Today is the last day of my summer holiday. In honour of this special day I decided that I needed to cram in some last minute tourist fun. What better way to do this than to visit a dungeon.
Last week, when my Dutch visitor was in Dublin, we attempted to visit the crypt at St Michan’s Church. Owing to the vast hordes of tourists in line ahead of us, our cunning plan was thwarted and we had to find alternative amusements.
The same mistake was not going to be made today. I was going to arrive at the church much earlier, while the holidaymakers were sleeping off their Guinness hangovers.
I have spoken previously of the various places of historical and cultural interest, in our nation’s capital that I managed to avoid during my four year residency in Dublin last century. I have been making valiant efforts to catch up since my triumphant return to Dublin nine months ago.
St. Michan’s had never been on my register. Oh I had passed the church many times, but never gave it a second thought. Ireland is not short of churches. There seems to be one on every street. So this particular place of worship was never on my radar. It was only when the Dutch guest arrived that I learned that beneath the floors of the church lay a crypt. And within said crypt reposed mummies. Say what? Actual mummies? Bodies from centuries ago, still resting, unrotted beneath the church? My interest was piqued.
I arrived at the welcome desk, where the two elderly volunteers were having a natter over a gallon of tea. I asked if there was a tour shortly, to be told yes. As there was a tour in progress already, they told me to have a look around the church itself, while I was waiting. Which I did.
Now the church itself is not particularly interesting. Being a protestant church, it was very functional and serene, but it lacked the gaudy, camp glamour that catholic churches do so well. I spent ten minutes reading the plaques on the wall, commemorating the faithful down through the centuries. Many of these plaques were remembering the church’s female parishioners. In this it differed from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where it seemed that only important men were honoured – save for the occasional mention of a wife.
The door of the church opened, I looked around and was greeted by the crypt-keeper who was summoning me to accompany him.
What a job title I thought to myself. There are teachers, and nurses, and doctors, and flight attendants and customer service agents aplenty in this world. But how many people when asked ‘What do you do for a living?’ can actually reply ‘Crypt keeper’. I was slightly jealous.
As I was joining a tour that was already in progress, the crypt I entered was the newer one. We descended the steps underground into a long narrow corridor with the resting places of prestigious families on either side. The coffins were piled on top of each other behind metal railings, and the various family names indicated which tomb belonged to who.
Famed Irish revolutionary Wolfe Tone is entombed in this crypt with his death mask sitting above his coffin. Death masks were fashionable at that time. They are metallic or plaster casts of a person’s face, made after their death. Wolfe Tone was executed in 1798 for his failed attempt to overthrow British rule in Ireland.
At this point the rest of the tour departed, having already visited the older crypt containing the mummies, before my arrival.
This left me as the sole visitor – along with the crypt keeper – to the older crypt.
This seems to be a job he has been doing for many years as he knew the place inside out and upside town. He spoke in very theatrical manner – as one would expect from a crypt-keeper – despite his Levis t-shirt. The pauses were dramatic. The stories were creepy, and at one point I expected him to burst out into a spontaneous ‘MWUAHAHAHAHAA’ like the Count on Sesame Street.
He opened the crypt door, told me that he was going back to the office to check if any more guests were joining our tour at this time, and that I was to make myself at home and explore. I descended the stairs gingerly, taking care on the very steep fourth step.
The lighting was low, and the air was cool. This was a much smaller crypt than the first one. I tip-toed down the corridor and at the end of it, to my left lay the four beauties you see in the photograph above. I must point out that the photo above was found on Google Images. Even though I was on my own, it felt inappropriate and weird to even think about taking photos of mummified corpses.
The crypt keeper returned and told me what he knew. The bodies of these mummies are anonymous. Nobody knows who precisely they were. The bodies on the right and left are female corpses – both were probably nuns he said. The corpse in the middle is male. His feet had been cut off, to fit him into the coffin. He is also missing a hand – either through battle, disease or punishment for some crime. The body at the back is also male – again with his feet removed for a comfortable fit into his final resting box.
The reason the bodies are preserved is because the cool temperature in the crypt never changes, regardless of the season. As the walls are made from limestone, all moisture is absorbed from the air. And as methane gas rises from the floor, it is the perfect preservative for dead bodies.
I gulped in fear as he smirked at me and cackled ‘you’ve just added twenty minutes your life by being down here.’
We left the crypt and climbed upstairs. My relief at being above ground was palpable. Outside of the crypt, the keeper was far more affable and chatty, asking me several questions about the availability of marijuana in Amsterdam.
We bid our farewells, and I sprinted home for a shower.
A strange, sinister and wonderful morning.