St Michan’s Church was founded in 1095 by Dutch colonists. For 500 years, it was the only parish in Dublin that was north of the River Liffey. The present building dates from around 1685 and was designed by Sir William Robinson (Ireland’s Surveyor General 1670-1700).
Inside the church is a magnificent organ dating from 1724. It is one of the oldest working organs in Ireland. It is also believed to have been the organ that Handel used whilst he was composing his ‘Messiah’.
The most interesting feature of St Michan’s Church lies beneath the ground in the crypt. The vaults are accessed by narrow stone stairway. These stairways are steep and there are no handrails, so unfortunately the tour is not suitable for people with limited mobility. The vault tunnels are lined with limestone and mortar. There are large rooms off the tunnels that contain the coffins of many of Ireland’s historical figures. These coffins are stacked on top of each other, and over time a number of the coffins have burst open to reveal that the bodies inside have been naturally mummified!
Experts are unsure as to what exactly caused the bodies in these particular vaults to mummify. Our tour guide explained that it was likely to be a combination of a number of factors:
- high concentration of lime
- dry atmosphere
- high methane levels
- the vaults lie low and are near to the bed of the River Liffey
There are a number of mummies on display including a 400 year-old nun, a reformed thief and ‘The Crusader’ – a giant of a man whose legs had to be broken in order to fit him in to the coffin. Legend has it, that “shaking the hand of The Crusader” will bring you good fortune and luck. I have done this tour a number of times and only recently finally plucked up the courage to shake his hand. It was a very macabre experience as The Crusader’s spine and internal organs are partially visible. The hand itself felt wooden and was dry and dusty. I can’t say that I noticed any change in my fortunes, but I am glad that I had the courage to do it!
Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me, so these photos are not my own.
View the rest of the “A Tourist in my Own City” series: