An Extravagant Folly

In the late 1980s, the Office of Public Works announced plans to build a visitor canned for Ireland thanks to an EU-funded tourism ‘operational programme.’ All three plans would attract support but also extreme opposition, and lead to long-term bitterness in local communities. One of the key arguments against these new centres – another was to be located at Mullaghmore, County Clare – was that they would attract increased quantities of traffic onto what had, hitherto, been minor roads. The latter would therefore have to be widened to accommodate the greater number of cars and buses, which would in turn draw still more visitors to the relevant areas, thereby destroying forever precisely the environment which the centres were intended to celebrate and support. The battle against these schemes went on for many years, with the OPW – which stood to draw seventy-five per cent of funding for the centres from the EU – determined to go ahead despite consistent hostility to its proposals. For example, in 1991 an environmental impact study commissioned by the OPW took the chosen location for the Luggala centre as given and did not consider alternatives. Although the local authority’s own senior planner advised against the project, warning it would create traffic hazards and be ‘seriously injurious’ to the area, contractors were brought onto the site the following year and started work on the centre’s concrete structure. In 1993 however, Ireland’s High and Supreme Courts successively ruled the OPW had no power to build visitor centres, thereby making the development at Luggala illegal. In 1994 the organisation lodged a planning application to go ahead with the centre and duly received permission from Wicklow County Council. The scheme’s opponents then appealed to the state planning authority, An Bord Pleanala, the ultimate arbiter in such matters. It held oral hearings into the case in November 1994 and issued judgement in February 1995: sanction was refused for a visitor centre on which £1.6 million had already been spent. Over two years later the OPW finally promised to initiate work to restore the site to its condition before clearance had taken place for the controversial centre. The same outcome occurred in County Clare, where equal sums had already been spent and works likewise had to be reversed.

Visitors ascending Mount Pelier on the southern outskirts of Dublin eventually reach a large ruined building, popularly known as the Hell Fire Club. This dates from c.1725 and was originally constructed as a hunting lodge by William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and then the richest man in the country. Supposedly the lodge was erected on the site of, and incorporated stone from, a prehistoric cairn, so when shortly after it had been built, the property lost its roof in a strong wind, popular belief held that this was because Conolly had desecrated the site. However, nothing daunted, he had a new roof put in place, this time of stones keyed together, as is the case with bridges, capable of withstanding any wind. Following Conolly’s death in 1729, his widow rented out the lodge which is believed to have been used for meetings by a short-lived group set up c.1737 and known as the Hell Fire Club. This was an informal body, primarily a band of (excessive) drinking companions which seems to have been established in emulation of the original Hell Fire Club in England: coincidentally, the founder of that organisation, Philip, Duke of Wharton, had sold the land on which the lodge stands to Conolly. It is generally agreed that while, as mentioned, a number of meetings of the club took place in Conolly, the Irish Hell Fire Club more commonly met in Dublin at the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill (a short street adjacent to Dublin Castle and City Hall). But that didn’t stop many popular myths being created around the old lodge, most of them involving satanic rites and general debauchery. In fact, the building soon fell into poor condition, as was noted by antiquarian Austin Cooper who on a visit to the site in July 1779 found it ‘now entirely out of Repair.’ So too did Joseph Holt, a leader in the 1798 rising who spent a night here while on the run from authorities. In 1800, the Conolly family sold the property to the wealthy Luke White, one of whose daughters Matilda married the fourth Lord Massy. His residence, Killakee, stood nearby so Mount Pelier passed into the ownership of the Massys until, following the seventh baron’s bankruptcy in 1924, the land was acquired by the state. In recent years, it has been under the control of Coillte, the country’s commercial forestry organisation. 

Last June the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanála – which in recent years seems to have jettisoned any effort to display discernment (or indeed an understanding of planning) – granted permission for the creation of a €15 million visitor centre on the grounds of the Hell Fire Club site. Submitted by South Dublin County Council and supported by Coillte, the proposal includes the construction of a 950-square metre building, a car park to accommodate 280 vehicles (including five coaches), and a ‘tree top canopy walk.’ All of this looks suspiciously familiar: a scheme dreamed up in a well-appointed office about how best to exploit one of the country’s natural resources. At the moment, Mount Pelier Hill is believed to attract around 100,000 visitors per annum. The project’s ambition is to triple this figure, hence the requirement for all that car parking, despite the fact that Coillte – and indeed the Irish state and its sundry arms – is committed to adopting more environmentally friendly measures, which would surely include attempting to reduce rather than increase private car use. Incidentally, in order to give better access to the site, the proposal also features the widening of local roads, again something that flies in the face of the direction in which Ireland is supposed to be going. If the council and Coillte are so keen to bring more people to the site, instead of pouring tarmacadam over large areas of ground, how about offering decent – and frequent – public transport, thereby reducing the flow of cars in the area?
And even if there are more visitors, why should they need a ‘centre’. Really, a visitors’ centre: how quaint, how very 1980s. Just like shoulder pads, and equally pointless. Perhaps someone could take aside whoever was responsible for this proposal, and let him/her know that since that era a marvellous thing called the internet has been invented. That most people today have a mobile phone. And that an app on this instrument would easily carry all the information visitors would ever need, without the construction of a ‘centre’, thereby saving Irish taxpayers the best part of €15 million.
Be aware that the expenditure won’t end there. Inevitably, admission charges will be introduced to a location that has hitherto been free to access. Furthermore, long after the person responsible for the scheme has retired on an index-linked public service pension, the rest of the country will still be paying: for the cost of staff, for insurance, for security, for maintenance. Ah yes, the maintenance. Look at the pictures here and see just how much concern South Dublin County Council and Coillte have hitherto shown for the maintenance of a building to which they wish to invite so many more visitors. The Hell Fire Club is in a pitiful condition, a graffiti-scrawled, litter-filled mess that shows scant evidence of any engagement on the part of those responsible for its care. South Dublin County Council and Coillte could save themselves, and the rest of the country, a great deal of money and aggravation – as well as helping the environment – by looking after what already exists. William Conolly erected an extravagant folly here in 1725. There’s no need for a second one today. 

The Hellfire Massy Residents Association is a voluntary body campaigning to stop this scheme going ahead. It can be contacted via twitter (Hellfire Massy Residents Association (@HellfireMassy) / Twitter) and Facebook ((5) Hellfire Massy Residents Association | Facebook) and also has a petition on (Petition · Save the Hellfire & Massy’s Wood ·

12 comments on “An Extravagant Folly

  1. Couldn’t agree more and the current state of the Hell Fire Club says a lot about officialdom and their interest in our built heritage. Your photographs show little has changed since I was last there in the 1980s – perhaps a little grottier.

    The plans for the Hell Fire Club are similar in scale to the horrendous proposal for the East Coast Greenway from Greystones to Wicklow which wants to shovel a projected 500k people per annum through a nationally important and very sensitive eco-system. All the Euro signage will be there, along with toilets, stainless steel picnic benches and of course a wide strip of ‘green’ tarmac wide enough for bikes, buggies and wheelchairs…..I despair..

  2. Tim Guilbride says:

    Beautiful writing – as well as an important message.

  3. Patrick says:

    Wow , great article, Robert is certainly all fired up this morning ( I was going to say “Robert is firing on all cylinders “ but I thought it inappropriate ) .

  4. upsew says:

    thank you for this article. we only used drive up that way occasionally in the 90s, on a sunday, and it is truely lovely, for me the charm of the area is in exactly as it is. can just envision another lovely site ruined. hopefully not

  5. teresastokes says:

    A small typo in the first line where “visitor canned” should read “visitor centre”

  6. fitzfitz says:

    … this entire affair has the stench of meddling EU funded jobsworths in their metro burrows all over it … crass, destructive – & surprising – I thought that Ireland had long moved into an enlightened era where conservation etcetera were the goals — the price of being EU Province 15 is a high one … but you don’t have to take the gold … leave the Hell Fire alone.

  7. Elma Cusack says:

    Great article Robert. Thank you for highlighting this threat. I only discovered Massy Wood and estate 2 years ago. It’s a magical place.

  8. john daly says:

    Visitor centres……a must, to get people to go to a spot. And it enables politicians to cut a sod and to perform an opening ceremony. Or better still call them heritage centre. We are getting such a centre on the Bull Island to encourage visitors . already over a million visitors a year to the Bull . The brainchild of the ego of the Dublin City Manager.

  9. Emma, I first “discovered” Massey woods …or mansions as they were then called over 60 years ago when we made excursions from Dublin city. I moved out to within 2 kilometres of the area 40 years ago and have witnessed the whole destruction of that magical area ever since. Currently one can drive down to the river in the woods and the whole place is criss crossed with roads and wide pathways. The same for Hellfire Club. It used to be a difficult walk but is now a leisurely stroll along widened roads that take you right to the top! Progress?

  10. The late Dr Emer Colleran, professor of Microbiolgy at NUIG with others, fought for years to prevent one of these Centres being built on Mullaghmore as you have said Robert. Galway & Clare County Councils have since “improved” roads leading towards it to allow more tour busses to speed their way down from Galway City, which tours can see in a morning, to Kinvara, Mullaghmore then Blackhead and the Cliffs by teatime. Anyone looking to visit Doolin in the height of summer is wasting their time fighting their way through traffic that spoils all enjoyment! At the time of her passing Emer was writing up her memories of the struggle. These were not finished, but I have a copy of her Draft she gave me to look at. There are also plans to “improve the car parks at the Cliffs”. Yet I don’t see much evidence of a fight to prevent this happening in Co Clare?

  11. Brendan Grimes says:

    ‘Touch the earth lightly’, Glenn Murcutt.

  12. Very true Robert, well put.

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