The Dominican community in Kilkenny has a significant input into the life of the local church in the Kilkenny area.
The brethren assigned here are engaged in traditional church- and priory-based apostolates, particularly liturgical preaching and sacramental services.
Some of the friars are engaged in the preaching of novenas and retreats locally, while one of them is heavily engaged in dialogue with new religious movements and in the promotion of Christian meditation. For more information see www.bodymindmeditation.ie
The public celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours by the community is a daily event in which the local people are encouraged to participate.
The Black Abbey is also a historical monument attracting large numbers of tourists, who like to engage with the resident community.
The Dominicans settled in Kilkenny (their third Irish foundation) in 1225. One might say that there were two Kilkennys at the time: the old settlement, Irishtown, clustered around the ancient cathedral of St Canice, and the High or English town first laid down closer to the Castle about 1203. Between the two, the small Bregach river made its way into the Nore. When the Dominicans came, they chose a site between the two towns, a plot on the south bank of the Bregach. And while this choice may show their impartiality, it is also an example of their preference for sites outside city gates. Then as now, there was much to be said for freedom of movement. The new church was dedicated to the Holy and Undivided Trinity. In popular usage, the complex of church and priory came to be known as the Black Abbey, because it was there the Blackfriars lived (Dominicans are also known as Blackfriars fromthe black ‘cappa’ or mantle they wear on occasion over their white habits).
Little now remains of the early church save the lower part of an ancient tower (predating the church), the old nave and its aisle, and the 13th century Norman tombstones uncovered nearby. Probably in the early decades of the 14th century the present transept was built. The glory of the Black Abbey lies in its windows: five (of which one was removed before 1791) in the east wall, each having three lights, and the magnificent five-light window, the largest of its kind in the country, which practically fills the gable wall. These windows, which in technical terms belong to the curvilinear phase of the Decorated style, have been classed as the last major work done in Ireland during the first half of the 14th century.
The terrible plague known as the Black Death, which carried away perhaps a third of the population of Europe, had devastating effect on the Dominican community. Eight of them died in a three-month period in 1349.
No structural alterations seem to have been made at the Black Abbey between the plague-year of 1349 and the end of the 15th century, but something may have been done to improve the priory building, and more likely still to improve the interior decoration of the church. At all events, there are still two carved figures associated with the church which belong to this particular period.
The first is a 14th-century limestone figure of St Catherine of Alexandria, protectress of the Order, now kept in the priory museum. The second figure, a representation of the Trinity in alabaster, stands in a glass case attached to the central tower, facing the great Rosary window. Expert opinion assigns it to about the year 1400. The figures 1264 are clearly cut across its base, but no one seems to know why. Neither the use of Arabic numerals, nor the style of the figure itself, would suit so early a date. During the long centuries of the penal era this alabaster Trinity was walled up in a niche within the church, and came to light again only during restoration work in the early 19th century.
The tower at the junction of the nave, transept and choir was added in the 16thcentury. Nor is it any ordinary tower. Leask describes it as the most perfect of all the surviving square-plan towers in the country. “Its subtly battered walls are topped by four pinnacle turrets in the stepped-battlement tradition: the most satisfying, architecturally, of all the tower tops in Ireland.”
In 1540 all the property of the Black Abbey was confiscated by the crown, to be granted three years later to the Corporation. The community withdrew, either to the houses of their friends or to other priories beyond the reach of the crown. During the long reign – more than forty years – of Elizabeth the Irish people began to learn what it was to suffer for the faith. On her death in 1603, hopes rose, for it was thought that the new king, James I, would prove worthy of his Catholic mother, Mary Queen of Scots. With the help of some townspeople the Dominicans broke open the doors of the Black Abbey (then in use as a session-house), pulled down the bars and benches and set up an altar for the celebration of Mass. At this time too, some statues were placed in the church, among them, perhaps, the stone figures of the Trinity and St Catherine mentioned above.
Once again, however, the dawn proved false, for James I turned out almost as great a tyrant as Elizabeth. The Dominicans of Kilkenny dispersed and the mayor who had befriended them in 1603 paid for his convictions by imprisonment and death in exile. The Black Abbey reverted to being a court-house. At this time there were eight Kilkenny Dominicans living somewhere in the locality or dispersed to other houses.
1642 to 1649 was Kilkenny’s hour of glory, when it acted as host to the Confederation of Irish Catholics united to save their king, their religion and their country. For three of those years the city was honoured by the presence of the Papal Nuncio, Runuccini. Once again the Black Abbey was restored to Catholic worship. The Dominicans opened a school of theology there. In 1643 representatives from every Dominican house in Ireland came to Kilkenny for a provincial Chapter. One decision of that Chapter led to the establishment at Galway of the first monastery of Dominican nuns in Ireland. And that community still exists in Galway today. In 1646 Rinuccini ordained several young men to the priesthood in the Black Abbey.
Several mementoes of those heady days survive. One is a large Confederate flag, now in the keeping of the Dominicans in Tallaght. At Drogheda, the Dominican nuns have held for two centuries a silver chalice given to the Black Abbey in 1645. Above all there is the seven-hundredweight bell cast for “the convent of St Dominic at Kilkenny,” as the inscription says, in 1647. Later on, this bell gave long service in the market-house at Dunlavin before returning safely to the central tower of the Black Abbey in 1925.
The bright promise of the Confederation slowly dimmed in a welter of military defeat and internal division. Plague stalked the narrow streets long before Cromwell’s army camped outside Kilkenny in March 1650. Hundreds died in agony; thousands fled. After a brief resistance, the city came to terms and the survivors were allowed to leave.
The full horror of the 1650s will never be fully described. At best one can trace the outlines of that decade in a simple history of famine, plague, murder, robbery and transportation. And yet, even in 1657 more than seventy Dominicans stayed on in the country undiscovered. The only tangible trace left at the Black Abbey of that period ironically called “the Commonwealth” is a painted oak statue of a Dominican saint lacking arms and feet which tradition says were hacked away in true Cromwellian style. That statue is now in the priory museum. Mercifully, the Puritan regime lasted only ten years before the English monarchy was restored and Catholics drew breath again under the milder, though still uncertain, rule of Charles II. So the Dominicans came back again to Kilkenny, living and ministering in secret, and even receiving novices to the Order. When in 1673 all bishops and friars were ordered to quit the country by the end of the year, two novices left from Kilkenny. Despite everything the community held together, if not in the city, then in a ‘house of refuge’. There were still five in the community in 1678 when the Provincial Chapter noted the death of their prior. Just one year later, their former prior, Felix O’Connor, who had once escaped Cromwell in Kilkenny, died a prisoner in Sligo jail. In 1683 the Duke of Ormond complained of the “insolence and indiscretion” of friars who were busily “fitting up” four chapels at Kilkenny.
In 1685 James II, a Catholic, came to the throne. Within the year the community at Kilkenny increased dramatically from six to thirteen. But there were only eight at Kilkenny in 1689 when William of Orange landed in Ireland and the Protestants of Ulster proclaimed him as their king. One year later, having driven James II from the Boyne, William made his triumphal entry into Kilkenny. That was in July 1690. The Dominican community dispersed. After the fall of Limerick in 1691 and the flight of the “Wild Geese” to France, even the Dominican provincial abandoned the country, leaving Fr Patrick Marshall of Kilkenny in charge of a truly “desolate” province.
Fr Marshall stuck to his post until 1698, recreating an Irish Dominican province from the ruins of war. At Kilkenny, or somewhere near it, one finds a community of six in 1693. But the century closed with the hardest stroke of all. Every bishop and friar in the country was ordered to leave the kingdom, under pain of imprisonment and transportation, before the 1st of May 1698. Those returning from exile were to be held guilty of high treason. Faced with what was, practically, a death sentence about 700 friars of all Orders set sail for France and Spain, most of them never to return. Many would perhaps have stayed, but that they feared resistance might lead to the expulsion even of the diocesan clergy. At least 118 Dominicans left, some 70 or 80 took their lives in their hands by staying at home. In 1712 the magistrates of Kilkenny were busy looking for 13 priests, most new arrivals from France, Spain and Italy.
Dominicans began to return to Kilkenny, living near the Black Abbey. Despite the Penal Laws, it was still possible to make some headway between one bout of persecution and the next. But in 1744 a widespread scare about Jacobites and French invaders brought community life for the Dominicans of Kilkenny to an end. More than half a century would pass before any Dominican community would gather in Kilkenny again. Individual priests remained in the town, helping out in parish chapels here and there, but without a house of their own.
By 1776 the Black Abbey was practically abandoned. The roofs of the nave, transept and chancel had fallen in. The walls of both aisles were in poor shape, the north wall of the nave completely gone. The pillars were buried to half their height in fallen debris. Yet it was not to be the end of the community or the buildings. A young Dominican, Michael Vincent Meade, began to build a priory, using stone from the ancient ruins. This building stood for 120 years. Another Dominican, Laurence Shaw, succeeded in roofing the transept and repairing the walls of the church. It has to be remembered that this ran counter to an Act of Parliament forbidding the repair of ancient monasteries. But it was not till 9 February 1816 that the first public Mass was celebrated at the Black Abbey since Cromwell took the city in 1650. But the local bishop was opposed to the reopening of the Black Abbey, and it was not until his death in 1827 that the work of restoration could continue.
After 1838 the restoration of the Black Abbey made steady, uninterrupted progress. Despite an almost empty purse, the prior and a Father Connolly took on the final challenge: the restoration of the nave and its aisle. Finally, on Trinity Sunday, 22 May 1864, the nave was opened for public worship.