Body Snatchers at Cruagh and Saggart

Body snatching was a macabre but very lucrative business in eighteenth and nineteenth century Dublin. Dead bodies were essential for Dublin anatomy schools and the Royal College of Surgeons to carry out their medical research and training, and there was a roaring trade in corpses for Dublin’s less discerning or sensitive businessmen. Adult bodies fetched a fixed price, while children’s bodies were bought by the inch. The corpse was usually stripped of belongings (to steal belongings was considered a more serious offence than body snatching itself), bundled into a sack – hence body snatchers became known as ‘sack ‘em ups’ – and taken away on a cart in the dead of night. In his memoirs, Malachi Horan of Killinarden recalled that the horses wore leather shoes to muffle noise so as to avoid detection.

ruagh graveyard and watchtower 1

 The ancient portion of Cruagh graveyard, on Cruagh lane behind the old Schoolhouse, is surrounded by a high wall and is now closed to burials. It contains the remains of a church and a small watchtower. The stones from the church were probably used in the construction of the watch tower, which is built partly on the site of the church, and is obviously of much later date. It is two stories high with a separate entrance on each level and like the watch towers in Glasnevin cemetery, was for the protection of new interments from the attentions of the body snatchers. According to local tradition Cruagh was many times the scene of violent conflicts between the relatives of the deceased and the ‘sack-em-ups’ and the marks of bullets could be seen on the doors of the tower as well as the gravestones. As well as watch towers, cemeteries employed a wide range of methods to stop the grave robbers including placing heavy stone slabs over graves, installing cages around them, and building high walls around graveyards.

 The earliest reference to body snatching in Dublin was in Faulkner’s Dublin Journal in 1732 which reported that a grave digger in St. Andrew’s Churchyard on Suffolk Street was jailed for turning a blind eye to body snatchers. Several grave diggers were tried for similar charges over the years.

 A bill to legalise the post-execution  dissection of criminals’ bodies became law in 1791 and in some cases it became part of their sentence. It was seen as an extra punishment as it brought disgrace and humiliation upon the criminal. However, not all criminals were reluctant to undergo dissection. It was quite common for a malefactor to sell his body to a particular surgery school before death. With the proceeds he usually held a farewell party for himself and his friends, playing cards on the condemned man’s coffin. Usually he drank so heavily that the criminal was almost unconscious going to the scaffold.

 However, the supply of bodies from the justice system was not enough to satisfy the needs of  the anatomy schools. As well as the entrepreneurial ‘sack-em-ups’, the students and staff of Dublin’s medical schools also engaged in body snatching. Christopher Dixon, porter at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in about 1805 was an active ‘resurrectionist’ who was caught by a mob on one occasion in the pauper’s graveyard at Kilmainham (also known as Bully’s Acre). After tying a rope around his waist the mob dragged him to the Liffey into which he was ducked repeatedly. He was lucky not to have met a more serious fate. John T. Kirby, son of the President of the College of Surgeons in 1823, was reported to have been killed in a ‘resurrection battle’ at Camden Row.

 In his reminiscences, Malachi Horan claimed that the doctors at Dr. Steevens’ Hospital employed a man to watch the graveyard at Saggart and to tip them off when a burial was about to take place. According to Horan, on one occasion when the cemetery was being raided, a body snatcher was shot dead by an angry mob. There is no record of this event having taken place, but the older graves in Saggart cemetery, which is still in use, bear the heavy stone slabs which were used to deter the sack ‘em ups.

 Eventually, public outrage forced government to pass the British 1832 Anatomy Act, which provided doctors and surgeons with a legal source of cadavers. Body snatching quickly declined after this.


Haunted Happenings at Killakee

On the Killakee Road, across the road from the site of Killakee House, the former home of the Massys, are the steward’s house and stables. This House was built around 1765 by the Conolly family of Castletown as a hunting lodge. In the early part of the twentieth century, the house was visited regularly by George Russell , George Moore, W B Yeats and Katherine Tynan. It is said that Countess Markievicz recommended the house to men on the run from British forces, because its unexpected stairways, leading to convenient exits, made it an ideal hide-away. The Conolly family also built the nearby infamous Hell Fire Club.

 Steward's House Killakee 3

During the 8th Baron Massy’s tenure the house was the residence of his steward, Maurice Fox. Following the loss of Killakee House by the Massys in 1924, ownership of the steward’s house passed to Miss Margaret Fox, his daughter. In 1968 the complex was purchased by the O’Brien family and developed as an Arts Centre and tea-rooms. On April 29th 1970, the Irish Independent reported that Mrs. O’Brien, who had just spent two nights on her own in the house, had been terrified by noises each night, that her dogs were howling, “a weird howling, as if they were scared out of their skins”, and had discovered a great deal of damage throughout the house despite no evidence of a break-in. The O’Briens had experienced a number of mysterious happenings in the house since they moved in, in 1968.

The Black Cat of Killakee

The Black Cat of Killakee

Tradesmen, whom the O’Brien’s hired to undertake alterations, refused to stay in the house because of “ghostly” happenings, a freezing atmosphere, and a door that would not remain closed, even with an eight inch bolt in place.  One night, a carpenter saw the door opening to admit an enormous black cat “as big as an Alsatian” which glared fixedly at him and then disappeared. No one believed the story and, even when others saw the cat, the matter was treated as a joke. Some weeks later, when artist Tom Massy was helping with the final stages of decorating, he saw the cat crouched in the hall, its red flecked amber eyes fixed on him. He and another artist friend saw a small crippled man, 3 feet tall standing at the door of the hall and when the men retreated, the small man turned into a cat. When the noises at night made sleep impossible, it was finally decided to have the house exorcised in the early 1970s. Since then, the apparitions have not appeared, but there have been other ghostly happenings and poltergeist-like activity. It is not known if the house is still haunted.

In more recent years, the house became known as Killakee House and was turned into a restaurant but is now a private residence.

Sources: If Those Trees Could Speak by Frank Tracy and Knocklyon Past and Present by Pat Bradley et al.

Spooky South Dublin

As we near 31st October, it’s time to dust off the ghost story books and spook ourselves a little! The legends surrounding the Hell Fire Club are probably South Dublin’s most famous chilling tales,  but there are plenty of other ghoulish stories to get you in the mood for Halloween.

Old Bawn House looking particularly spooky

Old Bawn House looking particularly spooky

 The Ghost of Old Bawn House 

Close to the Old Bawn Road and the Dodder was situated one of the most important houses of the Dodder valley – Old Bawn House. Archdeacon William Bulkeley, son of the Archbishop of Dublin, built the house in 1635.

During the rebellion of 1641 the house was damaged, but was restored soon after. The house continued to be lived in for many years, but was eventually demolished. There was a local tradition in the old neighbourhood of Old Bawn House: that each year on the anniversary of the death of Archdeacon Bulkeley, a coach drawn by six headless horses and containing two passengers attended by two footmen, drives up to the house.

However woe betide anyone who looks on the coach, for they will die within a year and a day – or so the story goes.

The Murder of Lord Kilwarden

The Murder of Lord Kilwarden

Ghostly Horses

During Robert Emmet’s Rising of 1803, Newlands House, near Corkagh House, was occupied by Arthur Wolfe (1739-1803), 1st Viscount Kilwarden, or Lord Kilwarden as he was better known, the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. There were rumours of an attempt on his life by Emmet’s insurgents but despite this, Lord Kilwarden decided to travel into Dublin City. He left the Corkagh Estate by the back entrance, near to the present day St. John’s Road, and headed off towards Dublin City for Dublin Castle. Near Thomas Street, his carriage was ambushed by a number of insurgents, and Lord Kilwarden was dragged from the coach and repeatedly stabbed with pikes. He was brought to a nearby building but died an hour later. After the insurgents ambushed the coach, the terrified horses galloped back the way they had come, and entered Corkagh Estate through the back entrance and out the front drive to Newlands House. Over the years, members of the Finlay family of Corkagh claim to have heard the sounds of a coach and horses rushing through Corkagh Estate: however, neither coach nor horses could ever be seen.

The Phantom Band

During the Easter Rising of 1916, Major Gerald Colley, a brother-in-law of Mrs Edith Colley of Corkagh, was stationed in Dublin Castle, and his wife lived in Corkagh. On the day before Easter, the Major telephoned his wife to tell her that there was some trouble brewing between the Irish nationalists and the British authorities.

On Easter Monday, the Rising took place, and the Major’s wife, along with a friend, went to Belgard Castle to watch the burning bridges in the city of Dublin. Meanwhile, Mrs. Edith Colley, whilst walking with her husband, George P. A. Colley, through Corkagh Estate, heard a marching band playing and the sound of tramping feet marching down the Naas Road and through the rear gate of Corkagh.

They hurried back to the house to find the entire staff anxiously gathered at the front of the house. All had heard the band, and they thought that Corkagh was going to be attacked. However the music suddenly stopped and there was nothing to be seen. Despite the large number of people who heard the band, no one saw it.

The Pond at Rathfarnham Castle, from the Fr. Browne Collection, courtesy of the Irish Picture Library

The Pond at Rathfarnham Castle, from the Fr. Browne Collection, courtesy of the Irish Picture Library

The Phantom Dog

In the hard winter of 1840-1841 a skating party was in progress on the icy pond in the grounds of Rathfarnham Castle. Among the group was a man who had with him a curly-haired retriever dog. The ice cracked suddenly and the man disappeared into the murky water. His dog jumped in after him and both were drowned. To this day it is reported locally that the ghost of the animal can be seen regularly along the Dodder between Lord Ely’s Gate and Rathfarnham Bridge.