My last article looked at the morbid tale of the soldier who got lost in the crypts of Christchurch and was eaten alive by rats. This story is often told in connection with the alleged tunnel that ran from Christchurch to the area where the Four Courts is today.
In 1224 the Dominicans (the Black Friars) established St Saviour’s Priory by the present location of Inns Quay on the Northside of the Liffey. They took over possession a small chapel which had been built four years previously. The priory’s extensive grounds reached to the corner of Cuckoo Lane and George’s Hill.
They built a bigger, more suitable church in 1238 but this fell victim in 1304 to one of Dublin’s periodic fires.
The priory buildings were taken over in 1539 under Henry VIII for use at first as courts of law, and then as a hostel for lawyers under the title of “King’s Inns”. The lawyers retained a chapel within the former priory for their private use. In later years, apart from its brief restoration to the friars in the time of James II, the priory was used in turn as a barracks, a theatre, a publishing centre.
In 1786 the present Four Courts building was erected on the site.
In 1860 it was reported in an article, ‘On the Wells in or near Dublin, Attributed to or Named after St. Patrick’, published in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1836-69) that:
It was in Mr Bailie’s Timber Yard, corner of George’s Hill and Cuckoo-Lane, in a vault, approached by a great flight of stairs, also leading to a vaulted chamber which appears to have been an ancient church.
The local tradition leads to the conclusion that these vaults extend to a great distance, south to the Liffey, and westwards to Thief’s Hole, near the Park Gate, which was opened about thirty years ago, when it was examined by the police, in consequence of a report that the body of a murdered female had been hid therin.
Another source (The Annals of Dublin, 1987) suggests that it was in 1890 that workmen found the 150 feet long tunnel heading for the Liffey. This was alleged to have been the ancient passage which ran under the river to connect with the crypt of Christ Church.
In the fantastic Life in old Dublin, historical associations of Cook street (1913), James Collins wrote:
The building of the Four Courts … has removed all traces of the Dominican Priory … save (those) still under ground, several of which are known to exist in the locality starting from North King Street towards the river.
One of the most interesting was up to some years ago in a good state of preservation, after a lapse of 700 years. It consisted of a series of lofty semi-circular and round arches, built on massive piers, which are approached by a descent of large steps built in what was, up to a short time ago, known as Bailey’s timber yard, George’s Hill.
Opposite to the steps and in the first vault is a deeply arched recess in which there is a well of the purest water, said to be dedicated to St. Anne, from whom the adjoining street derives its name. On the left of the entrance vault is a built-up opening, which closes a vaulted passage, and tradition tells us that this passage extended to Christ Church, being tunneled under the river, and used at a remote period by the monks for the purpose of attending the ceremonials of the Cathedral.
Here’s where the story converges:
It is said that fifty years ago a workman procured a large ball of twine and some candles, and proceeded to explore the passage. He tied the end of the twine at the entrance, unwinding it as he went along, until he reached, as he considered, as far as Ormond Quay, when he was obliged to return, being driven back by foul air. The entrance was closed up in consequence of this exploit.
So, while the dates are varying, there are three sources pointing to a tunnel being found at the corner of Cuckoo Lane and George’s Hill sometime between 1830 and 1890.
Interestingly, there is a similar story about an underground tunnel from St. Mary’s Abbey to Christ Church. Richard Robert Madden, historian of the United Irishmen, wrote in 1843 about vaults in St. Mary’s Abbey where:
…there is some traditional record of their leading by a tunnel passage under the Liffey, to the vaults of Christ Church, a tradition which I believe was the subject of some inquiry about two years ago on the part of Earl de Grey.
In The Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy (1855) the “well-known tradition of an ancient communication between (the) Abbey and Christ Church” was mentioned in pasing
However, there is certainly a bit more evidence to suggest there certainly was a tunnel found in the grounds of St Saviour’s Priory (Four Cours area). Whether it ran all the way up to Christ Church is another matter.