Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

Random Quote
Random Date

image title

How the Cumberland Monument in Birr
might have looked if Samuel Chearney
had survived. From William Laffan's
'Miscelanea Structura Curiosa'.





Talk of the town in Birr, County Offaly, this week (November 2009) is the fate of the massive Doric column that stands at the centre of Emmet Square. It is presently covered in scaffolding while urgent work begins on its restoration. Local councillors have mixed opinions on whether the ‘Cumberland Column’, as it is called, should be considered a priority in these recessionary times, not least since Birr County Council are footing €24,000 of the €58,000 restoration fee. (But, of course, it's all to easy to forget that such a restoration at least employs the people who are restoring it). [i]

Ostensibly, this elaborate column – the oldest in Ireland - celebrates the Duke of Cumberland, the infamous ‘Butcher of Culloden’, who crushed Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion in 1746.

However, new architectural drawings that have lately come to light suggest that this elaborate column was in fact just the first phase of a bold and ambitious plan, inspired by the Hell-Fire Club and the Freemasons, to convert the Midlands town into an extraordinary Gothic playground.

The centrepiece of this plan was the 55-foot high Cumberland Column, based on that of Marcus Aurelius in Rome and crowned by a 7.5-foot high white marble statue of ‘The Butcher’, clad in the robes of a Roman senator. [ii]

image title

The Duke of Cumberland
by Joshua Reynolds.

A year before the column’s completion, Cumberland, George II’s favourite son, had led the English army north into Scotland to halt and destroy the Jacobites. London had been in a panic about the Jacobites ever since Prince Charles’ Franco-Scottish army – including 475 men from the legendary Irish Brigade - reached as far south Derby.[iii] The Jacobites goal was to seize the throne from George II and install the Catholic Prince Charles as King of Britain and Ireland.


Cumberland’s 9,000 strong army - which included at least one regiment of Irishmen - ulitmately met the Jacobites at the battle of Culloden, near Inverness, and annihilated them.[iv] A thousand Scotsmen were killed in the battle. One hundred and twenty prisoners were executed on the spot immediately afterwards. Over a thousand were banished or transported to the colonies. A further 700 remain unaccounted for.

In stark contrast to the ruthless actions taken to the Highland clansmen, soldiers from the French army and the Irish Brigade were permitted to formally surrender, were treated well and eventually returned to France. Cumberland considered them regular soldiers of a foreign ruler, as opposed to traitors, and accordingly they were subject to the normal practices of warfare

In the weeks that followed, Cumberland’s army ran riot through the Highlands, killing any suspect rebels and destroying all dissident settlements. This systematic ‘scorched earth’ policy caused a dreadful and deadly famine which enveloped Scotland that winter. The American revolutionary Thomas Paine described the campaign as ‘one of the most shocking instances of cruelty ever practiced’.[v]

image title

The proposed amphitheatre for Birr.

However, while Bonnie Prince Charlie fled back to France and ignominy, the Butcher of Culloden was lionized as a British hero, the saviour of the Protestant faith. His actions may have been extreme but, rather like Cromwell at Drogheda a hundred years earlier, or indeed Hiroshima 200 years later, he certainly brought an abrupt end to enemy operations.

It was arguably the House of Hanover’s finest hour. The young Royal basked in the glory. The Provost and Senior Fellows of Trinity College Dublin elected him their Chancellor.[vi] The University of Glasgow gave him an honorary degree. Parliament awarded him an annual income of £25,000. Coins were minted and plates, bowls, mugs and punchbowls produced in his honour, with mottoes such as ‘Duke William For Ever’. He was toasted in taverns across the land. Handel wrote an oratorio in his honour. His name graced streets and squares in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and, indeed, Birr. [vii]

In 1747, Sir Laurence Parsons of Birr Castle commissioned a statue of the Butcher and erected it on top of the handsome Doric column that stood at the heart of his town.[viii] The newly formed Birr Freemason’s Lodge paraded in the towns’ equally new Palladian ‘Cumberland Square’ to mark the occasion.[ix] The Butcher himself was a prominent member of the Freemasons, having been initiated while serving in Belgium in 1743. His elder brother, Frederick, Prince of Wales, heir apparent to the Crown, was the first English Prince to be initiated a Freemason.

The Birr Freemasons subsequently enjoyed ‘a most liberal entertainment’ at Birr Castle where ‘the same mirth was continued and toasts repeated.’

image title

Chearnley's Fountain for Birr.

However, even as those toasts resounded around his castle, Sir Laurence must have wondered whether his architectural dream was still possible. Sir Laurence’s vision was recently revealed by the discovery of an album found at Birr Castle entitled Miscelanea Structura Curiosa. It contains a series of architectural drawings attributed to Sir Laurence and his cousin, the architect Samuel Chearnley. These show that the Cumberland Column was merely the first part of an infinitely more complex project, in which the two collaborators hoped to convert Birr into what architectural historian William Laffan likens to a ride on ‘a fairpark ghost train’, replete with fantastical fountains, grotesque grottos and labyrinthine corridors modelled on Hell itself. The column was just the start – and clearly the soberest aspect – of the project.[x]

Laffan believes Parsons and Chearnley’s plans were strongly influenced by the occult ethos of the Hell-Fire Club.[xi] This bizarre secret society was founded in Dublin in 1735 by Sir Laurence’s cousin, the Earl of Rosse, first Grand Master of the Irish Freemasons.

Lord Rosse was undoubtedly one of the more colourful characters of Georgian Ireland. Little is known of his childhood save that he was born in 1696 and succeeded his father as 2nd Viscount Rosse six years later.[xii] He inherited his good looks from his mother, Elizabeth de Hamilton, the eldest of three beautiful French sisters, known as ‘The Three Viscountesses’. At the age of 17, he went to Oxford where he earned a reputation as an outstanding wit and an impressive drinker.[xiii] Five years later, George I elevated him in the peerage as 1st Earl of Rosse.[xiv] He married two heiresses in succession, each of whom bore him a son.[xv]

In June 1725, this ‘consummate profligate’ and well-known Libertine was elected first Grandmaster of the Grand Lodge of Ireland. His election continues to baffle Freemasons to this day because the ‘humour and frolics’ for which he was famed are not ideals that Freemasons tend to applaud.[xvi] Even Dr Crawley, the great Masonic historian, conceded that ‘His Lordship’s idea of morals were inverted, and his skill shone most in the management of the small-sword and the dice-box.’ But Lord Rosse was clearly an adept Grand Master because he was re-elected to the office again in 1730.[xvii]

However, the following year, Rosse inherited a million pounds from his grandmother, Fanny Talbot, and stepped down as Grand Master.[xviii]

He duly went on an extended tour of Europe and Egypt, during which time he established himself as a 'sorcerer and dabbler in black magic’. He wrote a book called ‘Dionysus Rising’, which purported to be based on an ancient scroll looted from the Great Library in Alexandria shortly before it burned to the ground. He duly founded a short-lived society called the Sacred Sect of Dionysus, celebrating the joys of Bacchus and Venus, vis-à-vis alcohol and sex.[xix]

In 1735, the Earl remerged on the Irish social scene with gusto, founding the notorious Hell-Fire Club.[xx] The exact nature of what this secret society got up to remains a source of much gossip down to the present day.[xxi] The rumours alone would be enough to make the producers of ‘Twlight’ shiver. Lord Rosse and his cronies are said to have hosted black masses, mock crucifixions and wild homosexual orgies, co-starring women dressed as nuns. Servants were apparently doused in brandy and set alight. Black cats – and the occasional dwarf - were sacrificed on the altar. They drank hot scaltheen (a cocktail of whisky and butter) and played cards with the Devil.

image title

Miscelanea Structura Curiosa
by Samuel Chearnley.
(Edited: William Laffan)

A truly magnificent tome
available from Birr Castle.

There is no smoke without fire and undoubtedly Satanism and an ill-informed black magic played a role in these gatherings. You’d expect as much from a club called Hell-Fire. There was also an anti-Catholic core, as per the club’s oath which ran: ‘Pluto; I am thine … I, by thy efficacious mighty self, do swear all that is called good by silly priest-rid fools entirely to abandon’. One of Lord Rosse’s sidekicks was Richard 'Burn-Chapel' Whaley, so called after his hobby of setting fire to the thatch on Catholic chapels.

But in truth, the antics of the Hell-Fire Club appear to have been rather less stimulating than the rumours. It was effectively a rather base club, comprised of young, thrill-seeking Protestant rakes who drank, gamed and wenched, albeit with a certain 18th century panache. They were the sons of landed gentry, merchants and minor aristocracy, with buckets of time on their hands and enough money to enjoy it all. They may have toasted the Devil and chortled at bad jokes about superstitious priests but, Whaley aside, they were ultimately a harmless crew.

The Hell-Fire Clubs’ principal haunts were the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill, near Dublin Castle, and Daly’s Club on College Green. The ‘Bucks’, as they were known, sometimes met in an abandoned hunting lodge on the gorse and heather hued slopes of the Dublin Mountains. Known as Mount Pellier, this lodge was built in 1725 by Speaker William Connolly, apparently incorporating stones from a megalithic cairn that once surmounted the hill.[xxii] It is perhaps no small coincidence that Connolly purchased the property from Philip, Duke of Wharton, who, echoing Lord Rosse, was Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England and founder of the Hell-Fire Club in London.

Be it Rosse or Wharton, one can see why contemporary Freemasons baulk at the instrumental role their former Grand Master’s seem to have played in the creation of these bizarre Satanic clubs. The practices and philosophies of the Hell-Fire Clubs were the exact opposite to those of Freemasonry. The latter teaches moderation combined with obedience to both the moral and civic law. The Hell-Fire Club promotes excess, drunkenness, debauchery and a complete disregard for social convention.[xxiii]

Whether the Butcher himself ever participated in Hell-Fire antics is unknown. [xxiiia]He was certainly known for his ‘dull gallantries’ with the harlots who frequented 'the bosquets of Marylebone Gardens’ in London. But he probably wasn’t fit enough for much else. A series of military defeats after Culloden left him in disgrace and, in 1765, the ‘grossly corpulent’ Butcher died of a heart attack at the age of 44.

Lord Rosse never lost his sense of humour. In 1741, as he lay dying at his house on Molesworth Street, he received a letter from Dean Madden, the Vicar of St. Anne's, lambasting him as a blasphemer, scoundrel, gamester and such like, and imploring him to repent of his sins without delay. Noting that the Dean has simply addressed the letter to ‘My Lord’, Rosse put the letter into a fresh envelope and instructed a footman to deliver it to Lord Kildare who lived at nearby Leinster House. The ruse worked a treat and Lord Kildare, one of Dean Madden’s most pious and generous parishioners, was mortified to think the rebuke-filled letter was directed at him. Lord Rosse died before anybody worked it out. He was probably laughing as he went.

The Hell-Fire Club was disbanded following his death. Six years later, his cousin Sir Laurence recalled the Earl’s flamboyant spirit when he laid the foundation stone for the Cumberland Column. However, Sir Laurence’s grand plans to convert Birr into a Hell-Fire metropolis fell apart with the tragic and untimely death, from illness, of his young colleague Samuel Chearnley that same year.

All that now remains of these strange times is the Cumberland Column. The statue of the Butcher himself was removed in 1915. Local legend holds that it was toppled from its pedestal by vengeful Scottish soldiers stationed in Birr’s Crinkill Barracks. In truth, it was actually taken down by a steeplejack firm on the orders of the Urban District Council after a crack appeared, causing the statue to tilt dangerously over the square below.

It’s extremely unlikely that the Butcher’s statue, on display in Birr Castle, will ever grace the column again. The question is, who should they put in his place?


[i] Its’ construction coincides with the most significant period of folly building in Irish history, which saw the erection of the Boyne Obelisk (1736), Connolly’s Folly, (1740-41), the Stillorgan Obelisk (circa 1740) and the Wonderful Barn (1743).

How proudly he talks, Of zigzacks and walks; And all the day raves Of cradles and caves; And boasts of his feats His grottoes and seats’. Dean Swift, My Lady’s Lamentation and Complaint against the Dean.

[ii] The statue itself was personally paid for by Parsons It was executed by Cheere of London, the same artist who executed the monument in memory of the Earl of Cork, on the north side of the altar in Christ's Church, Dublin.Things did not go wholly to plan. In a letter the Cheeres, expressed surprise when a crack appeared in the Duke’s leg, but insisted that it could be mended by a plumber and to pacify Sir Laurence, they included in the price a plaster bust of Cumberland, polished to imitate marble which, they noted, was ‘exceeding like and very handsome to stand in a room upon a table or chimney piece’.

[iii] The men from the Irish Brigade were under the command of Colonel John O'Sullivan and Sir Thomas Sheridan.

[iv] As well as a thousand dead, nearly 3,500 Jacobites were taken prisoner, of whom 120 were executed, 88 died in prison, 936 were transported to the colonies and 222 more were simply ‘banished’. Many of the rest were eventually released, though the fate of nearly 700 remains unknown.

[v] Smollet wrote how ‘the men were either shot upon the mountain, like wild beasts, or put to death in cold blood, without form of trial; the women, after having seen their husbands and fathers murdered, were subject to brutal violation and then turned out naked, with their children, to starve on the barren heaths’. One family were said to have been burned alive in a barn. John Prebble's Culloden, Penguin, 1961.

[vi] It was during his tenure that the Provost’s House was built in 1759.

[vii] Some porcelain mugs with his head were even manufactured in China. At a special thanksgiving service in St Paul’s Cathedral, Handel premiered ‘The Conquering Hero’, written in the Duke’s honour. Britain’s provincial towns lauded him for thwarting the Jacobites and thus defeating the French. He was the champion of Britain’s imperial interest. However, like a football manager, a General is only as good as his last victory. Cumberland swiftly fell from grace when he suffered back-to-back defeats against the French. He became grossly obese and retired from public life. Hedied, aged 44, from a heart attack in 1765.

[viii] Born in 1707, Sir Laurence married a wealthy heiress at the age of 23 and succeeded to Birr Castle just months before Lord Rosse’s death. He was a grandson and heir of Sir William Parsons, 2nd Bart, and son of William Parsons and Martha Pigott, daughter of Thoma Pigott of Chetwynd, Co Cork. His father died sometime before 1740. On 5 September 1730, he married, firstly, Mary Sprigge, daughter and heiress of the wealthy William Sprigge of Clognove, Co Offaly (and granddaughter of Edward Denny of Tralee). Their only son William (later the 4th Bart) was born on 6 May 1731, played a prominent role in the Volunteers and ultimately became head of the family.
On 16 February 1742, Sir Laurence married, secondly, Anne Harman, daughter of Wentworth Harman and Frances Sheppard, with whom he had two sons, Captain Wentworth Parsons (b. Oct 1745) and Laurence Parsons-Harman, 1st Earl of Rosse of the next creation (1749-1807). Sir Laurence died in 1756. In the 1760s, Lady Anne Parsons (nee Harman) was locked into a legal battle with Thomas Bunbury of Kill.

[ix] The Birr Freemasons' Lodge was also established in the year 1747. The warrant is from Sir Marmaduke Wyville, Baronet, Grand Master, and John Putland, Deputy Grand Master, to William Macoun, Thomas Nethercott, and James Armstrong, the first Master and Wardens. Sir Marmaduke Wyvill (d.1754) was Postmaster General for Ireland, and made an interesting marriage to Cary (d.1734), daughter of Edward Coke of Norfolk and Derbyshire, whose family were instrumental in importing the Godolphin Arabian from France. The warrant is No. 163, and bears date the 15th July A.D. 1747, and year of Masonry, 5747. There was another warrant issued in 1847, exactly one hundred years after for holding a Royal Lodge in Birr.
Faulkner’s Journal records the day they met in Birr, ‘having dined in the town [the gentlemen] went to the place where the pillar is to be erected, being preceded by Sir Laurence Parsons’ Independent company [of militia], under arms, in a uniform dress….A tent was prepared for their reception, which was abundantly furnished with the materials for a cheerful entertainment, under a discharge of their fire arms (which really was as regular as among the standing forces) were drank…the Royal Family, and our brave commander at Culloden; minds sensible of the dangers we lately escaped, and the blessings we at present enjoy… The Colonel having taken care to make his men and the spectators happy, by a most liberal entertainment, brought all the gentlemen to his house, where the same mirth was continued and toasts repeated.’

[x] Since Egyptian times, columns have been regarded as pillars of life and are closely associated with ‘sexual rites, hermetic wisdom and secret societies’.

[xi] The Cumberland Column has specific Masonic connotations, not least with the establishment of the first lodge in Birr in 1747. The connections between architecture and Masonic ritual were at peak levels at this time.

[xii] Richard Parsons, 1st Viscount Rosse, was a grandson of William Parsons, the Surveyor. He was elevated to the peerage in 1681. In 1685, he married – as his third wife - Elizabeth de Hamilton, the eldest of three beautiful sisters and mother of the Earl of Rosse. Her sisters were Frances, wife to Henry, 8th Viscount Dillon, and Mary, wife to Nicholas, 3rd Viscount Barnewall of Kingsland. Their father was Sir George, Comte de Hamilton, a Maréchal-du-Camp of France, and their uncle was Anthony Hamilton, a Lieut.-General in the service of France, and author of "Mémoires du Comte de Grammont", which was about the husband of Anthony’s sister, Elizabeth "la belle Hamilton," one of the most brilliant ornaments of the court of Charles II. Viscount Rosse died in January 1702 and was succeeded as 2nd Viscount Rosse by his 6-year-old son, Richard (1697-1741).

[xiii] Lord Rosse entered Oxford on 15th May, 1713, aged 17.

[xiv] On 16th June 1718, he was created Earl of Rosse.

[xv] Lord Rosse married firstly, in 1714, Mary (d. in 1718) eldest dau. of Lord William Paulet (Poweltt), sometime Father of the House of Commons, by his marriage to Louisa de Caumont. They had one son, Richard (d.1764), 2nd and last Earl of Rosse of this creation, and daughter, Elizabeth, who died unmarried. Mary died on 15 October 1718 and, the following year, Lord Rosse married secondly, Frances, dau. of Thomas Claxton of Dublin, and niece of Captain Edward Lovet Pearce, the architect of the Irish House of Commons in Dublin.

[xvi] Rosse was well-known as a man of ‘humour and frolic’, neither of which one would generally associate with Freemasonry. Quote from Gilbert, Somerville-Large, ‘Irish Eccentrics’. It seems plausible that he was solely appointed Grandmaster because of his aristocratic credentials. His character was certainly not one the Freemasons would have generally approved of.

[xvii] It is notable that in 1868, over 100 years after his death, the present day Freemason's Hall was built on Molesworth Street where Lord Rosse had his Dublin townhouse.

[xviii] Fanny Talbot (nee Jennings) was a sister to Queen Anne’s favourite, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. Sir Bernard Burke described her in his ‘Reminiscences’ as ‘Fairest among the fair … even in her extreme youth tongues ran riot in her praise, and, long ere she had reached womanhood, she was the pride of all circles and the idol of her own.’ Her first husband, and grandfather to Lord Rosse, was Sir George, Comte de Hamilton, a Maréchal-du-Camp of France. After Sir George’s death, she married Richard Talbot, Duke of Tyrconnell, favourite of James I and Lord Deputy of Ireland 1686 to 1692. After James II was defeated at the Boyne, Fanny came into such dire financial straits that she eked out a living in London as a flower girl. However she bounced back so that by the time she died at her house, near the Phoenix Park, Dublin, on 6th March, 1730-31, aged 82, ‘Tis said her Grace left near a Million of Money, which mostly now is possess'd by the Right Hon. the Lord Rosse, her Grace’s Grandson, to the general joy of the Citizens, that Nobleman having been formerly one of their greatest benefactors.’ (Dublin Weekly Journal, 13th March, 1730-31.)

[xix] An offshoot of freemasonry called the Revived Order of Dionysus is in existence in New Orleans, USA, and split due to a belief that Freemasonry is descendant from a pre-Christian cult called Dionysiac Architects. They were inspired by Richard Parsons book, only two copies of which exist to this day.

[xx] His cohorts were Jack St Ledger, James Worsdale and Richard 'Burn-Chapel' Whaley, so called after his hobby of setting fire to the thatch on Catholic chapels.
Colonel Jack St Leger, second son of Viscount Doneraile, was killed in a duel in 1741, the year Lord Rosse died. He was said to have been so obsessed with the Duchess of Rutland that he would drink the water in which she had washed her hands.
The portrait artist, playwright and fraudster James Worsdale claimed to be an illegitimate son of the portrait artist Sir Godfrey Kneller.
Another founder was Charles Talbot Blayney, 8th Lord Blayney (1714-1761), who succeeded his father as Baron in March 1733 and became MP for Monaghan in 1735. He later became a clergyman, rising through the hierarchy to become Dean of Killaloe in 1750.

[xxi] For many people today, the term Hell-Fire Club conjures images of that which Sir Francis Dashwood founded at West Wycombe in England. That is incorrect. Dashwood’s club was called ‘The Order' (or 'Brotherhood') 'of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe, also known as the Permissive Society at Medmenham. Benjamin Franklin was its most famous member and Horace Walpole a frequent visitor. The Medmenhamites had a profound influence over the ill-fated Bute Ministry of 1762-63, in which Dashwood was Chancellor of the Exchequer. The journalist John Wilkes, also a Medmenhamite, was so upset that Bute did not give him a Ministry that he published a newspaper called The North Briton, in which both Bute and the Dowager Princess of Wales were so savagely satirised that the Bute ministry collapsed.

[xxii] The house consisted of two large rooms and a hall on the upper floor with a kitchen and servant's hall on the lower floor. In 1849, protestors objecting to the impending visit of Queen Victoria to Ireland rolled burning tar barrels into the building and burned it down. Its’ ruins are still visible today at the top of Stocking Lane on lands owned by Coilte.

[xxiii] And yet just as Parsons was the reputed founder of the Hell Fire Club in Dublin so too the London Hell Fire Club was founded by a former Grand Master of England, namely Philip, Duke of Wharton, also a chronic alcoholic, as well as a Jacobite sympathizer. The Duke’s mother was one of the Loftus family of Rathfarnham.

[xxiiia] Some of his colleagues were certainly up to high jinks. Sir Francis Dashwood was Postmaster-General in Dublin at the same time the unmarried Cumberland was Chancellor of Trinity College. Also in Dublin then was Thomas Potter, Paymaster-General and Treasurer for Ireland, was a prominent Hell-Fire member with a penchant for seducing women in graveyards.


With thanks to William Laffan, Peter Somerville-Large, James Howley, James Peil, Alison Rosse, Regina Lavelle and the Offaly Historical & Archaeological Society.


Chearnley, Samuel, Miscelanea Structura Curiosa (Churchill House Press). A truly magnificent tome
available from Birr Castle.

Lord, Evelyn, The Hellfire Clubs Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies. A fascinating insight into the world of the Hellfire Clubs published by Yale Univeristy Press.