Dublin Underground

With my departure date increasingly imminent I’ve been using my dwindling weekends to revisit favorite haunts and to check off some last items from my Dublin bucket list. One of those, which I visited last weekend, was St. Michan’s church in Smithfield. It’s one of the oldest churches in Dublin, founded in 1095, but the building has been rebuilt and remodelled a number of times. The current incarnation is not much to look at. Cromwellian and crumbling, it’s mainly bare wood beams and cracking plaster.

The main draw is the crypts underneath the church, which you can only visit on tours held at very limited hours, which is one reason it took me so long to do this. One of the vaults holds a set of four spontaneous mummies, at least 600 years old but still with skin and clothing intact under the shroud of centuries of dust. The weren’t specially preserved like Egyptian mummies, and in the damp of Dublin no one is entirely sure why these corpses resisted decay. Some theories involve the thickness of the crypt walls providing a constant temperature, the limestone sucking up moisture, and natural preservatives from the leaves of the oak forest that used to stand there somehow permeating the bodies. But no one knows for sure.

They’ve been a tourist attraction since at least Victorian times, when hardcore Romantics in search of thrills and chills could descend unescorted into the crypts and see the mummies by the flicker of candlelight. Even now, with a tour guide and electric lighting, the gaping jaws of the mummies and the piles of dusty caskets are pretty damn spooky. The guide said the vaults of St. Michan’s were one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and I can well believe it. Taking photos in the crypts is not permitted, but there are a couple on the website if you want to take a look.

One mummy, known as “the Crusader,” (though not old enough to really have been one) has one hand propped up a bit, and it became traditional for visitors to give him a hearty handshake. He’s lost a couple of fingers since then so handshakes are no longer encouraged, but if you’re bold enough and your tour guide is in an accommodating mood you can brush his hand lightly, a gentle hello across the centuries. This I duly did, and any lingering tingle in my finger was, I’m sure, entirely psychosomatic.

If this sounds a little too intense you can always stick to the crypts in Christchurch, which hold a mummified cat and rat. The story goes that the cat chased the rat into a pipe of the church organ, where they both got stuck. (Presumably this was a little-used note, as they both must have been there for quite some time before anyone noticed.) They are both now immortalized under glass for the enjoyment of gawking tourists.