Digging into history can often leave more questions than answers. Facts get muddled over time unless meticulous records are kept, and let’s face facts, the records are often kept by the “winners”. We view events through the lens of those in power who could color them however they chose, and it takes a great deal of research to discover opposing views. Such is the case with an Irish woman by the name of Dorcas “Darkey” Kelly who has been variously painted as innocent victim, an evil witch, and more recently even, Ireland’s first female serial killer.
The one thing we seem to know for sure is that Darkey Kelly was burned at the stake in 1761.
Without further ado, I present to you three tales of Darkey Kelly, and leave it up to you to decide for yourself what happened to this fascinating woman and why her spirit is said to stand at the stairs of an historic church in Dublin.
#1 Darkey Kelly, Victim of the Hellfire Club
The infamous Hellfire Club was a secret society of noblemen obsessed with the occult who met in locations throughout England and Ireland. It was said that their meetings were experiments in debauchery and rituals with the purpose of gaining greater power and reveling in activities well outside the accepted moral ideas of the time. The famed hunting lodge on Montpelier Hill outside Dublin was said to have been host to the club’s activities for and estimated 30 years and one of its members, Simon Luttrell, First Early of Carhampton and sheriff of Dublin, figures famously into Kelly’s tale.
Darkey Kelly was a madam who owned a brothel called Maiden Tower. When she became pregnant with Luttrell’s child, she approached him demanding support in helping raise the child.
Luttrell, of course, denied that he was the father of the child and in turn accused her of witchcraft. Kelly maintained that he took the child and sacrificed it in a Satanic ritual with the Hellfire Club (no body was ever found to support her claim), but history was not on her side. A woman accused of witchcraft hardly stood a chance, especially when her accuser was a man of power.
Kelly was convicted of practicing witchcraft and was throttled (a partial hanging) and then burned at the stake for her “crimes”.
#2 Darkey Kelly, Practitioner of Dark Magics
This version of the tale involves almost exactly the same players from the first version. However, in this version, there is no mention of Luttrell being a member of the Hellfire Club.
Darkey Kelly knew the sheriff from his visits to her brothel on Fishamble Street in Dublin. It was here, Luttrell reported, that Kelly cast spells upon him to try to extort money from him and force him to fall in love with her. She tormented him with her magic until he brought formal charges against her.
Kelly was tried in brutal fashion and as in the previous story, she was sentenced to death for the crime of witchcraft. She was throttled and burned for her crimes and her brothel was shut down after her death.
Knowing how the ripple effects of these trials often progressed, it is a wonder that all the women who worked for her at the brothel were not also brought up on charges of witchcraft themselves. A brothel could easily be considered a coven in such circumstances in the 18th century mind, but the story does not include those details.
#3 Darkey Kelly, Serial Killer
Of all the stories surrounding Darkey Kelly, this one may be the most fascinating. In this version, there is no talk of witchcraft or the Hellfire Club and its members. Instead, after much research, historians have come to agree that Kelly may actually have been a serial killer, the first of her kind in Ireland.
It seems that Darkey Kelly, madam of the Maiden Tower, was accused of murdering a shoemaker by the name of John Dowling. The crime took place on St. Patrick’s Day in 1760. During their investigation, authorities performed a thorough search of her brothel. Upon entering a vault within the building, they discovered five more bodies. All of the victims were male and it was believed that Kelly had murdered them all and stashed their bodies away to hide her crimes.
The trial took no time at all and Kelly was sentenced to death. Oddly enough, at the time, a man convicted of such a crime would have simply been hanged. Kelly, however, was hanged and burned, which was the punishment not only for witchcraft but also for a murderess which offers an interesting glimpse into the thought process of the times.
It is said that the prostitutes who had worked for Kelly at the time held a raucous wake to mourn her which ultimately turned into a riot in the streets. Thirteen women were arrested and imprisoned for disturbing the peace and damaging property.
Kelly’s Legacy Lives On
Regardless what happened and how Darkey Kelly met her death, she left an undeniable imprint on the culture of Dublin.
A pub on Fishamble Street near the location of Kelly’s brothel proudly bears the name Darkey Kelly’s, and hosts an annual music festival that is quite famous in the area.
Local ghost tours proudly tell Kelly’s tale in various versions, taking visitors to the location of her brothel.
Darkey Kelly is said to be the famed “Green Lady” spirit who haunts the steps leading up to historic St. Audoen’s Church in Dublin. She never ascends the steps, but instead stands at the base of the stairs. Some say she is unable to enter the holy place, while others maintain she is a warning to those who might make similar mistakes to her own in life.
What do you think, readers? Which of these stories seem most likely? Let us know in the comments!