant in his sickness and misery, he wrote “I thought that a faithful picture of my youthful eccentricities, drawn with justice and impartiality, would not be unacceptable to my country- men, and particularly to my younger friends, who will find some few examples which they may follow with advantage, but many more which they ought to avoid.” (6)
He died at the age of 34 of sclerosis of the liver. With his death the Dublin Hell-Fire Club ceased to exist.
3: Taken from Setanta Orienteers by Robert Whaley, page 1
4: http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924028518730/cu31924028518730_djvu.txt (Whaley’s memoirs)