The Vaults of St. Michan's, Dublin

[From the Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 9, August 25, 1832]


SIR.—It is not easy after all for an idle man—a perfectly idle man—to kill his time, and rid himself of a long summer's day comfortably in Dublin. Curiosity itself, even though it pass that of women, and be greedy enough to feed on any thing, and every thing, finds out at length that there is a famine in the land, and feels itself woefully in want. In this state I was some time ago—all the lions of Dublin had been visited—its places of amusements all enjoyed—its museums all admired—its promenades all strolled—moreover the libraries were all closed—the courts of law all vacated—and what was I to do? Go to the country!—that I could not do, for reasons best known to those whom it may more immediately concern. "It's a shocking thing to be an idler," says I to myself, "what shall I do, or where shall I go? I wish I was a tailor, or a nailor, or a jailor, or something that would keep me employed! I can't endure this lazy life!"

"Plase yer honor," said the newsman who was waiting in the hall until I had conned over the last line of the last advertisement, in the last page of Saunders Newsletter, and who doubtless took a benevolent interest in my condition, "maybe amongst all the quare things in Dublin, ye have never seen the vaults under St. Michan's Church, where the dead bodies lie as sound and as sweet a nut, and where thim that were buried hundred o' years ago, are laid out as clean and purty and dacent as the night they were waked." "And can I get into these vaults?" "To be sure you can, your honor, there's nothing easier than to go to the sexton, a mighty civil fellow, and he'll get you a candle and show you the place, with a thousand welcomes." I believe I could have kissed the newsman—he had given me a piece of news that was as balm to my idle spirit; and so starting off for a friend who knows not a little about the antiquities of Ireland, and something about Dublin too, I luckily found him at home, and we proceeded together to St. Michan's Church.

Suppose us then on our way down Parliament-street, and my friend proposes that, in order to prepare our noses for what might assail them under ground, we should call in at lundy foot's, and procure some of his high toast— antiquarians are always snuff-takers—and while awaiting the measurement of our two penny worth, he observed, "This shop is about the spot where formerly stood Isod's tower—where dwelt La Belle Isoude, the favourite of a Danish King of Dublin. It was a curious situation for the tower of a fair Rosamond, just on the shores of a muddy tide water. Come, by way of short cut, let us proceed by Essex-gate and lower Exchange-street, now so redolent of snuff, but once named Blind-quay; I do not know but that it might be so called, from being full of those who were mostly blind drunk. I remember when the shipping came up to Essex-bridge, and then this quiet lane, now inhabited by cork cutters and working jewellers, was a sort of Dublin Wapping—as Horace says it was "Differtum nautis cauponibus atque malignis." Or, to do the same into English,

"This was the filthy purlieu of a port,

Where cheating slopsellers, and saucy chopsellers

And trulls and tars resort!"

The place calls to my mind the old song which, in my early days used to be in the mouths of all the profligates of Dublin, and which began thus:—

"Where have you been all the day,

Watty Peters, Watty Peters,

Up and down the Blind-quay,

Sipping bitters, Sipping bitters."

Passing by the end of Fishamble-street, we came upon Wood-quay. Here my friend showed where once stood, as one of the bulwarks of the city, Proutefoot's castle; and while passing along Merchant's-quay, and admiring the two beautiful bridges that flank that, to me, most admirable of all our Dublin buildings, the Four Courts, he took occasion to enter into a learned disquisition as to whether the old bridge, which is now superseded by Whitworth bridge, was built in the reign of King John, or by the Dominican friars in the year 1428.

Here my impatience got the better of my desire for antiquarian information, and I exclaimed "we shall never get to Michan's Church if you stop and make every lane, quay and bridge, a matter of disquisition;" so without further delay we passed over the bridge, up Church-street, and arrived at the object of our expedition.

We found the sexton very civil, and very well inclined to accommodate us with lights, and to accompany us into the vaults, which are secured now by newly repaired doors from the intrusion of mischievous violators. As we descended, we certainly felt no disagreeable smell—nothing that warned you that you were approaching the decomposing remnants of mortality. Underneath this ample church, extend long narrow galleries, on either side of which are the vaults, not much larger than common coal vaults, in which the coffins are placed. Some which are the private property of individuals, are fastened up with wooden or iron doors—others are open, and into one of them the sexton led us, candle in hand. I confess that on inspecting the contents, I was greatly disappointed I had read Brydone's description of a subterraneous catacomb in Sicily, which has the property of drying up the bodies of those enclosed in it, and in which those dead centuries ago are still standing in their niches, the same in form and feature as when alive, and clothed in the attire and ornaments belonging to their sex. If I did not anticipate exactly the same here, I at least expected, from report, to see dried and preserved specimens of the human form,— but if ever there was a shocking, revolting, melancholy, representation of what "man that is mortal," may come to, it is here. In a common tomb or vault, after a few years have gone by, nothing remains but the remnants of the coffin and the bones—every thing belonging to the child of dust has returned to its dust, except what may mark the place as a Golgotha—a place of skeletons and sculls But here death, is as it were, making a mockery of mortality, leaving flesh in rags and tatters, and allowing skin, muscle and cartilage to remain, so as in the most appalling way to humble human pride, and show what man's gallantry and woman's beauty may become, when it is preserved, as is the case here, half skeleton, half mummy: This transition state between preservation and decay was most horrible to look on—there lay a large man, whose head was on one side, either so placed in order to fit into his coffin, or else (the idea is fearful,) he had come to life in his narrow cell, and after horrible contortion, had died for want of air. The skin on the head, the cartilages of the nose, the cellular substance of the legs, the capsular ligaments of the joints and fingers, were all preserved—but oh, the torn, worn, tattered skin!—just like decaying, discoloured parchment, exhibiting all the colours belonging to the slowest possible decay—blue, green, and yellow—the mildew and mouldiness of a century. Never will the image of that ghastly specimen of decay be effaced from my memory!

It is remarkable how capriciously dissolution has gone on in this awful place. Some have nearly gone the way of all flesh—others have decomposed more slowly! and others again have resisted with great pertinacity the effects of "decay's effacing fingers." But all exhibit painfully and powerfully, how the great conqueror of man can riot over those he has subdued. Some have fondly supposed that the soul's sanctity and the body's purity while living was the cause of the comparative preservation of some of these remains—and the body of a man is shown who died in 1783, at the advanced age of one hundred and eleven; and also that of a Jesuit, whose spare body, chastened, as it was by his remarkable temperate habits and ascetic life, seems to entitle him to the distinction of decaying slowly and gradually until the great and final day of departing time. Here also is the body of a man who was executed for murder about one hundred and twenty years ago; and a mother, who, actuated by maternal affection, "strong in death," had directed that her baby should rest in her bosom: the innocent infant has long since mouldered away from its mother's cold embrace, and the parent lies without a record or a name.

There seems to be a dry, limy, absorbing atmosphere pervading some, and only some, of these vaults, which checks, without actually preventing decomposition. I say only some; for one of the vaults, which seemed damper than the rest, was like any other church vault—a depository merely of dust and bones. We looked into one vault which was enclosed by an iron door, and carefully locked—the coffin ornaments were bright, and the tin absurdities which proclaim that the poor sinner there reposing was once a lord, glittered back the rays of our candle. Immense cobwebs hung over, as if festooning with mock drapery, the slow process of decay, and big and bloated spiders seemed sitting and watching in grim repose the tomb flies that buzzed about. Oh, poor mortal man, the most wretched of reptiles can parody thy actions, and turn thy deepest designs into burlesque even over the withered and wasting fragments of humanity!

I confess I was in as great haste to leave this horrid place, as I had been to enter it. My friend called me back to see the spot where the two ill-fated Sheares rest. The common jail shells in which they repose sufficiently identified them, and—the headless trunks! I could stay no longer, but rushed into the open air, having first thanked, as I should have thanked, the sexton, for his ready civilities. On our return we tried to settle why it was that these vaults, above any in Dublin, have this unusual power of retarding decomposition. It is idle to talk of the soil being impregnated with carbonate of lime, for it is not more so than any other of the vaults under any other of the Dublin churches. Strange to say, St. Michan's Church lies lower and nearer to the level of the bed of the Liffey, than any other Church perhaps in our city. "Were you ever at Knockmoy Abbey, in the county of Galway?" inquired my friend, "for bodies are there preserved in vaults much more perfectly than here." "I wish," said I, "you would give the dublin penny journal a description of that place." "Perhaps I will, he replied, "and that shortly, together with a drawing of its very interesting ruin." "Were you ever in the Island of Arran, that lies out to sea, off the bay of Galway?" "Never," replied I—"Well here also you have a great pleasure in store; for independent of some of the most ancient buildings perhaps in Europe, and some of the most interesting remains and memorials, it has also, in a peculiar degree, the property of preserving bodies committed to the grave. Of this property, Giraldus Cambrensis took notice five hundred years ago—the following are his words as translated by Stanihurst—"There is in the west of Connaught, an island placed in the sea, called Aren, to which St. Brendon had often recourse. The dead bodies neede not be graveled, for the ayre is so pure that the contagion of any carrion may not infect it, there may the son see his father, his grandfather, and his great grandfather, &c. &c. This island is enemy to mice, for none is brought thither, for either it leapeth into the sea, or else being stayed it dyeth presently." "Well then, good sir," urged I, for you must know I am very importunate when soliciting for a friend; "Will you, when you write about Knockmoy, give the Penny Journal something also about Arran?" "I will think about it," said he. "A penny for your thought," said


Many instances of the artificial preservation of bodies, might he mentioned, still more remarkable, though perhaps less interesting than the above. The tomb of Edward the First, who died on the 7th July, 1307, was opened on the 2d January, 1770, and after the lapse of 463 years, the body was found not decayed; the flesh on the face was a little wasted, but not putrid. The body of Canute the Dane, who got possession of England in the year 1017, was found very fresh in the year 1766, by the workmen repairing Winchester Cathedral. In the year 1522, the body of William the Conqueror was found as entire as when first buried, in the Abbey Church of St Stephen at Caen; and the body of Matilda his wife, was found entire in 1502, in the Abbey Church of the Holy Trinity in the same city.

No device of art, however, for the preservation of the remains of the dead, appears equal to the simple process of plunging them over head and ears in peat moss. In a manuscript by one Abraham Grey, who lived about the middle of the 16th century, now in the possession of his representative, Mr. Goodbehere Grey, of Old Mill, near Aberdeen, it is stated, that in 1559, three Roman soldiers in the dress of their country, fully equipped with warlike instruments, were dug out of a moss of great extent, called Kazey Moss. When found after a lapse of probably about fifteen; hundred years, they "were quite fresh and plump!!"