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Building of the Month - March 2010

The Hell Fire Club, Mountpelier Hill, MOUNTPELIER Td., County Dublin

Hell Fire Club 01 - Aerial View 

Figure 1: An aerial view of The Hell Fire Club on its hilltop setting with the sprawling suburbs of Dublin in the near distance

Included in the lands purchased by William Conolly (1662-1729) at Rathfarnham Castle in 1724 was Mountpelier Hill, the nearest of the Dublin foothills to the city without a covering of blanket bog.  Its proximity to the grouse-rich Featherbeds, the roaming grounds for the descendants of the red deer brought to Glencree by thirteenth-century Norman kings, made it good hunting land.  One can imagine Conolly, still in his forties at the time, riding the bounds of his south Dublin lands with a group of companions and coming across this hill with its spectacular view of the city and bay, not to mention vistas as far as the Mournes in clear weather.  It is easy to suppose that it was on such a day that he decided the summit was an ideal location for a hunting lodge.  The fact that a huge Neolithic cairn on the hilltop would provide a ready-made supply of stone for such a project must have been a consideration.

Hell Fire Club 02 - Representative View 

Figure 2: Sold by the Conolly estate in 1729 the hunting lodge enjoyed a brief period of activity as the Irish base of the Hell Fire Club before a fire devastated the interior in the 1750s.  Dismantled thereafter, all salvageable material was repurposed in a nearby lodge (1763) annotated as "Mountpelier House" on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey (surveyed 1837; published 1843) and variously known as "Dolly Mount" and "The Long House", itself now a fragmentary ruin.  The roof of the Hell Fire Club was set ablaze as a beacon on the occasion of the visit of Queen Victoria to Ireland in 1849

It is thought that the lodge was erected around 1725.  Because of its vaulted stone roof, the building is perhaps one of the best preserved early eighteenth-century hunting lodges in Ireland, in spite of being burnt down, robbed of all its decorative stone work to build a later lodge downhill to the north, and suffering a bonfire of tar barrels on its roof to celebrate the arrival of Queen Victoria in 1849 (fig. 2).  In its original condition it must have been a most impressive sight.  In the centre of a well-proportioned symmetrical façade a flight of cut-stone steps led up to the fanlit door opening into a porch flanked by niches.  Off the inner hall were two reception rooms, each with a fireplace and two tall windows looking out over that expansive view of the city and the bay (figs. 3-4).  Above one of these rooms was an attic room, probably a bedroom, while the vaulted basement housed the kitchen and servants' quarters.  Another room, possibly a bedroom, occupied a return at the rear, raised above a vaulted wine cellar.  At either end of the lodge, beneath lean-to roofs, were stables, one for horses and one for hounds, and a mounting block still survives, once used to assist more corpulent huntsmen gain their saddles.

Hell Fire Club 03 - Interior Hell Fire Club 04 - Interior

Figures 3-4: Two photographs of the interior, gutted by fire in the mid eighteenth century, subsequently stripped of any salvageable material, and thereafter abandoned.  The symmetrical pattern of the niches demonstrates that the interior decoration was more than utilitarian

Sold after Conolly's death in 1729, the lodge was adopted as an occasional meeting place for the young bucks that made up Ireland's answer to London's Hell Fire Club.  There are many lurid stories of their exploits, some most likely exaggerated, which included abducting young girls, torching cats, and beating to death a dwarf who they had lured to the place for entertainment.  Thomas Conolly (1738-1803) is said to have met Satan there during a card game which ended with the devil erupting into flames and disappearing through the roof: an apocryphal tale, a near-identical storey is renowned as the Legend of Loftus Hall, County Wexford.  The only incident on official record, however, is the death of Charles Cobbe (d. 1751), son of the Archbishop of Dublin, who was the losing party in a duel.

Some time thereafter the interior of the lodge was gutted by fire, following which the place was abandoned.  When Henry Loftus (1709-83), first Earl of Ely, built a hunting lodge a mile or so downhill in 1763 the old lodge was stripped of all its finer finishes including the stone steps, the window sills, and the ashlar facing of the walls, all of which were repurposed in the new building.

Hell Fire Club 05 - Setting 

Even in its present condition, stripped of all its cut stone, window fittings, roof finish, and decorative internal plasterwork, it seems clear that the lodge is the work of an accomplished architect.  If indeed it is, the most likely candidate would have to be Edward Lovett Pearce (1699–1733), who has been termed the father of Palladianism in Ireland.

In 1724, the year that William Conolly came into possession of the Rathfarnham lands, Pearce returned from his architectural studies in Italy.  While there he had met Alessandro Gallilei (1691–1736) who had carried out the initial design work (1718) on Castletown House, County Kildare, Conolly's tour-de-force.  Work on the great house had begun in 1722 and an architect was now clearly needed to see that work through to completion: it seems that, although a young man, Pearce had the necessary qualifications and, having established a cordial relationship with Gallilei, was the logical choice.  It does not seem unreasonable to suppose that Conolly, thus familiar with Pearce, might have taken him to see the site on Mountpelier Hill where he proposed to erect a hunting lodge, and subsequently obtained a sketch design for it.

Would it not be a very fine thing if Coillte, the landowners of Mountpelier Hill, would consider restoring this fine hunting lodge as a teahouse to serve the young and old of Dublin who are prepared to climb from the carpark to its wonderful viewpoint?

Michael Fewer

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