Church Crypts of Dublin
April 1, 2008 — I’m not going to bother to look it up or even lie. I’m not sure how many church crypts the city of Dublin has. I do know that it has at least two, though, because that’s exactly how many I visited. And if you’re thinking that I’m combining the two crypts into one article because it makes sense thematically, you’re way wrong. I’m doing it solely for the fact that the phrase “Church Crypts of Dublin” has the exact same lyrical meter as Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London. And while this article contains no British werewolves, it does have Irish mummies.
The first crypt we visited is located under Christ Church Cathedral which is located in City Centre. The construction of Christ Church Cathedral was begun by a Viking king in 1030. This means that Christ Church is the oldest church in Dublin, which also means that it has the oldest crypt, which dates back to like 1172. Those numerals don’t even look like years to me, they’re so old. They look more like times and receipt amounts.
I would give you a bit of the thousand-year history of the church itself, but, man, Catholic terminology is confusing. I grew up steeped to a bitter brew in religion, but you need a whole new schooling in vocabulary to comprehend anything Catholic. Check out this sentence from the church history section of the Christ Church website: “This future patron saint of Dublin…introduced the canons regular of Saint Augustine forming a cathedral priory, which was to survive until the Reformation following the liturgical use of Sarum (Salisbury) in England.” You don’t need Latin services when you have prime jargon like that.
The church itself is a massive, imposing, gray construct that just looms there in the middle of Dublin and makes you fear God whether you believe in him or not. To get to the crypts you have to enter the church, and to enter the church, you have to pay a small fee at the entrance where you’re handed a brochure that allows you to self-tour all the many inspirational pieces of art, historical artifacts, and items of note around the church.
Of course, we were there for the crypts. Because dank stone, cobwebs, and the skeletons of men long dead is what inspires me.
Unfortunately, you’ll find none of that in Christ Church Cathedral’s crypts. Or if you do, you’re a more observant person than I. Christ Church’s crypt is clean, open, large, and besides a few statues and relics is completely empty. However, the stone walls and arches still have a medieval feel to them, and you can enter the crypts at your leisure and without chaperone, which made me happy. Besides a tourist attraction, the church itself uses the crypt like the basement it kind of is—for storage, parties, and lectures.
The Christ Church Cathedral crypt is divided into two areas. The first contains a few large statues stashed in wall niches, a rack of stocks used as punishment back in the day…and a mummified cat and mouse. Yes sir and ma’am. Apparently sometime in the mid-19th Century, the one chased the other into the church organ pipes until, like the movie Enemy Mine, they both got stranded. However, instead of becoming friends, they died and slowly mummified together. All in all, it’s an unexpected bonus to walk into an ancient Irish crypt and see how every Tom and Jerry episode should have ended.
I’m not quite sure why the crypt is divided into two areas. The main difference between the two seems to be that photography is only permitted in the first section. The second area of the crypt is smaller and features a few more displays, including a collection of silver church implements and a short video presentation about the history of the church...and seeing a monitor and media player in a crypt was all I needed to add Fantasy Number 567 to my list: Watch horror movie in a crypt. And for those of you keeping track along with me, on the same day that I visited the crypts under Christ Church Cathedral, I got to scratch Fantasy Number 423 off my list: Touch a mummy. Read on.
The second church crypt that we visited in Dublin probably should have a whole article dedicated to it, but because photography of the main attraction in this crypt was prohibited, this is what they get. Within walking distance of Christ Church and just across the River Liffey that divides Dublin can be found humble little St. Michan’s Church.
We accidentally photographed the church pretty dramatically, but despite this one angle, the church itself is rather unimpressive both inside and out, even when not compared to such titanic edifices as Christ Church. In fact, St. Michan’s could be any church anywhere and is not really a tourist attraction by itself. The current structure was built in the late 1600s, and I think someone on the church staff actually apologized to us for that. We, in turn, apologized for the age of our entire home country.
It’s also been restored multiple times since then, and that with the fact that the church is squashed on all sides by modern buildings means you could walk right by it on the street and not even notice it.
I ached for this place from the second I learned about it. You see, what makes this place worth visiting above many of the other attractions that Dublin has to offer are the contents of its crypts, which are a few hundred years older than the church. And this time, when I write the word crypts, exactly the image that rises unbidden in your mind is what they are. The crypts under St. Michan’s have everything you could want, including cobwebs, dank stone, the bodies of torture victims, randomly strewn skulls, coffins stacked to the ceiling…and mummies. Yup, Irish mummies. And their hair...was perfect.
There are two downsides to seeing St. Michan’s mummies. First, you can only walk through the crypts under guided tour, although the man who led us underground was amiable enough. Second, you can’t take pictures inside the crypts, even though everything about those crypts made me want to take pictures. These two little stipulations are often enough to make me not want to visit something, but, heck, I’d crossed an ocean the day before. Everything was cool with me.
Me and my other were the only ones on the tour. Our guide led us outside and around behind the church to where a conventional church graveyard reared its headstones. Also behind the church were a bunch of metal cellar doors angled ominously toward the underside of the church. Apparently each set of doors opens down to a different crypt. I think there were like three or four. We visited two of them.
Both crypts we saw were straight stone hallways with openings on either side. The main hallways were wired for electricity and the individual crypts that were no longer owned by a family were as well. Most of the vaults were dark, but you could peer into those with slitted eyes and make out your share of morbid details. Some were open; others were guarded by iron bars or doors. None of the crypt was gussied up into tourist attraction shininess, and I’m way thankful to St. Michan of St. Michan’s for that. Our guide wasted no time in taking us right down to where we wanted to be...the mummies of St. Michan’s, which were located at the far end of the first crypt into which we descended.
There were four mummies in total organized without pride of arrangement in their individual lidless coffins inside of a single small vault. Three of them were basically within arm’s reach and the only thing that separated us from them was a token bit of unattached wire gate. Once again, no shininess, which really helped the experience.
People that visit crypts are already morbid, so there’s no reason to make the attraction appear otherwise. The four mummies included two men, one of whom was a possible crusader and the other a possible thief, and two women, one of whom was possibly a nun. Nobody’s sure what collection of natural events mummified these bodies, and the theories are singularly uninteresting, so I’ll skip them. The product’s way more interesting than the process, anyway. Apparently, the only reason these mummies were discovered was because the coffins accidentally broke open. Makes sense. Unless you’re in an Egyptian pyramid, you usually don’t go looking for mummies.
After pointing out various eccentricities of the bodies such as hacked off feet to fit the coffins and perfectly preserved fingernails, our guide let us actually walk in and touch one of the bodies. He moved back the makeshift wire gate and then let us enjoy the singular experience of walking (or crouching) right in among the open caskets and inhaling the dander of the dead with each breath. Along the back wall was the body of the crusader. One of his hands was angled upwards in as friendly a fashion as a mummy can muster, and this was the hand we were directed to touch. We did. Now I have a new rule. If I can’t photograph it, I at least want to touch it. There’s no possible way that rule can have bad repercussions.
Our tour guide then took us to the anticlimax of the second crypt, where he left us alone for a minute or two to see if anybody else was around for the second half of the tour. In this crypt were the bodies of the Sheares brothers, famous Irish rebels whose particular end was gruesome: they were hung, drawn, and quartered (all words that aren’t at all evocative of what they denote). No mummies, though. None that were evident, anyway. I’m sure there were some undiscovered or future ones slowly desiccating in the closed coffins around us.
The St. Michan’s crypts have a connection to literary culture, as well. Bram Stoker, famed author of Little Women and Pride and Prejudice (all right…Dracula), was supposed to have visited the crypts and the mummies when he was a child because his parents apparently owned a vault in the crypts and attended the church. As a result, of course, they’re claimed as an inspiration for his famous story, although I’ve heard that about every macabre object and event that was contemporaneous to his life. He did grow up in Clontarf, though, which is only three miles from St. Michan’s, so there’s at least that much truth to the contention.
From what I could tell, this seems to be one of the least frequently visited attractions in Dublin (mostly I get that from the way our guide told us to “tell our friends” at the end of the tour). Information about it is all over the web, but I guess people either just don’t make it to that part of the city that often or they don’t make mummies a priority...which is inconceivable to me. It was definitely one of the cooler things we saw in Dublin, though. Way cooler than the inexpressive Dublin Spire and the bland Dublin Writer’s Museum. Besides, where else can you touch the mummified remains of a 6’6” crusader with his calves hacked off?
Anyway, that’s my experience with...ah-ooo...church crypts of Dublin. Tell your friends about O.T.I.S.