Despite its infamy, the organisation known as the Hellfire Club was relatively short-lived in Ireland. The group was founded in Ireland in 1737 and effectively disbanded by the early 1740s. However, the organisation still looms large in the public consciousness. If you ask people what they know of the Hellfire Club, many may describe a masonic-like group of rich aristocrats who enjoyed drunken orgies where they gambled and practiced dark arts like murder and human sacrifice. But how much of this is fanciful imagination, and how much has a basis in fact? Did such a group exist? If so, who were the members? What did the group believe or do? The Hellfire Club was one of many groups of the same name that were appearing across Ireland and Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. These clubs were established in order to serve as meeting places for some of the most wealthy and powerful people in both Irish and British society. In a time of deeply ingrained religious belief and an extremely restrictive culture, young men would join the club to delve into a more decadent lifestyle of alcohol, sex, and outlandish parties. With society upholding a condescending view on such practices at the time, rumours began to spread amongst the public of unnatural behaviour occurring in the club. Many members were rumoured to have been practicing dark magic and performing satanic rituals.
The Hellfire Club was an organisation very much of its time, a period when Enlightenment Philosophy caused many to question the strictures and restraints of society. An engaging example of the mindset of the period comes from the accounts of Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley who was born nearly thirty or so years after the Hellfire Club prowled the streets of Dublin. Born into a wealthy Dublin family in 1768, he described himself in a manner that would probably have made him a good candidate for membership to the Club:
I was born with strong passions, a lively imaginative disposition and a spirit that could brook no restraint. I possessed a restlessness and activity of mind that directed me to the most extravagant pursuits; and the ardour of my disposition never abated until satiety had weakened the power of my enjoyment.
The Irish Hell Fire Club was founded around 1737 by Richard Parsons, 1st Earl of Rosse, and James Worsdale. Evidence of the identities of other members comes from a painting by Worsdale entitled The Hell Fire Club, Dublin, now held by the National Gallery of Ireland, which shows five members of the club seated around a table. The five men are Henry, 4th Baron Barry of Santry (who was tried and convicted for murder in 1739) Simon Luttrell, Lord Irnham; Colonel Henry Ponsonby; Colonel Richard St George and Colonel Clements. Most of their meetings occurred in Dublin city centre at the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill, near Dublin Castle. Accounts of the club’s meetings claim that members drank “scaltheen”, a mixture of whiskey and hot butter, and that they left a chair vacant at each gathering for the Devil.] The club’s mascot was a black cat.
The building rumoured to have served as one of the group’s meeting places was a small hunting lodge, which to this day still stands on Montpelier Hill. The lodge itself was commissioned by William Conolly, a speaker in the Irish House of Commons in the 18th century. Conolly was one of the wealthiest men in Ireland and his estate attracted much interest from those looking for financial donation, including Trinity and the Irish Parliament. The construction of the lodge stirred up controversy amongst locals as it required the demolition of an ancient Cairn stone, which locals at the time believed aggravated spirits and left the site forever haunted. Even before the club itself moved into the lodge, paranormal activity was already associated with the small building atop Montpelier Hill.
Following the death of Conolly, it was believed that Richard Parsons, the Hellfire Club’s founder, himself a ferociously controversial young man – known to have had an interest in the dark arts – may have used the building as one of the locations at which the Hellfire Club would meet. Parsons himself was known to be in conflict with both the Catholic and Protestant church in Dublin being outspoken in his beliefs, particularly when it came to playing outrageous practical jokes alongside other club members against practitioners of the church. This conflict between the club and church, as well as with more conservative members of 18th century society, led the club to attract a lot of negative attention.
With many strange and peculiar stories circulating to this day about Montpelier Lodge, and the elite young men responsible for the reputation it carries, it can be difficult to find truth amongst fantastical stories and frightening urban myths. Amongst the most far-fetched of these stories is the well known tale of members playing cards with the devil one dark night upon Montpelier Hill, and that of a priest being called to the club in order to exorcise a demon from a black cat they claimed attacked a member. Whilst these stories are almost entirely bogus, there are equally as frightening tales concerning members that are all too true.
Lord Santry, was widely known around Dublin for violent outbursts and his wild drinking. When drunk, the aristocrat was known to develop a far darker personality, where he carried out many crimes. By far the most disturbing of these was the murder of a bedridden servant whom he forcefully made consume a full bottle of brandy and set alight as he lay in his bed. The trial that followed attracted much attention and cast yet further unapproving eyes in the direction of the Hellfire Club and the behaviour of its younger members. Santry escaped prison by paying off witnesses and utilising influential associates, but was eventually exiled from Ireland over the brutal murder of yet another servant a few years later
Santry’s crimes, combined with the attempted arrest of club members suspected of blasphemy, only sped up the demise of the club in Dublin. Following Parsons untimely death soon after, along with the gruesome deaths of two other members, the club ceased to meet. However, in the years that followed, many other clubs inspired by the debauchery and decadence of the original Hellfire Club were established across Ireland in areas such Kildare and Cork. However, no other Hellfire Club in Ireland or Britain was ever as well known for its controversy and violence as much as Montpelier Club. Author David Ryan said in a 2012 article for The Irish Times, which discussed his own research into the club, that he acknowledges the Hellfire Club members for what they truly were – not the frightening devil worshippers the society at the time portrayed them to be, “but in reality freethinkers who believed in neither heaven nor hell”. Ryan stated that whilst there were violent and dangerous members within the club’s ranks, most of the members used their bad behaviour as a way to fight back against the church in Ireland and promote a more modern form of thinking. “They adopted their outrageous moniker in order to stir up controversy and annoy the more devout and strait-laced members of society. And despite the fact that they committed atrocious crimes, in some ways they were ahead of their time.” in the years that followed, many other clubs inspired by the debauchery and decadence of the original Hellfire Club were established across Ireland in areas such Kildare , Cork and Limerick. One such club was The Cherokee Club.
The Cherokee Club
In 1792 a new club emerged in Dublin. According to Hibernian Magazine, ‘a set of young men, fashionable of fortune’ had ‘formed themselves into a kind of hostile corps, which they called the Cherokee Squadron’ . Like previous Hellfire clubs the Cherokees were known womanising, drinking and gambling. The ‘Cherokees’ made it their business to disrupt the social gatherings of the upper classes. No portrait of the Cherokee Club is known to exist but ,according to two nineteenth century sources : The Staff Officer, written under the pseudonym Oliver Moore, and the Reminiscences of an Emigrant Milesian by Andrew O’ Reilly the main members belonged to the highest echelons of society. These texts indicate that the principal members were Walter and James Butler (later , respectively , 1st and 2nd Marquess of Ormonde) and Francis Mathew (later, the 2nd Earl of Landaff). The most high ranking member, and leader was Walter Butler, Lord Thurles (1770-1820), who would succeed as 18th Earl of Ormonde in 1795. His brothers John (1772-96) and James Wandesford Butler were also members.
Walter was prone to erratic behaviour from an early age. In her memoirs Margaret Leeson describes how she was visited at her brothel by Walter. Walter refused to say who he was and was denied entry. Walter in a rage threw a few guineas onto the sofa and asked her whether or not she thought he was a gentleman. Her response she took him for some ‘English flashman’ caused Walter to become ‘ like a madman. He gave me hearty curses , calling me every opprobrious name he could recollect, picking up his guineas went away swearing’ . Walter’s conduct suggests an unstable personality, and the young man would prove susceptible to the pitfalls of high society in later years. In the words of his close friend Jonah Barrington, ‘he was whirled at an early age into the vortex of fashionable life and dissipation…many of his naturally finer qualities were absorbed into the licentious influence of fashionable female connexion: and thus becoming lost to himself’ . Walter’s lavish spending and hectic lifestyle would eventually have an impact on the Butler family dynasty. To cover his debts in 1811, Parliament granted him £216,000 as compensation for the resumption by the Crown of the hereditary prisage of wines, granted to his ancestor in 1327.
Fashion was an important aspect of the club. Its members placed great importance on being well turned out in public. Their uniform was describes as ‘ scarlet lined with yellow, and edged with’, black faced with red …designed with taste and ornamented with brilliant buttons’ . The attire of the Cherokees was extravagant. The Cherokees also wised to be perceived as men who were brave and skilled in the use of arms. In an expose published in Hibernian Magazine, a list of qualifications was set out for prospective members of the club. Members had to be experienced duellists and proficient marksmen, and capable of astonishing feats of drinking, womanising and gambling:
In order to become a member of the CHEROKEE CLUB of Dublin, it is first necessary that the candidate should have carried off and debauched a MAID, a WIFE and a WIDOW, or an indefinite number of each.
Secondly, that he should have fought three duels; in one of which, at least , he must either have wounded , or have been wounded by his antagonist.
Thirdly, he must at some one time of his life have drank six bottles of Claret after dinner, in half pint bumpers
Despite the article being satirical in nature, it did reflect the club’s principles and behaviour. The Cherokees also caused disturbances in brothels and on the streets, assaulting prostitutes and other women and sometimes fighting with police. One such incident happened on Abbey Street, a party of gentleman were believed to be members of the Cherokee Club abused and harassed several women. Who none of the victims, was treated with the ‘grossest rudeness, merely because she would not lend them her under-petticoat’. The Cherokees avoided any consequences for their actions, with one the main perpetrators avoiding identification as result of the esteem in which the family were held .
Public tolerance for the activities of these clubs was becoming strained. As reports of the Cherokees’ misconducted became known, the Dublin press became increasingly critical of the club. The growing criticism made the continuance of the club more difficult. The Earl of Ormonde, John Butler was dismayed at his son’s Walter behaviour. He succeeded in enticing him way from Dublin and back to Kilkenny. There is little evidence to suggest that the Cherokee Club was active after 1792. It was supposed to have disbanded when the outbreak of war with France. As the 1790s progressed, secret societies such as the Unitied Irishmen and the Defenders posed as a viable threat to the country’s nobility. The Cherokee Club was a less notorious version of the Dublin Hellfire Club. The Cherokee Club was however one of the last rakish club of the eighteenth century.
Ill-behaved and arrogant as they were, these young men were also well-educated and practitioners of science, with many of the Dublin Hellfire Club members being Trinity or University of Cambridge graduates. Members held discussions in philosophy and science, placing them well out of line with the church and the more traditional members of Georgian society, whom they regularly came into conflict with. Montpelier Hill may be one of Dublin’s best known haunted sites, but it’s also worth acknowledging the members of the club that once met here as being far ahead of their time intellectually. Controversial as they were, the idea of them being satanic delinquents stemmed from a poor understanding of science and intellectualism by society at the time.
If you’d like to learn more about the Hellfire Club, it’s members and history check out the Hellfire Club Archaeological Project by Abarta Heritage: https://www.abartaheritage.ie/hellfire-club-archaeological-project/hellfire-club-history/hellfire-club/
Newspapers and Periodicals
Walker’s Hibernian Magazine
The Irish Times
Barrington, J., Personal Sketches and recollections, reprint (Dublin 1998)
Lyons, M (ed.) The Memoirs of Mrs. Leeson, Madam 1727-1797(Dublin 1995)
Moore, O , The Staff Officer; Or, the Soldier of Fortune : A Tale of Real Life. (London 1831)
Morgan , Lady , Lady Morgan’s Memoirs : Autobiography , Diaries and Correspondence (London , 1862)
Whaley, T. 2006. Buck Whaley’s Memoirs. Dublin: Nonsuch Publishing.
Lord, Evelyn (2008). The Hell-Fire Clubs. Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.p.63
Ryan, David (2012). Blasphemers & Blackguards: The Irish Hellfire Clubs. Dublin p.22.
Photo: National library of Ireland, The Lawrence Photograph Collection, Robert French