One of my lifelong dreams was to visit Dublin, Ireland – I have long thought of it as one of the most beautiful and charming cities in the world. Considered one of the friendliest locations, each year hundreds of thousands of people make the trip to the capital of the emerald coast. The beauty of the majestic Wicklow mountains and green landscapes of the bogs just outside of the city, combined with a rich cultural tradition, make Dublin a dream destination. However, many tourists who are excited to visit St. James Gate – to sample a pint of Guinness straight from the brewery, or visit historical sites like St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Dublin Castle – walk right past one of the most interesting places in all of Ireland—St. Michan’s Church.
It’s understandable that many people pass the church without a glance. Its exterior does not standout from the cityscape; it’s just a simple church building. However, it’s not the building that makes St. Michan’s so unique, it’s what lies underneath the church—an ancient crypt. Visitors make their way down dimly lit, stone stairs to find dozens of coffins, a hallway that inspired the creepy halls of Count Dracula’s castle, and even a mummy ready to greet them with a handshake.
Established in 1686, parishioners of the Dublin church have worshipped at St. Michan’s for over 300 years. In its early years, the rector of the church transformed the lower vaults of the church into a crypt to house the remains of church members. He found that the limestone walls of the vaults kept the air dry, providing ideal conditions for burial. Many notable people were buried in the crypt including the mother of Dublin-born Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, who used the eerie crypt as a model for the terrifying castle in his famous novel.
As the years passed, open space in the crypt quickly shrank. As a way to continue to meet the demand of its church members, the rectors of St. Michan’s began stacking old coffins upon one another to make room. Soon, unable to withstand the weight on top of them, the older coffins shattered. When the rectors of the church began to clean and reorganize the crypt, they were amazed at what they found—mummies.
Today, visitors to the crypt of St. Michan’s can get a close look at the mummies. Though there are probably many mummies hidden within undisturbed coffins, four of the mummies lay exposed near the far end of the crypt. These “Big Four,” as the St. Michan’s tour guides refer to them, are the remains of two women and two men. Each mummy is estimated to be over 400 to 500 years old.
Not much is known about the first female mummy, but the second female is named “the nun” due to small clues in her coffin that suggest she was a part of a religious order. The two male mummies are the most interesting of the group: The first male mummy is missing both feet and a hand. His hand appears to have been separated from his body while he was alive. Thus, tour guides refer to him as “the thief” suggesting that his lost hand was a possible punishment during medieval times for stealing.
The last male mummy is the star of the group, and is estimated to be over eight hundred years old. Remarkably, his height is over six and a half feet. In the year 1200, he would have been one of the tallest men in the world. His legs are crossed, an ancient Christian burial practice, suggesting that he too had some significant role in the church. Due to his height, the age of the body, and his crossed legs, experts imply that this man was a knight who fought in the early Christian crusades. Thus, tour guides at St. Michan’s have named him “the crusader.”
In a land known for its luck, St. Michan’s offers visitors an opportunity to increase their fortunes. And to do so requires the courage to near the crusader mummy and shake his hand – in the past, gripping the mummy’s hand was thought to produce good luck. Today, the tradition of the mummy handshake continues, but tourists are permitted to only slightly touch the crusader’s finger for fear of some unfortunate tourist breaking the hand off.
With its dark halls and handshaking mummies, the crypt of St. Michan’s is a creepy site to see while visiting Dublin, Ireland. Should you ever make your way to the land of clovers and leprechauns, remember to make a stop at St. Michan’s—and try your luck by shaking hands with a mummy.