The Hellfire Club
Despite its infamy, the organisation known as the Hellfire Club was relatively short-lived in Ireland. The group was founded in Ireland in c.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? Did they practice devil worship and human sacrifice? Did the Hellfire Club ever actually meet at the hunting lodge on Montpelier Hill that still bears their name?
(A list of sources for this article are detailed at the bottom, the references appear numbered as (1), (2) etc).
‘When rakish gentlemen wished for congenial society they rode up to Mr. Conolly’s hunting-lodge, perched like Noah’s Ark on the top of Mount Pellier, among the Dublin Mountains. Here they were reported to drink heavily, indulging in blasphemous oaths, and amusing themselves with preposterous orgies. This may have been, as it is said, a haunt of the notorious Hell-Fire Club, but most of the club’s meetings were actually held in the Eagle Tavern, in Dublin.’
The Hellfire Club – the ‘Shadow of the Enlightenment’
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 meto the most extravagant pursuits; and the ardour of my disposition never abated until satiety had weakened the power of my enjoyment.’
Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley (2)
The First Hellfire Clubs
The original Hellfire Club appears to have been created by the Philip, 1st Duke of Wharton in England in 1719. Philip was a controversial character, prone to excessive drinking and outrageously lewd behaviour. [In a somewhat serendipitous coincidence, it was this same Philip Wharton who sold Montpelier Hill, and the estates of Rathfarnham, to William Conolly]. This first Hellfire Club in England was suppressed by order of King George Ist in 1721 (3).
The establishment of the first Hellfire Club is often erroneously ascribed to Sir Francis Dashwood. This famous rake was a founder member of the Dilettanti Society. A ‘cultural interest’ organisation with a distinct overlap of membership and morals with the Hellfire Club. The society was described by Horace Walpole as: “a club for which the nominal qualification is having been to Italy, and the real one, being drunk; the two chiefs are Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood, who were seldom sober the whole time they were in Italy” (4). Dashwood was too young to join the Duke of Wharton’s first incarnation of the Hellfire Club, but he was reportedly a member of another Hellfire Club in the 1730s. Dashwood later became the founder of his own Hellfire Club that quickly gained notoriety in around 1755. They were nicknamed the ‘Monks of Medmenham Abbey’ as they met in an old Cistercian monastery on the banks of the Thames. By all accounts Dashwood’s version of the Hellfire Club matched its forebears for orgies of debauchery and drunkenness, and they are said to have performed profane versions of Franciscan rites and ceremonies (5).
Structure of the Hellfire Club
The English and Irish Hellfire Clubs did not appear to be particularly rigid formal structures. They would perhaps be more accurately be described as a ‘shared special interest group’, designed purely for hedonistic and self-indulgent pleasure with a view to amusing themselves and shocking society. However there did appear to be at least ceremonial ‘roles’. For example, James Worsdale served as the ‘Master of the Revels’ of the Dublin Hellfire Club.
The Irish Hellfire Club quickly gained notoriety by their open mockery of the church, that took the Enlightenment’s questioning of organised religion to a new level. An interesting letter from 1738, that purported to be written by a member of the club who used the pseudonym ‘Molock’, describes the Hellfire Club and its practices, including ‘the sacrifice of maidens’ (presumably an allusion to taking their virginity rather than actual human sacrifice, though that has been taken as a literal remark by later commentaries) and that new members had to make the following declaration:
“PLUTO I am thine…I,by thy efficacious mighty self, do swear all that is called good by priest-rid fools entirely to abandon,