To the north of the popular tourist destinations below the River Liffey, in an industrial section of the growing city, stands a somewhat unimpressive church. St. Michan’s church was founded in Dublin, Ireland, in 1095. Parts of the structure date back almost 1,000 years ago, but the current church building was constructed in the 17th century. Today, the Anglican church conducts services, and is open to the public for tours of the historic collections, including an 18th century pipe organ, upon which Handel is rumoured to have first played his masterpiece, Messiah.
While the church itself is historically significant, this story begins at a metal door outside the church, accessed through the cemetery. Through this locked door, down dark narrow steps, await the famed crypt and mummies of St. Michan’s.
When my friend told me I needed to visit St. Michan’s, she didn’t tell me anything else about it other than to go and ask for the tour. After a ghost tour of the city in which the guide told us at the pub that we needed to go as well, we put it on the itinerary for the next day. I was already familiar with Dublin north of the Liffey, but had never visited this corner of the city. The church is situated in an industrial and modern quarter, surrounded by cranes and construction in the spring of 2017. Upon entering the church, the guide took our Euros, then welcomed us to look around the church while we waited for the tour at the top of the hour. By this point, I knew what awaited us on the tour of the crypts.
The crypt beneath St. Michan’s is certainly atmospheric, with vaulted ceiling and stone walls, dark entrances to burials, and dust in the air. The air underground is dry (surprisingly for Ireland), and that, combined with the limestone, is thought to have naturally preserved the bodies buried in this crypt. The result is the St. Michan’s Mummies, which have attracted visitors since the 1800s, when Bram Stoker visited. In 2018, approximately 27,000 people visited the crypt.
The bodies that one can pay to see are those who were housed in coffins which have since deteriorated; no bodies were purposefully removed from their coffins for this purpose. The four mummies I saw on my visit have been dubbed “The Crusader,” “the Nun,” “the Thief,” and the mysterious “Unknown.” Prior to my trip to the church, visitors were encouraged to touch the finger of The Crusader for luck. The actual stories and histories of these remains are murky, and the legends that have grown around them seem more fiction than truth. However, the fact does remain that these bodies were buried here, probably with the expectation that they would stay there, undisturbed, until their expected resurrection. That was not to be the way events actually played out.
My visit in 2017 was relatively uneventful; the guide seemed to put on a bit of a creepy vibe to get us prepared for what we would see. We entered the crypt, and he first took us to see the mummies. We could not enter the crypt where the bodies were housed, but we could see the remains in their open coffins, as well as a few skulls placed around the crypt. He explained who each was and their legends. The crypt with unopened caskets remained dark, ostensibly out of respect for the remains held within who still have family on the other side of the ground. We also viewed the coffins of famed Dubliners and rebels, saw a death mask and many other coffins, and heard their stories as well.
While our visit was slightly uncomfortable but seemingly innocuous, many visits have not been as such.
In 1996, teenagers broke into the vault and desecrated graves, going so far as to remove the head of a mummy. The perpetrators opened the coffins of up to 40 individuals and arranged the bones. Most chillingly, the teens were found playing football with the heads when the garda arrived.
More recently, in February 2019, vandals again entered the vault, this time decapitating the Nun and stealing the head of the Crusader. The Archbishop of Dublin released a statement on the Anglican Church website saying, “I am shocked that someone would target this ancient burial place and desecrate the remains of those lying within it. Not only have these individuals desecrated the sacred crypt but they have destroyed these historic mummies which have been preserved in St Michan’s for hundreds of years. I would appeal to those responsible to examine their consciences and return the head of The Crusader to its rightful place.” In the first week of March the skull and other remains were recovered and a suspect taken into custody.
I do wonder if the crypt would be vandalized or remains stolen if the church had not opened the crypt to visitors and until recently allowed visitors to touch the remains. Does this make them responsible for the break in? Not necessarily. On my visit the crypt was locked with chains over steel doors. However, one does have to consider the ramifications of opening this sacred space to tourists to have a gawk at the remains of these religious people who probably did not intend to be on display upon their death.
The church is no longer offering tours of the crypt at this time.
Dr. Katie Stringer Clary is an Assistant Professor of History, Public History at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, USA. She is currently working on a manuscript about human remains in museums. You may contact her on Twitter @DrMaryClary, by email at email@example.com, or on her website, www.katiestringerclary.com.