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ch 16 Ryan Dublin hellfire club

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The Dublin Hellfire Club
On  March  the lord lieutenant and Privy Council of Ireland issued a
proclamation offering a reward of £ for the apprehension of Peter Lens, an
English painter who had been living in Dublin for some time. Lens was
accused of ‘having several times uttered profane, and blasphemous expressions’.
All sheriffs, magistrates and other officers of the law, as well as the general
public, were enjoined to do their utmost to secure his arrest. It may have
seemed unusual for a proclamation to be issued against an individual simply for
blasphemy or swearing, which was commonplace in Dublin: according to one
contemporary, the streets rang with ‘the most execrable oaths that ever I
heard’. However, Lens’ conduct was particularly objectionable. The proclamation was issued on foot of a report by the House of Lords committee for
religion, which gave more detail on the nature of his offence. It appeared that
Lens had actually prayed to the devil and ‘at several times uttered the most
daring and execrable blasphemies against the sacred name and majesty of God’,
and he had not acted in isolation. Veneration of the devil and ‘daring and execrable’ blasphemy were the avowed practices of the club to which he belonged,
a society of ‘loose and disorderly persons’ known as the Blasters. It was also
known as the Hellfire Club, and its activities provoked condemnation from
prominent figures such as Jonathan Swift and George Berkeley, bishop of
Cloyne, as well as indignation among the general public.
The Hellfire Club was an ephemeral group. Founded around , it had
disbanded by the early s. Yet its existence exemplified the conflict
between two distinct elements in eighteenth-century Irish society – one raucous, freethinking and provocative, and the other polite, orthodox and conservative. This was a period when Enlightenment philosophy caused many to
question the strictures and restraints of society. The arguments of freethinkers, much propagated in taverns and coffee houses throughout the early
 NAI, Proclamation No. ; Dublin Newsletter, – Mar. .  Four letters originally
written in French, relating to the kingdom of Ireland … (Dublin, ), p. .  Journals of
the House of Lords of the kingdom of Ireland ( vols, Dublin, –), iii, .
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eighteenth century, along with burgeoning concepts of individual rights, influenced the establishment of the Dublin Hellfire Club and its progenitor, the
London Hellfire Club of the early s. However, its members’ notorious
conduct set the Dublin club apart: it was more outrageous, provocative and
aggressive than its English counterpart, and before the end of  another
of its members would face arrest, this time for a more serious offence than
blasphemy. As a result, the Club disintegrated under a cloud of scandal and
shame, which ensured its lasting infamy in the folklore of the capital.
The emergence of the hellfire club phenomenon owed a considerable deal to
the Enlightenment and the articulation of deistic and atheistic philosophies
that struck at the foundations of religious orthodoxy. From the late seventeenth century, men such as John Locke and John Toland questioned the
legitimacy of many of the precepts and practices of institutional religion.
They and other ‘enlighteners’ believed that through education, science and
reason, they could free humankind from ignorance, superstition, irrationality
and religious repression. Such views extended beyond intellectual circles and
into the realms of a fashionable and ‘cultured’ upper class who, as Roy Porter
has observed, ‘preened themselves upon their own progressive opinions and
“polite” lifestyles, picking up a smattering or more of Voltaire and Co. –
maybe just as a veneer, but sometimes as part of a genuinely new way of
living.’ Coffee houses, taverns and clubs were the arenas in which young
gentlemen met to debate and discuss these matters and express their scepticism of Biblical Christianity. Deism and atheism were offered as rational
alternatives. For some, lack of belief in an afterlife was a persuasive argument
in favour of indulgence in pleasure. Since body and soul were destined for
dissolution, it was logical to indulge oneself: ‘why should I go without my
part of pleasure, since this life is my portion, and this my lot, and since my
time is a shadow, and after my end there is no returning.’ The
Enlightenment concept of individual rights, including the right to indulge in
pleasure, was taken as a justification of libertinism.
It was out of this milieu that the hellfire clubs emerged. The term ‘hellfire club’ was often used generically, to denote ‘clubs of reckless or abandoned
young men’, and indeed the members were generally wealthy, propertied
 Roy Porter, The Enlightenment (nd ed., Basingstoke, ), pp , .  Ibid., p. . 
Letter of I—h T—r, Dublin,  Nov. , published in Wetenhall Wilkes, An essay on
the existence of a God. particularly in answer to two atheistical letters… (Belfast, ), pp
vii–viii.  David Stevenson, The Beggar’s Benison: sex clubs of Enlightenment Scotland and
their rituals (East Linton, ), pp –.  Oxford English dictionary (nd ed.,  vols,
Oxford, ), vii, .
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men who chose to devote their time and money to hedonistic excess. First
and foremost, hellfire clubs were convened for the purposes of conviviality
and pleasure, and so much the better if self-indulgence could be justified by
philosophical argument. Yet they also took the Enlightenment criticism of
religious orthodoxy to new extremes, mocking and inverting Christianity and
its rituals. Churches, clergymen and social conservatives were viewed as
archaic, superstitious and repressive, and as such were fit subjects to be lampooned through blasphemy and sacrilegious behaviour. The original Hellfire
Club (or clubs, as there may have been more than one) was founded in
London c. under the auspices of Philip, first duke of Wharton. It was
comprised of around forty ‘persons of quality’, who allegedly met to deride
scripture, to engage in blasphemous conversation, and to mock religious
ritual. There was a degree of embellishment and invention in the Grub Street
accounts of the Club’s practices, and in fact little is known of its actual activities. Nonetheless, such accounts outraged public sensibilities, and precipitated
its suppression by order of George I in . The first Hellfire Club was
short-lived, but it would influence the foundation of an equally infamous club
in Dublin some sixteen years later. The most likely link between these two
groups is provided by a portrait painter named James Worsdale.
Born in England around , Worsdale was a servant in the house of Sir
Godfrey Kneller, to whom he became apprenticed. Despite his limited artistic ability, Worsdale demonstrated a knack for obtaining lucrative commissions. Over the course of his career his subjects included George II,
Princesses Louisa and Mary, William, duke of Devonshire, and the duchess
of Newcastle. It seems to have been around the time of his apprenticeship
to Kneller that he painted a group portrait entitled W. Domville and friends at
the Hell Fire Club, probably depicting members of the London Hellfire Club.
The painting shows three figures gathered around a table, including a fulllipped, rather decadent-looking man seated right. This was William Domvile
of Loughlinstown, county Dublin (–), who had left Ireland for good
in , thenceforth to live the life of ‘a man of fashion’ in London and to
travel on the Continent. Though the portrait is undated, its stylistic similarity to Kneller’s work suggests that Worsdale painted it at an early point in
 Louis C. Jones, The clubs of the Georgian rakes (New York, ), pp –; Evelyn
Lord, The hell-fire clubs: sex, satanism and secret societies (London, ), pp –; Lady
Llanover (ed.), The autobiography and correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs Delany (nd
series,  vols, London, –), iii, .  ODNB, lx, .  George C. Williamson
(ed.), Bryan’s dictionary of painters and engravers ( vols, London, –), v, ; ODNB,
lx, ; Norma Clarke, Queen of the wits: a life of Laetitia Pilkington (London, ), p.
.  This figure can be identified as Domvile through his striking resemblance to a
sketch ‘said to be Mr Wm Domvile’ in the Domvile family manuscripts (NLI, Domvile
papers, MS ). For Domvile, see E.M. Johnston-Liik, History of the Irish parliament
– ( vols, Belfast, ), iv,  and Francis Elrington Ball, ‘Loughlinstown and
its history’, JRSAI, th Series,  (), pp –.
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his career when he was still under Kneller’s influence – probably in  or
, when the London Hellfire Club was active. It was not the last time he
would portray a club of this kind.
Worsdale appears to have been dismissed from Kneller’s service in 
after covertly marrying Lady Kneller’s niece. In the early s, living in
London, he mixed with a ‘hard-drinking, heavy-gambling set’ that included
Edward Walpole, son of Sir Robert Walpole. The two became close friends,
and Worsdale’s artistic and literary career benefited greatly from Walpole’s
patronage. In  he dedicated his play A cure for a scold to his benefactor,
expressing his gratitude ‘for favours of which my present happy condition is
the best proof’. When, in , Walpole was appointed as secretary to the
new lord lieutenant of Ireland, the duke of Devonshire, Worsdale followed
him to Dublin. From his base at Dublin Castle, the administrative and social
heart of the capital, Walpole had complete access to the highest echelons of
Irish society and was well placed to introduce Worsdale to men such as
Richard Parsons, the dissolute earl of Rosse. The earl possessed a reputation
as one of Dublin’s most hardened libertines, and what is known of his life
gives the impression of a man bent on extravagance, self-indulgence and ultimately self-destruction.
Born around , Richard Parsons succeeded to the title of second
Viscount Rosse following his father’s death in . In August  he took
his seat in the Irish House of Lords, on the same day as Wharton, who had
been raised to the Irish peerage as marquess of Catherlough. The two men
may have met at this time and perhaps recognized one another as kindred
spirits. They were of a similar age and shared a liking for drink and dissipation as well as a strong disregard for institutional religion. Coincidentally,
both later founded hellfire clubs. In , Rosse was made an earl. He had
little interest in public affairs, preferring to spend his time in convivial company. Membership of the Freemasons provided him with a societal context in
which to do so. He became Grand Master of the Irish Grand Lodge in 
and again in , presiding over its banquets and participating in its secret
ceremonies. Masonic lodges were ‘congenial centres of fraternal solidarity,
 The painting was auctioned in New York on  July  by Christie, Manson and
Woods International Inc. I have been unable to establish its present location. I wish to
thank the knight of Glin for drawing my attention to its existence and its resemblance to
Kneller’s work, and the late Arch Elias for his comments on it.  George Vertue, Vertue
note books, iii, Walpole Society,  (–), p. ; Clarke, Queen of the wits, p. . 
Clarke, Queen of the wits, pp , , –.  A.C. Elias (ed.), Memoirs of Laetitia
Pilkington ( vols, Athens, Georgia, ), ii, –; James Worsdale, A cure for a scold
(London, []), published in facsimile reprint in Walter H. Rubsamen (arr.), The ballad
opera vol. : the medical and legal professions (New York and London, ).  G.E.C.,
The complete peerage ( vols in  parts, London, –), xi, ; Journals of the House
of Lords, ii, –; ODNB, lviii, .  W.J. Chetwode Crawley, Caementaria Hibernica:
being the public constitutions that have served to hold together the Freemasons of Ireland ( vols,
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which bound their members with bizarre entrance rituals that sometimes blasphemously parodied the rites of the church’. The anticlerical Rosse was an
avid participant in such activities. His disdain for institutional religion and its
representatives frequently manifested itself in outrageous practical jokes at the
expense of the clergy. According to a near-contemporary anecdote, Rosse
once stripped himself stark naked to receive the clergyman and moralist Dr
Samuel Madden at his Dublin residence. However, by the late s he had
drifted away from freemasonry. Despite its secretive rituals, it remained a
highly respectable organization. Rosse, by contrast, sought to goad and outrage the polite and conservative elements that dominated social life in Dublin.
He may have already known of Worsdale’s earlier flirtation with the London
Hellfire Club. Now the two men conspired to found a similar club in Dublin,
one that would be even more outrageous than its progenitor.
The Dublin Hellfire Club was probably formally established sometime in
. Rumours abounded that Rosse, with Worsdale’s connivance, had ‘dealt
avec le diable [and] established a hell-fire club at the Eagle tavern on Cork hill’.
Another party concerned was Henry, fourth Baron Barry of Santry, whose
mother was a first cousin of William Domvile of Loughlinstown. This familial
connection to an earlier hellfire club may have encouraged Santry’s involvement,
although the promise of conviviality and the opportunity to behave outrageously
were equally powerful inducements. The Club was a highly elite group with a
small, restricted membership: two peers, three army officers, a high-ranking
member of the gentry and one or two artists. To commemorate its foundation,
Worsdale painted another group portrait, a large oil painting. He probably did
so under a commission from Santry, in whose mansion the painting was afterwards housed. It shows five men gathered around a table bearing a straw-covered bottle of wine in a silver punch bowl and five wine glasses. The overall
impression is of a group of wealthy and confident notables, secure in the elevated status that membership of the Protestant elite bestowed upon them.
Some took this as a licence to engage in excessive behaviour characterized by
heavy drinking, licentiousness and violent confrontation.
Dublin, –), ii, ; John Heron Lepper and Philip Crosslé, History of the Grand
Lodge of free and accepted Masons of Ireland (Dublin, ), p. .  Porter, The
Enlightenment, p. .  Samuel Burdy, The life of the late Rev. Philip Skelton with some
curious anecdotes (Dublin, ), p. . Rosse is not named in the text. The author of the
prank is identified as ‘a late nobleman, a famous member of the hell-fire club.’ Of the
known members of the Dublin Hellfire Club, only Rosse and Henry, Baron Barry of
Santry held titles during Madden’s lifetime (he died in ). The story evokes Rosse’s
character more than Santry’s, and in any case the latter did not possess a house in Dublin.
 John Carteret Pilkington, The real story of John Carteret Pilkington (London, ), p.
.  The painting remained in Santry Court in north county Dublin until the nineteenth century. Some time after  it was purchased by John Wardell of Dublin, whose
son presented it to the National Gallery of Ireland in  (cat. no. NGI ): Catalogue
of pictures and other works of art in the National Gallery of Ireland (Dublin, ), p. .
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While Rosse is absent from the group portrait, Santry is seated left in
pride of place. The other members present were Colonel Clements (probably
Captain Henry Clements (–), who later attained the rank of lieutenantcolonel); Colonel Henry Ponsonby (–) of Ashgrove, county
Kilkenny; Colonel Richard St George (–) of Woodsgift in the same
county; and Simon Luttrell (–), later Baron Irnham and first earl of
Carhampton. Clements, Ponsonby and St George all belonged to wealthy,
propertied families of status. As senior army officers they enjoyed high rank
and privilege in society and each was a member of parliament as well as a soldier. It would appear that they attended the Hellfire Club for the same purpose that the others did – convivial recreation. They may also have been
attracted by the Club’s anti-Christian ethos; according to one commentator of
the time, freethinking was rampant in the army. Simon Luttrell, whose
family estates were at Luttrellstown, county Dublin, was the son of Colonel
Henry Luttrell, who had been widely reviled during his lifetime owing to his
betrayal of the Jacobites at the Battle of Aughrim. Simon’s conduct during
his later political career in England did not improve the family’s reputation.
A N D L I B I D I N O U S D E S I R E S ’: T H E A C T I V I T I E S O F T H E
Between late  and early , Rosse and Santry were conspicuous by
their absence from meetings of the House of Lords. It seems likely that both
men gave themselves over to the affairs of Hellfire Club during this period.
The Club soon became notorious for its excesses, which were often conducted
in public. Its heavy drinking sessions were sometimes attended by rape
attempts and violence, ending in murder on at least one occasion. Its main
rendezvous was the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill, a commodious establishment
that served food as well as drink, and acted as a meeting place for several
respectable societies, including the Aughrim and Hanover clubs and the
Freemasons, who held meetings and formal dinners there in the late s.
Any effort to determine what went on at Hellfire Club gatherings must be
largely conjectural, as no records or minutes have survived, if indeed any
were kept to begin with. Nonetheless, a sense of their activities can be
 Ibid., p. .  See ODNB, xliv, –, Johnston-Liik, Irish parliament, vi, –
(Ponsonby); ibid., vi,  (St George); ibid., iii,  (Clements).  ‘A letter to the right
reverend the Lord Bishop of Cloyne, by a gentleman in the army, in the year ’ in The
Harleian Miscellany: or, A collection of scarce, curious and entertaining pamphlets and tracts…
( vols, London, ), iii, .  ODNB, xxxiv, –; see also J.F. Kenny, ‘The
annals of a hated race’, New Ireland Review,  (Mar.-Aug. ), pp –.  Journal
of the House of Lords, iii,  and passim.  Irish Quarterly Review,  () (), p. n;
DEP, – Apr. ,  Jan.– Feb. /; Dublin Newsletter, – Apr. ; PO, –
 Dec. .
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gleaned through combining what is known of eighteenth-century tavern and
club life in general with the available contemporary references to the Club, its
members and their activities.
The Eagle Tavern’s proprietor, Mr Lee, may have provided a private
room for the Hellfire Club’s meetings. Here, they would have been attended
by servants, possibly their own footmen as well as waiters or ‘drawers’
employed by the tavern. Dinner was probably served; the Freemasons held
banquets at the Eagle and there is no reason to think that the Hellfire Club
did not do likewise. However, one of their main activities was the consumption of alcohol. Rosse, Santry and Worsdale were known to be hardened
drinkers, and it is likely that other members also partook heavily. As the club
portrait indicates, claret and punch were the beverages of choice. It seems
that a set of special, commemorative wine glasses, each bearing a member’s
name and honorary title, were used. One such glass – Worsdale’s – survives.
Inscribed ‘The Hell Fire Club’ and ‘James Worsdale Master of the Revels’, it
is similar to those depicted in the club portrait. An engraved illustration on
the glass shows a group of men gathered around a table bearing wine bottles
and a punch bowl, with one standing proposing a toast. Like the group portrait, this sustains the Hellfire Club’s reputation as a drinking club. It was
more than that, however. When the club-mates had had their fill of drink,
their thoughts turned to more prurient entertainment.
Certain eighteenth-century hellfire clubs were preoccupied, and in some
cases obsessed, with sex. The best known are the Beggar’s Benison, active in
Scotland from the s, and the Order of the Knights of St Francis, or
Medmenham Monks, founded in Buckinghamshire in the s. The rituals
undertaken by these groups possessed a strong sexual dimension, as did the
ceremonial objects they utilized. Their actual sexual activities probably did
not extend beyond masturbatory practices and relations with courtesans and
other females of easy virtue. In the case of the Medmenham Monks, however,
commentators inflated these activities into graphic accounts of orgies and
black masses. That the Dublin Hellfire Club was also seen in this light is
evident from the existence of a curious broadsheet entitled An ample discovery of the damnable cabal, commonly known by the name of the Hell-fire Club.
Purporting to be a letter from ‘Moloch’, a club member, to a prospective
recruit, the broadsheet portrayed the Club as a diabolic cabal of sexual excess
and deviancy. Though undated, it was probably published in  or 
 Betty Elzea, Glass (Philadelphia, ), p. . The glass is currently in the Philadelphia
Museum of Art (George H. Lorimer Collection, accession no. ––).  Stevenson,
Beggar’s Benison, passim; Arthur H. Cash, John Wilkes: the scandalous father of civil liberty
(New Haven, ), pp –; Geoffrey Ashe, The hell-fire clubs: a history of anti-morality
(Stroud, ), pp –. For homosocial/masturbatory practice in England see Tim
Hitchcock, English sexualities, – (Basingstoke, ), passim, and idem and
Michele Cohen (eds), English masculinities, – (London, ).
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when the Club was at its most active. The text describes the alleged initiation procedure for new members, which was overseen by ‘Pluto’, the Club’s
Grand master. Before being confirmed as a member, the initiate was required
to swear an oath to Pluto, promising to abandon ‘all that is called good, by
silly priest-rid fools’ and to ‘let nothing share the least part of my favour, but
what is solely urg’d by my most vicious and libidinous desires.’ Consistent
with this emphasis on sexual indulgence, the letter proceeded to maintain that
the newly enrolled member would have
immediately at command all his boundless wishes can desire; performance waits his will, and when he bids, ‘tis done! ‘Tis here, and only
here, where brightest nymphs do constantly abound, to satiate our constant craving appetites; nor do we meet but when our lusts run high,
and nature rallying gives new force to love.
There are also references to other ‘memorable’ activities, such as ‘sacrificing
a maid’, a probable reference to the taking of a girl’s maidenhood, and the
admission of ‘a molly’ – an effeminate or homosexual man – to the Club’s
It is unlikely that the Hellfire Club had any involvement in the composition or publication of the broadsheet. Its salacious tone is redolent of the
work of a sensationalist or printer’s hack hoping to cash in on the notoriety
of the Club. While the author may have drawn on rumours that were circulating as to the Club’s activities, its content was probably invented to enhance
the broadsheet’s commercial appeal. An ample discovery was aimed at the same
market that avidly consumed the last speeches of condemned criminals, which
were also published in broadsheet form, in the early decades of the eighteenth
century. The Club’s members may have been content to let such material
circulate, as it served to extend the sense of allure and mystique surrounding
their activities. It may even have had some grounding in truth. There is a
strong suggestion of the burlesque, dressing up and engaging in rituals, and
the Club may have encouraged such practices. The broadsheet also makes reference to the presence of ‘female acquaintance[s]’ at the Club, and at least
some of its members were in the habit of engaging prostitutes or courtesans.
It was Worsdale’s job to procure female company for the earl of Rosse.
He could readily obtain common prostitutes in the brothels of Smock Alley,
 An ample discovery of the damnable cabal, commonly known by the name of the Hell-fire
Club ([Dublin, /]). The only known copy is in the National Library of Ireland (LO,
folder /).  The printer is identified as ‘G. F. in Warborows [Werburgh] Street’.
This may have been George Faulkner, who had published last speeches and other material of voyeuristic appeal in the s: see James Kelly, Gallows speeches from eighteenthcentury Ireland (Dublin, ), pp –. My thanks to James Kelly for his comments on
the Ample Discovery broadsheet.  Pilkington, Real story, p. .
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a stone’s throw from the Eagle Tavern. However, it is likely that Rosse and
the other club members preferred ‘women of quality’, and Worsdale may
have directed them towards the rooms of upper-class women who, though not
necessarily courtesans, were unprotected and therefore considered fair game.
The poet and adventuress Laetitia Pilkington found herself in this predicament in late . Her separation from her husband Matthew in October or
November of that year left her isolated, vulnerable and at the mercy of
Dublin’s rakes. Not long afterwards she found herself besieged in her lodgings by Rosse and several ‘persons of distinction’, whose number may have
included other members of the Hellfire Club. She described how the party
broke into her lodgings and she was forced to lock herself in the dining room
to escape their attentions: ‘When those worthy peers could not find me, they
threaten’d to kick the landlady … being disappointed, they were forced to
decamp, cursing, and vowing revenge against the woman of the house.’
While Mrs Pilkington had a narrow escape on this occasion, there can be little
doubt that other vulnerable females fell prey to the Hellfire Club’s excesses.
Women were not the only victims of the Hellfire Club. Its members also
engaged more generally in violent conduct that evoked the activities of the
Mohocks – a gang notorious for committing nocturnal assaults on the streets
of London in . The earl of Rosse participated, Laetitia Pilkington’s son
Jack noted, in ‘rackets, brawls and midnight confusion’, and Lord Santry
was prone to sudden and unpredictable acts of aggression. Both had ample
opportunity to engage in affray in the vicinity of Cork Hill, one of the more
insalubrious parts of the city. The area was a warren of dark and narrow
streets, and the absence of an effective police force, along with the aggressive
conduct of some servants, contributed to create a dangerous atmosphere at
night-time. Sedan chairmen and waiters, idling outside the Eagle Tavern and
Lucas’ Coffee House, routinely insulted and molested passers-by, whom they
drenched with pails of filthy water. The ‘frequently old and incompetent
watchmen’ who were supposed to patrol the city were disposed to keep their
distance from such incidents. When faced with an attempted house robbery
in , a servant ‘call’d the watch, but they were all out of the way, as they
generally are when there is occasion for them’. Lucas’ Coffee House, situated across the street from the Eagle, was a known haunt of duellists where
rakes and bullies went to pick fights. Several duels were fought in its back
yard and the coffee house was popularly known as ‘surgeon’s hall’, owing to
 Elias (ed.), Laetitia Pilkington, i, . See also Clarke, Queen of the wits, p. .  See
Daniel Statt, ‘The case of the Mohocks: rake violence in Augustan London’, Social
History,  (), pp –; Lord, Hell-fire clubs, pp –; Ashe, Hell-fire clubs, pp –
.  Pilkington, Real story, p. .  John T. Gilbert, A history of the city of Dublin
( vols, Dublin, –), ii, .  Sean Murphy, ‘Municipal politics and popular disturbances –’ in Art Cosgrove (ed.), Dublin through the ages (Dublin, ), p. ;
DEP, – Feb. /.
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the supposed frequency with which dead bodies were laid out on its tables.
Despite the later claim that each member of the Hellfire Club ‘was admitted
under the indispensable qualification of killing his man in a duel’ it is not
known if any of them was an active duellist. Santry was said to be one,
notching the barrel of his pistol to mark each ‘deed of blood’ he had committed. However, he was better known for his violent conduct off the
duelling field, and the casual violence he perpetrated was responsible for more
than one fatality.
Born in , Henry Barry succeeded to his title and estates on the death
of his father, the third Baron Barry of Santry, in January . A rash and
volatile young man, he embarked on a career of drink-fuelled excess that soon
earned him notoriety in Dublin. His mother, the Lady Dowager Santry, was
blind to her son’s faults and made no effort to reprimand or restrain him.
Jonathan Swift learned as much when he confronted her about her son’s
behaviour, and was coldly rebuffed. It might have been expected that
Santry’s marriage to Anne Thornton in May  would pacify him, but his
‘barbarous and cruel treatment’ of his wife served only to increase his infamy.
Reportedly, Santry avoided prosecution for his misdeeds through bribing witnesses, to the great annoyance of the general public, which was ‘not a little
exasperated on seeing so vicious a career pursued with impunity.’ According
to a near-contemporary account, he even escaped prosecution for killing a
sedan chairman, who died in quite horrifying circumstances:
having forced a poor chairman (that had been used to carry him) lying
sick a-bed to drink a quart of brandy; then, with kindled spirits, he set
fire to the sheets, &c. the wretch lay in, who soon expired in the most
excruciating torture.
It is likely that other members of the Hellfire Club were involved in the perpetration of this outrage. A later account identifies the scene as a tavern on
Fishamble Street and states that several other members of the Club were
present, though Santry was the leader of the group. Having seized and incapacitated the unfortunate chairman, ‘they threw back his head, and poured
brandy down his throat until the poor fellow could no longer swallow [ … ]
and then set fire to it! The man died.’ This incident probably accounts for
 James Kelly, ‘That damn’d thing called honour’: duelling in Ireland, – (Cork,
), pp –.  William Butler Odell, Essay on duelling, in which the subject is morally
and historically considered… (Cork, ), p. ; Notes and queries, nd series,  ( July
), p. .  DEP, – Jan. /.  Jonathan Swift to Lady Santry, [February
] in David Woolley (ed.), The correspondence of Jonathan Swift D.D. ( vols, Frankfurtam-Main, –), iv, –.  G.E.C., Peerage, i, ; An analysis of the philosophical works of Lord Bolingbroke… to which is prefixed, a parallel of Earl Ferrers’s case, with
that of Lord Santry… (London, ), pp iv, vi.  Ibid., p. v.  Andrew O’Reilly,
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the later folklore of servants being burned to death during the Hellfire Club’s
The public clamour against Santry’s excesses could not be ignored forever.
He was so despised in Dublin by the late s that the authorities awaited
an opportunity to undertake proceedings against him. In early , however,
they were preoccupied with the blasphemous activities of another member of
the Hellfire Club.
The Hellfire Club’s antipathy to institutional religion was shaped to some
degree by deistic and atheistic philosophy, albeit with little or no intellectual
engagement with the matters at issue. Contemporaries identified Peter Lens
as a freethinker of limited knowledge, understanding and learning. At the
same time, the provocative and shocking blasphemy that he and the other
members engaged in did not derive solely from freethinking. It also can be
seen as a sort of social protest against the conservative and censorious social
environment that prevailed in early eighteenth-century Ireland.
The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had seen significant
official suppression in Ireland of freethinkers and their works. Its most
notable victim was John Toland, whose Christianity not mysterious (),
which alleged that the clergy used the so-called mysteries of Christianity as a
means of exerting control over others, was publicly denounced and burned in
Dublin in . There were calls for the same punishment to be meted out
to Toland himself, and he fled to London to avoid arrest. Observers noted
that when it came to freethinkers, Ireland was considerably less tolerant than
England. As Voltaire later wrote, ‘having been persecuted in Ireland for the
most circumspect of his works, [Toland] was never bothered in England for
the most audacious books.’ The establishment’s commitment to defend institutional Protestantism was unrelenting because of the perception that the
spread of freethinking would pave the way for a restitution of Catholicism: ‘if
Reminiscences of an emigrant Milesian ( vols, London, ), iii, .  See Irish
Folklore Collection, schools’ manuscripts for Glenasmole School, Rathfarnham Parish, 
Oct. – Dec.  (Department of Irish Folklore, UCD, :); Joseph Hammond,
The Hell-Fire Club (Dublin, n.d.), pp –; Richard Jones, Haunted Britain and Ireland
(London, ), pp –.  David Berman, Berkeley and Irish philosophy (London,
), p. ; ‘A letter… by a gentleman in the army, in the year ’, p. .  James
Kelly, ‘Regulating print: the state and control of print in eighteenth-century Ireland’,
Eighteenth-Century Ireland,  (), pp –.  ODNB, liv, ; David Berman,
‘Enlightenment and counter-enlightenment in Irish philosophy’, Archiv Für Geschichte der
Philosophie,  (), p. .  Quoted in Graham Gargett, ‘Voltaire’s view of the
Irish’ in idem and Geraldine Sheridan (eds), Ireland and the French Enlightenment, –
 (London, ), p. .
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genuine Christians were once clearly rooted up, popery, or fanaticism, might
be raised instead’. Even mild expressions of dissent, such as Edward Synge’s
The case of toleration consider’d with respect both to religion and civil government
(), were condemned.
Many chafed under this repression, and having acquired a measure of
confidence they embarked in the late s on a vehement protest against
institutional religion. Freethinkers began making their opinions heard in
Dublin’s coffee houses, which were described in  as
so many divinity schools; nor is there a tavern or ale-house kitchen
which escapes the noise and insults of divinity wranglers [ … ] old
creeds [are] abrogated, new ones substituted, and absurd and incongruous systems of religion hourly introduced – This foul practice of
argumentizing frequently prevails in parties of pleasure …
A  pamphlet identified a ‘dissolute’ group of atheists active in the country.
Nor was protest against the establishment confined to those with atheistic
beliefs. There were also expressions of deliberate sacrilege, which provoked a
stern reaction from the authorities. In  two men were tried in Dublin for
drinking ‘healths to the Devil and his angels, and confusion to Almighty
God.’ The Hellfire Club can be seen as rooted in this tradition of atheistic
and blasphemous expression. The Club’s innovation was to institute a systematic public campaign of outrageous blasphemy within a societal framework, in
an expression of opposition to what they perceived as a staid, archaic and conservative social order. The principal agent of this campaign was Peter Lens.
Born in  or , Lens was the son of Bernard Lens, an English
miniature painter who had been appointed to the service of both George I
and George II. Peter followed his father’s trade and achieved some success as
a miniaturist. Described by the engraver George Vertue as ‘an ingenious
youth’, he achieved notoriety for his ‘vile, athe[i]stical conversations and
behaviour, publickly practised’. By , he was resident in Dublin, where
he counted both Worsdale and Matthew Pilkington among his acquaintances,
and where he quickly earned the reputation of ‘a rude fellow’, who was
unconstrained by notions of propriety. On one occasion in late  he broke
into Pilkington’s bedchamber while he and his mistress ‘were administering
Christian consolation to each other’. He was also drawn into the ambit of
the Hellfire Club, probably by Worsdale, whom he may have known from
London’s artistic circles. Although Lens was of considerably lower social
 ‘A letter… by a gentleman in the army, in the year ’, p. .  Berman,
Berkeley and Irish philosophy, p. .  Quoted in Irish Quarterly Review,  () (June
), p. .  Berman, Berkeley and Irish philosophy, p. ; Irish Quarterly Review, 
() (June ), p. .  ODNB, xxxiii, –; Vertue note books, iii, .  Elias
(ed.), Laetitia Pilkington, i, , ii, –.
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standing than Rosse and Santry, they may have found his atheistic and blasphemous outbursts amusing. He possibly acted as a sort of impious court
jester to the Hellfire Club, coining new oaths and outrageous profanities that
expressed the Club’s disdain for institutional religion and its practitioners. He
may also have suggested that the Club change its name to the ‘Blasters’, an
obvious pun on ‘blasphemers’.
By early , the Blasters or Hellfire Club was making its presence felt in
Dublin. Its tactics seem to have been ‘to shock all serious Christians’ by vociferating its newly invented blasphemies in the most public manner possible.
George Berkeley, the bishop of Cloyne, was scandalized. His reaction reflected
the outrage felt by many moralists and defenders of religious orthodoxy:
It is no common blasphemy I speak of: it is not simple cursing and
swearing; it is not the effect either of habit or surprise; but a train of
studied deliberate indignities against the Divine Majesty; and those, of
so black and hellish a kind, as the tongues alone which uttered them,
can duly characterise and express.
More detail on the nature of these ‘indignities’ emerged in time. Lens, it was
maintained, described himself as ‘a votary of the devil … offered up prayers
to him, and publickly drank to the devil’s health’. It would appear that the
Hellfire Club was prompted by Lens’ presence to intensify the aura of mystery that surrounded it through invoking the devil and employing diabolic
symbolism. Subsequently, several supposed Hellfire Club diabolic relics surfaced. These included a clock-case decorated with demonic faces, a snuff-box
depicting the devil escorting a robed figure to ‘the eternal furnaces’, and several gold medals ‘bearing infamous devices, believed to have been the badges
of the association’. It is unlikely, however, that any of these putative diabolic
artefacts were products of a firm belief in hell or the powers of darkness.
Lens was an atheist who did not believe in the devil any more than he did in
God or an afterlife. He and the others engaged in blasphemous conduct and
flaunted the trappings of diabolism in order to provoke and outrage a society
that they felt was sunk in a dull mire of conservatism and religious orthodoxy. What Lens did not anticipate was that his behaviour would be regarded
as so offensive that the authorities would initiate a legal prosecution. He had
 George Berkeley, A discourse addressed to magistrates and men in authority occasioned by
the enormous licence and irreligion of the times (Cork, ), p. .  Journals of the House
of Lords, iii, .  The clockcase is depicted on the back cover of volume  of Georgian
Society records of eighteenth-century domestic architecture and decoration in Ireland ( vols,
Dublin, –). The snuff box was auctioned by Battersby & Co., Dublin on  July
 (copy of auction catalogue in the Hellfire Club file, Dublin City Archive). The
medals are described in Irish Quarterly Review,  (), p. n. The present-day whereabouts of these items is unknown.
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made a formidable enemy in Bishop Berkeley, who was not disposed to tolerate blasphemous behaviour.
One of the leading intellectuals of his day, Berkeley ardently defended
religious orthodoxy against the attacks of freethinkers such as Toland. Now
he was faced with the Blasters, who in his view posed a virulent challenge not
only to established religion, but also to the very foundations of civil society.
This was not a new idea. The anti-blasphemy statute that had been passed in
England in  ‘reflected the belief among ancien régimes that religion and
the state were mutually supportive entities’. In Berkeley’s Discourse addressed
to magistrates and men in authority, published partly in response to reports of
the Blasters’ activities, he contended that fear and awe of God formed the
central basis of society. If this was diminished, the way would be left open for
evil and lawlessness. The Club’s members probably intended no such outcome – they were no less dependent on the existing political order for the
maintenance of their privileged social status and property. However, Berkeley
did not believe that their actions could be over-looked, and he hastened to
bring the Blasters and their activities to the attention of the House of Lords.
On  February , the Lords’ committee for religion met to discuss the
‘present notorious immorality and profaneness’ that had been occasioned, or
at least exacerbated, by the Blasters. A couple of weeks later The Irish
Blasters, or the votaries of Bacchus, a partial translation of the thirty-ninth book
of Livy, was published. Its preface, probably authored by Berkeley, enjoined
Christian magistrates to defend God from blasphemous attacks, and urged
that ‘the infamous society of men, known by the title of BLASTERS, may as
successfully be punished as the Roman Bacchanalians.’
The adverse publicity that this generated brought the Club to the notice
of the general public. Prompted by his reading of The Irish Blasters, Jonathan
Swift referred disparagingly to the Club on  March as ‘a brace of monsters
called Blasters, or blasphemers, or bacchanalians (as they are here called in
print) whereof Worsdail the painter and one Lints, (a painter too, as I hear)
are the leaders.’ The following day the Lords’ committee for religion presented its report, describing the Blasters, as an ‘impious society’ that had
attempted ‘to draw [in] … several of the youth of this kingdom.’ Lens’ blasphemous rhetoric and diabolism were condemned, and the report urged magistrates to investigate blasphemous clubs generally. On  March, it was
ordered that the committee’s report and resolutions be published. A procla Berman, ‘Enlightenment and counter-enlightenment’, p. ; David Nash, Blasphemy
in the Christian world: a history (Oxford, ), p. .  Berkeley, Discourse addressed, pp
–.  The works of George Berkeley, D.D. late Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland … (London,
), p. xx; Journal of the House of Lords, iii, ; The Irish Blasters: or, The votaries of
Bacchus (Dublin, ) (preface).  Jonathan Swift to John Barber,  Mar. / in
Woolley (ed.), Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, iv, .  Journal of the House of Lords,
iii, .
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mation was issued for Lens’ arrest. Pursued closely by three Dublin constables, he fled to county Westmeath and onwards to Longford. Somehow evading his pursuers, he eventually made his way back to his native city of
While proceedings were underway against Lens, the other members of the
Club went unnamed and unmolested. This was due not only to the fact that
Lens was the most notorious blasphemer in the Club and, for this reason, the
most likely candidate to be made an example of, but also because he did not
possess either the elite status or political connections that protected his clubmates. As a result, the Lens affair did not precipitate the dissolution of the
Blasters or Hellfire Club. They were still active two months later, judging by
a satirical poem published in the Dublin Evening Post early in June . This
octet, authored by a Mr Frankland, equated the Club with the legion of
demons driven out by Christ in the country of the Gadarenes:
TH’ ejected Devils, by Sufferance Divine,
Among the Gadarenes enter’d into Swine.
The Fiend still fond of Swine, in ev’ry Region
Actuates the Blasters; and his Name is Legion,
Both stung by Hell, with Madness drive away.
These sink in Vice, they perish’d in the Sea;
They o’er the Steeps into the Ocean fell,
But these shoot headlong to the Depths of Hell.
No explanatory text accompanied the poem, which suggests that the Club
was now of such notoriety that none was required. It exemplifies the continuing public disdain for its members, who were ‘sink[ing] in vice’ and destined for ‘the depths of hell’. Indeed, they may have been unnerved by its
appearance, given that prominent figures often feared being satirized in
verse. Perhaps there was a growing feeling within the Club that it had provided an interesting diversion, and that it was time to move on. Indeed, its
demise was imminent, and it would be hastened by the actions of its most
notorious member.
 Ibid., ; DNL, – Mar. .  John T. Gilbert and Rosa Mulholland Gilbert
(eds), Calendar of ancient records of Dublin ( vols, Dublin, –), viii, ; W.G.
Strickland, A dictionary of Irish artists ( vols, Dublin and London, ), ii, –; Elias
(ed.), Laetitia Pilkington, ii, .  DEP, – June .  See, for instance, Lord
Doneraile’s reaction to Laetitia Pilkington’s anti-panegyric on him in Clarke, Queen of the
wits, p. .
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Lord Santry had escaped the wrath of the authorities on several occasions,
and avoided being embroiled in the scandal surrounding the attempted arrest
of Lens. However, his ‘train of evils’, as it was later described, had continued unabated, and was about to culminate in another murder. On  August
, he and several companions, whose number may have included other
members of the Hellfire Club, attended Palmerstown Fair, an annual gathering with a reputation for violence and disorder. The previous year had seen
a riot in which a man died after his leg was almost cut off, and the  fair
was to prove equally fatal. Santry and his friends went to Patrick Corrigan’s
tavern and began drinking. As Santry became intoxicated his mood soured
and he quarrelled violently with a man named Humphreys. Enraged, Santry
left the room only to find his passage impeded by a porter named Laughlin
Murphy. Shoving the porter into the tavern kitchen, Santry swore that he
would kill the next man that spoke. When Murphy rashly tried to utter a
conciliatory word Santry drew his sword and stabbed him. He would later
protest that his actions were not due to premeditated malice, but to his being
‘utterly deprived of his reason and understanding’. As Murphy collapsed on
the kitchen floor, bleeding heavily, the full implications of his action appeared
to dawn on Santry. Distraught, he paid the landlord a four-pound piece,
mounted his horse and galloped away from the scene.
Murphy did not die immediately. Santry sent a surgeon from Dublin to
treat his wound, and also a coach to take him home. Murphy lingered
between life and death for several weeks, during which time he attempted
variously to prosecute or obtain money from Santry. For his part, the baron
appeared unperturbed, going about his business as normal. On  August one
of his horses won the Great Plate at the Carlow Races. However, matters
became more serious when Murphy died on  September. His widow
applied to the Lords Justices to have Santry indicted for murder. The authorities could not afford to ignore this latest outrage and a warrant was issued
for Santry’s arrest. He turned himself in and was imprisoned in Newgate.
 Edward Madden to Santry,  July  (NLI, MS ,()).  DEP, – Aug.
. The riot occurred as part of the factional rivalry of the Ormond and Liberty Boys,
which gained momentum in Dublin during the s: see James Kelly, The Ormond and
Liberty Boys: factional riot in eighteenth-century Dublin (Dublin, ), p. .  Neal
Garnham, ‘The trials of James Cotter and Henry, Baron Barry of Santry: two case studies in the administration of criminal justice in eighteenth-century Ireland’, IHS,  (–
), p. ; Petition of Santry to Lords Justices and General Governors of Ireland []
(PRONI, Wilmot papers, T//).  Garnham, ‘The trials of James Cotter and
Henry, Baron Barry of Santry’, p. ; J. Roderick O’Flanagan, The lives of the lord chancellors… of Ireland ( vols, London, ), ii, –.  Garnham, ‘The trials of James
Cotter and Henry, Baron Barry of Santry’, pp –; PO, – Aug. . The Carlow
Races were then regarded as one of the country’s principal race meetings: see Robert
Hitchcock, An historical view of the Irish stage, from the earliest period down to the close of
the season  … ( vols, Dublin, –), i, .
 Lords Justices to Lord
Lieutenant,  Nov.  (PRONI, Wilmot papers, T// and BL, Newcastle
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After some deliberation, the arrangements for the proceedings against Santry
were decided. He would be tried by his peers in the newly-constructed
Parliament House on College Green. His situation attracted enormous public
interest, and in the weeks before the trial Dublin was abuzz with rumour and
excitement. ‘The tryal of Lord Santry makes a great noise here’, one commentator wrote, as scaffolding was erected in the House of Commons to
accommodate the huge crowds that were expected. Proceedings got underway on  April  following extensive ceremonials. Santry had a good
case: the wound he had inflicted was small, and Murphy had taken over six
weeks to die. However, his defence team were incompetent, and their witnesses performed poorly. Will Bradford, the surgeon who had attended the
deceased, failed to convince with his argument that Murphy had died from
‘an impostom’ in the lung caused by cold. Even though Bradford’s medical
incompetence appeared to have contributed to Murphy’s death as much as
the original wound, the defence failed to exploit this fact or to counter the
strong case put forward by the prosecution. The jury returned a verdict of
guilty, and Santry was sentenced to death. The date of execution was set for
‘a long day’,  June .
In a remarkable volte-face, public opinion now turned in favour of the
condemned man. Thomas Rundle, the bishop of Derry, reported that ‘the
whole town, who were once inveterate against him, now are as solicitous to
have him pardoned … Even the poor in the streets weep for him.’ There
was also sympathy for his plight among the jury, which consisted of twentythree Irish peers. Santry would have been known personally by many of these
men, and the knowledge that a nobleman could actually be sentenced to death
caused them considerable agitation. The jury sent a representation to the
Lords Justices and General Governor recommending that mercy be shown to
the condemned. Santry also issued his own petition, pleading for ‘compassion
and mercy’, and referring to his father’s zeal in the service of the Protestant
interest. Powerful representations were mounted in his favour, and when
papers, Add. MS  f. ); Petition of Henry, Lord Baron of Santry, to the Lords
Justices,  (PRONI, Wilmot papers, T//).  D. Ryder and J. Strange [to
duke of Newcastle],  Jan.  [] (TNA, SP//); Garnham, ‘The trials of
James Cotter and Henry, Baron Barry of Santry’, pp –.  Richard Mathew to Lord
Fitzwilliam,  Apr.  (NAI, Pembroke Estate papers, /////); see also DEP,
– Mar. /, – Apr. ; Dublin Gazette, – Apr. .  PO, –
Apr. ; Gilbert, History of Dublin, iii, –; Garnham, ‘The trials of James Cotter and
Henry, Baron Barry of Santry’, pp –; Affidavit relating to the death of Laughlin
Murphy,  (NLI, D).  Garnham, ‘The trials of James Cotter and Henry,
Baron Barry of Santry’, p. ; Tickell to Walpole,  Apr.  (PRONI, Wilmot papers,
T//).  George-Monck Berkeley, Literary relics: containing original letters …
(London, ), pp –.
 O’Flanagan, Lives of the lord chancellors, ii, ;
Representation of Lords Triers to Lords Justices and General Governor of Ireland on
behalf of Santry (PRONI, Wilmot papers, T//); FDJ,  Apr.– May ;
Petition of Santry to Lords Justices General and General Governors of Ireland (PRONI,
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Santry’s uncle, Sir Compton Domvile, along with several members of the
jury, travelled to England on  May to petition George II on his nephew’s
behalf he succeeded in obtaining a reprieve. The news was greeted enthusiastically in Dublin; celebratory bonfires were lit and bells rung throughout the
city. Despite this display of public goodwill, Santry’s reputation was damaged
beyond repair. He was induced to leave the country and to take up residence
in Nottingham ‘to tye him up from further extravagancies’, and his estates
and title were declared forfeit. Although these were restored in the early
s, Santry was disowned by Sir Compton and isolated from his former
friends. Over the next decade he cut an increasingly pathetic figure, plagued
by depression and crippled by gout, writing letters to Ireland in hopes of rapprochement with his uncle and permission to return to his native land. He
achieved neither, and died at the age of forty in .
The scandal caused by Santry’s killing of Murphy and his subsequent
indictment and trial hastened the demise of the Hellfire Club. It had already
been shaken by the Lens affair, and it was in no position to weather an even
greater scandal so soon afterwards. In any case its founder, the earl of Rosse,
was coming to the end of a libertine’s career that had ruined him both financially and physically. His finances were in disarray, and around  he was
involved in a number of lawsuits in which he sought to secure property and
effects to which he felt he was entitled. News of the death at sea of his
second son, James, in  may have contributed to his failing health. By
June  he was on his deathbed, the setting of the anecdote for which he
is best remembered. According to Jack Pilkington, John Madden, the dean of
Kilmore, sent Rosse a letter in the days before his death urging him to repent
his sinful life of ‘whoring, gaming, drinking, rioting, turning day into night,
blaspheming his maker, and, in short, all manner of wickedness’. Rosse had
the letter sealed up and sent on to Robert Fitzgerald, earl of Kildare, instructing the bearer to say it had come from Dean Madden. Kildare, who was
noted for his piety, was outraged at the accusations and was actually preparWilmot Papers, T//).  Dublin Gazette, – May ; PO, – May ;
DEP, –, – May .  PO, – May ; Archbishop Boulter, quoted in
Johnston-Liik, Irish parliament, i, n; Garnham, ‘The trials of James Cotter and Henry,
Baron Barry of Santry’, pp –.  See correspondence of Santry, – in NLI, MS
, (); FDJ, – Apr. .  Between  and , the second Earl of Rosse
was forced to sell off land to the value of £, to pay off the massive debts he and his
father had incurred: ‘The several answers of Edward Kean esquire one of the defendants
to the amended bill of complaint of the right honble Richard, earl of Ross[e],
compl[ainan]t.’,  Jan. , pp – (NAI, M()).  ‘The joint and several
answers of… Richard earl of Ross[e] … and … Lady Elizabeth Parsons his daughter …
to the bill of complaint of … William Lord Berkely of Stratton’,  Dec.[?]  (TNA,
C//); Richard earl of Rosse … appellant. Elizabeth Worsop [et al.] … respondents:
the appellant’s case [] (BL, Hardwicke papers, Add. MS  ff –).  John
Lodge, The peerage of Ireland, or, A genealogical history of the present nobility of that kingdom … ( vols, London, ), ii, .
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ing to instigate a lawsuit against Madden before the ruse was discovered.
Rosse, meanwhile, had died. He gained considerable posthumous notoriety
from the repetition of this anecdote.
The departure of Lens and Santry and the death of Rosse deprived the
Hellfire Club of its leading personalities. Worsdale, too, also drifted away. In
the summer or autumn of  he left Dublin for Munster. He may have
been involved in founding a sister hellfire club in Limerick, for which he
painted another group portrait. Having avoided any stigma from the scandals surrounding Lens and Santry, he returned to Dublin where he pursued
a successful theatrical career for several years. In , he was appointed
deputy-master of revels to the vice-regal court, a position that gave him some
authority over theatrical affairs in the city. He returned to England in the
mid-s, where he resumed his artistic career. He continued to ‘write’ plays
and operas, but it appears that these were largely the work of more gifted but
impoverished writers such as Laetitia Pilkington. Worsdale died in ,
having outlived all but one of his cohorts in the Dublin Hellfire Club. Both
Henry Ponsonby and Henry Clements saw service in the War of the Austrian
Succession, and both were killed on the battlefield of Fontenoy in .
Richard St George died in Dublin in . Simon Luttrell moved to
England, where he pursued a political career that was characterized by
double-dealing and unscrupulousness. He attained his object of a peerage in
, when he was made Baron Irnham; he became the first earl of
Carhampton in , and he died in .
Like many other eighteenth-century clubs, the Dublin Hellfire Club was
principally convened for convivial purposes. Its excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures – mainly drink and sex – was not unusual in the milieu of
Georgian sociability. Yet the Club was also emblematic of a raucous and radical element in upper-class Irish society, which was opposed to the more
 Pilkington, Real story, pp –. The story was repeated in various late eighteenth-century anthologies of wit and humour including The entertaining medley: being a collection of
genuine anecdotes … (London, ), pp –; The new story-teller: or, historical medley
(Newcastle, ), pp –; Mr Addison, A collection of interesting anecdotes, memoirs, allegories, essays, and poetical fragments … (London, ), pp –.  This portrait is in
the National Gallery of Ireland (cat. no. NGI ). A partial list of members of the
Limerick Hellfire Club is given in Anne Crookshank and the knight of Glin, Irish portraits,
– (London, []), pp –. See National Gallery of Ireland acquisitions, –
 (Dublin, ), p. .  Anne Crookshank and the knight of Glin, Ireland’s
painters – (London, ), p. .  ODNB, lx, ; for Worsdale’s later career
see Clarke, Queen of the wits, passim.  ODNB, xliv, ; A.P.W. Malcomson, Nathaniel
Clements: government and the governing elite in Ireland, – (Dublin, ), pp –;
Johnston-Liik, Irish parliament, vi, .  G.E.C., Complete peerage, iii, –.
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polite and orthodox element that defined a lay and ecclesiastical majority that
regarded their behaviour with hostility. When the Club sought to outrage the
establishment through publicly articulated blasphemy and diabolic invocation,
it provoked a response from the conservative Protestant state that brooked no
criticism of its established religion. The need to justify and defend institutional Protestantism was acutely felt, not least because the legitimacy of the
state was founded on the legitimacy of that religion. Meanwhile, Lord
Santry’s violent conduct went well beyond the bounds of what was tolerable
in an age accustomed to upper-class excess.
The resulting scandals helped to precipitate the demise of the Hellfire
Club. Yet despite its notoriety, in some respects the Club was an identifiably
progressive force. Its attacks on institutional religion were a form of social
protest against the censorious and repressive measures that were designed to
silence freethinkers and the intellectual debate of religious issues. The early
eighteenth century saw a society riven between the ‘superstitious’ traditions
and beliefs of the past and the burgeoning rational and scientific age of the
Enlightenment. The protest mounted by the Hellfire Club can be seen as part
of a modernizing process that would culminate eventually in the separation of
church and state and the enshrinement in law of such values as civic and religious tolerance and freedom of speech.
During the second half of the eighteenth century, a number of other hellfire clubs sprang up in different parts of Ireland. Most were short-lived, but
all were clearly influenced by their progenitor. The MP, rake and duellist
John St Leger (–) reportedly founded a hellfire club at his residence,
Grangemellon Castle in county Kildare. In  a group calling themselves
the Holy Fathers revived the practices of the Dublin Hellfire Club by holding banquets at which they toasted the devil and uttered ‘horrid impieties and
execrations’. In the late s and early s, a group known as the
Pinkindindies emulated the Hellfire Club’s propensity for casual violence by
carrying out unprovoked attacks on passers-by on the streets of Dublin. In
 the Cherokee Club, whose membership included several high-ranking
peers, caused outrage by disrupting the entertainments that were held in the
public rooms of the Rotunda hospital. Yet by the early nineteenth century,
the hellfire club phenomenon was a spent force. Some attributed this to the
decline of the Dublin social scene in the aftermath of the Act of Union. As
 A.A. Weldon, ‘A slight sketch of Grangemellon, and the story of St Leger’s Castle’,
JCKAS,  (–), p. ; Lord Walter Fitzgerald, ‘William Fitzgerald of Castleroe, and
his tomb in the Kilkea churchyard’, JCKAS,  (–), p. .  FJ,  Mar.
.  On the Pinkindindies see J.D. Herbert, Irish varieties for the last fifty years; written from recollections (London, ), pp –; J.E. Walsh, Ireland sixty years ago (rd ed.,
Dublin, ), p. . For general accounts of the Cherokee club see Walker’s Hibernian
Magazine, April , pp –; ibid., May , p. ; Oliver Moore, The staff officer;
or, The soldier of fortune ( vols, London, ), i, –; O’Reilly, Reminiscences of an emigrant Milesian, iii, –; Kelly, below pp XX.
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one commentator noted in , ‘those sums formerly lavished on expensive
pleasures, are now happily converted to purposes of a much more exalted
nature … Club-houses and gaming-tables are nearly deserted … vice of every
kind has visibly diminished.’
Though its day was over, the Dublin Hellfire Club was firmly fixed in the
folklore of the capital. Given that little was publicly known about its activities even during its heyday, it is no surprise that it became swathed in a fog
of half-truth and fanciful rumour. There is no documented evidence to suggest that the Club actually used the ruined building that bears its name on
Mountpelier Hill in the Dublin Mountains, supposedly constructed around
 by William Conolly, Speaker of the House of Commons. An anecdote
related in  by ‘a gentleman in the army’ may allude to events which took
place on Mountpelier Hill, although a definite location was not provided: ‘a
whole Hell-fire Club was actually put to flight, and chaced out of the house,
by a goose dropped down a chimney that was on fire, within at most twenty
miles of Dublin’. Whatever the Club’s relationship with Mountpelier, apocryphal tales of sinister orgies, black masses and encounters with the devil
became widespread in the locality. Even today the building is popularly and
officially known as the ‘Hell Fire Club’, and these rather foreboding remains,
brooding on a hilltop, continue to ensure that the Club will never be entirely
 Philip Dixon Hardy, The new picture of Dublin: or, Stranger’s guide through the Irish
metropolis (Dublin, ), p. .  William Domville Handcock, The history and antiquities of Tallaght in the county of Dublin (reprint, Dublin, ), p. .  ‘A letter… by
a gentleman in the army, in the year ’, p. .