[ This is an edited version of a talk given by Dave Walsh on November 7th 1999 at Fortfest, held in College Park, Maryland. © Dave Walsh 1999 ]
When first asked to speak at Fortfest, I thought I’d traipse through a subject close to my heart, the story of the 18th century Hell-Fire Clubs.
What I didn’t expect, in the months leading up to today, while I fooled myself into some form of pseudo-objectivity, was how close I myself would come to my subject of Accidental Satanism. While I can appreciate the works of Anton Lavey, the founder of the Church of Satan, enjoy the often hit and miss humour of Aleister Crowley, and wonder about young murderers who mysteriously become Satanists after reading Anne Rice novels, what truly fascinates me are those who become known as Satanists without ever having claimed such a title.
I must have been about twelve years old when I would go and stay with my mother’s sister in Tallaght, a sprawling suburb at the foot of the Dublin hills. My cousin, Jason, was about 15 at the time, and would fill me full of tales of the satanic parties which supposedly took place at the eerie ruined hunting lodge which rose from the peak one of the lower hills, at an altitude of 383m or 1200ft.
This rectangular structure, a blemish amidst soft rolling hills, can be seen, on a good day from many parts of Dublin City. There was a particularly good view from my aunt’s house.
Once, on a Sunday drive around the hills with my relatives, we visited this place – known by everyone in Dublin as the Hell-Fire club. We parked in the official car park of the ‘Hell-Fire Club Woods’, and made our way to the top of the hill, where we found the grim grey building, its empty window sockets gazing wistfully north-east.
Even at 12 years old, the engineer in me wondered what kind of architect would build a house with all but one of its largest windows facing the wrong way for the Sun.
Inside the ruin – which is still intact and safe, my cousin gleefully showed me the room where the devil had appeared during an 18th century card game, while down the hill, I was presented with the bloodied rock where Satanists sacrificed their cockerels.
I was pretty sceptical, but while it looked like splashes of red paint on the rocks, my fascination with the imagery never really dissolved.
Some 13 years later, while digging through various books during my Blather researches, I started to come across mentions of the Hell-Fire club, but in terms of an early 18th century organisation, one which merely used the Hunting Lodge on Montpelier Hill – the original name of the area – occasionally, spending more time in the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill, right outside Dublin Castle, in the heart of the 18th century city. It was here that the “Bucks” swigged Scultheen , a ‘special mixture of whiskey and butter’. “Bucks”, according to Sir Edward Sullivan, were a class of gent ‘”whose whole enjoyment and the business of whose life seemed to consist of eccentricity and violence”‘.
The club, alleged to have devoted to their time to the practice of unbridled hedonism, was apparently founded in 1735 by the 1st Earl of Rosse, Richard Parsons, who, according to Peter Somerville-Large, was ‘known’ to be a ‘sorcerer, dabbler in black magic… and a man of “humour and frolic”‘. He was also the grandfather of the 3rd Earl of Rosse, William Parsons, who built the giant telescope at Birr, in the Irish midlands, in 1839, which remained the largest telescope in the world for many years.
Club was seemingly disbanded following Parson’s death in 1741. As Rosse lay on his deathbed in his house on Dublin’s Molesworth St., a local clergy man – the rector of St. Anne’s – wrote to him begging him to ‘repent of his evil ways’. Lord Rosse read the letter with some amusement, and noticing that it simply began ‘My Lord’, resealed it and addressed it to Lord Kildare, who was famous for his piety and integrity of life. The poor parson received a terrible grilling before the truth emerged, but by then, Rosse had departed to a far warmer place.
Other members included Richard Chapell Whaley – known as ‘Burn Chapell’ due to his Sunday morning hobby of riding about the countryside, setting fire to thatched Catholic churches, Simon Luttrell – at one time Sheriff of Dublin, and Colonel Jack St. Ledger, who according to Somerville-Large’s book Irish Eccentrics , was so obsessed with the Duchess of Rutland that he would drink the water with which she had washed her hands. Another Hell-Fire Club of the time, in Limerick city, in the west of Ireland, was different in that one of it’s more notorious members was a lady by the name of Mrs Blennerhasset.
As if Richard Whaley’s exploits weren’t extreme enough, his son, who was three years old when his father died, in the days long after the existence of the Dublin Hell-fire Club, did a fair job of upholding their peculiar brand of hedonistic lifestyle. Buck Whaley, as he was known, was famous for having travelled to Jerusalem (no mean feat in 1789) and back for a bet of Â£10,000, having played handball against the Wailing Wall amidst the protests of indignant rabbis.
“I was born with strong passions” begin Buck Whaley’s Memoirs , “a lively imaginative disposition and a spirit that could brook no restraint. I possessed a restlessness and activity of mind that directed me to the most extravagant pursuits; and the ardour of my disposition never abated until satiety had weakened the power of my enjoyment”.
Buck eventually fled to the Isle of Man to escape financial embarrassment, after having an encounter with the Devil in St. Audoen’s Church, near Christchurch in Dublin. He built a house at Man, where he lived for four years. The foundations were of the house, known as ‘Whaley’s Folly, were made of Irish earth, which he brought in by the shipload, in order to win a bet that he could live on Irish soil, without actually living in Ireland. Whaley junior died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1800, at the age of 34, following an impressive squandering of his personal fortune.
Of his era, there was also ‘Tiger’ Roche, who, even in the days when travel was relatively difficult, was ‘wanted’ in places as far apart as London, Canada, and Australia for ‘dueling activities’. ‘Buck’ English, another contemporary, once shot a sluggish waiter in an English inn and then had him put on the bill for Â£50.
As Ulick O’Connor writes:
“A duel in those days could start at the drop of a hat. Though dueling was illegal, judges occasionally issued challenges to impertinent barristers, and since the Four Courts was beside the dueling grounds in the Phoenix Park, their Lordships could get back [to hearings] quickly if their aim was in.” O’Connor continues, telling us how the famous Irish politician “Henry Grattan lost his coat-tails in the House of Commons in a duelling escapade as he fled through a door which was slammed shut by the sergeant-at-arms whose duty it was to arrest members who proposed to settle their disputes with pistols.”
It was a time when prospective fathers-in-law would ask the suitor:
‘Do you blaze?’
Meaning ‘do you fight duels?’
So, I think we have an idea, if only a glimpse, of the behaviour of the rich and idle of early eighteenth century Dublin. But what about the Satanism, the black masses, the burning of cats?
A Royal Edict had been passed in 1721 – long before the most famous Hell-Fires were abroad, condemning
‘young People who meet together, in the most impious and blasphemous manner, insult the most sacred principles of our holy religion, affront Almighty God himself, and corrupt the minds and morals of one another’.
What I’ve related so far would probably not, be regarded in terms of Satanism or the paranormal. However, it does give some sense of the times. People, or at least men, with money, could almost literally get away with murder.
Naturally enough, with accusations of blasphemy being bandied about, it’s unsurprising that the certain myths have become attached to the activities of 18th century rakes. During the 18th century, the term Hell-Fire was referred to any collection of rakish wastrels intent on causing mayhem. Two main groups emerged from the chaos however, The Irish Hell-Fires and the later English group of the 1740s onwards.
I’d like to return for a moment to the lonely building on Montpelier Hill, forever known as ‘The Hell-Fire Club’. The Right Honourable William Conolly, a Member of Parliament, built the Hunting Lodge in 1725. Behind it lies the remains of a megalithic monument, a sizeable stone circle. I say remains, because Conolly used some of the granite slabs in the construction of his lodge.
Naturally enough, this would have upset some of the local people – much mention is made of how Conolly had begun to mess with forces he shouldn’t have. And lo, shortly after completion, the slated roof was blown off one night in a tremendous storm – some said it was by the devil, others by said it was the old pagan gods. Undeterred, Conolly built a huge arched roof of stones keyed together, like a bridge. This structure was so strong that no force in the last 274 years – fire included – has been able to make the roof leak, never mind collapse.
The stories surrounding this weird old building are numerous and very doubtful.
It was used, apparently, as a venue for non-stop drinking sessions, and the odd black mass, where defrocked priests performed parodies of the Catholic mass, sacrificing black cats, or in one unsavoury story, a dwarf with very large head.
Some stories tell of a priest somehow stumbling upon a party were a huge black cat was being sacrificed. ‘Breaking free from his captors the cleric grabbed the cat and uttered an exorcism, which tore the beast apart. A demon shot up from its corpse. Hurtling through the roof it brought down the ceiling and scattered the assembly.’
Other tales tell of the aforementioned late-night card games with strangers, typically ones who’ve wandered in from a stormy night. A player drops a card under the table and notices that the visitor has a cloven hoof, whereupon the alleged demon roars and disappears in a ball of flame. Curiously, this motif also pops up in connection with Loftus Hall, one of Ireland’s most famous haunted houses.
Yet another tale tells us that during a black mass, a footman spilled a drink on Whaley’s coat, after slipping on the mass of drunken bodies on the floor. Whaley poured brandy upon the man, set him alight, and soon had the entire building ablaze. Most were too drunk to escape. Or so we’re told…other versions say it was reproduce the sensations of hell. The building was burned again in 1849 to celebrate the visit of Queen Victoria to Dublin.
This weirdness isn’t confined to the Hunting Lodge, or to the 18th century. Quarter of a mile or so down the hill, lies Killakee house, a well-preserved 18th century farmhouse, now a high quality restaurant. It’s alleged that at least three deaths from duelling took place in the yard outside. In the twentieth century, blood was spilled there again while Countess Markievicz, the Irish revolutionary and the first women to be elected to the House of Commons, occupied the house. Five of her fellow IRA members died in a gun battle at Killakee house during the War of Independence of 1918-21. More recently, in January of this year, a young woman was murdered in the Hell-Fire Club car-park, next to Killakee house.
The Dublin Hills, bordering on to the Wicklow Mountains, have a long history of forteana or macabre tales, with stories of 1920s civil war executions taking place on lonely country roads, claims of World War II ‘UFO retrievals, and no end of ghost stories. A few miles south-west of Killakee lies Poulaphouca, a major water reservoir and site of an hydro-electric station. Phoulaphouca translates from the Irish as the ‘Ghost Hole’.
Recently, a friend of mine passed me these images, which was supplied by his brother who works satellite photography. It has been claimed that these images show a ‘devil’s face’ in the patchwork of fields near the reservoir. On the left is a zoom in of the area, on the right the face is outlined. How anyone managed to spot this is beyond me…
Back to the Hell-Fires: Black cats came back into the equation again during the late 1960s, while the house was inhabited by a Mrs. Margaret O’Brien, who was setting up an arts centre there. On moving in, she was told by the local people that the area was haunted by a black cat, alleged to be the size of an Airedale dog.
Mr. O’Brien did indeed see a big black animal disappearing into the foliage one day, but didn’t mention it to anyone until her artist friend Tom McAssey and two of his colleagues were one night working late in the house. They had a frightening experience with a black draped spectre that spoke to them, and a monstrous black cat with red glowing eyes. McAssey later did an oil painting of the beast, which now hangs in the restaurant. Val McGann, who lived in a trailer next to the house, claimed to have stalked the monster with his shotgun, but was unable to corner it.
More paranormal events were to haunt the house, including apparitions of nuns, poltergeists, power failures during planned seances, bells, you name it. At one point, a Catholic priest was called in to sort things out, to no avail. Things got even dafter when headgear – in the form of small caps – were reported to be regularly teleporting themselves into the house, and were to be found on picture hooks or other odd places.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, around the beginning of 1971, while plumbing work was being done in the house, a shallow grave was found beneath the floor, apparently containing the skeleton of a dwarf, and a brass figurine, depicting a horned and tailed devil thumbing its nose. Was this the dwarf that the Hell-Fires are supposed to have murdered?
As far as I am aware, no one has ever gone out their way to denounce the Irish Hell-Fires as Satanists. However, this wasn’t the case with the English group of the 1740-60s. Whereas the Anglo-Irish gentry of the Dublin Hell-Fire club seem to have been little more than a ribald bunch of hedonists, their English version were more a tad more exclusive, and dare I say it, contrived.
To make matters more complicated, the English Hell-Fires didn’t really refer to themselves as such – they called themselves The Monks of Medmenham or the Knights of St. Francis, after Sir Francis Dashwood, the then Chancellor the Exchequer and founder of the group.
There was a core group of just 13 individuals, including John Wilkes – a famous supporter of American independence – I believe there is even a town in Pennsylvania named after him, and Lord Sandwich, he who gave name to the snack – it’s said that he was too busy playing cards to dine, and instructed his servants to slap some meat between two hunks of bread. The poets Charles Churchill, Paul Whitehead and Robert Lloyd were also members. The others members were all well-known in their day, but their names mean little to us now. However other alleged members are still famous today, but I’ve found little evidence to support claims of regular membership. These were Irishmen Lawrence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy and playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan – author of The School For Scandal . Also alleged to have involvment was painter and engraver William Hogarth, who later fought a stressful satirical war with Wilkes and Churchill through poetry and cartoons.
Well documented however, are the visits of Benjamin Franklin to the home of Sir Francis Dashwood, between the years of 1764 and 1775, when Franklin was an agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly. Dashwood, like John Wilkes, was a supporter of American Independence, and Franklin was free to come and go as he pleased from West Wycombe. It may surprise some of you to know that Dashwood – head of the English Hell-Fire club – and Benjamin Franklin – never the most religious of men, collaborated on the Abridgement of the Book of Common Prayer , mainly because they thought the original book of common prayer was too boring!
One of the main problems I’ve come across while researching the Hell-Fires was finding material written in any kind of sober manner. I’ve had to contend with the likes of Daniel P. Mannix’s The Hell-fire Club – ‘Orgies were their pleasure, politics their pastime’, and The Hell-fire Club by Donald McCormick – ‘The weird story of the amorous knights of Wycombe’. These pulp publications, printed in the 50s and 60s, are not without their uses, as they are indicative of the how the facts grow more lurid in the hands of writers who seem to be getting some unspecified thrill from scaring or disgusting themselves.
These writers, often unquestioningly regurgitating the claims of the Hell-Fires enemies, spare nothing in their descriptions of the masked swinging parties and drunken orgies which took place in the Chalk tunnels built at West Wycombe by Sir Francis. I’ve been to these dark damp tunnels – they’re open to the public and available to rent – and I can’t imagine that they were the most comfortable places to hang out in. Also, what these writers seem to ignore is that the tunnels were created long after the heyday of the club. The Monks in fact used the more luxurious venue of Medmenham, an old Abbey on the Thames, which they had furnished for their uses, a bizarre form of retreat centre.
At the other end of the scale of commentators comes E. Beresford Chancellor’s The Lives of the Rakes from 1925, and the The Dashwoods of West Wycombe , written by none other than the current Sir Francis Dashwood. Dashwood never shies away from the possibly scandalous behaviour of his ancestors, nor does he add fuel to the fires of scandal, stating that the claims of Satanism only came about in the 19th century, long after the demise of the members.
There is no doubt however, that the members took part in mock-religious ceremonies, usually at the initiation of new members, and the like. The main point of the gatherings, as John Wilkes put it, was that
‘a set of worthy, jolly fellows, happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus, got together to celebrate women in wine and to give more zest to the festive meeting, they plucked every luxurious idea from the ancients and enriched their own modern pleasures with the tradition of ancient luxury.’
Medmenham was indeed luxuriously equipped, with books and plenty of food and wine. Servants were always on hand to attend to members who stole away to Medmenham for a quiet night with their mistresses. The house was littered with mottoes and suggestive sculpture – large statues of the Egyptian gods Harpocrates and Angerona stressed the oath of secrecy to which the brothers and sisters of the club were bound. They even had a boat for Thames river trips, with a cabin of scarlet canvas which could be rolled up. Propulsion came from a team of four gondoliers dressed in white with red oars.
Of the contemporary material available, it’s possible to get some idea of what went on at Medmenham, without being encumbered with the excited damnations of later days. Even some of the cellar book, taking account of wine consumed, still exists.
No vows of celibacy were required by the members, male or female, yet the latter considered themselves to be the lawful wives of the monks during their stay within the monastic confines – ‘every monk being religiously scrupulous not to infringe upon the nuptial alliance of any other brother’. In fact, so that the ladies would not have to deal with the embarrassment of meeting their husbands, they first appeared in masks – if they recognised someone they should avoid, they would retire without giving themselves away.
A book called Chrysal or the adventures of a Guinea was published in 1766, telling the adventures of a coin as it passes from pocket to another. Attempting scandal at most page turns, it’s apparently inaccurate in most details, including its portrayal of the goings on at the Abbey.
The Chrysal tells of how John Wilkes smuggled a baboon into the Abbey, dressing it up like a devil and hiding it in a great trunk in the chapel. To the lock he tied a piece of string, which he hid beneath the carpet. At some high point in the mock-religious proceedings, Wilkes is supposed to have pulled the cord, releasing the baboon, who was understandably a little irritated from being locked up in the dark, and leaped upon the shoulders of Lord Sandwich who cried out
‘Spare me gracious devil: Spare a wretch who was never sincerely your servant. I sinned only from vanity of being in fashion: Thou knowest that I have never been as wicked as I pretended: never have been able to commit the thousandth part of the vices of which I have boasted of… leave me therefore and go to those who are more truly devoted to your service. I am but half a sinner…
Quite a mouthful for a man with Satan on his back, isn’t it? Both the current St. Francis and Beresford Chancellor doubt that the author of Chrysal was ever anywhere near Medmenham, as he obviously didn’t know that the chapel was a mere 21 by 19 feet, rather small to accommodate 13 members and a hidden baboon. There was definite animosity, on a public level however, between Wilkes and Sandwich, culminating in the Essay on Women scandal, Wilkes’ various jailings and exiles, and the mob riots, following the publication of the infamous No. 45 issue of The North Briton in 1763, in which Wilkes insinuated that George the III was acting against the nation’s interest, as well as highlighting as a host of other unsavoury royal scandals.
For over two hundred years, authors, with the exception of Sir Francis and Beresford Chancellor, have had a wild time speculating about the carry on of the Hell-Fire clubs, but always from some kind of supposed moral high-ground. This has led to the supposition that their mysterious quasi-religious ceremonies were of a satanic nature, and not merely devoted to the gods of pleasure. However, it one looks at their behaviour from a Christian viewpoint, it would be fairly easy to assume that whatever the monks were up to, it certainly wasn’t very Christian… and for many, that which isn’t of Christ, surely must be of the Devil.
Only last week, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United States largest Protestant denomination, published 30,000 booklets asking for its members to pray for millions of Hindu souls. Hindus, the booklet claims, ‘have no concept of sin or personal responsibility’, and are in effect worshipping Satan. The SBC have also published booklets soliciting prayers for Jews and Muslims. Quite a large chunk of the Earth’s population are Muslim, Hindu or Jew – are we to believe that they’re all Satanists?
It’s often no better on my side of the world. Jon Downes, in The Rising of the Moon , tells of rumours of ‘satanic covens’ operating on Woodbury Common, in South West England, whereas the area is regularly used by Druidic groups and Wiccans – even the U.S. Army now accepts Wiccans.
Only a week ago, I was visiting a druidic group in rural Ireland. Little statuettes of goddesses and the like are littered around their land, but in amongst them male horned fertility gods can be found. These people are not Christian enough to be Satanists, but do tend to put away their horned gods when visitors of a more conservative nature are about. I’m reminded of the infamous Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, home of numerous historical conspiracy theories. One of the multitude of castings and carvings there is that of Moses, holding the ten commandments, but with two horns upon his head. The current Earl of Rosslyn reckons that this was due to a mistranslation of Exodus 34:29, as the Hebrew word qeren can mean either a horn or ray of light…
I guess I could go on well into the night with tales of Accidental Satanists – the plight of those, who, through no fault of their own except their own taste for hedonism, the bizarre and the distinctly UnChristian have become demonised as Satanists, much the same as the beings of Greek myth were demonised, despite the earlier ideas of the Neoplatonists who saw the daemons as being the intermediates between gods and mortals.
On Thursday evening, before I left to come here, I was swapping emails with a person in England who reckoned that the Hell-Fires were Satanists, because they had been denounced as such. If that’s how one becomes a Satanist, then I’m your man.
During the summer of 1998, as some of you may know, I spent a pretty strange two weeks in Norway, the exertions of which were captured on film and are currently being shown on the Discovery Channel, in a programme called The Search for the Serpent .
A dozen or so people from various walks of life had been gathered together by a Swedish gentleman by the name of Jan-Ove Sundberg to, as far as I was concerned, examine claims of a lake monster on lake Seljord, a 10 mile long, 1 mile wide, 450ft deep lake in southern Norway. What transpired was somewhat different. Jan seemed to know that The Serpent – capitalised and singular – was there, and we just had to find it, using echo sounders and sonars and other hastily slapped together methods. Some of us didn’t really like this approach.
If there’s a new animal to be discovered, it’s fair to say that there ought to be more than one. The chances of finding a breeding population of large previously unknown aquatic animals in a land-locked lake are pretty slim, but finding some kind of beast that can live for a long time and doesn’t reproduce seemed even more improbable. To cut a long story short, some of us got very tired for the silliness and manners of Mr. Sundberg, leading to two of us clearing out of there several days before the end of the 17 day trip. (Read more about the matter here: http://www.bla ther.net/archives2/issue2no16.html
Since then, Mr. Sundberg has been on the warpath, waging a campaign against several of us, for spoiling his party. In my own case, this has culminated in his building a website about me, titled The Infamous Dave Walsh: Right Hand of the Devil , which alleges that I’m a Satanist and a pornographer. To quote Jan:
‘I believe he was possessed by his previous relationship with the occult (and especially Satanism and his strange attraction to the Devil). At one stage I even speculated that a sinister force was at work at the lake and used Walsh as a tool. If you had seen what we saw, you wouldn’t be too sure either.’
The site mumbled on this fashion, giving all my contact details and ‘accusing me’ of several things that I would quite happily admit anyway. [After I made noises about legal action, a watered-down version replaced the original. A copy of the original can be found at http://www.hellshaw.com/gustup/satan.html ]
Do I, ladies and gentleman, look like a Satanist to you? I’m just not that Christian…
Hell-Fire Francis – The English Hell-Fire Club Google Earth
Click here to launch the Google Earth placemark for the Hellfire club