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Writing Blasphemers & Blackguards: The Irish Hellfire Clubs

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David Ryan

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When I was studying in NUI Galway in the late 1990s, one of the books I consulted for my Master’s thesis was Sean Connolly’s Religion, Law and Power, the subject of which is the Protestant community in Ireland during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. On the cover of this particular edition of the book, there was a sepia-toned illustration showing a group of bewigged men seated around a table drinking and smoking. They looked like a fairly jovial bunch of well-heeled gentlemen engaging in a bit of light revelry. When I looked at the illustration credit I saw that it was a portrait of the Limerick Hellfire Club, dated to the 1730s. I thought to myself, what a strange name for such an apparently innocuous group. The phrase ‘hellfire club’ seemed to conjure up something altogether more sinister than what the painting depicted.

So who were they? Why did they call themselves the Hellfire Club? What exactly did they get up to?

My thesis was on a completely different subject,  I had a looming deadline and I couldn’t afford to get sidetracked, so I put the book down and thought no more of the subject for the next few years. Then, in 2004, I was browsing in a bookshop, and I picked up a miscellany of offbeat and quirky stories from Dublin history. The book had a couple of pages on another hellfire club – the Dublin Hellfire Club. It related a number of interesting traditions about this group: that they used to frequent a ruined hunting lodge in the Dublin Mountains, that they burned a servant alive, that they played cards with the devil, and that they were visited by a priest who exorcised a demon from a black cat.

While it was clear that at least some of these stories were apocryphal, it seemed reasonable to assume that the Dublin Hellfire Club must have been up to some pretty controversial antics in order to inspire such tales. Furthermore, if there were hellfire clubs in both Limerick and Dublin, there was a good possibility that there were similar groups in other parts of the country. Fired by sheer curiosity, I set about trying to find out more about these mysterious groups. Yet the more I looked for material, the more it seemed to elude me.

It soon became apparent that the hellfire clubs were very secretive organisations indeed, and that finding out about them would be difficult. Not many books mentioned the clubs, and most of those that did relied mainly on folklore, with hard facts pretty thin on the ground. Because there didn’t appear to be – indeed there wasn’t – any definitive history of these clubs, I decided that I should try to write one.

I started trawling contemporary sources for references to the hellfire clubs and their members, and slowly a picture started to emerge. As my research progressed, I discovered that some hellfire club folklore did have an element of truth, in some cases more than an element. For instance it turned out that a member of the club did pray to the devil, or at least he affected to. More seriously, another member did in fact burn a servant alive, a callous and shocking murder perpetrated in Dublin city centre, not far from the tavern that was the club’s usual meeting place. So one of the things I learned from this process was, do not take folklore as gospel, but don’t dismiss it out of hand either, because it might and often does contain grains of truth.

I did the majority of my research for the book in the National Library of Ireland (NLI). For anyone wishing to write a book on a historical (or indeed literary) subject of Irish interest, the NLI is an indispensable institution. It is a treasure trove of rare material, not just books, but also newspapers, manuscripts, prints, drawings and photographs, catalogues for which are available on its website, www.nli.ie.

For the purposes of my study, newspapers were a particularly important source, as were manuscript papers pertaining to different members of the hellfire clubs. The majority of eighteenth-century Irish newspapers (apart from one or two which have been digitised and are available onwww.irishnewsarchive.com) are still only available on microfilm, and these had to be searched issue by issue for relevant material over the time periods in question. While this is a time-consuming process, it is also rewarding, as news items provide a valuable social context, even if they are not directly related to the subject in question.

The NLI also holds the surviving correspondence of some hellfire club members, as well as other manuscript sources pertaining to the subject. Manuscript research presents a number of challenges: some collections are poorly catalogued and have to be ‘trawled’ for relevant material, and some documents are difficult to decipher, whether because of scrawled handwriting or a deterioration in their condition. Other institutions in which I consulted books and manuscripts included the National Archives in London, the British Library (both contain much material of Irish relevance, and both are excellent places to research), the National Archives of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, I was fortunate enough to be admitted to the vaults of the National Gallery of Ireland to view James Worsdale’s striking ‘conversation piece’ portraits of the Dublin and Limerick Hellfire Clubs.

Online sources are becoming increasingly important in historical research. I found online databases of old books, such as Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, archive.org and Google Books, very useful. These websites offer access to publications that are often not readily available in hard copy, and the fact that keyword searches can be done allows the researcher to find relevant material that he/she might otherwise have overlooked. This facility is also available for the online versions of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Dictionary of Irish Biography. At the same time, keyword searching will only get you so far, and it is also important to read in full as many primary and secondary sources that might be relevant to your subject as possible. When researching a historical subject, it is crucial to get a good grounding in the history and historiography of the period in question; think of it as the foundation upon which you will build your work.

As for the practice of writing itself, this requires discipline and persistence. And if, like many writers, you are trying to write while holding down a day job, then you have to be even more disciplined. I found that it was only possible to do a limited amount in the evenings when returning home from a day’s work, so making the most of weekends and time off work is crucial. On these days, treat your writing like it is a day job. Get up early in the morning, start at 8 or 9 a.m., continue until lunchtime, and then go at it again in the afternoon. If it’s not happening for you, have patience, because if you persist the words will start to make sense eventually.

The important thing is to stick with it through the tough times – don’t get up from your laptop in despair, because it will improve. If at the end of the day what you’ve written seems like a confused jumble, the best thing to do is sleep on it and then start again the following day. Your brain will have worked on the problem overnight and in the morning it should be possible to make more sense out of what you’ve written. I would encourage aspiring writers to be disciplined, to persist, and to have confidence in their ability to achieve their goals – so long as they are prepared to put the hard work in.

About the author

(c) David Ryan June 2012

Blasphemers & Blackguards: The Irish Hellfire Clubs (Dublin: Merrion Books, 2012) is out now.

What were the hellfire clubs of 18th-century Ireland? Were they really elite groups that engaged in obscene orgies, devil worship and the ritual murder of servants? These questions have intrigued virtually everyone who has visited the supposed hellfire club meeting place in the Dublin Mountains, or heard the lurid stories that are associated with it.

For the first time, this book places these clubs in their proper historical context. It shows how the hellfire clubs were motivated by Enlightenment philosophy, and how their violent, dissipated and blasphemous activities were in part a reaction to the conservatism of the establishment. Coming at a time when Irish society is all too conscious of the negative effects of hedonism and excess, Blasphemers and Blackguards is a timely and pioneering look at one of the most fascinating and enigmatic subjects in our history.

David Ryan was born and educated in Galway. He holds a Master’s degree in History (first class honours) from NUI Galway and has published a number of articles on aspects of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Irish history. Blasphemers & Blackguards: The Irish Hellfire Clubs is his first full-length publication. He currently lives in Dublin, where he works as a television researcher and writer, specialising in historical documentaries.

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