Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Surely no political leader of the modern age has faced such a bizarre allegation as that of David Cameron’s PigGate controversy in September 2015 when the former British PM was accused of sticking his John Thomas into a dead pig's mouth in order to earn a place in the Piers Gaveston Society, an exclusive Oxford university dining club famed for its riotous parties. One almost wonders whether he conjured up the whole Brexit vote as a means to distance himself from such porcine associations.

Founded in 1977, the society takes its name from Piers Gaveston, a former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who was allegedly the lover of Edward II of England. Neither Gaveston, nor any members of the club that bears his name, have ever been compelled to indulge in porcine necrophilia.

Nonetheless, the story highlighted the ongoing fascination with secret drinking clubs, a tradition that dates back many long centuries.

Secret clubs came of age in Ireland during the 18th century when the country was awash with all-male societies whose members were typically upper class rakes who partied with gusto, talked politics and literature and occasionally terrorized the island. Here are some of the stand-outs but anyone interested in more should read the excellent ‘Blasphemers and Blackguards-The Irish Hellfire Clubs’ by David Ryan (Irish Academic Press, 2013).



Dublin City.

In 1792, The Astrologer's Magazine & Philosophical Miscellany warned readers of a new scourge in the Irish capital. ‘A club called the CHEROKEES has been instituted in Dublin, by a set of uncivilised barbarians, of family and fortune. They have been lately dispersed, by the activity of the Magistracy, but not before two of the RUFFIANS were sent to Newgate, for attempting to tomahawk a lady of fashion in a sedan chair.’

The Cherokee Club was reputedly formed by ‘the most dashing and care-driving members of Daly’s and the Kildare Street clubs’ in Dublin and owed its name to Joseph Leeson, 2nd Earl of Milltown, who described guests at a party he hosted at Russborough House in County Wicklow as being ‘as clamorous as Cherokees’. Its mostly aristocratic members were free-thinking, beautifully dressed young bucks who relished in womanising, drinking, gambling and, above all, disrupting public entertainments.

A satirical exposé published in the Hibernian Magazine claimed that aspiring members had to satisfy ten conditions before they could join the club. The first was that ‘a candidate should have carried off and debauched a maid, a wife and a widow, or an indefinite number of each.’ They were to be highly skilled fencers and marksmen and to have fought at least three duels while to become club president, it was ‘absolutely requisite’ to have ‘killed at least one man in a duel, or a waiter in a violent passion.’

The exposé also claimed that each Cherokee had to be able to drink six bottles of claret and a bumper of cherry brandy at a single sitting. While the Hibernian article intended to lampoon the club, its purported rules were destined to become part of Cherokee folklore, supported by the sighting of a convoy of thirty cars, loaded with fine wines, leaving Dublin for the country residence of one member. It was elsewhere stated that any Cherokee found sober after dinner was subject to a fine of £30 for a first offence, £50 for a second and expulsion from the Club for a third.

Having drunk themselves into a raucous stupor, the Cherokees then advanced onto the streets of Dublin to cause mayhem. Their assaults began with cat-calls and whistling, which they called their war-hoops and wood-hoops, but became increasingly violent. Their favourite target was the Lying-in or Rotunda Hospital on Rutland Square, the city’s most fashionable entertainment venue. Such was the belligerence of their attacks that the Rotunda was temporarily closed. They soon broadened their quarry to include random molestations on lone men and women so that by the autumn of 1792, no Dublin citizen dared go out after dark unarmed.

Despite widespread condemnation, no Cherokees were brought to trial, largely because of their high family connections. As well as at least six MPs, the club included the future Marquesses of Conyngham and Ormonde and, briefly, the notorious Dublin gambler and libertine Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley, who once won £15,000 by riding from Dublin to Jerusalem and back for a bet.

By the close of 1792, the outcry against the Cherokees in the Dublin press and in judicial quarters reached a crescendo and there was a heavy and successful clampdown. And while there were still no arrests, the Cherokees immoral lifestyle often came at a cost to their personal health and wealth; many were said to be broken men by the age of thirty.


Mountpelier, County Dublin. Eagle Tavern, Cork Hill, Dublin City.

The granddaddy of such mysterious societies was the infamous Hell-Fire Club, founded in 1735 by the Earl of Rosse, a ‘consummate profligate’, well-known Libertine and heavy-drinking millionaire. Like the Cherokees it was effectively a secret society for thrill-seeking sons of landed gentry, merchants and aristocracy with too much time and money on their hands.

Their principal haunts were the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill, directly opposite where Dublin City Hall stands today, and Mountpelier, an abandoned hunting lodge in the Dublin Mountains. Another possible meeting place was Laurence Saul's shop, just off Fishamble Street. Saul's may have been the place where the Hellfire Club's most infamous member, Lord Santry, killed a servant by drenching him in brandy and setting him alight.

While they evidently consumed immense quantities of alcohol, the exact nature of what they got up to remains a source of much speculation. 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 reputedly doused in brandy and set alight. Black cats – and the occasional dwarf - were said to have been sacrificed on the altar while members drank hot scaltheen (a cocktail of whisky and butter) and played cards with the Devil.

There is no smoke without fire and Satanism and an ill-informed black magic certainly played a role in these gatherings. There was also an anti-religious core, as per the club’s oath which called upon members to undermine ‘all that is called good by silly priest-rid fools’. One of Lord Rosse’s sidekicks was Richard 'Burn-Chapel' Whaley (father of Buck), so called for his pastime of setting fire to the thatch on Catholic chapels. However, the Protestant church was also targeted with members disrupting church services and streaking in front of Bishops. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral at the time, declared them ‘monsters’.

It’s most notorious members were Peter Lens, a miniature portrait artist who was charged with publicly invoking the Devil, and the sociopathic Lord Santry who committed at least two unprovoked murders. Although the latter was reprieved from execution, the backlash against the Hell-Fire Club and the death of Lord Rosse in 1741 marked the end of the club and Mountpelier subsequently fell into a state of dereliction.

For more click here.


Trinity College Dublin.

Arguably the nastiest club to emerge in the Georgian Age were the Pinkindindies, founded by Richard Crosbie who would later restore his reputation by becoming the first Irishman to perform a manned ascent in a balloon. The fashionably dressed ‘dandys’, most of whom were Trinity College students, were named for their habit of ‘pinking’ or pricking innocent passers-by with their swords. During the 1770s they went on the rampage though Dublin, vandalizing theatres, toppling lampposts, raiding gambling dens and raping women. Another target was the brothel run by Margaret Leeson, queen of Dublin’s brothel scene. Mrs Leeson, who miscarried on account of the attack, slammed her assailants: ‘however they might be deemed gentlemen at their birth, or connexions, yet, by their actions, deserved no other appellation than that of RUFFIANS.’ The Pinkindindies were disbanded by 1784 and Crosbie spent a brief period in jail but, as with the Cherokees, most of its well-heeled members were never charged.



Kevin Street, Dublin.

The age of Grattan’s Parliament was undoubtedly a golden age for the Irish elite, especially liberal politicians, but you were arguably still a nobody if you were not a member of the Monks of the Screw. This feisty drinking club operated from 1779 to 1789 and owed its name to the screw, or corkscrew, required to open a bottle of wine. Its originators were John Philpot Curran, father to Robert Emmett’s beloved Sarah, and Barry Yelverton, Viscount Avonmore, two of the most popular wits at the Irish Bar. When not drinking, its members – lawyers and politicians – were to the forefront in reforming the anti-Catholic penal laws.

The club met for all-night parties at Curran's house, "The Priory", near Rathfarnham, or else the home of James Dennis, Lord Tracton, on Kevin Street (now the Garda Station). They had their own drinking song, written by Curran, while its uniform comprised of a black poplin gown. Its 56 members included Grattan, Lord Mornington (father of the Duke of Wellington), the judge Jonah Barrington, Henry Flood and Lord Charlemont. In later years, wringing tears from his aged eyes, Curran recalled the club’s hey-day as a time ‘which we can remember with no other regret than that they can return no more … we spent them not in toys, or lust, or wine, but in search of deep philosophy, wit, eloquence and poetry.’

As David Ryan notes, there is a good account of the Monks of the Screw in James Kelly's "Elite political clubs, 1770-1800" in Kelly and Powell (eds.), Clubs and societies in eighteenth-century Ireland (2010), pp. 268-74. Kelly indicates that the Monks of the Screw met on Saturdays "in a large house on Kevin Street, the property of James Dennis, the chief baron of the Court of Exchequer" (p. 271). Interestingly, Dennis's nephew, Meade Swift of Mullingar, County Westmeath, wrote a polemic attacking the Holy Fathers, a blasphemous club, in April 1771 (see Freeman's Journal, 20-23 April 1771).



College Green, Dublin City.

In the 1750s, a Chocolate House on Dame Street became very popular with the well-to-do members of the Irish Houses of Parliament. By the 1760s, they had converted the building into a club named for Denis Daly, an eccentric Galway landowner. He was a close friend of the politician Henry Grattan, whose statue now stands on College Green. Their purpose-built clubhouse stood on College Green between Foster Place and Anglesea Street, replete with marble chimneypieces, inlaid tables and fine silk table cloths that inspired one overseas visitor to describe it as ‘the most superb gambling house in the world’. Daly's Club soon became the most sought after gentleman’s club in Georgian Dublin. In 1794, a writer for The European Magazine and London Review remarked: ‘The god of cards and dice has a temple called Daly’s, dedicated to his honour in Dublin, much more magnificent than any temple to be found in that city dedicated to the God of the Universe’.

Later accounts claimed its members, clad in ‘torn ruffles and disordered wigs’, once dropped a card cheat ‘with a sickening crash upon the paving-stones’ below. However, while some members undoubtedly had a penchant for drinking, dining and prolonged gambling sessions, the activity was rather duller and many of its members were honest and hard-working men. The wildest anecdote about Daly’s transpires to be an evening on which a member called Buck English fell asleep during a dice game, only for his fellow players to turn all the lights out and awaken him by shouting as if they were having a massive row over a dice roll. Startled by the darkness, Buck became so convinced he had been blinded that he began praying fervently. When he realised he had been punked, he flew into a rage and threatened to kill everyone.



In the autumn of 1715, Ireland was on high alert with the outbreak of a Jacobite Rising across the water in Scotland and England. After his defeat at the Boyne in 1690, the Catholic king James II fled to France while his son-in-law William of Orange claimed the thrones which James’s grandfather had inherited from the Tudors nine decades earlier. In 1715 James II’s son, later known as the Old Pretender, launched a bid to regain the lost kingdoms.

Among his core supporters were members of the October Club, a stronghold for backbench Tory MPs who regarded the Old Pretender as the ‘lawful king’. The club took its name from a strong nut-brown ale they drank, and was also a nod to the Tory electoral triumph of October 1710. At its peak it boasted over 160 members, including Sir Harry Bunbury, Commissioner of the Revenue for Ireland, and a cousin of the Bunburys of County Carlow. They sat for noisy dinners ‘at two long tables in a great ground room’ of the Bell Tavern on London’s King Street. As a toast, they would stand and wave their drink over a glass or jug of water on the table – a symbolic nod to ‘the king over the water’, meaning the Old Pretender. Opponents scoffed that the members were only Jacobite while drunk but became swiftly loyal to the Hanovers when soberness returned. Click here for a full list of October Club members.