Back in October 2010, Donal touched briefly on an old Dublin legend about a solder who met a grim fate in the crypt of Christchurch. The story was recounted in Padraic O’ Farrell’s 1983 book The Ernie O’ Malley Story:
“Ernie received a note written by Rory O’ Connor in Mountjoy on 12 September. It told him of a tunnel leading to the Four Courts which could be used if they had left any important documents behind. One piece of folklore attached to that area of the city concerned a tunnel from there to Christchurch, built in the thirteenth century when a Dominican friary of St. Saviour occupied the Four Courts site.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, an army officer was accidentally locked in the tunnel which was used for storing ceremonial paraphernalia. He was soon documented as ‘missing, presumed dead’ until the next occasion demanding the opening of the tunnel. Near its entrance was discovered the skeleton of the officer and in the bones of his right hand was his sword. Lying about were the broken bone fragments of up to 250 rats that had attacked and had been beaten off by the mans sword before he himself was overcome.”
From looking at a number of different sources, it seems likely that there is some truth to this macarbe story.
The earliest substantial reference I can find is from 1907. Samuel A. Ossory Fitzpatrick’s book Dublin: A Historical and Topographical Account of the City describes the
…tragic interest attached to the tablet to Sir Samuel Auchmuty, G.C.B., who died in 1822 while in command of forces in Ireland. It is said that at his funeral an officer lost his way in the crypt, was accidentally locked in, and was there devoured by rats, which probably swarmed from the great sewer which led from the cathedral to the Liffey. His skeleton is said to have been afterwards found still grasping his sword, and surrounded by the bones of numbers of rats which he had slain before being overcome.
I believe this story was taken from page 33 of the 1901 book The Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, Dublin by William Butler but unfortunately the full book is not available to view online.
An article published in The Irish Times on 8 September 1926 repeats the story and names the poor soldier as ‘Lieutenant Mercier’.
The story was recounted, without a name for the dead soldier, in an 1940 article by P. J. McCall entitled ‘In the Shadow of Christ Church’ in the Dublin Historical Record journal.
Sir Samuel Auchmuty certainly died in 1822 and his funeral was held in Christchurch so the story’s backdrop does match up.
Elgy Gillispie writing in the The Irish Times on 19 June 1975 fleshed out the story considerably. The journalist was given a tour of the vaults of the Cathedral by guide Joe Coady who recounts the tale of the ‘Tragic Demise of Lieutenant Blacker”:
In August 1822, this young officer of the 78th Regiment of Foot came down with fellow mourners into the crypt to attend the funeral of his colonel, a Sir Samuel Auchmuty … In the gloom of the crypt Blacker lost his sense of direction and inadvertently wandered into the underground passage … He was attacked by a species of large river rats that populated the tunnels … His skeleton was found, picked clean to the bone, beside his broken sword by a search party two days later. After that the tunnel was filled.
Tour guide Joe Coady said that the sword was still in the possession of the Cathedral but not kept on display.
Like most old tales, there’s a couple of versions. Kevin Fitzsimons told an Irish Press journalist, in a 6 July 1967 article, that it was a “dragoon officer” who was got lost in the passageways with his dog. He was found months later eaten by rats while his dog had been accidently decapitated in the fight for survival.
More recently, a Dublin haunted ghost tour company are telling tourists this story but in their version, the soldier is killed after being locked into one of crypts by accident after a drinking session.
Next week, I will focus on the stories about the tunnel that allegedly ran from the crypt of Christchurch Cathederal, under the Liffey, to St Saviours Priory (site of the present Four Courts).