Singer-songwriter Mike Scott said it best: “Dublin is a city full of ghosts.” I sense those spirits once again as I walk through Dublin’s cobbledgepflastertcobbled streets. Ireland’s capital is an ancient place, dating back at least to the ninth century, when Vikings built a settlement by the River Liffey. Since then, much tragedy has befallen the city and the land, including a famineHungersnotfamine in the 19th century that killed over a million people.
Even though I moved away a decade ago, Dublin is my home town, and I know it well. On the surfaceOberflächesurface, it’s a modern European metropolis, with successful finance and technology sectors. But look a little closer, and you will see that the ghosts of the past still haunt Dublin, telling the living city of its own dark history.
A Victorian nightmare
Dark history is what I’m interested in on this trip. I’m here to discover the spookyunheimlichspooky and mysterious side of Dublin. My first stop is Kilmainham Gaol, a prison located in the south-west of the city. It was opened in 1796 and closed in 1924, and is best known as being the place where 14 leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed.
Our cheerful tour guide, Adam Lawlor, leads us towards the main building. It’s still the great, grey Victorian nightmareAlbtraumnightmare that terrified me as a child. Granite walls rise high above us; black barGitterstabbars cover the windows. In the freezing west wing, with its peelingabblätterndpeeling limestoneKalk-limestone walls, we learn about the terrible conditions prisoners experienced. For the first 50 years, there was no glass in the windows. Warmth and light came from a small candle prisoners were given every two weeks. During the Great Famine (1845–49), there was a huge increase in the prison population. Cells designed for one person held five. When the authorities realized people were to commitverüben, begehencommitting crimes just to have access to prison food, they reduced the rations.
We follow Adam into a much nicer cell than the ones we’ve already seen. “I’d like to close over the door,” the tour guide says with a mischievousverschmitzt, schelmischmischievous smile. When he does so, we notice there is no door handle on the inside. This is the condemned cellTodeszellecondemned cell: the place a prisoner would spend his final hours before execution. The revolutionary Robert Emmet was held here before being hanged and then to beheadenthauptenbeheaded after a failed rebellion against the British in 1803.
Where the west wing was tight and dark, the east wing, opened in 1862, is spaciousweiträumigspacious and full of light. It reflects the Victorian belief that prison architecture was important to the reformBesserungreform of inmateGefängnisinsasse, -insassininmates. Outside is the stonebreakerSteinklopfer(in)stonebreakers’ yard, where the 1916 leaders were shot. A rebel called James Connolly had been so badly injured that he couldn’t stand. He was tied to a chair and shot anyway. One final sight awaits us. Outside the old main entrance was where public hangings used to take place. Adam to gringrinsengrins as he points out the remains of the gallowsGalgengallows high up on the wall.
Horror in the crypt
“Who wants to see the mummyMumiemummies?” to croakkrächzencroaks our tour guide, Peter Cordell, as he to shuffleschlurfenshuffles into the church. It’s all part of the show, of course. I’m in the north inner city, where the church of St Michan’s sits in the middle of office blocks and apartment buildings. There has been a church on this site since the 11th century and the present building, most of it dating from 1685, is fascinating. I’m not here to see the church, however.
Peter leads our small group outside and around the back of the building to where heavily chained iron doors open to to revealenthüllen, offenbarenreveal steps leading down. This is one of five burial vaultGrabgewölbeburial vaults at St Michan’s containing the remains of some of Dublin’s most important 17th–19th-century families. The rusty doors are very low, so we have to to squeeze one's waysich durchquetschensqueeze our way underground into the 900-year-old cryptGruftcrypt.
To create natural mummies, you need two things
On either side of the corridor are small, unlighted rooms protected by metal gates. Inside these rooms are closed coffinSargcoffins. Peter explains that this is still a sacredheilig, geweihtsacred burial placeBegräbnisstätteburial place, so the rooms must be kept dark and undisturbed.
The exception to this rule awaits us at the end of the vault, where four open coffins lie. Inside are mummifiedmumifiziertmummified corpseLeichecorpses. The skin is tight and leathery, stretched over the bones in such a way as to give the impression of creatures not quite human.
“To create natural mummies, you need two things,” Peter says in his dramatic fashion. “The constant, dry temperature that comes from the limestone walls and the methane gas that rises up from the ground here.” Each of the mummies has been given a name: the unknown woman, the nunNonnenun, the thief and, most famous of all, the over two-metre-tall crusaderKreuzrittercrusader. Thought to be around 800 years old, the crusader was far too big for his coffin, so his legs were broken and folded under him.
Looking at the mummies, with their open mouths, hairless heads and twisted shapes, it is not surprising to hear that Irish writer Bram Stoker may have been inspired by a visit here when writing his famous novel, Dracula.
The haunted library
My next stop is not as disturbing as St Michan’s, but it is just as spooky. On the south side of the city, just behind the Gothic St Patrick’s Cathedral, is Marsh’s Library. As I climb the stone steps and pass through the gated front door, I leave the modern world behind and am transported back to the 18th century. Commissioned by Archbishop of Dublin Narcissus Marsh, the library opened in 1707, making it the first public library in Ireland. The library contains Marsh’s private book collection, as well as those of other prominent scholarWissenschaftler(in), Gelehrte(r)scholars and clergymanGeistlicher, Pfarrerclergymen of the time.
I walk down the long galleries. On each side stand oakEichen-oak bookcaseBücherregalbookcases filled with heavy tomeBandtomes, most in the same position on the shelves as they were three centuries ago. Altogether, there are 25,000 rare books in this collection. At the end of the second gallery stand a number of cages in which readers used to be locked when looking at small books that could be easily stolen.
In the Old Reading Room, I meet Oisín Marsh, the library’s visitor services supervisor. “There are a few scaryunheimlich, beängstigendscary stories attached to the library,” Oisín tells me. “The best known one is about Marsh’s ghost.” I love a good ghost story, and this is one of Dublin’s finest. Marsh’s young niece Grace came to work as a housekeeper for the archbishop. While there, she met a clergyman and fell in love. Marsh didn’t agree with the relationship, so the couple ran away and married in secret. Grace supposedly wrote a letter apologizing to her uncle, leaving it in one of his books. The legend says that the broken-hearted Marsh never found Grace’s letter, and that his ghost to hauntheimsuchenhaunts the galleries at night still searching for it.
National necropolishier: großer Friedhofnecropolis
My first destination the next day is the so-called dead centre of Dublin, even though it is actually on the north side of the city. Around 1.5 million people are buried in Glasnevin cemeteryFriedhofCemetery, including many important Irish political figures.
My tour starts in five minutes, so I rush into the excellent new museum to join the group. Alan Cleary is our smartly dressed guide. As he leads us from grave to grave, telling us about the Irish heroes buried in each one, it becomes clear that the story of Glasnevin Cemetery is also the story of Ireland over the past 200 years.
The obvious highlight of the cemetery is an Irish round tower built over the burial place of Daniel O’Connell (1775–1847). He is still loved and respected for using peaceful methods to end legal discrimination against Catholics. Glasnevin Cemetery was his idea, so it seems right that he has the most impressive grave. O’Connell wanted a place where people of any religion could be buried, and the graveyardFriedhofgraveyard was finally opened for this purpose in 1832.
Alan points out the high walls and watchtowerWachturmwatchtowers that surround the graveyard. “These have just one purpose,” he informs us. “To protect the cemetery from grave robbers.” Grave robbing was a major problem in the early 19th century. The medical schools needed corpses to improve their knowledge of human anatomy, but only bodies of executed prisoners could be used. Supplying fresh cadavers to the schools became a way of making money for some Dubliners.
The watchtowers have just one purpose: to protect the cemetery from grave robbers
“The watchtowers had armedbewaffnetarmed guards,” says Alan. “You’d be shot if you were in the cemetery at night.” The tour guide shows us graves protected by heavy stone slabPlatteslabs or with cages placed on top. There was a good reason for such security. The grave robbers would dig a tunnel at the back of the headstoneGrabsteinheadstone, break open the coffin, put a rope around the neck of the body and pull it to the surface. With the tunnel filled in, few would notice that the grave was empty. Later, when I look around the museum, I see there is a macabremakabermacabre recreation of just such a robbery.
Hell on a hilltop
The final stop on my tour takes me out of the city and into the nearby Dublin Mountains. Here, on top of Montpelier Hill, sits an old stone building. This is the notoriousberüchtigtnotorious Hell-Fire Club. Dating from 1725, the building was originally a hunting lodgeJagdhüttehunting lodge. Not long after, it gained its reputationRufreputation for the supernatural when it was used as a meeting place by a group of 18th-century libertineFreigeistlibertines. Known as the Hell-Fire Club, the members belonged to the elite of society. Legend has it that these rich and powerful men held satanic masses on the hilltop.
A priest is said to have gone to investigate the club. At the lodge, he found the members to sacrificeopfernsacrificing a black cat. Shocked, the priest said a prayer. Immediately, a demon shot out of the cat’s body. This demonic cat has been making appearances in the area ever since. Another tale involves a stranger who arrived at the lodge during a storm and was invited to join a card game. When one member bent down to pick up a dropped card, he saw the stranger had a cloven hoofgespaltener Huf, Pferdefußcloven hoof. “The Devil!” he cried out, whereupon the stranger disappeared in a ball of flames, leaving the smell of brimstoneSchwefelbrimstone behind him. Other stories tell of cannibalism, servants being burned to death and even the murder of a dwarfZwerg(in)dwarf.
The priest said a prayer. Immediately, a demon shot out of the cat’s body
As I step into the ruined structure, with the wind to howlheulenhowling through the empty rooms, these stories of the supernatural seem a lot more believable. It is a bright day, but inside, it is shadowy and cold. The floor is earthen and pools of water have collected here and there. I move through the ground floor. The building seems ancient: more like a caveHöhlecave than a man-made structure. Upstairs, the rooms have fireplaces and high windows.
Looking out, I enjoy the view of Dublin spread before me. I think of the scarNarbe, Wundescars that the centuries have left on this place, of the darkness at the heart of the city. Yes, Dublin is full of ghosts, but what are ghosts but shades of the deceasedVerstorbenedeceased to lingerverweilen, zurückbleibenlingering to remind us of the past? They may scare us, but the dead generations have much to teach the living. I make my way out of the lodge and hurry down the hill. I would prefer not to be here when night falls.
Getting there and around
- Fly to Dublin with Aer Lingus.
- Get around with Dublin Bus’s Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tour. Stops include St Patrick’s Cathedral and Kilmainham Gaol.
- Tickets for Kilmainham Gaol Museum cost €8 at the museum, or €7 online. Advance booking is recommended.
- A visit to the crypts at St Michan’s costs €6.
- Marsh’s Library is open to the public every day except Tuesday and Sunday. Entrance costs €3.
- The General History Tour at Glasnevin Cemetery runs hourly from 11:30 to 14:30 every day. Tickets cost €12. Advance booking is recommended.
- Go on the Hellfire Club Dublin Tour from Hidden Dublin Tours. The bus leaves from the city centre every Thursday and Friday. Tickets cost €25.
- Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula is an interactive experience that celebrates the life of Bram Stoker and his novel Dracula. Costumed actors provide scares and thrills. Tickets cost €25.
- Also from Hidden Dublin is the Gravedigger Ghost Bus Tour. Passengers on the spooked-up bus are treated to a mix of comedy, history and legend. Tickets cost €25.
Stay and eat
- The Shelbourne, on St Stephen’s Green, is a luxury hotel in a 200-year-old building. Reports tell of the ghost of a little girl terrifying guests.
- Kavanagh’s, better known as The Gravediggers, is a famous pub beside Glasnevin Cemetery. The highlight on the menu is boss Ciaran Kavanagh’s Dublin coddleein besonderes Dubliner Eintopfgerichtcoddle — a slow-cooked pork stewEintopfstew with potatoes and onions.