17. The House by the Churchyard
Churchview, number 34 on the Main Street of Chapelizod, is a detached three-story Georgian building that lies sandwiched between two lanes leading to St. Laurence’s Church. The building is commonly known as the House by the Church Yard and has long been associated with the name of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, the Irish writer of supernatural, Gothic and mystery fiction.
The village and its history made a strong impression on Le Fanu’s imagination, and the characters and stories he grew up with re-appear in several of his works. In these, Le Fanu likes to look back at the heyday of the village in the middle of the 18th century, when a bustling social life revolved around the officers of the Royal Irish Horse Artillery. Le Fanu spent his childhood in Chapelizod, while his father worked as chaplain in the Hibernian Military School. The Hibernian Military School was built to educate the children of the 400 soldiers of the Royal Irish Horse Artillery, garrisoned in the area.
Built around 1740, the sadly dilapidated building of Churchview is one of the earliest surviving structures in the village. It is believed by many to be the house which gives its name to Le Fanu’s 1868 novel ‘The House by the Churchyard’, a work in which Le Fanu combined a lively portrayal of life in Chapelizod in the 1760s with a macabre tale of deceit, murder and retribution.
The story opens with the annual festivities held on nearby Palmerstown Green, where we are introduced to some of the residents of Chapelizod. These include General Chattesworth and his eligible daughter Gertrude, the local rector Doctor Walsingham and his ill-fated daughter Lilias, and some of the more colourful officers of the regiment, including Lieutenant Puddock and Gunner ‘Fireworks’ O’Flaherty. Courtships, rivalries and duels - all treated with a strong element of farce - provide much of the plot in the first half of the novel, until the arrival in the village of a mysterious stranger by the name of Mr Mervyn sets in train a sequence of sinister events, culminating in the attempted murder of Doctor Sturk in the Phoenix Park by an unknown assailant. Sturk’s body is carried back to his house (perhaps the very building that stands on Main Street today), where he lies in a coma until the key to the mystery is at last revealed when he is briefly brought to his senses by being trepanned, the desperate operation carried out by a whiskey-soaked Dublin doctor known as ‘Black Dillon’, who arrives by coach at dead of night.
Although less well known than Bram Stoker or Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu has always been regarded as a key figure in the development of Gothic and mystery fiction. His vampire novel ‘Carmilla’ influenced Stoker’s creation of ‘Dracula’, and many writers of ghost stories have paid tribute to his subtle ability to make the flesh creep. The English writer E.F. Benson said of him: “No one else has so sure a touch in mixing the mysterious atmosphere in which horror darkly breeds.”
Le Fanu’s novel ‘The House by the Churchyard’ was also admired by James Joyce, who – like Le Fanu – knew Chapelizod in his youth and who wove elements of Le Fanu’s story into his own ‘Finnegan’s Wake’.
During the second half of the 18th century, the appearance of Dublin city transformed as buildings like the Customs House, Trinity College, and the Four Courts were constructed. Other building works were undertaken to improve the streetscapes of the inner city, and magnificent Georgian mansions were constructed for the city’s elite. However, following the Act of Union in 1801 – through which the Irish parliament in Dublin was removed and united with British parliament in London – there was a marked reduction in the property prices in the city. Many of the old Georgian houses were converted into tenements, each containing multiple large families renting individual rooms in the building. These inner-city tenements became notorious for their squalor, and the neighbourhoods surrounding them gained a reputation as slums.
It was in this context that Churchview was converted into tenement style housing. Little is known of the history of the house during this period of its existence, apart from that a David Cant is recorded as living there in 1914, when the rated value of the premises was £13.
Like many tenement buildings in Dublin during the 20th century, the building accommodated a staggering number of people. The Irwins and their eight children lived on the first floor, the Farrells, with four children, lived on the second floor, and the Doyles with two children lived on the top floor. A bachelor Mr Flaherty had the basement all to himself. There are also reports of a local boxing club situated in the basement at some stage during the buildings life.
The Irwin’s were the biggest and last family to have lived in the house. Frances Martin Irwin herself, the mother of the family, was raised in Chapelizod and was one of the lucky children who attended the Hibernian Military School, where Sheridan Le Fanu’s father was Chaplin years before her time.
Although it was not as squalid as some of the tenements of the inner city, it was certainly overcrowded, and at a young age Angela and Mary Irwin had to move out of their childhood home into Martin’s Row. The rest of the children followed suit – Monica and Tony Irwin moving to the nearby Mulberry Cottages – as did the building’s other tenants, until Frances was the only person left behind. Of Frances’ eight children, half remained close by in Chapelizod, and she lived in Churchview until her death in 1968. She is buried in the Hibernian Military School in the Phoenix Park.
The descendants of the Irwin family still live in both the Mulberry Cottages and in Martin’s row, continuing their link with Chapelizod. In the years following her death the building remained unoccupied, and today the house by the churchyard stands apparently forgotten, in a state of dangerous neglect – waiting for a skilful and sensitive hand to resurrect it from its death-like slumber.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1851) Ghost Stories of Chapelizod. First published in the Dublin University Magazine, January 1851. Republished posthumously in the 1923 collection Madam Crowl's Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery, edited by M. R. James. Available to read online here.
Carmel McAsey (1962) "Chapelizod, Co. Dublin." Dublin Historical Record, Vol. 17, No. 2, 37-53.
Kevin Brennan (1980) "J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Chapelizod and the Dublin Connection." Dublin Historical Record, Vol. 33, No. 4, 122-133.
John Cronin & Associates and Cathal Crimmins Architects (2003) The Built Heritage of Chapelizod: A report to Dublin City Council and The Heritage Council as a part of the ‘Chapelizod Urban Design, Conservation and Land Use Plan 2003’.