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The rumours, myths and legends behind €20m Hellfire Club plans

A project on the notorious Dublin historical site has been met with dismay by locals who argue there is no need for the expensive development – and now they’re considering a legal challenge

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The Hellfire Club

The Hellfire Club

The Hellfire Club

Plans to build a treetop sky-bridge, visitor centre and café at the historic Hellfire Club Dublin have been met with consternation. Here's why it's caused such controvery

Q: Why is the site of Dublin’s notorious Hellfire Club getting some people hot under the collar again?

A: Because the area where a group of 18th-century Irish aristocrats allegedly gathered to worship Satan is in line for a makeover – and many locals wish it wasn’t.

Last week An Bord Pleanala gave the green light to a new development at the forest lands around Montpelier Hill near Rathfarnham.

South Dublin County Council is promising to create a vibrant tourist attraction for around €20m, but objectors claim it would be a white elephant instead and have indicated that they will fight the decision in court.

Q: Was the Hellfire Club as sinister as it sounds?

A: That’s hard to say, since none of its members ever wrote anything about it. They certainly had a terrible reputation, with the famous satirist Jonathan Swift condemning them as “monsters, blasphemers and bacchanalians”.

Inspired by similar societies in England, the Irish Hellfire Club was founded around 1735 by Richard Parsons, 1st Earl of Rosse. Nicknamed the ‘King of Hell’, he apparently liked dressing up as the devil but also occasionally received visitors stark naked.

Parsons and his friends would gather in various watering holes around Dublin and drink scaltheen, a mixture of whiskey and hot butter.

Q: What else did these charming characters get up to?

A: According to rumour at least, their meetings featured black magic, Satanic masses and the occasional human sacrifice. Stories about them include a priest being called in to exorcise a black cat and a young woman being rolled down the hill in a blazing oak barrel.

Perhaps the most famous involves a stranger calling to the door on a stormy night and joining a game of cards. When one player bent down to pick up a dropped card, he noticed that the new arrival had a cloven hoof.

Q: Doesn’t this suggest the Hellfire Club has more to do with myths and legends than hard facts?

A: Yes, many historians suspect that it was really just a front for riotous boozing and gambling sessions. However, at least one member is definitely known to have been a multiple murderer.

Henry Barry, the fourth Baron Barry of Santry, once forced a servant to drink a bottle of brandy, then set his bed on fire and watched the man die in agony.

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Main room inside the Hellfire Club

Main room inside the Hellfire Club

Main room inside the Hellfire Club

Lord Santry escaped justice on that occasion by bribing the authorities, but after fatally stabbing a pub doorman he had to flee Ireland and live the rest of his life in exile.

Q: How long did the Hellfire Club keep going?

A: By the early 1740s, it had more or less fizzled out. A couple of members drank themselves to death and another had his head blown off by a cannonball at the Battle of Fontenoy in Belgium.

Around 1771 there was a revival led by the adventurer and politician Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley, who later gave his name to a nightclub on Leeson Street. Rebranded as the Holy Fathers, this new group supposedly once kidnapped, murdered and ate a farmer’s daughter.

After Whaley’s demise in 1800, the Hellfire Club effectively disappeared.

Q: What exactly is the connection with Montpelier Hill?

A: Although the Hellfire Club’s favourite spot was actually the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill near Dublin Castle, they also held some gatherings in a stone hunting lodge outside the city.

This had been built by William Connolly, Speaker of the Irish Parliament, who supposedly offended Satan by destroying an ancient burial in the process.

Today the house on Montpelier Hill is a ruin where anyone can stand and enjoy panoramic views over Dublin Bay and the Wicklow Mountains.

Q: What does South Dublin County Council have planned for the area?

A: A 1,000 square metre visitor centre, designed with the State forestry company Coillte (which owns the land) and the Dublin Mountains Project. The blueprint includes a 75-seat cafe, shop, changing facilities and exhibition space.

There would also be a treetop sky-bridge, allowing walkers to cross over Killakee Road into Massy’s Wood estate. One of the development’s biggest fans is former agriculture minister Michael Creed, who believes it will “bring the Dublin Mountains to life”.

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The Hellfire Club at Killakee, near Rathfarnham

The Hellfire Club at Killakee, near Rathfarnham

The Hellfire Club at Killakee, near Rathfarnham

Q: Why do some people not like the sound of this?

A: Essentially, Save the Hellfire (an umbrella organisation of residents and community groups) believes it is too grand a design for such a relatively small place (152 hectares). Campaigners are worried about traffic jams, since the plan predicts a boost in visitor numbers from 100,000 a year to 300,000.

There are also fears over the forest’s wildlife, which includes bats, red squirrels, pine martens and Merlin birds.

A petition against the project has been signed by more than 22,000 people. “I have been and I remain implacably opposed to this development,” the Independent Firhouse councillor Alan Edge posted on Facebook last Monday. “You don’t need a €22m-plus building in order to enjoy a wood.”

Q: Finally, where does the Hellfire Club dispute go from here?

A: “We’re shattered,” campaigner Elizabeth Davidson from Save the Hellfire admitted earlier this week. “There is so much opposition to this and we have been fighting it for four years, but it seems we just haven’t been heard.”

The organisation is now examining An Bord Pleanala’s ruling and considering the possibility of a legal appeal.

Objectors point out that one of the board’s own inspectors warned about “significant concerns” over the project’s effects on biodiversity, although she also supported the principle of a visitor centre.

Even if Save the Hellfire’s challenge is successful, architect Paul Keogh has told councillors that visitor numbers to the Dublin Mountains will keep growing anyway and therefore “a do-nothing scenario is not sustainable”.

When construction work does begin on Montpelier Hill, however, builders will need an important qualification – they must not be superstitious.

Herald