The community of St Saviour’s Priory, Dublin, is the largest community in the Irish Dominican Province. This is primarily due to the fact that it is home to the “studentate”, or centre of studies and formation, for our young Dominican friars. The primary focus of this community, therefore, is the formation of future Dominicans. The presence of the student brothers and those associated with their formation gives community life and the apostolic work of the friars a particular dynamism.
The preaching commitments of the friars are varied. They include retreat work, teaching theology, editing and publishing religious journals and books, sacramental ministry, parish ministry, outreach to diverse groups of foreign nationals, particularly Polish Catholics, and chaplaincy to young Catholics.
Many Dominicans from countries other than Ireland have been resident in St Saviour’s in the past few years, and this gives the community an international aspect; brothers from Colombia, Poland, Slovakia, the United Kingdom and the United States have added to the diversity of life there.
Since common prayer is central to Dominican life, the principal parts of the Liturgy of the Hours are sung publicly in the church each day.
There are now nineteen bridges over the river Liffey, but when the Dominicans arrived in Dublin in 1224 there was only one. The city, on its long steep hill to the south, sprawled in untidy confusion around Christ church. St Mary’s Abbey and the small Danish settlement of Oxmanstown had the northern bank to themselves. The houses, with few exceptions, were of wood, and fire a constant hazard. Paving and sanitation were unknown, while livestock, as it did up the 18th century, roamed everywhere. Plague struck the city every ten or twenty years.
The friars of the new Dominican Order – it had been only eight years in existence – were fortunate in gaining possession of a small chapel only four years old. They retained the title of the chapel, St Saviour, as they have to this day – seven centuries and ten chapels later. It stood on the north side of the solitary bridge, at the point where Church Street now runs onto the river. Three acres of ground beside the chapel stretched downstream towards the Cistercian abbey over the site of the present four Courts. Work began at once on a more suitable church, one large enough to hold the people they intended to attract, and this was opened in 1238. Meanwhile the more routine work of the friars in the city had begun. They preached regularly for the Cistercians and others. Like other early houses of the Order they conducted a small seminary to train aspirants for the priesthood, from which each year twelve scholars graduated, and which may in part have explained the eager welcome the archbishop had given them.
Their church, although repaired in 1285, fell victim in 1304 to one of Dublin’s periodic conflagrations. The work of church-building began again, this time with the generous assistances of John Deceer, the first Provost of Dublin. But the new church stood for only eight years. On the approach of Robert Bruce, the Scottish rebel, with his army, the citizens taking fright, destroyed every building on the north side that could possibly have been turned to advantage by the enemy. The stones of the new Dominican church were removed to build the gate “going up St Audoen’s arch”, the Winetavern Gate, and strengthening the wall along the river. Bruce, in the event, thought better than to fight, and a new St Saviour’s arose. This church survived until its deliberate demolition after 1540.
Two unsuccessful attempts were made to establish a university in Dublin, in 1310 and in 1475. On the first attempt four professors were appointed, and of these two were Dominicans. All four mendicant Orders were associated with the second venture, and the plans envisaged the inclusion of the already existing Dominican school as a constituent college of the university. This venture however lasted only ten years.
No trace remains of the original St Saviour’s or of its two mediaeval successors; no sketch or drawing has survived. The priory buildings were taken over in 1539 under Henry VIII for use at first as courts of law, and then as a hostel for lawyers under the title of “King’s Inns”. The lawyers retained a chapel within the former priory for their private use. In later years, apart from its brief restoration to the friars in the time of James, II, the priory was used in turn as a barracks, a theatre, a publishing centre (whose products were stamped “in the Cloisters”) and, in 1786 the present Four Courts building was erected on the site. Shortly after the building of the present St Saviour’s a small sandstone cross just three feet high, inscribed with the date 1222 in Roman numerals, was unearthed during excavations for an extension to the Four Courts. Underground chambers are considered to have formed part of the ancient priory. The original seal of the priory was also found, and is now preserved the Royal Irish Academy.
Henry VIII’s systematic spoliation of religious houses moved out fan-wise from Dublin across the country, effective only where it could be enforced by English law, achieving full success only on the fall of Ulster in the opening years of the 17thcentury. As the arm of the law advanced, the friars fell back towards Connacht and Ulster, the Dominicans making a last stand in Sligo and Athenry, growing ever fewer until only twenty friars remained of a Province which had once numbered above a thousand. The return of official Catholicism in the person of Queen Mary was too brief for more than a few optimistic attempts at revival in Munster. Then under Elizabeth the slaughter began.
We have a short but valuable account of the Province in this period from the pen of Fr Roch MacGeoghegan, restorer of the Dominicans to Leinster and Dublin. “They [Henry and Elizabeth] were not able to destroy entirely our Order in Ireland. Though ejected from their monasteries, our friars did not fly the kingdom but hid with lay Catholics. Sometimes, even, meeting in one of their country priories they held chapters as well as they could.... On the death of the Provincial [Thaddeus Duane] they scattered among the laity, and so remained until about 1613, when friars educated in Spain began to arrive in Ireland. These friars gathered our priests once more into two or three remove country priories, from which they spread over the whole Province, so that they could now  occupy twelve houses, eight of which are in towns and cities.”
Elizabeth died in 1603, but under her successor James I, the penal legislation grew even more severe.The Catholic faith was attacked in every conceivable way, in worship, in education, and in property.That was the position when the story of Dominican Dublin reopens in 1616. The curtain, so far as the records are concerned, had been drawn for seventy-five years; when it first lifts it reveals two Dominicans in prison, one of whom was Fr Richard Bermingham, the other unknown. Presumably they had been imprisoned for saying Mass or hearing confessions about the city. Seven obscure Mass-houses are known to have existed then in Dublin.
In 1622 there were eight Dominicans in community in Cook Street, then, as for two centuries after, the Catholic ghetto of the city. Among them was Roch MacGeoghegan, now Provincial, who converted the divinity professor of Trinity, Edward Herbert.
Conditions greatly improved with the accession of Charles I in 1625, yet in 1627 there were only seven Dominicans in the city: three priests, three novices and a brother. The presence of novices alone would prove that the persecution was at an end. Nevertheless, they were still cautious, not having any legal right to live in community or to celebrate Mass, and well aware that although the king might be tolerant, the Dublin authorities were of the party which hated Catholicism, and eventually killed the king. These men, having bided their time during five years, struck abruptly once again in 1630, closing all the Mass-houses and forcing Dublin’s Catholic life back into the catacombs.
In 1641, disappointed in Charles I, and realising that they must fight for their land or lost it, the Catholic nobles of Ireland rose n rebellion. The war lasted a full ten years, and ended with the defeat of the Irish cause at the first siege of Limerick. Cromwell, Ireton, Coote, Inchiquin and others of like mind, swelled considerably the stream of Irish martyrs. One of the earliest to die was Fr Peter Higgins, prior of Naas, who was hanged on St Stephen’s Green in the first year of the war. From 1640 until 1663 the Puritans crushed Catholicism in Dublin. As in Waterford and other cities caught in Cromwell’s track, all priests and Catholics were forced either into exile or outside the city walls.There, if they wished, they could linger on, hewers of wood and drawers of water for their evictors, until plague or starvation relieved their misery. In 1652 only two priests, disguised as hawkers and pedlars, remained about the city. During the 1650s the prisons of Dublin and of Ireland were packed with priests awaiting transportation either to the continent or, less fortunately, to the sugar-plantations of the Barbadoes. Their captors were paid the sum of £5 per priest, for which the receipts are still available in the Public Record Office.
In theory, religious tolerance returned with the restoration of Charles II in 1660; in practice, Ireland’s governors, and England’s ‘Popish Plot’ bred an uneasy half-peace which lasted until the accession of James II in 1685. Under the new regime, Catholics, naturally expected full freedom of worship, but it was largely obstructed on the ground. Persecution broke out again in 1666 because of the refusal of many of the clergy to sign the ‘Remonstrance’ – a statement of loyalty, deliberately ambiguous and calculated to divide the clergy – and many were imprisoned. In 1679 Ormonde could report that “there is not one Mass-house left unsuppressed.” Fr Mark Barnewall of the Dominican commuknity had to flee to Portugal. With the deaths of Oliver Plunkett and Peter Talbot in 1680 and 1681 the ‘Popish Plot’ to assassinate King Charles was revealed as an anti-Catholic campaign based on perjured evidence. Gradually the harassed ‘papists’ began, as the Protestant archbishop Marsh put it, “to open their shops”, and apart from a brief period their miserable chapels remained open until the end of the century.
The accession of James II, a Catholic, gave the signal for great rejoicing. Bonfires greeted everywhere the end of religious bondage. After an eviction of 150 years the Dominicans regained possession of their old priory, the King’s Inns, and set about receiving novices. But James on his coming needed the Inns for parliament, and ordered the Dominicans back into the Cook Street area where they acquired yet another chapel.
The defeat of James in 1690 had its repercussions on the tiny chapel in Cook Street. For a while in 1693 all the regular clergy of Dublin were imprisoned en masse. By this time the number of Dominicans had declined from thirteen to seven. Two of them left for the continent after the fall of Limerick; the prior died in Dublin in 1697 at the age of forty. Within six months of his death the expected edict of banishment of all the regular and higher clergy of Ireland was promulgated.
The Penal Laws were a concerted attempt to put an end to the Catholic faith in Ireland. Some few priests were permitted to say Mass, with the intention that when these men died they could not, for want of an ordaining bishop, be replaced. Death awaited any unregistered priest who entered the country in defiance of the law. Some however did, as some had remained in the country in defiance of the edict, working in secret among the people.
The traditional account of Dominican revival in Dublin picks up the threads once more with the arrival of Fr Stephen MacEgan in 1708. He opened an unobtrusive chapel for the Order in Bridge St about 1716. The former chapel in Cook Street, occupied before the exile, had passed to the diocesan clergy of the parish of St Audoen, being known as the “Old Dominicans”. A number of friars were imprisoned in the infamous “Blackdog” prison, in squalid conditions, yet managed to minister to fellow-prisoners, preparing them for execution. Fr MacEgan brought the Dominican nuns from Galway to Dublin in 1717, helping to establish them also in Drogheda and Waterford. He was elected Provincial, and later became bishop of Clonmacnois. The arrest and transportation of the next Provincial and another friar, two years after the opening of the chapel, shows the courage Fr McEgan had in opening it at all.
Gradually, however, conditions improved and tension relaxed, until in the 1760 some Orders of friars held processions of the Blessed Sacrament again through the streets. A new spirit of tolerance asserted itself, particularly under Lord Chesterfield’s administration. On being awakened one morning with the cry “The papists are rising,” he answered, “So am I.” But every so often, mounting fears of a Stuart rising would trigger off sharp reprisals.
In 1780 the friars moved from Bridge Street to Little Denmark Street on the northern side of the city, leaving their new chapel to the diocesan clergy of St Audoen’s. Until 1846 it served as the parish church, the second Dominican chapel to do so.
With the Catholic relief acts of 1778 the Church did not walk strongly into the light of freedom; she staggered, exhausted by the long unequal struggle. “Catholics would scarce dare to look a Protestant in the face,” declared John Keogh in 1806, “and they had not courage to walk upright and erect as other men....” There was, of course, the other side of the picture – that painted by Edmund Rich and his companion heroines, Teresa Mulally, Nano Nagle, and Catherine MacCauley. The friars fared even worse. Even the greatest and final act of emancipation left them still outside the law. Moreover their numbers declined: Rome forbade the reception of novices in Ireland, and meanwhile because of revolutions on the continent the colleges in Rome, Louvain and Lisbon went under. The Dominicans graudally abandoned their houses in the more remote parts of the country, and by 1800 the 96 friars in Ireland were concentrated in the larger towns, and a quarter of them were in Dublin. Many were engaged as curates and parish priests. At this time too there was an exodus of friars to America, many of whom played vital roles in the development of the Church there. After the ‘United Irishmen’ uprising in 1798 several of the Denmark Street community had to flee, and some were deported.
Although low in numbers the Order still produced effective preachers, among them Fr Thomas Augustine Clarke, a convert and one of the most popular preachers of his time. It also gave Dublin an archbishop, Dr Troy, whose ministry extended from 1786 to 1823. But by 1840 there were scarcely 40 members in the Province – as few perhaps as in the worst days of Elizabeth. Nevertheless, the seed was no dead. There were several notable figures: among them Fr William Harold and his nephew. Fr Raymond Griffith, remembered for tending the sick during cholera epidemics in the early century, was consecrated as Vicar Apostolic of the Cape of Good Hope in 1837, being the first bishop ever sent to that country. Fr Harold’s college for secondary education at Bloomfield, Merrion provided a Catholic education for not easily available elsewhere; and it also supplied in some measure for the lack of an Irish novitiate. Daniel O’Connell had nephews at the school.
For 80 years the Dominicans lived and worked in this part of Dublin, biding their time until the strength of the Order returned. Every year large sums of money were spent to patch and repair the old church until it became obvious that a new church was needed. This was to be in Dominick Street, which was named after Sir Christopher Dominick and not from the founder of the Dominican Order.The cornerstone was blessed in 1852. The driving force was Fr Batt Russell, who also built St Mary’s, Cork. It was he too who founded the novitiate and house of studies in Tallaght, which helped to restore regular monastic observance in the Province after the Penal Days. On 15 January 1861 the church new church opened its doors for the first time. For the next 30 years the community continued to live in Denmark Street, before moving into the new priory in 1891.