St Saviour’s priory, Bridge Street, is home to a small community of Dominicans who are engaged in the liturgical and sacramental life of their priory church. The church and priory are located in Waterford’s city centre, in the heart of a rejuvenated residential area.
Waterford was the first settlement in Munster for the Dominicans (1226). They were the first friars of any Order to reach the city. For all the hurry with which they came to Waterford, it took nine years for them to find a home. Eventually, at the request of the citizens, Henry III permitted them in 1235 to build a priory “on a vacant site under the city walls, where there was anciently a small tower.” The ruins of this mediaeval church still stand near a narrow street now called Blackfriars.
Mediaeval Waterford has been described by Canon Power: “Waterford, like Dublin, was really, for five centuries, in everything except air, water and the ground on which it stood, an English town domiciled in Ireland. It was confined within a strong and lofty wall with towers at invervals and with stout gates which were guarded by day and closed at night. Sanitation was bad, epidemics and diseases rife, water supply precarious and public lighting practically unknown….” The good Canon’s ancestors spent much of their spare time attacking the city, but it remained almost proverbially attached to the crown, receiving various charters in return and the proud title of “Urbs Intacta”, the city untouched by Irish influence.
In this situation the Dominicans were as English, whether by blood or inclination, as any of the citizens. Yet they were not isolated from their confrères in other parts of the country, since general meetings of the Irish Dominican vicariate were held at Waterford on three occasions: in 1277, 1291 and 1309. Nor were they isolated from the continent, since of their number, Geoffrey of Waterford, spent most of his time in France.
Geoffrey is remembered as a writer, or more strictly as a translator of three Latin texts into the French dialect of 13th-century Picardy. He is portrayed in one of the mosaics in the apse of the present church in Bridge Street. The ordinary work of the community was preaching, but since their church was so small, they must often have preached in other churches or in the open air. Two other Dominican foundations soon appear: in Rosbercon in 1267 and Youghal in 1268.
Waterford was twice destroyed by fire: in 1252 and again in 1280. It was a hazard of city life at the time, since the streets were so narrow and many of the houses roofed with wood or thatch. How the Dominican site was affected by these fires we do not know, except that their church at least appears to have survived. A curious murder-trial was held at Waterford in 1311. The accused, even though from Waterford, considered himself English and pleaded in his own defence that “it was no felony to kill an Irishman and not of free blood.” Unfortunately for him his victim was in fact a Dane. The corporation decreed in 1382 that it was an offence to call another citizen an “Irishman”, the punishment being a fine of one mark to be paid to the victim. Their real objection, naturally enough, was to “Irish enemies” and to such Old English as followed Irish law. In 1345 Waterford was attacked by the Old English family of Poer or Power who “burnt, destroyed and spoiled” almost all the countryside around the city, but at a heavy price: some of them were hanged, drawn and quartered, and their heads and limbs displayed at various vantage points around the city. In 1368 the Powers attacked again, aided by the Irish O’Driscolls of Baltimore, and on this occasion had more success. This old vendetta was carried on in fits and starts until a fleet from Waterford finally crushed O’Driscoll at Inishsherkin in 1538.
Apart from fire and war there was also plague, especially the Black Death of 1348 which claimed almost a third of the population of western Europe. Pockets of infection remained for more than a century. From 1348 the English colony in Ireland, largely because of the plague, went into steady decline. The proud city of Waterford became somewhat less “English” then before.
The diminutive diocese of Waterford, taking in only the city and the formerly Danish lands around it, was united in 1363 to the vastly larger and more prestigious see of Lismore. The first bishop of “Waterford and Lismore” was an English Dominican, originally of Warwick, named Robert Read, nominated by Richard II, and appointed by the Pope on 9 September 1394. Richard II, a great benefactor of the Order, was accustomed to recite the divine office from the Dominican breviary every day. On 2 October of the same year, bishop Read accompanied Richard to Waterford with about 8000 soldiers, “the greatest display of armed might ever seen in Ireland during the middle ages.”
Another English Dominican, John Depyng, became bishop of Waterford and Lismore in 1397. In all likelihood he was present in Waterford on 1 June 1399 to welcome the king on his second visit to the city. This time, Richard II had come to avenge the death of his lord Lieutenant, Roger Mortimer, killed near Carlow by the O’Byrnes. He was just about to “burn McMurrough out of his woods” when events in England forced his immediate return. He sailed from Waterford on 27 July; by August he was in prison and by the following February he was dead. Bishop Depyng died exactly a month later.
While the Dominicans of Waterford, unlike their brethren in Youghal in 1493, showed no relish for a return to “regular observance”, they still respected the serious study of theology, an essential element of Dominican life. A number of them attained academic distinction.
That conventual tower, which is all that remains of the old Blackfriars, is (apart from the tower) essentially a 13th-century building, the usual long rectangle of nave and chancel, with an aisle or Lady chapel on the southern side of the nave. The western and only door looks out onto a narrow street now unused and blocked at both ends.
Henry VIII set his mind to the suppression of religious houses in Ireland in 1537. Doctor Sall, a Franciscan of Waterford, who was one of the first to preach “against the putting down of churches and making them profane places,” was arrested by the mayor in 1538 and sent as a prisoner to Dublin Castle. George Brown, the leader of the enterprise, formerly provincial of the English Augustinians but now Protestant archbishop of Dublin, reached Waterford with his fellow-commissioners in January 1539. Browne’s party was entertained by the mayor and council who seemed at least to accept the royal supremacy and made a show of zeal for the cause by executing “four felons accompanied by another thief, a friar, whom they commanded to be hanged in his habit.” After the prior’s “voluntary surrender” of the property, Blackfriars eventually became the county court-house; part of the priory, by 1764, had become a theatre. The Dominicans never occupied the place again.
After the Reformation, Waterford proved more loyal to the Pope than to the King. In a phrase said to have been coined by James I, Protestants came to call it “Little Rome.” A Spanish official spying out the land for Philip II in 1574 noted that all the people of Waterford were Catholics, and were attending Mass in private houses since they were forbidden to use their parish churches. He remarked that the Franciscans and Dominicans of Dungarvan had to escape to the mountains and hide in caves or cellars whenever English troops appeared, but they returned the moment the way was clear and went on with their work as though nothing had happened. The old days of peaceful cloistered life were gone, but obviously the friars adjusted quickly to the change.
The Catholic cause was greatly advanced by the merchant ships of Waterford which, given favourable winds, could reach Spain or Spanish Flanders within a fortnight, carrying young men to colleges on the continent from which they would later return as priests. This new method of recruitment was already well under way by 1577 when the Catholics of the city had reoccupied the churches closed against them only three years before.
The mood of optimism at Waterford ran even higher in 1603 when news arrived that Queen Elizabeth was dead. “We took care,” wrote a merchant, “to reconsecrate all our churches and to celebrate Masses, preach sermons and hold processions according to the Roman rite.” The leader of all this was Fr James White, vicar apostolic of Waterford, who took care to “purify the monastery of St Dominic” at Kilkenny and sent others to “reconcile” the principal churches at Cashel, Fethard and Clonmel. When the Lord Deputy, Mountjoy, arrived on the scene he found the gates of Waterford closed in his face. A long parley followed at Gracedieu between Mountjoy and the principal clergy of the city led by James White and his Cistercian kinsman Thomas Lombard. Among this delegation was a Dominican, Edmund O’Callaghan. Despite the earnest theological discussion at Gracedieu, Mountjoy took the city. In 1605 all the bishops, priests and religious of Ireland were ordered to leave the country under pain of death. The vicar apostolic, James White, sailed for Bordeaux and made his way to Rome. A Waterford Dominican, Richard Barry, was later to be martyred at Cashel.
There followed a period of recovery, but the rebellion of 1641 ushered in a long civil war. After the siege of 1642 the Confederate forces took the city in the name of Charles I and even set up a printing-press there. Carlo Invernizzi, a papal adviser who came to Ireland in 1645 noted that the regular clergy had greatly increased since 1641 and that there were about 400 Dominicans in the country. Then came a fatal division in the ranks of the confederation when some made their peace with the royalist leader Ormond. Rinuccini, the papal nuncio, disgusted with this development, called all the Irish clergy to Waterford in August 1646. From there they sent gun-powder and money to Eóin Roe O’Neill who thought, as they did, that this ‘peace’ was a betrayal of Catholic and national interests. Before leaving for Kilkenny in September, Rinuccini issued at Waterford his solemn and regrettable excommunication of all who supported the treaty made with Ormond. In 1647 the papal nuncio, again at Waterford, consecrated some new bishops on whose support he could rely. Among them was the Dominican provincial, Terence Albert O’Brien, bishop of Emly, who was to be hanged by Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, in Limerick in 1651.
Rinuccini’s censures afflicted even Waterford itself from about May 1648 when all the churches of the city were closed and the clergy forbidden to administer the sacraments. Six months later bishop Comerford and his clergy appealed to the nuncio to life his censures so that the clergy might minister again. Among the signatories of this document was Peter Strange, prior of Waterford in 1648 as he had been in 1631.
These matters faded into the background when Oliver Cromwell arrived to besiege the city in October 1649. Waterford held out for nine months and finally yielded in August 1650, not so much to Cromwell as to the plague. Bishop Comerford estimated that 5,000 people died of plague with the diocese during 1650. By November, all the Catholics and their clergy were banished from Waterford.The bishop sailed to St Malo, never to return. In 1651 he wrote that “such priests as survived the plague were forced into exile.”
A Dominican named James O’Reilly, described as an “outstanding poet,” went to Clonmel from Waterford to teach catechism. After the raising of the siege he fled the city but lost his way and was found by the pursuing cavalry while reading his breviary on a hillside near Clonmel. He was promptly hacked to pieces. On entering Clonmel on 19 May, Cromwell found that the garrison had left, and in his own words, “very early this morning pursued them and fell upon their rear of stragglers and killed above two hundred.” These stragglers included wounded soldiers as well as women and children with whom any priest would have tended to delay. The formal articles of surrender guaranteed the lives of civilians in Clonmel, but priests were excepted.
The period known as the Commonwealth began in Ireland with the wholesale expulsion of priests and friars. Among them were two Dominicans of Waterford, Peter and Richard Strange, brothers but birth, who in 1651 found refuge in Salamanca. Many others lay in prison at Waterford in 1652, awaiting transportation to the Barbadoes and elsewhere; those who had “taken” them in the first place were paid a bounty of five pounds. In these circumstances no priest concerned for his personal safety would have set foot in Waterford, and yet a Dominican from Connacht arrived in 1654 to attend the Catholics there. He was Hugh MacGoill of the priory of Rathfran near Killala. His ministry at Waterford ended within months, for he was captured and freely confessed to being a priest. He was hanged. Although during Cromwell’s regime the reward offered for the capture of a priest was equal to that paid for shooting a wolf, there were no fewer than 74 Dominicans in Ireland in 1657.
In the following years there seems to have been only a token presence of Dominicans in Waterford. In 1672 there were only two, in 1678 only one. The latter, according to the bishop, “lives in a private house where he says Mass and hears confessions; he is an exemplary man.” A government proclamation of that year ordered all bishops to quit the country and dissolved all convents, priories and schools, but at Waterford the proclamation itself, posted outside the city walls, “was in part taken down and the rest of it besmeared.” The people had seen too many proclamations of this kind to be much worried about them, and already sensed that Charles II must soon yield the throne, as he did in 1685, to his Catholic brother James II.
Keeping pace with this political development, the Dominican community gradually increased until there were five in residence in 1687. It is unlikely that they made any effort to recover their ancient priory and church at Blackfriars at that time; but they built “a splendid chapel” within the city. In 1688 a provincial chapter was held at Lorrha, at which the Waterford community was represented.The mood of the brethren was so euphoric that they adapted the Song of Songs – “for now the winter of persecution is past; the flowers appear in the countryside” – and arranged to open a house of studies for young Dominicans at Galway.
From March 1689, when James II landed at Kinsale, to October 1691 when Limerick capitulated to the forces of William III, Ireland was a battle-ground for the “War of the Two Kings”. William O’Dwyer, the energetic prior of Waterford, became an army chaplain and never came back. For that matter, neither did James II who sailed for France from Waterford even before the siege of Limerick.The Dominicans survived with a community of three in 1693 and 1695. They even increased to five in 1696, but that is the end of the record and (for a while) the end of the Dominicans in Waterford. Soon the regular clergy at Waterford were “living in disguise in private houses.” By December of the same year, all the clergy of Waterford were hauled off to jail and later brought before the Protestant bishop and dean to testify whether they were of the regular or secular clergy. Twenty-one proved to be diocesan priests and were released; the eight religious were banished with all the bishops and regulars of Ireland in 1698.
In the new century the friars were officially in exile, but there were still 90 Dominicans in Ireland in 1703 and 80 in 1709. Naturally, these outlaws were mostly in Connacht, where they were safe enough once they kept out of the towns. In Waterford they seem to have had no chapel of their own at any time during the century. Some worked as curates in the neighbourhood. When they wished to open a chapel in 1752 the bishop refused his permission outright. Whether they liked it or not, each Order of regulars at Waterford was obliged by an agreement between the bishop and the Protestant corporation to keep its numbers down to a certain level. The Dominicans were limited to three, and three priests (making allowance for old age and sickness) would not perhaps have been enough to run a city chapel. All they could do in the circumstances was to assist at the parochial chapels.
The emancipation act of 1782 permitted the opening of Catholic schools, while the French revolution of 1789 had made the establishment of seminaries in Ireland an absolute necessity. The archbishop of Cashel mentioned in 1791 that “some small academies” had already “been opened in Waterford, Cloyne and Thurles for the general education of Catholic youth.” The Dominican Francis O’Finan, later bishop of Killala, who lived at Waterford from 1805 to 1812, was a lecturer at the “new seminary” opened in 1807 by Bishop Power. Two other Dominicans conducted an academy.
With the appointment of bishop Robert Walsh in July 1817, matters took a turn for the better. He permitted “the revival of a convent in Waterford which not existed for more than a hundred years.”However, a later bishop, William Abraham, was utterly opposed to the idea and refused to allow a second Dominican to live there. Yet another bishop, Dominic O’Brien, actually suggested that “the Dominicans should take their place once more in Waterford – not as before, but to erect a canonical convent.” This suggestion was eagerly taken up by the Provincial, Fr Bartholomew Russell, and a site on Bridge Street was chosen. A “corn-store” was converted to a chapel and the friars lived in the adjoining house. Three Dominicans moved in, under the banner of “strict observance.” In 1874 Bishop John Power laid the foundation stone of a new church on the same site. The preacher was Fr Tom Burke, the greatest Irish preacher of the time.