Priory of St Mary Magdalen, Drogheda, Co. Louth
Less than an hour north of Dublin, Drogheda is a small rapidly-growing town. The small community of Dominicans living in St Magdalen’s serves the growing Catholic population through sacramental ministry in particular.
The members of the community also serve as chaplains to the nearby monastery of Dominican nuns and the convent of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, as well as to the young Dominican Laity groups.
Additional important apostolates of the friars include hospital chaplaincy and retreat work.
History of the Priory of St Mary Magdalen
The walls and gates of Drogheda, which enclosed the city until about 1800, are still impressive even though St Lawrence’s Gate is the only substantial portion that remains. If the many other gates and linking walls were equally massive and imposing, old Drogheda must have been a handsome city in its day. Yet when the Dominicans first arrived in 1224 these walls had not yet been built.
Only rough palisades or earthworks protected the small Anglo-Norman colony which had occupied the ancient settlement a generation before. Hugh de Lacy, one of the first Norman invaders, built two castles on the southern or Meath side of the Boyne at Drogheda. The city itself straddled the strategic bridge from which it took its name, and the Dominicans chose a site on the northern rim of the town where the Magdalen tower or steeple stills cuts the skyline.
We know little about the first Dominicans of Drogheda. Their foundation was underwritten by Luke Netterville, Anglo-Norman archbishop of Armagh, who is said to have been buried in their church in 1227. The friars themselves came from or through England and spoke Norman-French, but they soon blended with both the Anglo-Norman and Irish communities. The new priory was dedicated to St Mary Magdalen. Having been the first to bear the distinctive Christian proclamation that Christ is risen from the dead, she
is seen as the first Christian preacher, and accordingly she is the patroness of the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans. The Magdalen tower as is stands today cannot have belonged to the first Dominican church. It was built later when the friars were better established. The whole complex of church and priory survived practically intact until about 1770 when all but the tower was taken away.The tower is higher than any other Dominican tower in Ireland, rising from the highest point of the town, graceful in design, resting only on a slender arch.
Drogheda was a Norman stronghold of the Pale, a river-port conveniently facing England, a small but crowded city of merchants and tradesmen. There was occasional fear of attack from the ever-stronger “Irish” outside, but far greater and much more constant danger within, from plague or fire – the hazards of city life in those times. The role of the Dominicans in that society was to offer a mobile group of preachers, better prepared for their task than the usual run of mediaeval priests, and not tied down (like the Cistercians and other monks) within the walls of their own convents. Their churches were designed to hold as many as possible, but they also preached in the parish churches of the countryside.
The many Dominican houses in Ireland – and there were eventually about 35 before they were all suppressed – were kept tightly under English control and were ruled by an English superior for centuries. In the normal course of events they would have constituted a Province of the Order, responsible only to Rome, as soon as they had a reasonable number of priories. The English Provincials kept control by means of a compromise: from at least as early as 1256 the Irish houses constituted a vicariate ruled by a vicar of the English Provincial. This Irish vicariate held chapters or meetings of its own, three of which took place at Drogheda: in 1290, 1303 and 1347.
Just one year after the vicariate chapter in 1347 the bubonic plague known as the Black Death reached Ireland from the East. According to Franciscan annalist Clyn, the plague claimed its first victims at Howth and Dalkey, and “almost destroyed and laid waste the cities of Dublin and Drogheda.” Between August and Christmas of that year, no fewer than 14,000 people died in Dublin.Eight Dominicans of Kilkenny died within the space of a few months. One can presume that the citizens and friars of Drogheda had to bury thousands of their own.
Drogheda was the first Irish house of the Order to accept the reform launched on the continent by Raymund of Capua, then Master of the Order. We are left to wonder how deep this went, since the reform had far more success in Gaelic area than in the Pale.
In 1394 the priory had a royal visitor, Richard II of England. Finding it next to impossible to control Ireland by post, he came over to see whether the royal presence might make any impression on the Irish rebels, English subject, or that strange hybrid class, “the degenerate English”, who had become more Irish than the Irish themselves. Richard had some success, for many “kings” and chieftains saw the wisdom from showing respect to a monarch who had never seen them before and was most unlikely to see them again. And so, in the Dominican church at Drogheda, Richard II received the feudal homage of Niall Óg O’Neill, king of Ulster, and his more outstanding chieftains. Some bishops also came to pledge their loyalty.
The slow blending of Irish and Norman stock found full expression in the person of Thomas Fitzgerald, the Great Earl of Desmond, Lord Deputy of Ireland from 1463 to 1467. Earl Thomas sympathised with the Irish, he spoke their language, he welcomed their chieftains and gallowglasses even in the streets of Dublin. He wanted to establish a university at Drogheda, “where may be made bachelors, masters and doctors in all sciences and faculties as at Oxford.” Nothing came of the idea, but that was scarcely Desmond’s fault. Edward IV grew uneasy and sent over a new lieutenant, with the result that the Great Earl was attained and his land forfeited at a parliament held at Drogheda in 1468. Desmond also forfeited his life, for he was beheaded at Drogheda and buried at St Magdalen’s.Another plague decimated the city, and indeed the whole country, in 1479, to such an extent that the boats of Laytown (then a busy little port) lay rotting on the strand for want of anyone to use them.
Despite English opposition, the Irish houses of the Order eventually managed to win recognition as an independent Province. That was in 1484, but they held on to their independence only for seven years.In 1491 Drogheda came once again under the English provincial’s vicar in Ireland. Neither the friars of Drogheda nor their brethren in Kilkenny seem to have been happy with their position. In 1524, both Drogheda and Kilkenny had lacked a prior for twelve months and had rejected the lawful vicar of the English Province.
The priory of Drogheda was abruptly suppressed in 1540 and surrendered three years later. The church and most of the dormitory had fallen down from age. That, so far as we know, was the end of the Dominicans in Drogheda for quite a long while. The last prior and his community probably made their way into Connacht or Ulster to priories not yet suppressed.
Since Drogheda remained thoroughly Catholic, the Dominicans may have returned there during the brief reign of Queen Mary (1553-1558).
On the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 the citizens of Drogheda evicted their Protestant ministers and brought in priests in their stead. Under her successor, James I, however, Catholics soon had to become secretive again in matters religious. The religious history of Drogheda during the 1620s is rather bizarre, with much internal rivalry between Catholic groups. When Falkland was Lord Deputy in 1628, the government issued a decree against Roman Catholics. At Drogheda this solemn document was taken rather lightly, for it was publicly proclaimed not by the Mayor but by a drunken soldier who, to quote the Lord Deputy, “made it seem like a May game.” The only effect of the decree was that the friars and priests shut up the front doors of their Mass-houses, while admitting the public “by private passages.”
The great rebellion of 1641 began in October with the massacre of English colonists in northern and north-western areas. Drogheda was soon besieged by Sir Phelim O’Neill, but Sir Henry Tichborne defended the city with success until Ormonde defeated O’Neill in March 1642. Tichborne was then able to capture both Ardee and Dundalk from the rebels. As the war progressed, its character changed, for the Anglo-Irish nobility, particularly those who were still Catholic, joined forces with the Irish to support Charles I and obtain freedom of religion. This nine-year struggle brought horror and death in every form to the four corners of the land. And on the execution of King Charles, Cromwell came over in person to write the last chapter in England’s Civil War. Shortly after reaching Dublin in August 1649 he realised that Drogheda would have to fall before his highly-organised Model Army could safely march anywhere else. The place was held by Sir Arthur Ashton with 3,000 troops of whom half were English Catholics. The Protestant inhabitants had already been expelled lest they should form a fifth column within the city.
Cromwell took up his position south of the town, sent troops around to cut off communications on the northern side, and waited a week for his artillery to arrive by sea. This siege, which began on the third of September, was all over within nine days. About 3,500 of the besieged were killed, burned or put to the sword without regard for age, sex or status. Some of the lucky survivors were sent, practically as slaves, to the Barbadoes. Cromwell himself said: “I believe all their friars were knocked on the head promiscuously, except two, one of which was Fr Peter Taaffe.” Fr Taaffe, the Augustinian prior of Drogheda, was tied to a stake and shot by a platoon of soldiers. Two Dominicans “were captured and beheaded in front of the army.”
The coronation of Charles II in 1660 closed two disastrous decades in the story of the Irish Church and ushered in a slightly longer period of toleration tempered by reprisals. Decrees of banishment against friars and priests appeared every now and then, many died in prison, but the Church as a whole managed to prosper.
One of the early letters of St Oliver Plunkett, archbishop of Armagh, tells us that there were three Dominicans in the priory of Drogheda in 1671: the first explicit mention of any such priory since 1543. Still they had no chapel of their own. Fr John O’Heyne, the historian, was a member of the Drogheda community in the 1670s. The “large school” which he conducted on his first return to Ireland after studies, may have been in Drogheda. Another decree banishing the regular clergy came out in 1678 and Fr O’Heyne left Drogheda to accompany a Dominican bishop, Dominic Burke of Elphin, then “on his keeping,” for an entire year.
With the defeat of James II at the Boyne in 1690, matters took a turn for the worse, and in 1698 all the bishops and friars of Ireland were exiled. Some members of the Dominican community held on at Drogheda despite the grave danger to their lives.
Some seventy Dominicans ignored the decree of exile by going to ground in remote areas. Connacht was a favourite hide-out. Some passed themselves off as parish priests when the secular clergy were formally registered in 1704. Generally speaking the Corporation of Drogheda turned a blind eye to friars once the Stuarts were safely out of the way. Fr Patrick Matthews appears in 1710 as prior of the Dominican priory “in the town of Drogheda.” Another prior appears in 1720.
In 1721 we find the Dominican provincial encouraging the foundation of a nuns’ monastery in Drogheda. For this purpose he recalled from Belgium a young nun named Catherine Plunkett, a grand-niece of the martyred Oliver Plunkett.
Ravell’s map of Drogheda, drawn in 1749, shows the actual building in which the Dominicans lived on Mill Lane. It would seem that this chapel was first opened, or at least extensively rebuilt, in the autumn of 1727. The community numbered about six at this time and stayed at this level until about 1775. Some stayed as curates or even parish priests, particularly across the river at Donore. They even received novices.
Just how Catholic Drogheda was may be seen from the “Report on the State of Popery” in 1731. On just the northern side of the river there were four friaries, six “popish schools” and four private chapels, plus the official ”Mass-house” staffed by two diocesan priests of St Peter’s. The four “private” chapels were probably the very public ones of the four friaries. Fears of a rising in favour of Bonnie Prince Charlie brought this peaceful period to an abrupt end in 1744. The chapel was closed, and the five Dominicans took to their heels, while the mayor and sheriffs assured the government that they would use their “utmost diligence” to bring the friars to court. The Dominicans came back again, certainly by 1749, but were prevented for many years from opening their chapel.
There is no doubt that the community survived the crisis. A benefactor presented them with a chalice in 1752. There are detailed lists of their names for 1756 and 1767. Two brothers, Thomas and Francis Netterville, took the habit in Rome in the 1730s and found their way back to Drogheda. The two brothers became Provincials in their turn. The priory was still in Mill Lane, but their own chapel was certainly closed from 1744 to 1756.
There is evidence that the chapel was open in 1771. Around that time work began on the rebuilding of the old house in Mill Lane. An old photograph, taken about 1880, shows that it had but one chimney and three windows on each of the three stories.
All this rebuilding by a fairly large community in the early 1770s contrasts favourably with the general situation of the regular clergy in Ireland. Most of the rural priories were in full decline, and even priories in towns like Waterford and Kilkenny were at a very low ebb. One of the main reasons was that the reception of novices in Ireland had been forbidden by Rome since 1750, and few young men were willing or wealthy enough to take the religious habit on the continent. At length, after long complaints, the Dominicans got leave to establish four novitiates at home, one of which (for Ulster) would be at Drogheda.
The new priory was occupied for only 15 years. The lease expired in 1798 and the Dominicans moved into the city to the former Trooper’s Lane. Fr Thomas MacDonagh, who was then prior, bought an old store on the eastern side of the street, facing the Linen Hall, exactly where the priory is now. This store he converted into a residence and chapel, following a plan then widely used in Ireland. From the front the house looked like any other on the street, but there was a yard behind it, a thatched chapel (59 x 25 feet in the clear) at the other end of the yard, and a long passageway leading from the street to the vestry. The penal laws had largely gone at this stage, but it was still thought better to hide chapels from public view.
Meanwhile the number of those in community at Drogheda slowly dwindled. There were only four in 1800, three in 1817. When Catholic Emancipation finally came in 1829 there were only two. Taking stock of St Magdalen’s a few years after the Famine, one would have given it small change of survival: a reduced congregation with only too vivid memories of cholera, famine and fever; two or three priests serving a back-street chapel which could be entered only through a long dark tunnel and which, with its cramped aisles and wooden galleries, most definitely belonged to the penal times. And yet there was hope for the future. Not that anyone noticed it then, but birth is never far from death and some things had already happened which would ensure, not just survival, but definite progress for the Dominicans of Drogheda.
A young and energetic Dominican in Cork named Bartholomew Russell set himself to reform and rebuild the Irish Dominican Province. It was a long haul and not an easy one. His confrères said that his new churches in Cork and Dublin would leave the Province in debt for a century. Right up to mid-century the Province still depended on its colleges in Lisbon and Rome. But from 1855, thanks to Fr Russell, they had their own novitiate and house of studies at Tallaght outside Dublin. The first master of novices at Tallaght, Fr Tom Burke of Galway, became the most famous Irish Dominican preacher of all time. He preached at Drogheda at least five times. For all that, his novices at Tallaght meant more to Drogheda and to every other Irish priory than he did himself. New men, properly trained in the religious life, acquainted with each other from their early years, brought new life and a new spirit to houses such as Drogheda which might have disappeared without them.
The old chapel was replaced. The trouble about building a new church was that the people of Drogheda had already built a new and magnificent St Peter’s, a new Augustinian church and a new Franciscan one, all in a very short time. But nine months later the foundation stone was laid. Fr Tom Burke preached. It took eight years for the church to be completed. The work was pushed along according as there was money in hand to pay for it. One day, Fr Patrick Vincent Meathe, who may have been the clerk of works, climbed up the scaffolding to the very top of the wall where two workers, unknown to him, were treating themselves from a jar of whiskey. Seeing him coming, they hid the jar in the wall on which they were working, but since he stayed there for quite a while and suggested they get on with the work, they had to plaster over their own jar of whiskey and bury it forever in the wall. This Fr Meadthe was perhaps the most loved of all by the people of Drogheda: for his gentleness, humility and particularly for his kindness and understanding in the confessional. He was said to have “a large charity of heart to which the slightest taint of acrimony was unknown.”