This article originally appeared on Alcohol Professor, October 30, 2015
Dorcas Kelly, better known by her nickname Darkey, was most likely innocent of witchcraft. It’s less likely she was innocent in the case of the corpses police discovered stashed beneath the floorboards of the Maiden Tower, the brothel at which she was the madam. On the 7th of January, 1761, she was both hanged and burned at the stake…
This year marks a special edition of Booo-zy Tales, because we’re bringing it to you live – or are we – from Dublin, Ireland. Like every big town in Europe, Dublin is one of the most haunted. And like many pubs in that part of the world, many of Dublin’s pubs are haunted by former customers for whom death is no excuse for not popping in for a quick pint. Most of its most haunted pubs are also its most famous and crowded, so you might have to really concentrate to get in the spirit of things. This time, our ghostly bon vivants include Irish writers, Irish rebels, and of course, the terrifying tale of the brothel madam and the Satanist who accused her of witchcraft – when in reality, she was just a serial killer.
Brazen Head Pub
Heralded as Dublin’s most famous haunted pub, it’s most famous ghost is Robert Emmet. It’s been serving patrons since at least 1613, or maybe some time in the mid-1700s – though the sign on the door claims 1198, when a coach house was located in more or less the same place (though one doubts seriously that any remnant of the original structure remains). It’s macabre history begins with its very name, which legend has it was derived from an incident during the Williamite War (1689-1691). As the story goes, a local prostitute of some acclaim was observing the pitched battle for Dublin from her window when a stray cannonball made her shorter by a head. In honor of her sacrifice, and her brazen willingness to watch a war from the window of a brothel, the pub was named The Brazen Head. Doubtless she lurks there still.
In the 1780s, the Brazen Head became the de facto meeting spot for Oliver Bond and his revolutionary band, the Society of United Irishmen (back when just about every revolution was planned in a tavern). Robert Emmet called the Brazen Head his home and hideout after he led a failed revolt against the English in 1803. He was eventually captured and, on September 20, 1803 at the age of just 25, Emmet was hanged and then beheaded. His final resting place remains a mystery, but his restless ghost still visits the Brazen Head, where perhaps it sat and sipped spirits with another famous Irish rebel, Michael Collins, who held his own meetings at the Brazen Head during the 1910s. Still later, it became one of the favorite spots of author Brendan Behan, and James Joyce names it in Ulysses, when Corley tells Stephen Dedalus and Bloom that it’s ‘a decent enough do for a bob’.
Even still, they say Emmet’s spectre sometimes occupies a corner table of the labyrinthine Brazen Head, scanning the crowd of tourists and ghost hunters for anyone who might betray him to the English. If you see him or the headless ghost of the luckless lady of the night who lent the establishment her head in exchange for its name, consider raising a glass in honor of the many rogues and rebels who have called the Brazen Head home.
Drink: This would be an excellent time for a Teeling Single Malt, Dublin’s other famous spirit.
Davy Byrne’s Pub
Joyce may have mentioned The Brazen Head, but he drank at Davy Byrne’s, as did Bloom, the rambling, ambling “main” character of Ulysses. It was here that he had his famous snack of Burgundy and a gorgonzola sandwich, though don’t take that as a recommendation; the man also carried around a potato in his pocket. Joyce name-dropped the pub again in The Dubliners, cementing its place in the history of Irish literature. Davy Byrne’s traces its history back to 1722, but it was in 1889 that its namesake purchased the establishment. Coincidentally, the right to lease the rooms at the establishment belonged previously to a man by the name of James Joyce. No relation.
Over the next quarter century, Davy Byrne turned his watering hole into “Dublin’s most famous literary pub”. It served as the unofficial headquarters of the Dublin literary scene that was doing so much to revitalize the nation. Michael Collins, who also frequented the nearby Brazen Head, operated his clandestine shadow government, the Provisional Cabinet of the State, from one of the rooms above the bar at Davy Byrne’s, and the Irish Republican Brotherhood also used the pub as a headquarters. Byrne retired in 1939, and during the War the pub’s new owners transformed it into one of Dublin’s first cocktail bars, something perhaps to rival the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London where you could sip Pink Gins with Churchill and Ian Fleming during the Blitz.
The pub will embrace you, as it did Leopold Bloom, every June 16th for Bloomsday. But we prefer to visit it during the cold, dark evenings of autumn, when they say the ghost of James Joyce returns to his favorite pub. Keep an eye on the mirror in the main lounge. They say it’s the best way to catch a glimpse of his tippling phantom; just be sure it’s not one of the many historic Joyce-themed murals you’re seeing instead.
Drink: I cannot in good conscience recommend burgundy and a Gorgonzola sandwich. You have a ways to go yet. Have a Bulmers Irish Cider.
Bull and Castle
Most bar hall haunts are happy to sit quietly in a corner, enjoying a drink. If they get rowdy, it’s usually just knocking over some glasses or pinching someone’s rear. But for the most part, these ghosts are at the bar for the same reason we are: to have a drink and relax. True to the demeanor of a sullen poet, one ghost can’t let everyone alone to have a good time. He has to bring down the whole room with a wave of eldritch melancholy. Such is the mood that descends upon the Bull and Castle when the ghost of poet James Clarence Mangan appears. Not content to simply make everyone feel a little sad, he also fiddles with the room temperature, cranking it down to a deathly chill, such being the preference of restless spirits across the world.
Mangan was born in a room at this very public house in 1803, the same year Robert Emmet was caught and executed so his ghost could drink at the Brazen Head. He was hanged and beheaded but still seems less sullen a spectre than Mangan. The poet was a haunted man, often destitute (as poets are), and in his later years (such as they were; he was only 46 when he died of cholera) took to wearing an unkempt blond wig, green spectacles, and a cloak – perfect attire for a moody revenant haunting his boyhood bar. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, next to which is the famously haunted John Kavanagh pub, also known as Gravediggers.
Drink: Five Lamps Black Pitts Porter.
By the time she was madam of the Maiden Tower brothel where now sits the pub named in her honor, Darkey Kelly had retired from entertaining men herself…except for one. Simon Luttrell, 1st Earl of Carhampton, was the sheriff of Dublin. He was one of Kelly’s special customers, one she tended to herself. And he was a member of the notorious secret society of Satanists and decadents known as the Hellfire Club. As the story goes – and the story seems to be, at best, a conflation of a few different stories – Simon Luttrell got Darkey Kelly with child. She conspired to use the unborn baby as leverage with which she could blackmail the fiendish Luttrell, perhaps not aware of just how steeped in the black arts his life was and what he would be willing to do to protect his reputation.
The Hellfire Club was a place where upstanding men of quality, pillars of the society, could meet to indulge in the most perverse of pursuits. Devil worship, human sacrifice, assorted acts of S&M. The first Hellfire Club was founded in London in 1718, by Philip, Duke of Wharton, and was sold to members – of which there were both men and women – as a bit of an irreverent lark. Over the years, and as the Club expanded to other locations and was overseen by other people, its reputation for acts of Pagan perversion grew, and many seemed to take the one-time joke quite seriously. Black masses, orgies, and general Bacchanalian behavior came to define the club, until a local king of clergyman would get fed up and lead some sort of a purge.
Such was the man Darkey Kelly tried to blackmail. Of the sundry legends surrounding her and her fate, some claim that not only was Luttrell untempered by her threat, but he took the child, sacrificed it in a Satanic ritual, and accused Darkey Kelly of witchcraft. Though his accusation against her of witchcraft – an accusation from a man of honor, a man of station – had no basis in fact, she was nevertheless burned at the stake. But that’s only the story. The reality is that she wasn’t burned as a witch, and in fact probably never even met Simon Luttrell. The reality, it turns out, is much creepier.
In 1760, Darkey Kelly was accused of murdering a shoemaker by the name of John Dowling. It was while investigating this claim that Dublin police made a startling discovery: the corpses of five men buried beneath the floorboards of her brothel. It was for this crime, for becoming “Ireland’s first serial killer”, that she was first hanged then burned at the stake on nearby Baggot Street, also known as Gallows Street. Who the men were and what they did to draw the murderous ire of the madam is not recorded. Did they deserve it? Did she kill in defense of herself and her girls? That we will never know. But on January 7, 1761, she was executed for her crimes. The local prostitutes rose up in protest, resulting in a day of raucous rioting.
Dublin’s Hellfire Club sits still, in ruins, just south of town atop Montpelier Hill. There’s a carpark and a path, daring you to visit. The horrors and pleasures that once awaited victims and members may be a thing of the past, but being in the past means little to the tortured phantoms who still lurk in its crumbling halls, issuing forth with mournful wails and occasionally reaching out to choke nosy visitors.
As for Darkey Kelly…does her vengeful spirit still walk the floorboards of the pub named in her honor? Do the five doomed souls police discovered buried beneath what is now the pub still rise up to pester guests? What of the countless other souls haunting the street outside, where so many were put to death by rope and fire? Perhaps. But ghosts or not, what better way is there to end a ghoulish night’s drinking than by toasting the sinister past at Darkey Kelly’s?
Drink: McGargles Gravy Maevey’s Pilsner.