One of the more frequently overlooked places of interest in Dublin city is St. Michan’s church and crypt, located near the Four Courts and the Jameson Distillery in the newly renovated old market-area of Smithfield. The church was originally founded in 1095 by the Danish colony in Oxmantown, near the Four Courts, and was named after a Danish bishop.
For five hundred years St. Michan’s was the only parish church in Dublin north of the River Liffey. From its foundation, until 1547 monks from Christchurch Cathedral served at St. Michan’s. It then became a part of Christchurch Cathedral and remained so until the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1870, which severed the connection between the church and the state, thereby enabling the church to become a self-governing body. The parish of St. Michan’s thus became separated from the Cathedral, only to become part of the Christ Church group of parishes again in later years.
The present building at St. Michan’s dates from about 1685 when the church was rebuilt to serve a more prosperous congregation. The new building is believed to have been designed by Ireland’s Surveyor General (1645-1712), Sir William Robinson. The building also underwent extensive repair work in 1828. In 1922, the roof of the church was badly damaged by the bombing of the Four Courts during the War of Independence. The east window was also shattered and temporarily replaced with plain glass. The present stained glass window is based on the Book of Kells, and came from St. Matthias’ Church on Adelaide Road in 1958.
Why You Should Visit
The main attraction of St. Michan’s is not for the fainthearted
, and lies in the crypt
underneath the church itself. A narrow stone stairway at the side of the church leads down to a tunnel
in the vault
s beneath, lined with limestone
. Long, narrow galleries or crypts extend off either side of this tunnel, for the placing of coffins. Some of these crypts are private and closed off with heavy wooden or iron doors. Others are open, and are separated from the public only by iron bars. Behind these iron bars coffins can be seen lying about the crypts higgledy piggledy
, some with arms or legs sticking out. The infamous "Big Four" lie in one of these open crypts.
Here there are four coffins from which the lids have been removed, exposing the mummified remains within. These remains are though to have been preserved by the high concentration of lime in the vaults; the very dry atmosphere may also have been a contributing factor in their preservation. Three of the four coffins lie in a row across the front of the vault: a woman on the right, an eight-hundred year-old nun on the left, and in the middle a man who has had his feet and one of his hands cut off. Many believe that the man's hand and feet were cut off because he was a thief. The fourth coffin is positioned against the back wall of the tomb. This contains the body of an eight-foot man who has been cut in half in order to fit into his coffin. He is known as "The Crusader" (from the belief that it is the body of a soldier returned from The Crusades). One of his hands is lifted slightly and visitors to the crypt are invited to touch the mummified, leathery hand of the Crusader as it is thought to bring good luck.
Many of the men who died as a result of the 1798 Rebellion are buried in St. Michan's, most notably those of brothers Harry and John Sheares. In the last tomb are the coffins of the Sheares Brothers. The brothers were executed by the British after the Rebellion of 1798. In 1998, the coffins of the two brothers, which had rotted away, were replaced as part of the Bicentennial celebrations. When the bodies were moved to the new coffins it was discovered that the brothers had been hung, drawn, and quartered, the standard British punishment for traitors.
Other notables are interred in the graveyard of St. Michan's. They include Oliver Bond, a prominent Dublin merchant, who took part in the 1798 Rebellion and also founded the United Irishman's Journal, mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, and Robert Emmet who was executed during the 1803 Rising. Charles Stewart Parnell was also brought to St.Michan's for a burial service before being buried at Glasnevin cemetery.
Bram Stoker's family also had a burial vault at St. Michan's. Indeed, the word 'undead' is a word which was introduced by Bram Stoker in his book Dracula, and is believed to have been influenced by his frequent childhood visits to see the mummifed bodies in the vaults of St. Michan's.1
Another point of interest at St. Michan's is the magnificent organ inside the church, on whch it is believed that Handel first performed The Messiah. The organ is one of the oldest still in use in the country today. There is a beautifully engraved panel on the organ gallery which depicts a series of musical instruments in high relief.
The church also houses a penitent's stool (the only one of its kind in Dublin) as well as an Eighteenth century pulpit and font. There is also a chalice dating from 1516.
I first vistited St. Michan's when I was eight years old on an outing with the Brigíns (the Irish equivalent of the girl scouts, named after St.Brigid. It was a most memorable trip and gave me nightmares for months afterwards, so perhaps rubbing the Crusader's hand doesn't bring such good luck after all...
Tours of the church and vaults are available every day, except Sunday.
November to March: times are 12.30pm - 3.30pm.
March - 31st October: times are 10.00am - 1.00pm, and 2.00pm - 5.00pm.
saturdays: 10.00am - 12.45pm.
Bus number 134 stops at the church Gate.
Phone: Dublin 872 4154
(Submitted as Part of Wertperch's Quest: Everything Quests: Places to visit in Ireland and the UK, April 2004.
With thanks to:
1"Movies Plus, Issue 26, April 2004"
"The Mummies of St. Michan’s" by Suzanne Barrett on http://www.irelandforvisitors.com/articles/ mummies_of_st_michans.html