Hellfire Club Archaeological Dig

Montpelier Hill, near Tallaght in South County Dublin, is a popular place for locals and visitors to enjoy spectacular views over Dublin. It is synonymous today with the ruins of an 18th-century building known locally as the Hellfire Club, originally built as a shooting lodge for the famous politician William Conolly in around 1725. To build the lodge, his workmen are said to have destroyed two large tombs and utilised their stone as building material. In local folklore, the destruction of the tombs is said to mark the beginning of the association of the building with the supernatural. Legend has it that a devil was so enraged by the desecration that he blew the original wooden roof off the new building. As one of the richest and most powerful men in Britain or Ireland, William Conolly was not to be deterred by a mere phantom, and had the roof reconstructed in stone, giving the lodge its unique appearance.

Over the past three years, the Hellfire Club Archaeological Project, a collaborative project between Abarta Heritage, the Heritage Office of South Dublin County Council, Coillte and the Dublin Mountains Partnership, has sought to uncover the story of Montpelier Hil, and to establish the nature of its archaeological landscape. To date, the project has focused on two monuments immediately to the south of the hunting lodge. These monuments are recorded as possible passage tombs DU025–001001 and DU025–001002. Previous phases of the project have included desk-based research, a geophysical survey by Earthsound Geophysics and a small programme of test excavation.

In the most recent phase of the Hellfire Club Archaeological Project, a small excavation was carried out on possible passage tomb DU025–001001 during October 2016. Two trenches were placed into the monument, primarily to assess whether any archaeological features had survived the disturbance of the eighteenth century, but also, if archaeological features were present, to assess if it is possible to conclusively prove that DU025–001001 was a Neolithic passage tomb or another type of archaeological monument.

Based on the preliminary results of this excavation, it has been determined that monument DU025–001001 in all likelihood does indeed represent the remains of a badly disturbed Neolithic passage tomb. Trench 1 revealed that part of the mound and stone cairn still exists, particularly on the southern side of the monument.

Trench 2 revealed that archaeological features still survive even in the area most disturbed and damaged by the construction of the hunting lodge and other early modern activity. The excavation also revealed that as well as the destruction caused during the construction, the site was further plundered for stone during the construction of the Old Military Road in the first decade of the 19th century.

Artefacts recovered during the excavation include a large stone bearing megalithic art, a polished stone axehead, a number of pieces of worked flint and a small quantity of burnt bone along with a large amount of post-medieval and early modern artefacts. Specialist analysis of these artefacts, along with environmental processing and retrieval of suitable material for radiocarbon dating from the soil samples, is currently ongoing.

The Hellfire Club Archaeological Project has also been designed to be an outwardly focused excavation, with members of the public and local schools being encouraged to visit the site, interact with the dig team and hear about the latest discoveries and theories. Over the course of the excavation, many hundreds visited to see the dig progress, with a large number of schools visiting each day.

The Hellfire Club Archaeological Project is a multi-disciplinary and multi-agency programme that includes Abarta Heritage, the Heritage Office of South Dublin County Council, Coillte and the Dublin Mountains Partnership, with the kind assistance of the School of Archaeology, University College Dublin, Earthsound Geophysics and The Discovery Programme.

For more information on the Hellfire Club Archaeological project, please visit www.abartaheritage.ie.

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