Situated on the edge of the busiest part of Cork city, across the river Lee from Cork Opera House, St Mary’s priory and church form a pair of instantly recognisable buildings.
This central location permits the Dominican friars to be preachers of the Gospel in the city. The brethren assigned here have varied ministries which include hospital chaplaincy, the preaching of retreats and missions, writing of books, preaching through the medium of the internet as well as a busy sacramental schedule.
The community also has a Pastoral Centre where courses in spirituality are undertaken. Many related groups in the city also use its facilities. Spiritual direction and counselling services are also provided here.
History of St Mary’s Priory, Pope’s Quay, Cork.
The Dominicans were established in Cork in 1229, thanks to a nobleman of Welsh origin, Philip Barry. The old city of Cork, described as “egg-shaped”, lay on land encircled by the two arms of the river Lee. It was a small but prosperous town, enclosed by strong walls and protected by towers and fortifications, with drawbridges at the North and South Gates. It enjoyed prestige both in Ireland and on the continent of Europe because of its fine harbour and the wealth and culture of its merchants. Outside the city wall, in the south-west suburb, was a small green island, and it was there that the Dominicans built their first priory and church, which they dedicated to the Mother of God. From its insular position it came to be known as Sancta Maria de Insula, St Mary’s of the Isle. A little bridge with a gate-house or tower secured an approach. Across this bridge in the mornings flocked scores of youths to school, gratuitously provided by the friars for the poor of Cork.
In the early years of the foundation not only the priory but the entire island possessed the privilege of sanctuary. Later, this privilege applied only to a portion of the priory. Some secret apartments had communication with various parts of the island itself as well as with the neighbouring house of Gill Eda, by a subterranean passage. Gerald Fitzgerald, the young Earl of Kildare, took sanctuary here in the 16th century when he returned from Italy. It is believed now that his elder brother, Silken Thomas, said to have died in prison, ended his days in Cork as a Dominican lay-brother. His kinsman, the cultured soldier Sir John of Desmond, father of James the fifteenth Earl of Desmond, likewise closed his career at St Mary’s of the Isle.
The church was described in its time as “magnificent”. It was a lofty structure with a groined roof. Behind the high altar was a window that rose as high as the vaulting and was nearly the entire width of the nave, representing the Agony in the Garden. The church contained a much-venerated statue of St Dominic. Many Cork people bore the name Dominic at that time. In 1578 during the dark night of religious persecution this statue was dragged from the church and burnt to ashes, to the immense grief, we are told, of the people of Cork.
For the first 300 years the Dominicans did their work unmolested. The friars in those days, when there were no inns, looked on the entertainment of travellers as a religious duty, setting special rooms apart for them. Edmond Mortimer, Earl of March and Ulster, father of the heir presumptive to the English throne, coming to Cork in 1381 stayed at St Mary’s of the Isle; and James II, the last Catholic King of England, when he landed at Kinsale and travelled to Cork, lodged with the Dominicans. The Cork priory produced many notable Dominicans, some of whom served as bishops at home and on the continent.
The next 300 years, however, were a different matter. As if he had a premonition of what was to follow a few years later, pope Paul III in 1536 made Ireland, hitherto under the jurisdiction of the Provincial of England, a separate Province of the Order. Thus he was instrumental in saving the Irish Dominicans from utter extinction, the fate which befell the English branch of the Order at the dissolution of Religious Houses in 1543, when Henry VIII confiscated the monasteries with all their possessions in Ireland, England and Scotland. The entire holding of the Dominicans in Cork, priory, church and lands, was sold over their heads to a William Boureman, who held the property for the Crown at a nominal rent of six and ninepence per annum. Boureman later parted with his interest and a grant was made of it to a man name Crosse, from whom the district came to be called Crosse’s Green. Nevertheless, with some interruptions, the friars continued to live there for over a century after the confiscation. Records tell us that in 1622 there were eight friars living in community there. In 1629 there were four priests, four clerics and some novices. A Chapter of the Province was held there in 1644. But soon all would change. The temporary peace which followed the rising of the Catholics in 1641 soon gave place to the fierce Cromwellian persecution.
Cork’s sympathy was with the Stuart party. The citizens gave a warm welcome to Sir William St Leger and his troops when, proclaiming themselves Royalists, they demanded an entrance to the city. St Leger, however, soon revealed his true intent. “He permitted his soldiers to rush into the Chapel of the Dominicans, which in a moment they despoiled: they left almost lifeless the priory who was offering up the Holy Sacrifice, and all the rest of the clergy they led off to various prisons.” The following is from the archives of the Irish College in Rome: “A proclamation was issued by the President of the Council of War, commanding all Catholics to abjure their religion or to depart from the city without delay. Should they consent to embrace the religion of the parliament they were allowed to remain and keep their goods and property. Should they, however, adhere to Popery, all, without exception, were to depart immediately from the city. Three cannon-shots were to be fired as signals at stated intervals before nightfall, and any Catholic found I the city after the third signal was to be massacred without mercy…. There was not even one found in the city who would accept the conditions offered, or try to keep his property and goods with the loss of his faith. Before the third signal all went forth from the city walls… and it was a sight truly worthy of heaven to see so many thousands thus abandoning their homes… wandering through the fields, or overcome with fatigue lying on the ground, in ditches, or on the highways… wandering to and fro, not knowing where to find a place of refuge….” So too the Dominicans. Fr Thomas Fitzgerald dressed as a labourer and served the Catholics of Cork during the entire period of Cromwell’s usurpation. Fr James Barrett was sheltered from the priest hunters under the roof of an old Protestant friend; disguised as a farm labourer he worked on the land during the day, and at night, under cover of darkness, sought out Catholics.
With the restoration of Charles II in 1660 the Cromwellian persecution came to an end, and there began a period, lasting over twenty years, of comparative peace. The Dominicans regained temporary possession of St Mary's of the Isle and reopened the church for public worship.
At the accession of William of Orange in 1690, when new persecution laws were enacted against bishops and friars all over the country, the Dominicans were driven once again from their ancient priory, never to regain possession of it. The last prior was Fr Peter O’Garavain. A monstrance from there has been saved and is now kept in the present St Mary’s. Seeing it on sale in an antique-shop in Paris, a priest bought it for its face value. Later when he examined its inscriptions and realised its historic worth he wrote to the Dominicans in Cork offering it to them for the sum he had paid for it, an offer they accepted gladly.
After the expulsion of the friars St Mary's of the Isle was given to the Mayor of Cork for a residence. It was called in later times the Great House of St Dominic’s, and became the town house of the Earl of Inchiquin. The site was used in the 19thcentury for a distillery known as ‘St Dominic’s distillery’. Today part of the site is occupied by the Sisters of Mercy and bears again the name ‘St Mary's of the Isle’.
In consequence of an act of parliament (1698) ordering all the regular clergy to leave the country and forbidding them to return under pain of death, large numbers of religious of various Orders had to leave the country. There are accounts of them wandering through the cities and towns of Europe in want of the very necessaries of life. The Nuncio in Paris declared, in a letter to the Cardinal Secretary of State, that numbers of them came to him for help, perishing from hunger and half naked. But many remained in Ireland, defying the edict of expulsion. Fr John Morrogh, a former prior of St Mary's of the Isle, unable to escape from the city on account of illness, was taken prisoner and thrown into irons in Cork jail, where after four years he died in 1702. The plight of these friars during the first years of the 18th century was pitiable in the extreme. Entirely dependent on the alms of a poverty-stricken and downtrodden people they were often without sufficient food and clothing. In 1704 the Master of the Order appointed Fr Ambrose O’Connor as Provincial of the Irish Province. He came from Spain to visit the friars and managed somehow to escape the spies who tracked him everywhere. In a report to pope Clement IX he stated that he found 90 Dominicans working in Ireland, living in concealed places, with five in prison.
About 1721 the friars began to live again in community, in a narrow and obscure lane in the northern district of the city, off Shandon Street, which ever since has been called “Friary Lane.” They built a chapel in 1729, which was known as “Sand Quay Chapel.” Nano Nagle, foundress of the Presentation Sisters, was a constant worshipper there. There is a record in 1730 of members received into the Third Order of St Dominic (now known as Dominican Laity), as well as enrolment in various Confraternities. This and other evidence of Catholic growth was alarming to the authorities, and it was reported to the Lord’s Committee that “the number of Dominican friars [in Friary Lane] is confined to eight, whose business, I hear, it is to instruct the youth in the principles of the Popish religion and to lecture in philosophy those that are capable and disposed that way.” Many, if not all, of the friars there had held professorial chairs in colleges in Seville, Rome, Louvain and Lisbon. Some also served in neighbouring parishes.
In 1784, shortly after the first relaxation of the Penal Laws, the Dominicans built a new priory and church. The site chosen was that on which the historic Shandon Castle had stood and where the butter-crane was subsequently erected. The Dominic Street Friary, as it came to be called, was their centre of activity for the next fifty-five years, until they moved to Pope’s Quay. But with the Penal Laws still on the Statute Book, and likely at any time to be rigorously re-enforced, there was still a sense of insecurity. Because of their Catholic faith the vast majority of the people were excluded from civic affairs and the professions. There were no charitable organisations or Catholic schools. As always, it was the poor who suffered most.
When Fr Bartholomew Russell came back to Cork from Lisbon as a young priest in 1823 he found in an old safe three objects of great interest: a black-letter copy of the Bible printed in Strasburg in 1481, the Youghal chalice, and the little statue of Our Lady of Graces.
This image of the Mother and Child, still venerated in St Mary's church, is known as ‘Our Lady of Graces’, after the title of the Dominican priory and church in Youghal (founded in 1268), where it was venerated for 150 years. There is much legend but no certainty about the way in which this image was discovered; nor is the date of its discovery on record, beyond the fact that it was some time in the 15th century. Boullaye Le Gouz, a well-known traveller, related in 1644 that it was found embedded in a piece of wood washed up on the shore near the Dominican priory. The ivory image is about three inches in height and it became the object of great devotion. So great did its fame become that people began to pour into the town from all parts of the country. There is even mention of it in the Acts of the General Chapter held in Rome in 1644. The Youghal priory was dissolved in 1542 and was given to a William Walsh to hold for the Crown. From him it passed to a John Thickpenny, and from him to Sir Walter Releigh, who gave orders for its destruction. Sir John Pope Hennessy, in his work on Raleigh, wrote, “The miraculous image of the Virgin, which made the monastery [of Youghal] famous throughout Europe, was saved from Raleigh and his soldiers by the daughter of one of the Geraldines whom he had pursued.” This was Honoria Fitzgerald, the only child of Sir James of Desmond who was slain in 1579. In 1617 she had a silver case or shrine made for the little statue in which it is kept today. Since the Youghal priory was no more, the image and the Youghal chalice were brought to the nearest Dominican priory, which was St Mary’s, Pope’s Quay, Cork.
It was due to the extraordinary energy of Fr Batt Russell, who was born in Cork in 1799, that the new St Mary’s church and priory were built. The foundation stone of the church was laid in 1832. Fr Russell was fortunate in having the young Kearns Deane (1806-1847) as architect. This talented and generous Protestant gave his services free of charge, and the gratitude of the Dominicans is expressed on a marble tablet in the most frequented of the church porches. “The Dominican community of Cork inscribe this stone in testimony of their gratitude to Kearns Deane Esq., architect, who with unexampled generosity and public spirit designed this building and directed the progress of its erection, 1832.” On Sunday 20 October 1839 the church was blessed and opened for public worship. In the congregation was Daniel O’Connell, “The Liberator.”