Tuesday 3 January 2017

Hellfire and Montpelier Hill


Image: © Dave Walsh - davewalshphoto.com
You may well have heard of the infamous Francis Dashwood and the Hellfire Club in West Wycombe but this was by no means the only one of its kind. Indeed the 18th century had a penchant for debauchery in all its basest forms and another Hellfire Club existed on the summit of Montpelier Hill – a 1257 foot high hill in County Dublin, Ireland.

This is an ancient landscape with prehistoric remains, including a cairn from which stones were removed to help build Mount Pelier Lodge, owned by William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. Soon after this building was completed, a massive storm blew the roof off. Immediately, rumours circulated that this had been the work of the Devil – payback for stealing the stones.

Conolly died in 1729 and his family subsequently let the Lodge to the Hellfire Club who used it for certain of their meetings. The Club had been founded in Dublin by Richard Parsons, lst Earl of Rosse and James Worsdale. Other well-heeled members included: Henry, 4th Baron Barry of Santry (who was found guilty of murder and executed in 1739), Simon Luttrell, Lord Irnham, Colonel Henry Ponsonby, Richard St George and Colonel Clements. They congregated at Montpelier Hill from around 1737-1741, and all manner of demonic and satanic rites appear to have been practised. From then on, increasingly lurid tales of the supernatural abounded. 

William Conolly
It is said that, one night, the members were playing cards when one of them dropped one on the floor. As he bent down to retrieve his card he noticed that a guest among them had cloven feet. Once discovered, the creature disappeared in a ball of fire.

Tales of animal sacrifice, black Masses and even of a young woman, placed in a barrel, set on fire and rolled down the hill, appear to have provided highlights of entertainment for members. The young woman in question is said to return and haunt the now-ruined building.

At some point, the lodge was damaged by fire and here again rumours circulated. One popular legend tells of an unfortunate footman who accidentally spilled brandy on a member’s coat. The infuriated member then leapt up and poured brandy over the poor servant before setting him on fire. The fire spread.

As repairs were carried out, the club relocated temporarily to another of the Conolly family’s nearby properties – the Steward’s House. This building also has something of a dubious reputation. It is haunted by a huge black cat – the symbol of this Hellfire Club. The wandering spectral feline may have its origins in another legend that recounts an incident of a priest calling at the house only to be confronted by members engaged in sacrificing a black cat. The priest grabbed the animal and exorcised it, releasing a demon. Sadly, the cat was already dead.

Hellfire Club - portrait in the National Gallery of Ireland
This was not the only sacrifice – and Black Masses were a regular event. At one of them, a dwarf was sacrificed.

The Club declined after the fire, but was then revived in 1771 and thrived for a further 30 years, during which time more debauchery took place, including the alleged capture, murder and eating of a farmer.

Simon Luttrell, one time Sheriff of Dublin, and member of the Club, had his own lurid reputation. He is alleged to be the subject of a 1777 poem called The Diaboliad, dedicated to ‘the worst man in England”. He is supposed to have made a pact with the devil to the effect that he would give up his soul within seven years in return for his debts being settled. But when the devil returned to claim his reward, Luttrell fled.

On the death of notorious member, Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley in 1800, the Irish Hellfire Club disbanded and Montpelier Hill fell into disrepair. Eventually, it was acquired by the State and is now managed, along with the surrounding grounds and forestry, by Coillte

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