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Looking Back

In February 1930 we ran a piece about the ancient mummies to be found in a church in Dublin. Historically fascinating, the naturally mummified bodies were still in good condition at the time. 

Ireland’s Mummy Church

Many are the noteworthy churches which the Christian Faith has brought into existence during the centuries of its fight for humanity. Spain and Ireland own a number of them – churches that are remarkable in themselves. There is one in Dublin which has not its equal in the Old World or the New.

St Michan’s, which was founded by the Danes and is to-day a Protestant church, is a very interesting edifice. Yet that which draws to it so many visitors from overseas is the singular nature of the preservation of its interior and of the numerous medieval dead in its vaults. Crusaders and priests, interred hundreds of years ago, remain as if buried only this morning. Nothing tarnishes, nothing decays, in St Michan’s. Neither moth nor rust corrupts here. All the metal work, vessels, railings, and tablets, retain their pristine brightness, while the woodwork is as sound and strong as when put in by the Christian Danes ten centuries ago. St Michan’s is a marvel church. It makes Americans realise that they are indeed a young nation.

You are taken down a long, unlit, stone passage under the church, with vaults opening into it on both sides. There are no openings, no air shafts, leading to the outside – no windows, no ventilation. The atmosphere, however is fresh and pleasant, and has a refreshing tang in it. Nowhere is there any evidence of decay or mortality; all is fresh and wholesome. You see by lantern light rows of coffins behind the gratings of the vaults, and many of them, as you discern by their make, were placed here long before Columbus set sail for the Unknown West. Yet no rust corrodes their metal work, and the coverings look as if placed there just this forenoon. Nothing save a very thin and very, very dry dust goes to suggest that they are older than they seem.

The most wonderful result of this time-defying condition of St Michan’s is to be marked in the last vault. Here lie three sarcophagi, the lids of which have been lifted off. Each of them holds a body, which in a singularly fine state of preservation. These remains, of two men and a lovely woman, are intact; and time, under the conditions within this famous old church, has done no more than turn the whiteness of their bodies to a light brown hue and their hands in appearance to polished leather. There are now no recors to prove who they were. Other indications – the limbs of the knights are crossed, thus showing they had been Crusaders – go to build up the belief that they were of the forces of the second last crusade; their supple hands wielded the lance and the battle axe to free the Holy Land from the Saracens more than three hundred years before Europeans took possession of America or sailed over the waters of Australasia.

The explanation is that St Michan’s in built over a dried up bog which had engulfed part of a dense forest of oaks, and the fumes rising from the wood have had a powerful preservative effect. It does all that the alchemy of the ancient Egyptians effected for their embalmed dead.

St Michan’s is like no other church in the world.

Unfortunately the years since have not been terribly kind. The description in the article doesn’t bear much relation to recent photographs of the mummies and a break in and theft of some body parts last year caused more damage though the heads and other bones that were stolen have since been returned. The crypt is still open to the public though there are more safeguards now in place.

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