St Mary’s Priory is situated in that part of Galway called ‘An Cladach’ or the Claddagh. Not far from the city centre and University College Galway, the priory and church are very busy centres.
The church is exceptionally well attended and a number of different groups, particularly young adults, hold their meetings there.
The work of the friars is varied and includes spiritual direction, sacramental ministry (the Sacrament of Reconciliation is celebrated for many hours each day in the church), and parish ministry.
The Liturgy of the Hours is celebrated in public each day.
The first Dominican foundation in Connacht was Athenry (1241). It was from Athenry that they came to Galway in 1488. It is rather surprising that they took so long to settle in Galway. During the 14thth century saw quite a spate of new Dominican houses, no fewer than seven in Connacht alone before the Dominicans came to Galway. century, probably because of the Black Death, there was only one new foundation made in the entire country; but the 15
Almost all had native Irish, rather than Norman, founders; and many were the product of a reform or ‘observant’ movement within the Order, which perhaps explains why they were small houses in particularly remote places such as Tombeola on the western edge of Connemara. The priory in Galway was almost the last foundation in the whole of Ireland before Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries.
The Dominicans got possession of an old abandoned chapel of ‘the Blessed virgin outside the walls’, otherwise called ‘St Mary on the Hill’, occupied by the Premonstratensian Canons of Tuam from 1235. The Order thus obtained not only the site of their present premises but also the title of their church, St Mary’s, from the Premonstratensians. In later times it came to be called ‘the West Convent’, or ‘St Mary’s outside the gates’. On the whole, Dominicans in Ireland preferred to live outside the gates of walled towns. They could find a cheaper site, more space, freedom from tolls, and come and go as they wished. The patronage of the wealthy Lynch family, extended thirty years earlier to the visiting friars of Athenry, was maintained in the new foundation.
Most Irish Dominican houses, particularly in Leinster and Munster, were effectively suppressed under Henry VIII about 1540 and did not really recover until the 1620s. Ulster and Connacht, being largely beyond English control, were not affected by the campaign of suppression until the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558 – 1603). The Corporation of Galway acquired a lease of the Dominican ‘friar-house’ in 1570, but there is no reason to believe that St Mary’s church was put to other uses or demolished.
Between 1590 and 1610, because of increasing persecution under Elizabeth and James I, Dominican activity in Galway was eclipsed, if it did not completely die. The number of Dominicans in Ireland had dropped to about forty, practically all of whom were in Connacht or west Ulster. What saved the situation was a new policy, adopted about 1610, of sending young recruits to receive the habit and pursue their studies in priories on the continent. In the course of time, and against considerable opposition, the Irish Dominicans obtained three foreign colleges of their own: Louvain (c. 1623), Lisbon (c. 1635), and Rome (1677). Whenever possible, these recruits made their novitiate in Ireland first and were ordained after solemn profession. By this stratagem, they might say Mass and support themselves on stipends wherever they might go.
From the year 1617 the picture is one of gradual consolidation and recovery, despite occasional proclamations and even persecution. By 1622 Galway had the largest Dominican community in the country, with ten friars. They also seem to have recovered their church, which very few other communities managed to do.
There followed a period of extraordinary reversals. Lord Forbes, leader of the parliamentary fleet, arrived at Galway in 1642 to reduce the city, but failed. The turned the Dominican priory on Fairhill into a battery for his guns. Before sailing away again he defaced the church, dug up the graves and even burned the bones and coffins of the dead. On a happier note, the first monastery of Dominican nuns in Ireland was established in Galway in 1644. All present-day houses of Irish Dominican Sisters, at home and abroad, trace their descent directly to this monastery at Galway.
After the fall of Limerick in 1651, Galway became the last outpost of the Confederate army under the leadership of Thomas Preston. As the inevitable siege drew closer, the corporation remembered Lord Forbes and decided to level the Dominican church lest it be used again as a battery against the western walls of the town. A formal agreement with the Dominican community was drawn up and signed by all parties, on the understanding that the corporation would rebuild the church in better times. In 1652 the city capitulated to the Cromwellian army under Sir Charles Coote. The nuns all left Galway for Spain, while most of their Dominican brethren made their way to the continent as best they could.
Among the Galway exiles of this period one can mention three who made their mark in different ways. Dominic Lynch was a theologian, professor and writer at Seville. John O’Connor was more the practical man of affairs, procurator for the Irish province at Madrid, whose greatest achievement was to acquire the twin convents of San Clemente and San Sisto at Rome in 1677. Then there was the missionary, Peter French, who worked in Medico and learned one of the native languages well enough to write a catechism in it. Fr French returned to Galway after long years abroad and died in 1693.
Although the corporation of Galway lacked sufficient funds to rebuild the Dominican church as it had agreed to do in 1651, the citizens dug deep into their pockets to make good the loss. St Oliver Plunkett described the new church in 1674 as “the best and most ornamented church in the Kingdom.”
With the accession of James II, a Catholic, in 1685, there was no further need of concealment until his defeat at the Boyne and Limerick in 1691. The Dominican nuns returned from Spain in 1686 and have been in Galway ever since. The male Dominican community in 1685 numbered twelve priests, five novices and two lay-brothers. Unfortunately this proved but a short period of peace, because in 1698 every bishop and religious in the country was ordered into exile by a parliamentary act of banishment. Even at this juncture, Galway proved unusual among the Dominican houses of Ireland. The community entrusted its goods and valuables to a merchant named Valentine Browne and managed to preserve a detailed inventory of the transaction. The nuns’ cloister had at that time been broken open and they were forced to wear lay clothing, but by a curious omission nuns were not mentioned at all in the act of banishment. And so they stayed.
A list compiled in 1735 names 14 Dominicans of Galway, of whom only four were resident in Galway itself. The others were in various parts of the continent, except for one who had found his way to the Indies. In 1756 there were 9. Ironically, while the number of friars of all Orders increased under the penal laws up to 1744, they dropped gradually thereafter, largely because of the decree of Propaganda Fide (1750) forbidding the future reception of novices in Ireland. This gradual decline continued for a full century. The country priories, for example most of those in Connacht, eventually ceased to exist. Those, like Galway, in towns or cities were better able to survive.
One of the effects of the French Revolution was the loss to Ireland of innumerable seminaries on the continent, particularly in France where these colleges were most numerous and the largest of all was at Paris itself. The Irish Dominicans lost their largest college at Louvain in 1794, while those at Rome and Lisbon practically ceased to receive students until napoleon met his Waterloo in 1815. This was a serious set-back for recruitment and training. The diocesan clergy managed better, thanks to the foundation of Maynooth (1795) and the existence of slightly earlier colleges at Kilkenny and Carlow. Nonetheless, even the bishops found it hard to staff parishes for a period of 20 years and turned to the religious Orders for pastors and curates. This was a further blow to isolated country priories whose few surviving members were drawn into parishes while their ‘convents’, such as they were, disappeared forever. That is why, in Connacht, only the houses of Sligo and Galway survive today.
James Thomas French, already prior at the Claddagh in 1777, built a new priory in 1792 and a new church in 1800 to replace the “thatched chapel” which may have been the one St Oliver Plunkett so much admired in 1674. The church survived until 1891.
In 1846, during the Famine, Fr Thomas Rush built the ‘Claddagh National Piscatory School’ where six hundred children learned the arts of making nets and lace. This later became an ordinary national School which was entrusted to the diocesan clergy in 1892. But the time of the Famine, the total number of Dominicans in Ireland had dropped to about 50, but this was soon to change with the building of a novitiate-house at Tallaght, Co. Dublin, in 1856. It was the first proper novitiate and house of studies which the Irish Dominicans ever had on home soul, and the first master of novices was Fr Tom Burke, the famous preacher. Fr Burke was from Galway, and his statue now stands in his native city.
Damian Louis Byrne, OP
Fr Damian was elected Master of The Order and 83rd successor of St Dominic in September 1983. Only one other Irishman, Fr Michael Browne, later Cardinal, held this office.
Louis Byrne was born at 2, Prospect Hill, Galway, son of Louis and Mary Byrne. Later the family moved briefly to Abbeygate St, and then to Beattystown. He entered the Dominican Order in 1949 and was ordained priest in 1955. After completing his studies he spent some years in Newbridge College and in Tallaght. In 1963 he returned to his native city as prior of the Claddagh community. In 1965, before the end of his term of office, he was one of a small group who went to Argentina to open a Dominican house in Recreo, Catamarca. In preparation for this work they spent some time studying Spanish and South American culture in a school for missionaries in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
This was the beginning of many years at work on the missions. From Argentina he went to Trinidad, where he was Vicar-Provincial, and then, an unusual appointment for an Irishman, to the Mexican province as provincial. From Mexico he returned to Ireland where he was elected Provincial. In September 1983 he was elected Master of the Order. He held this office for the full nine-year term, visiting more than eighty countries, including Eastern Europe and Russia, areas from which his predecessors had been barred for many decades. In 1991 he published Pilgrimages of Faith, mainly a collection of letters written to the Dominican Order since his election as Master.
In the five centuries since the Dominicans from Athenry took possession of the church of St Mary on the Hill, many Galway Dominicans were well known nationally and internationally. We think, for example, of Edmund French who became bishop of Kilmacduagh and Kilfenora, Fr Tom BurKe, the ‘prince of preachers’, who worked on the continent and preached throughout the US, and Fr Dominic Fahy, apostle of Irish emigrants in Argentina. No Galway Dominican, however, has exercised a wider apostolate than Damian Byrne.