North Street, Newry, County Down

North Street, Newry, County Down
North Street, Newry, County Down

Monday, 31 March 2014

Hellfire Clubs and other things

Samuel Hayes became famous through the publication of his book “ A practical Treatise on planting and the management of woods and coppices ” in 1794. He is to Irish Forestry as Sigmund Freud is to psychiatry, or Robert Boyle to chemistry.
Hayes made several journeys through the English countryside and was a very experienced planter himself before he produced his book  – encouraged as he tells us by  “ several respectable members of the Dublin Society” now the Royal Dublin Society. He was quite literally learning and getting ideas from the great English estates before he began planting his own estate of Hayesville, in County Wicklow. He was often critical of the estates he saw, but he gave great praise too where he thought it was deserved.
It was on one of these trips in the summer of 1769 that he visited the estate of Lord Le Despencer, West Wycombe House, at High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. In a journal he kept of these trips he describes the estate in detail. He admired it because it was open to view to the traveller, unlike many which were closely walled and hidden away from public view. These he thought too selfish. He commented favourably on the HaHa around the gardens which was in one part planted with small ships cannon which when fired towards the surrounding hills echoed like thunder. He did not comment so kindly on a small vessel carefully rigged and situated on a lake considering it too much of a sea vessel to give pleasure.  The carefully planned stable yard met with his approval and he was intrigued by a little shepherd’s house in the Park with wheels under it. This he was told was called a Rambler and could be used to drive to any pleasant spot. It held twenty persons and two servants and made a pretty object wherever placed.   Most of all he was delighted by a very striking object - a mausoleum on a hill, a six sided building with arches and pilasters richly ornamented, in full view of the traveller and beside a solitary church, the Church of St. Lawrence.
It is hard to believe that Hayes was unaware, or if he was aware he deliberately didn’t mention the fact, that Lord Le Despencer was better known by another name, that of Sir Francis Dashwood, nor does he mention ever meeting him in person. Francis Dashwood was a notorious rake, who was descended from what were then known as Turkish merchants – one who traded with the Ottoman Empire. He travelled widely bringing back ideas and artefacts to West Wycombe House. He has been described as an unashamed libertine who dedicated his life to the worship of the old gods such as Bacchus and Ariadne. Close by,  Medmenham Abbey, a disused twelfth century Cistercian monastery, was the meeting place of “The Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe.” This was one of several secret societies founded by Dashwood, also known as the Hell Fire Club.  The St. Francis referred to was Francis Dashwood himself. There were reports, possibly exaggerated, of orgies and black masses. Later, when the Abbey was accidentally burnt down, the society met in the nearby Hellfire Caves which had been artificially excavated by Sir Francis from the local quarries. He also changed the interior of the church of St Lawrence to resemble an Egyptian temple, and placed on the top of the capped tower a golden ball, 80 feet above the ground, measuring 7 feet across, which had a trapdoor and accommodated 3-4 people. The six-sided cabalistic mausoleum became a resting place for his friends. He was buried here in 1781 in the family vault of St Lawrence’s Church.
Hayes returned after his journeys to his home in Co Wicklow, Hayesville, and changed its name to Avondale – a name subsequently to become famous as the home of Charles Stewart Parnell. He planted the estate with such enterprise and dedication that its grandeur lives for us still. Then he left his knowledge and expertise distilled for us in his book. Though the original trees he planted have long since fallen, their descendants remain. It is fitting that Avondale should now be the home of Coillte- the headquarters of Irish forestry.  The Massy estate, near Dublin, also belongs to Coillte. Here the woods are overlooked by another Hellfire Club situated in the Dublin mountains.
Was there, perhaps, another side to Samuel Hayes? One that we know nothing about? Or was he so focussed on trees and estates and their management and his other great interest, that of architecture, that indeed he saw nothing else?

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