For today’s Then and Now post, we don’t have a pair of images side by side. Instead, we have a textual description of a part of Chapelizod as it was in the early 1800s, from one of Ireland’s great masters of horror, and to compare against it, a set of photographs which I took around 2010.
Back in the early 2010s, I lived in the small Dublin village of Chapelizod, which is nestled between the River Liffey on one side and the Phoenix Park – the largest walled park in Europe – on the other. Sheltered by the huge green expanse to the north, the village is historic and charming (despite lying within walking distance of Dublin city centre), with a medieval church tower and a pub which dates back to 1694. On occasion, walking home after dark by the road that ran along the river, we would encounter deer that had ventured out of the park.
In the nineteenth century, ghost story writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu lived in Chapelizod, and found it to be an inspiring setting; his best-known novel The House by the Church-Yard is set in Chapelizod, as are several of his short stories. The famous house itself – or at least, one of a few possible candidates for the name – is still around, despite having fallen into disrepair (like many houses in the village); recently it appears to have begun undergoing restoration work.
In “Ghost Stories of Chapelizod”, Sheridan Le Fanu described Chapelizod as it was in his own day:
“A broad street, with a well-paved footpath, and houses as lofty as were at that time to be found in the fashionable streets of Dublin; a goodly stone-fronted barrack; an ancient church, vaulted beneath, and with a tower clothed from its summit to its base with the richest ivy; an humble Roman Catholic chapel; a steep bridge spanning the Liffey, and a great old mill at the near end of it, were the principal features of the town. These, or at least most of them, remain still, but the greater part in a very changed and forlorn condition. Some of them indeed are superseded, though not obliterated by modern erections, such as the bridge, the chapel, and the church in part; the rest forsaken by the order who originally raised them, and delivered up to poverty, and in some cases to absolute decay.
The village lies in the lap of the rich and wooded valley of the Liffey, and is overlooked by the high grounds of the beautiful Phoenix Park on the one side, and by the ridge of the Palmerstown hills on the other. Its situation, therefore, is eminently picturesque; and factory-fronts and chimneys notwithstanding, it has, I think, even in its decay, a sort of melancholy picturesqueness of its own.”
From the balcony of my flat in Chapelizod, it was possible to see not only the Phoenix Park but the church tower and the top floor of the house itself. A side gate of the park was just a couple of minutes from our door, and we used to frequently go for walks in what was evidently the heart of Le Fanu country. Although the precise identification of many of the locations in his writings are subject to debate, there is one spot which can be confidently identified – the setting of the ghostly events which are depicted in the story titled “The Village Bully” from “Ghost Stories of Chapelizod”.
Bully Larkin and the fringe of the Phoenix Park
In this story, which was first published in 1851, “an ill-conditioned fellow of herculean strength” known as Bully Larkin picks a fight with another village resident, Ned Moran, on a slim pretext. In the fight, which takes place on the edges of the Phoenix Park, Ned is very severely injured.
“The bully rose, wiping the perspiration from his white face with his blood-stained hands, but Ned lay stretched and motionless upon the grass. It was impossible to get him upon his legs for another round. So he was carried down, just as he was, to the pond which then lay close to the old Park gate, and his head and body were washed beside it. Contrary to the belief of all he was not dead. He was carried home, and after some months to a certain extent recovered. But he never held up his head again, and before the year was over he had died of consumption. Nobody could doubt how the disease had been induced, but there was no actual proof to connect the cause and effect, and the ruffian Larkin escaped the vengeance of the law. A strange retribution, however, awaited him.”
Bully Larkin is somewhat chastened by his experience, but little otherwise changes in his life, except that he acquires a job as a gardener on the far side of the Phoenix Park.
About three years after the death of Ned Moran, Larkin finds himself on his route home, late in the evening:
“He had been detained, it appeared, later than usual, and darkness had closed before he commenced his homeward walk across the Park. It was a moonlit night, but masses of ragged clouds were slowly drifting across the heavens. He had not encountered a human figure, and no sounds but the softened rush of the wind sweeping through bushes and hollows met his ear. These wild and monotonous sounds, and the utter solitude which surrounded him, did not, however, excite any of those uneasy sensations which are ascribed to superstition, although he said he did feel depressed, or, in his own phraseology, ‘lonesome.'”
Approaching the wall of the town from the park side, he notices something unusual.
“Just as he crossed the brow of the hill which shelters the town of Chapelizod, the moon shone out for some moments with unclouded lustre, and his eye, which happened to wander by the shadowy enclosures which lay at the foot of the slope, was arrested by the sight of a human figure climbing, with all the haste of one pursued, over the churchyard wall, and running up the steep ascent directly towards him. Stories of ‘resurrectionists’ crossed his recollection, as he observed this suspicious-looking figure. But he began, momentarily, to be aware with a sort of fearful instinct which he could not explain, that the running figure was directing his steps, with a sinister purpose, towards himself.”
“The form was that of a man with a loose coat about him, which, as he ran, he disengaged, and as well as Larkin could see, for the moon was again wading in clouds, threw from him. The figure thus advanced until within some two score yards of him, it arrested its speed, and approached with a loose, swaggering gait. The moon again shone out bright and clear, and, gracious God! what was the spectacle before him? He saw as distinctly as if he had been presented there in the flesh, Ned Moran, himself, stripped naked from the waist upward, as if for pugilistic combat, and drawing towards him in silence. Larkin would have shouted, prayed, cursed, fled across the Park, but he was absolutely powerless; the apparition stopped within a few steps, and leered on him with a ghastly mimicry of the defiant stare with which pugilists strive to cow one another before combat. For a time, which he could not so much as conjecture, he was held in the fascination of that unearthly gaze, and at last the thing, whatever it was, on a sudden swaggered close up to him with extended palms. With an impulse of horror, Larkin put out his hand to keep the figure off, and their palms touched—at least, so he believed—for a thrill of unspeakable agony, running through his arm, pervaded his entire frame, and he fell senseless to the earth.”
Bully Larkin survives this horrifying experience, but is a shadow of his former self.
Chapelizod as a literary landscape
Fans of classic horror may note some similarities with M. R. James’s famous early twentieth-century short story “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”; in particular, the idea of a person making a series of poor choices which result in the summoning of a ghastly apparition, who then pursues them across a deserted landscape. M. R. James was, in fact, a devotee of Le Fanu’s work, and visited Chapelizod in 1927, saying:
“Dublin is a dreadful place… The only excursion I made was to Chapelizod to see the House by the Churchyard, which is quite unmistakeable.”
For some pleasantly atmospheric photos of modern Chapelizod and its environs, here is a video created by HistoryEye:
Other resources you may enjoy
Ghost Stories of Chapelizod by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu on Project Gutenberg
“Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you, My Lad” by M. R. James, on Project Gutenberg Canada
Ghostly Irish Fictions: more spectral Irish tales, by Charlotte Riddell, Rosa Mulholland, and Dorothy Macardle. A resource created by fellow blogger Dr. Maria Mulvany