Gruesome History of Dublin

The gruesome history of Dublin could fill a number of blogposts. It seems like every corner you turn has another bloody deed or strange happening. We asked our members and staff what were the spookiest bits of history that they knew about Dublin and we were surprised by what they came back to us with. Here are our top five gruesome stories.

The Hanging Judge

John Toler was Ireland’s most hated man in the 1700s. First of all he was a judge, which meant that he was always going to find it hard to win a popularity contest. He made matters worse for himself with his cruel streak. One story has it that he was on a carriage journey back from a country court when his footman fell ill. Toler refused to stop and rushed the carriage onwards to Cabra. When the poor lad eventually died, Toler pushed the body out and carried on home for his dinner.

Despite this he managed to gain the title of Lord Norbury, which must have doubly annoyed lots of people. It wasn’t as if he was a good judge either. His courts were so disorganised that they were constantly referred to as a circus by other judges. Toler’s habit of falling asleep in court was never going to go down well but the fact that he was so keen on handing out the noose as a sentence meant that he became notorious.

It was the hanging of Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet which catapulted him into public enemy number one position. When he died, he returned as a black dog that they say still haunts the streets of Dublin. This is obviously not the type of guy to have in the hostel kitchen sorting out whose turn it is to wash up.

gruesome history of dublin
Debtor’s Prison

Speaking of Black Dogs, this was also the fitting name of the notorious debtors prison in the Coombe area of Dublin. This is where they kept people who could not pay their bills. There was no need for judges here as your length of stay was determined by the person you owed money to. So, if you had managed to get in debt with a competitor you could find yourself in trouble. One of the main problems with the Black Dog was that you had to rent your bed for the night. If you could not afford it then they put you in the dungeon which had no light apart from what made its way in through the sewer and the iron grilles at street level. Prison food? That was a thing of the future.

The Black Dog was also notorious because of one of its jailers, John Hawkins. He was as cruel as Lord Norbury and was eventually convicted of corruption. He had the habit of using the cells for imprisoning people that he took a dislike to until they eventually got their relatives to pay for their release. Nice!

Grave Robbers

The medical schools of the 18th and 19th centuries thought nothing of hunting for fresh bodies in Dublin, proving once again that doctors are an odd bunch. Medical students at the time often robbed graves to get extra money to pay for their studies. The Bullys’ Acre or Hospital Fields at Kilmainham was a popular spot. Soldiers attached to the nearby Royal Hospital were always on the alert for grave robbers mainly because many of their comrades were buried there.

grave robbers

The largest cemetery in Ireland, Glasnevin Cemetery, laid out in the 18th century, had a high wall with strategically placed watch-towers as well as blood-hounds to deter body snatchers. Dr Samuel Clossey, head of the practise of medicine in Trinity 1786 – 1803, robbed graves to indulge in his own experiments after college hours. Strangely enough, two medical students disappeared during his time.


What is it about graveyards that make us both relaxed and spooked at the same time? Probably all the dead bodies. Half of Dublin is actually built on grave yards. The largest park in Europe, Phoenix Park, has several burials. Some of them date back to the Viking Age. Dublin Castle has  decapitated bodies in its foundations. Wolfe Tone Park in the centre of the shopping district on the northside has rows of gravestones along the walls where people sit and eat their lunch. That is because it used to be St Mary’s graveyard.

Gruesome History of Dublin

The largest graveyard is obviously Glasnevin cemetery. The smallest graveyard in Ireland is located in Trinity College and contains the bones of an old provost. This is not to be confused with the other small graveyard in Trinity College which contains a soldier. The oldest graveyard in Dublin is in the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art while the National Museum of Decorative Arts & History has a mass grave for rebels in front of it. The Huguenots of Dublin had their own graveyard as did the jewish community although it is now in the back garden of a house in Ballybough.

Witch or Serial Killer?

Darkey Kelly was an infamous brothel keeper from Dublin in the 18th century who ran the notorious Maiden Tower brothel off Fishamble St. There are a number of different stories about Darkey. In one she was the lover of Simon Luttrell who was a member of the spooky Hellfire Club in Dublin. He was also the Sherriff of Dublin at the time and he claimed that she killed their newborn child in a black magic ritual after looking for money off him. No body was ever found though. However, there were at least six bodies of local craftsmen found in the cellars of her brothel!

She was partially hung and then burned alive at the stake on Baggot St. Whatever her real story was, we will probably never know as the Sherriff ensured that she would never speak. Whatever was going on, it led to riots afterwards in the city by the girls from her brothel.

If you fancy exploring some more of the gruesome history of Dublin, come and stay in our Dublin International Hostel and go exploring from there.

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