Just eight miles from Dublin’s city center, in one of the county’s most haunted spots, a team of archaeologists are attempting to uncover the story of Montpelier Hill and discover if the Hellfire Club rests upon a 5,000-year-old Neolithic tomb.
The project, which will run throughout October, has uncovered remains of the stone cairn tomb as well as a range of materials, including flint, charcoal and fragments of burnt bone.
Fittingly, in the run up to Halloween, the Hellfire Club Archaeological Project led by Neil Jackman, of Abarta Heritage, aims to uncover the hill’s secrets. The Project is being run by Abarta Heritage, in partnership with the Heritage Officer Rosaleen Dwyer of South Dublin County Council and with the support of Coillte, University College Dublin and the Discovery Program. There are four archaeologists from Abarta Heritage and several volunteers from University College Dublin School of Archaeology working on site.
The three key aims of the project are to prove that the structures behind the Hellfire Club are the remnants of a damaged Neolithic passage tomb and to establish how much of the tomb survives. If any of the tomb survives the aim will be to find material from a construction layer of the tomb, which will provide a radiocarbon date. If this is achieved the site can then be compared to other passage tombs such as those in the Boyne or at Loughcrew and Sligo.
The remains of the Hellfire Club, a shooting lodge built for politician William Connolly in 1725, are a feature of the site today. However, to build this lodge it's believed that the workmen may have damaged two large tombs below the surface to utilize the stone. It is said that the destruction of these ancient passage tombs marks the beginning of the site’s association with the supernatural.
In 1735 the building was leased to one of the heads of the Dublin's Hellfire Club, a group of aristocrats. At the time Jonathan Swift, author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” described them as "a brace of Monsters, Blasphemers and Bacchanalians." Throughout generations dark tales of the Hellfire Club have been passed down including famous tales of sightings of the devil and unexplainable and gruesome deaths.
The project lead, Jackman, told IrishCentral, “Austin Cooper, an antiquarian, visited the site in 1779 and described the remains of the ruined cairn. However, it appears to have been further plundered for stone when the Old Military Road was built in the early 1800s.
“We found evidence of the dismantling of the tomb, especially where the workmen had attempted to dig down to remove a large stone before giving up when they saw its full size. They left fragments of glass and pottery that dates to the early 19th century at the base of the stone, so we can say conclusively that quarrying took place.”
Happily, excavations thus far have revealed that part of the cairn has survived. Jackman told IrishCentral they have “discovered artifacts like a beautiful polished stone axehead and waste material from the manufacture of small flint tools along with fragments of burnt bone and charcoal, great evidence of life in Neolithic Ireland over 5,000 years ago.”
Jackman was speaking to IrishCentral as the project enters its final week and said they plan on “removing the final layers of the trenches before fully recording, drawing and photographing all archaeological contexts.
"When we have finished, we will backfill the site and replace the sods. Within a month or two, hopefully, there will be no trace of our excavation visible, apart from all the fascinating information that we discovered during our dig.”
As well as conclusively verifying and dating the Montpelier Hill passage graves Jackson hopes that the The Hellfire Club Archaeological Project will leave a legacy for the community, in the form of education and local folklore.
“A large aim of the project was to help people in the locality to discover more about the incredible stories of the Dublin Mountains. One of the most rewarding parts of that has been the numerous school visits, tours and trench talks that we have carried out all throughout the dig. In partnership with Rosaleen Dwyer of South Dublin County Council, we are working on a folklore recording project with Tallaght Community School, to help them to record and preserve the oral history and folklore of this fascinating site.
He added, “In the future, we hope to possibly return to the site with future projects to discover more about the story of the Hellfire Club and its ancient tombs.”
You can follow the dig on Abartha Heritage's website here.