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THE VAULTS OF ST. MICHAN's. It is not generally known that the metropolis of Ireland contains a very singular subterraneous curiosity--a burial-place, which, from the chemical properties of the soil, acts with a certain embalming influence upon the bodies deposited within it. I speak of the Vaults beneath St. Michan's Church-a scene where those who have the firma ness to go down and look death in the face will find an instructive commentary upon the doctrines of moral humiliation that are periodically preached above.
You descend by a few steps into a long and narrow passage that runs across the site of the church; upon each side there are excavated ample recesses, in which the dead are laid. There is nothing offensive in the atmosphere to deter you from entering. The first thing that strikes you is to find that decay has been more busy with the tenement than the tenant. In some instances the coffins have altogether disappeared ; in others, the lids or sides have mouldered away, exposing the remains within, still unsubdued by death from their original form. But the great conqueror of flesh and blood, and of human pride, is not to be baffled with impunity. Even his mercy is dreadful. It is a poor privilege to be permitted to hold together for a century or so, until your coffin tumbles in about your ears, and then to re-appear, half skeleton, half mummy, exposed to the gazes of a generation that can know nothing of your name and character beyond the prosing tradition of some moralizing sexton. Among these remnants of humanity, for instance, there is the body of a pious gentlewoman, who, while she continued above ground, shunned the eyes
of men in the recesses of a convent. But the veil of death has not been respected. She stands the very first on the sexton's list of posthumous rarities, and one of the most valuable appendages of his office. She is his buried treasure. Her sapless cheeks yield him a larger rent than some acres of arable land ; and what is worse, now that she cannot repel the imputation, he calls her to her face “the Old Nun." In point of fact, I understood that her age was one hundred and eleven, not including the forty years that have elapsed since her second burial in St. Michan's.
Death, as has been often observed, is a thorough Radical, and levels all distinctions. It is so in this place. Beside the Nun there sleeps, not a venerable abbess, or timid novice, or meek and holy friar, but an athletic young felon of the 17th century, who had shed a brother's blood, and was sentenced for the offence to the close custody of St. Michan's vaults. This was about one hundred and thirty years ago. The offender belonged to a family of some consideration, which accounts for his being found in such respectable society.
The preservative quality of these vaults is various in its operation upon subjects of different ages and constitutions. With regard to the latter, however, it does not appear that persons who had been temperate livers enjoy any peculiar privileges. The departed toper resists decay as sturdily as the ascetic; supplying Captain Morris with another “ reason fair, to fill his glass again.” But it is ascertained that children are decomposed almost as rapidly here as elsewhere. Of this, a touching illustration occurs in the case of a female who died in child-birth, about a century ago, and was deposited in St. Michan's. Her infant was laid in her arms. The mother is still tolerably perfect; exemplifying, by her attitude, the parental "passion strong in death ;” but the child has long since melted away from her embrace. I inquired her name, and was rather mortified to find that it has not been preserved.
But I was chiefly affected by the relics of two persons, of whom the world has unfortunately heard too much : the ill-fated brothers, John and Henry Sheares. I had been told that they were here, and the moment the light of the taper fell upon the spot they occupy, I quickly recognised them by one or two circumstances that forcibly recalled the close of their career : the headless trunks, and the remains of the coarse, unadorned, penal shells, to which it seemed necessary to public justice that they should be consigned. Henry's head was lying by his brother's side ; John's had not been completely detached by the blow of the executioner : one of the ligaments of the neck still connects it with the body. I knew nothing of these victims of ill-timed enthusiasm except from historical report; but the companion of my visit to their grave had been their contemporary and friend, and he paid their memories the tribute of some tears; which, even at this distance of time, it would not be prudent to shed in a less privileged place. He lingered long beside them, and seemed to find a sad gratification in relating several particulars connected with their fates. Many of the anecdotes that he mentioned have been already published. Two or three that interested me, 1 had not heard before. “ It was not to be expected,” he said, “ that such a man as John Sheares could have escaped the destiny that befel him. His doom was fixed several years before his death. His passion for freedom, as he understood it, was incurable; for it was consecrated by its association with another passion, to which every thing seemed justifiable. You have heard of the once celebrated Mademoiselle Therouane. John Sheares was in Paris at the commencement of the Revolution, and was introduced to her. She was an extraordinary creature ; wild, imperious, and fantastic in her patriotic paroxysms; but in her natural intervals, a beautiful and fascinating woman. He became deeply enamoured of her, and not the less so for the political enthusiasm that would have repelled another. I have heard that he assisted in the uniform of the national guard at the storming of the Bastile, and that he encountered the peril as a means of recommending himself to the object of his admiration. She returned that sentiment, but she would not listen to his suit. When he tendered a proposal of marriage, she
produced a pistol, and threatened to lay him dead if he renewed the subject. This I had from himself. But her rigour did not extinguish his passion. He returned to Ireland full of her image, and, I suspect, not without a hope that the success of the fatal enterprise in which he embarked might procure him, at a future day, a more favourable hearing; but of this and all his other hopes you see" (pointing to his remains) 6i the lamentable issue." I asked whether his mistress had heard his fate, and how she bore it. My friend replied, “When I was at Paris, during the short peace of Amiens, I asked the same question, but I met with no one that had personally known her. She was then living ; in a condition, however, to which death would have been preferable. She was in a miserable state of insanity, and confined in a public institution.” “ John Sheares,” he continued, “ flung himself into the revolutionary cause from principle and temperament; but Henry wanted the energy of a conspirator: of this he was forewarned by an incident that I know
to have occurred. Shortly after he had taken the oath of an United Irishman, (it was towards the close of the year 1797,) he was present at the election for the city of Dublin; a riot took place at the hustings, the military interfered, and the people fled in confusion: a tradesman, who resided in the vicinity, hearing the shouts, hastily moved towards the spot to inquire the cause. The first person he met was Henry Sheares, pallid, trembling, and almost gasping for breath. He asked what had happened : Sheares, with looks and tones importing extraordinary perturbation, implored him, if he valued his life, to turn back. It was with some difficulty that the interrogator could obtain an intelligible account of the cause and extent of the danger. As soon as he had ascertained the fact, he fixed his eye on Sheares and said, “Mr. Sheares, I know more of some matters than you may be aware of ; take a friend's advice, and have no more to do with politics ; you have not nerves, Sir, for the business you have engaged in. But the infatuation of the times, and the influence of his brother's character and example, prevailed. When the catastrophe came, John Sheares felt, when too late, that he should have offered the same advice. This reflection embittered his last moments. It also called forth some generous traits that deserve to be remembered. His appeal to the Court in behalf of his brother, as given in the report of the trial, is a model of natural pathos; but I know of nothing more pathetic in conduct than a previous scene, which Curran once described to me as he had witnessed it. When Curran visited them in prison to receive instructions for their defence, John Sheares rushed forward, and embracing his knees, implored him to intercede for Henry; for himself, he offered to plead guilty; to die at an hour's notice; to reveal all that he knew with the exception of names; to do any thing that might be fairly required of him, provided the government would consent to spare his brother."
The preserving power of the vaults of St. Michan's was long ascribed by popular superstition to the peculiar holiness of the ground, but modern philosophy has unwrought the miracle by explaining, on chemical principles, the cause of the phenomenon : “Water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.” The walls and soil of these vaults abound with carbonate of lime and argillaceous earth ; a compound that absorbs the moisture which is necessary to the putrefactive process. In all weathers the place is perfectly free from damp. The consequence is, that animal matter exposed to such an atmosphere, though it undergoes important chemical changes, and soon ceases to be strictly flesh, yet retains, for a length of time, its external proportions. I had occasion to observe a circumstance that proves the uncommon dryness of the air. One of the recesses, which is fastened up, is the burial-place of a noble family. On looking through the grating of the door, we saw two or three coronets glittering from the remote extremity of the cell, as brightly as if they had been polished up the day before. The attendant assured us that it was more than a year since any one had entered the place. He inserted a taper within the grating to give us a fuller view, when his statement was corroborated by the appearance of an ample canopy of cobweb, extending from wall to wall of this chamber of death, and which it must have cost the artificers many a weary day and night to weave. A curtain of the same sepulchral gauze overhung the spot where the Sheareses rest.
I had seen the Catacombs of Paris, but I was more interested, and made to feel more for others and myself, in the Vaults of St. Michan’s. In the Catacombs the eye or the heart finds nothing individual to rest upon ; your sympathy is dispersed over myriads of anonymous skulls and thigh-bones, and these fantastically arranged into melodramatic combinations, as if the Graces have any business under ground; and after death has picked us to the bone, our skeletons must be broken up and shuffled into attitudes conforming to the immutable principles of Parisian taste. I could never heave a sigh while promenading between those neatly trimmed hedge-rows of human bones; I thought of and pitied the workmen more than the materials. But at St. Michan's, I felt that I was really in a sepulchre and surrounded by the the dead. The very absence of neatness in their distribution, and of respectful observance towards them, was a source of instructive reflection, by forewarning me of my cessation of personal importance when I shall cease to breathe. Every kick the sexton gave a chance skull or two that stopped the way, had its moral: it was as good as the festive usage in old Egypt, of handing round an image of death from guest to guest, to the words of
“ Drink and be inerry, for such you shall be.” In the absence of such a custom now, I know of nothing more calculated to bring down the pride of any one that piques himself too much upon his flesh and blood, than an occasional conversation in a church-yard with a sexton or gravedigger, on the subject of their trade. It is very well as long as a man has a certain allowance of mind and muscles at his disposal, and can strut, and talk, and look big, and hum fragments of bravuras, and be seen now and then in a tandem, and resort to the other methods of commanding some deference to his personal identity; but when once this important personage becomes motionless, cold, and tongue-tied, and, unable to remonstrate, is seized by the undertaker, and, as the Irish phrase is, " is put to bed with a shovel,” farewell human respect !—“out of sight, out of mind :" his epitaph, if he has left assets to buy one, may, for a while, keep up a little bustle about his name, but a short dialogue with a sexton of aftertimes, over the scattered fragments of his existence, will afford a pretty accurate measure of the degree of real insignificance into which he has subsided. This is mortifying; but it is among the sources of our highest interests. Certainly, it is only natural that we should look to some future compensation for our minds, in return for the many insults their old companions are sure to suffer when they are not by to protect them : it were an intolerable prospect otherwise. To-day to be active, happy, and ambitious, conscious of being “made for the contemplation of heaven and all noble objects,” and to-morrow to be Aung as useless lumber into a hole, and in process of time to be buffeted by gravediggers and shovelled up to make way for new comers, without a friendly moralizer to pronounce an “ Alas, poor Yorick !" over our chop-fallen crania-or perhaps (what is still more humiliating in a posthumous point of view) to be purloined by resurrection-men, and hung up in dissecting-rooms as models of osteology for the instruction of surgeons'-mates for his Majesty's navy--the thoughts of all this would gall, as well it might, our vanity to the quick, were it not that Religion, assured of a retribution, can smile at these indignities, and discover, in every rude cuff that may be given to our dishonoured bones, a farther argument for the immortality of the soul.
The Mayor of Miroblais.
The honours of the Chapeau rouge,
Until his face grew yellow as gambouge,
Seem'd to be fattening on his master;
The other only thrived the faster, Enjoying, as he swell'd in figure, Such constant spirits, laugh, and snigger, That it e'en struck his Excellency, Who call'd him up, and ask'd him whence he
Contrived to get so plump and jolly;
Really, my lord,” the steward said,
“ There's nothing marvellous in that; You have a hat for ever in your head;
My head is always in my hat.”
And wore what he had pined to win;
Than 'twas within.
With its new guest agreed so well,
Ate heartily, began to swell,
Fine robes, and wax'd both plump and fresh, From the first moment he forswore
All pomps and appetites of flesh.
His old Château resolved to visit,
Who daily managed to elicit
A roar of laughter every time,
As if they were as new and prime As those that we are now retailing.