St. Michan’s

Mummies and revolutionary history at a tiny medieval Dublin church

Mummies in the crypt of St. Michan's Church in DublinMummies in the crypt of St. Michan's Church in Dublin.

St. Michan's Church in Dublin
St. Michan's Church in Dublin.

The tiny church of St. Michan’s, founded in 1095, preserves the red altar frontal that once decorated the altar of Dublin Castle’s Royal Chapel until it went missing in 1922. It eventually turned up in a Liberties flea market, was restored, and installed here.

But that’s not the reason you visit.

St. Michan's Mummies

A tour will take you down into the 12th century crypt, built of dessicating limestone, where constant temperature has helped preserve the bodies of several mummies for 550 years or more.

It is considered good luck to touch the right hand of one of them, an 850-year old “Irish giant” who once towered 6’ 4". (Until the 1940s, folks used to actually shake the hand, but it's now considered too delicate for that kind of roughhousing.)

The loathed Earls of Leitrim

The coffins of the Earls of Leitrim in the crypt of St. Michan's Church in Dublin
The coffins of the Earls of Leitrim in the crypt of St. Michan's Church.

Among the bodies along this corridor are the carelessly stacked coffins of Earls of Leitrim.

These grandees were heavily disliked by the local populace that, when William Clements, the Third Lord Leitrim, was finally murdered (after several attempts), the New York Times ran an article stating, “Thus the hoary-headed beast met his account.” The article ended with a petition to raise money to defend his assassins, should they ever be caught.

The paper ended up raising more than £10,000.

Strangely, however, though everybody around knew perfectly well who the killers were, the authorities somehow never managed to collect enough evidence to bring them to trail. (Omertá, Irish-style.)

The Sheares Brothers and the Rebellion of 1798

The coffins of the Sheares Brothers in the crypt of St. Michan's Church in Dublin
The coffins of the Sheares Brothers in the crypt of St. Michan's Church .

Also down here are the Sheares Brothers, Henry and John, local lawyers educated at Trinity who visited Paris and, inspired by the French Revolution and stories from the young, newly independent nation of America across the Pond, joined the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798.

Betrayed by spies, most leaders of the Rebellion were swept up in one arrest, leaving John to take command and fix the date for the revolution.

Sadly, he and his brother Henry were arrested two days before the revolution broke out. It lasted only about three and a half months, but the Sheares Brothers were tried and sentenced during the height of the rebellion.

They had to be made an example of.

They were hanged until not quite dead, then taken down, revived, diemboweled, had their entrails burned before their eyes, and only then were tied to four horses and drawn and quartered.

The Red Mass

The nave of St. Michan's Church in Dublin
The nave of St. Michan's Church.

This church of St. Michan's is historically connected with the nearby Four Courts, home to Ireland’s Supreme Court, High Court, and the Dublin Circuit Court.

(I know, I know; see, the Central Criminal Court was moved in 2010, but by then everyone was too used to calling it “Four Courts” to change.)

Given its location, St. Michan’s celebrates an annual "Red Mass” attended by the president of the Republic and most of the country’s top judges.

At the end, most of these governmental bigwigs troop down into the crypt to pay their respects to the Sheares Brothers—and remind themselves that just because someone has broken the law doesn’t mean they have done anything wrong.



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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in September 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.