St Michan’s Church and Crypts

A stone’s throw from Dublin’s Four Courts lies the oldest parish church on the northside of the River Liffey: St Michan’s. In 1095 a Christian chapel was built on the site, which at that time would have lain outside the city walls of Dublin and in the marshland of what was to become known as Oxmantown or Ostmantown, deriving from the Ostmen, the Hiberno-Norse population of Ireland. Unbeknownst to those who built the medieval chapel, the choice to build an ecclesiastic structure on marshland would come to provide a subterranean environment that would make it famous in later centuries. The present parish church, which serves Church of Ireland parishioners and is a member of the Christ Church Cathedral Group of Parishes, can effectively be traced back to rebuilding that occurred in the late seventeenth century. [1]

The Pipe Organ
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jennifer Boyer

St Michan’s boasts many historical treasures, including an organ dated to around 1725 that George Frideric Handel supposedly practised his well-known oratorio Messiah on before its first performance. While this claim remains unsubstantiated, it is still a firm and celebrated part of Dublin’s rich musical lore. While the organ is a draw for Handelians and other classical-music enthusiasts, St Michan’s main attraction lies deep within its bowels: its crypts and the mummified remains that lie within them.

At a time when “dark” tourism has added a new dimension to travelling, the crypts of St Michan’s have found themselves added to a long list of global tourist destinations that include such delightfully dreary attractions as the intricately furnished Sedlec Ossuary in Kutná Hora, Czech Republic, where you can find a chandelier constructed of bones as well as garlands of human skulls, and the skeletal displays depicting religious themes in the Capuchin Crypt beneath Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, in Rome. On the one hand, dark tourism reflects the darker and, perhaps, more perverse sides to the imaginations of visitors and curators alike. On the other, it reminds us of the fickle nature of life and death, as well as our own mortality. If the Capuchin Crypt’s memento mori is not enough to ensure that visitor’s leave with a renewed appreciation of life and indeed death, then the placard that stands in the final room acts as a clarion call: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be ...”. The carefully constructed and curated displays fashioned from human remains in the Sedlec Ossuary and Capuchin Crypts find no comparison in the crypts of St Michan’s, which are a somewhat accidental attraction and certainly not the gothic brainchild of a pre-cursor Tim Burton. The dark, dilapidated, and surprisingly dry surroundings that greet visitors who descend into the vaults of St Michan’s are so effective due to the very fact that there is little curatorial intervention.

Heavy metal doors leading to St. Michan's crypts
PHOTOGRAPH BY Daryl Hendley Rooney

The allure of Michan’s mummies and crypts goes some way back, with numerous commentators from the nineteenth century onwards dedicating ink to describing the peculiar air of the place and its unique preservative qualities. As the lively and knowledgeable tour guide told me, the process of preservation that occurs in the crypts is thanks to the combination of the vaults’ subterranean environment which is located on marshland, and the limestone used in the construction of the crypts. In a piece addressed to the editor of the Dublin Penny Journal (Vol. 1, No. 9, 25 August 1832), a self-professed “idle man” provides us with a humorous and insightful account of his attempts to while away his hours on a long summer’s day in Dublin. He informs us that he has visited all the places of amusement – museums, promenades, libraries, and courts of law, so he tells us – that 1830s’ Dublin had to offer. Having resigned himself to the fact that he had seen it all, a deus ex machina appears in the form of a newsman who offers our “perfectly idle man” a recommendation: “maybe amongst all the quare things in Dublin, ye have never seen the vaults under St Michan’s Church, where the dead bodies lie as sound and as sweet a nut, and where thim that were buried hundred o’ years ago, are laid out as clean and purty and dacent as the night they were waked”. Elated, the idle man moseys his way to St Michan’s expecting to witness a scene depicting dry and dust-covered remains stripped of their living flesh and form. On the contrary, what greet him are half skeleton, half mummy remains, with torn, worn, and tattered skin still clinging to the bones: “a shocking, revolting, melancholy, representation of what ‘man that is mortal,’ may come to … I confess I was in as great haste to leave this horrid place, as I had been to enter it”. Almost two centuries on, the experience of visiting the crypts is not quite as terrifying. As an eyewitness of the vaults in more recent times, I can confidently state that those who dwell in eternal slumber in the vaults of Michan’s are now in the dried and preserved state that our unfortunate idle man had initially expected.

Richard Robert Madden (1798–1886), medical doctor, abolitionist and one of the first historians of the Society of United Irishmen – an organization founded by and consisting of primarily middle-class Protestants dedicated to the cause of democratic reforms and republican ideals in Ireland – wrote that the preservation of human remains in St Michan’s crypts was “as perfect as that of the exsiccated mummies of the humbler classes of the Egyptians, which were preserved by a less expensive process of embalming than that used for persons of distinction. In this dry and shrivelled [sic] state, the integuments remain perfect, the features preserve their character, the hair undergoes no alteration, and the limbs, even, in some degree, retain their shape” (1842). It has long been purported that the crypts and mummies of St Michan’s inspired the imagination of one of Dublin’s most famous sons, Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker (1847–1912), whose family had a burial plot in the graveyard. It seems that the crypts excited the imaginations of nineteenth-century writers in particular, which may be explained, in part, by the contemporary interest in the gothic elements of horror and death associated with Romanticism.

Mummified remains in St. Michan's crypts
PHOTOGRAPH BY The Journal

While there are many mummies in St Michan’s vaults, the tour guide focused upon three in particular: a 400-year-old nun; a man missing a hand and both feet, which are thought to be punishments for thievery; and, perhaps the most well-known mummy in St Michan’s, a supposedly 800-year-old man believed to have been a crusader since he was buried with his legs crossed, although this attribution is still much debated. All were nameless.

For many visitors, the main perk was the opportunity to touch a mummy for good luck, which was a practice permitted until very recent times. Those hoping to touch a mummy today will be left disappointed as the practice was banned due to a combination of deterioration from contact with visitors and, most destructive of all, the desecration of several mummies in February 2019 by a man who later pleaded guilty to trespassing and the theft of The Crusader’s head, which the man had severed and removed himself. For such a low-key and bare-bones attraction, one could be forgiven for having thought that the crypts would subsequently be closed to the public forevermore. However, rather surprisingly (certainly, for this former visitor), the crypts reopened less than five months later but with increased security and new coffins for several of the mummies, courtesy of Nichols undertakers, a local family run undertaking and funeral directing business that is now, rather impressively, knocking on the door of its eighth generation. Given the veritable explosion of “dark” tourism destinations, the fascination with mummified remains does not seem to be going away anytime soon. However, St Michan’s offers visitors much more than mummies.

Oliver Bond Grave
PHOTOGRAPH BY Marcel Rosvelds

It is the final resting place of several notable members of the Society of United Irishmen who orchestrated the Irish rebellion of 1798. Oliver Bond (c. 1761–1798), in whose Bridge Street house many members of the Leinster Directory were apprehended on 12 March 1798 following information given to Dublin Castle authorities by the notorious traitor Thomas Reynolds, is buried in the graveyard of St Michan’s. His tombstone bears the words, “The noblest work of God an honest man”. Like many families whose loved ones died fighting the United Irishmen’s cause, Bond’s widow and children left Ireland and moved overseas, relocating to Baltimore in the United States.

While there were many reasons for the undoing of the 1798 rebellion, the networks of traitors and spies that were prevalent at the time ultimately proved most detrimental for the United Irishmen and their plans. Buried in Michan’s graveyard is another supporter of the United Irishmen’s ambitions for political reform in Ireland, Rev. William Jackson (1737? –1795). Jackson supported the cause through his connections with France, assisting Theobald Wolfe Tone and others in their plans to utilise French assistance to defeat the Government. Having been betrayed by an old friend John Cockayne, an attorney, Jackson was tried for treason. While in the dock awaiting his sentence on 30 April 1795, Jackson died in dramatic circumstances, reminiscent of war criminal Slobodan Praljak’s courtroom suicide in the Hague in 2017, having taken a lethal dose of arsenic before entering the courtroom. Shortly thereafter, he was carried by numerous mourners to St Michan’s for burial. His tombstone can still be seen in the graveyard there.

Returning to Michan’s crypts, two United Irishmen who enjoyed considerable renown in their times but who have failed to endure in the popular historical consciousness in Ireland are to be found in a burial vault, their coffins side by side, with a rudimentary placard briefly detailing their names and lives. A copy of their execution order stands close by. Henry Sheares (1753–1798) and John Sheares (1766–1798), commonly known as the Sheares brothers, were both barristers by profession and prominent members of the Leinster Directory of the United Irishmen. The revolutionary undercurrents that were bubbling up beneath the surface of contemporary politics across much of Ireland, Britain and America meant that they were inevitably swept up by the French revolution and its events. Having been betrayed by another notorious informer, Captain John Warneford Armstrong in May 1798, the Sheares brothers were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death on 13 July 1798. The public executions of the Sheares brothers outside Newgate Prison, in Dublin, on Bastille Day 1798 was a symbolic act by the Crown given the brothers’ espousal of French republican principles and their desire to disseminate them in Ireland. The lives and times of the Sheares brothers, as well as those of Oliver Bond and Rev. William Jackson, remind us that those who are interred in St Michan’s are more than mere nameless mummies and human remains lying in dusty, old coffins serving to amuse the idle interests of the living. After all, these were once men and women animated by their own desires and dreams, with some of their ambitions being nothing short of revolutionary. Indeed, this point is made plain by a plaque that lies outside the crypts, which depicts a harp – the symbol of the United Irishmen – and the words, “Equality – it is new strung and shall be heard”.

The coffins of Henry and John Sheares
PHOTOGRAPH BY Colin Boyle

St Michan’s Church, as well as its graveyard and crypts, remain closed due to the vagaries of COVID-19. Those hoping to visit the crypts should consult the Christ Church Cathedral Group of Parishes website for updated information. Normally, entry to the church is free, while a guided tour of the crypts will set you back a paltry few euro. There is no wheelchair access to the crypts; however, wheelchair users may access the church and graveyard. It is recommended that a watchful eye be kept on young children when inside the crypts due to the uneven surfaces.

St Michan’s presents its own memento mori that encourages visitors to reflect upon and accept the surety of their own mortality. Therefore, it seems apt to conclude with a quote from Bram Stoker, who encapsulated such sentiment in his short story “Under the Sunset”: “But no man knows where the Castle of King Death is. All men and women, boys and girls, and even little wee children should so live that when they have to enter the Castle and see the grim King, they may not fear to behold his face”.

[1] The Church of Ireland is an independent Anglican church that exists within both Ireland and Northern Ireland.

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Daryl Hendley Rooney

Daryl Hendley Rooney is a PhD candidate in the Department of History, Trinity College, Dublin, where he works on chroniclers’ and historians’ views of Ireland and her people in early Plantagenet England. Aside from his research in the high medieval period, Daryl is broadly interested in the Anglo-Irish relationship and its dramatic and complicated history. He is also treasurer of the Friends of Medieval Dublin, a study group founded in 1976 that promotes interest in and the study of the history, archaeology and heritage of medieval Dublin.

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