St Saviour’s priory, situated in the heart of Limerick city, is home to a medium-sized Dominican community.
The principal ministry of the community is the formation of young Dominicans since it is the location of the novitiate of the Irish Dominican province. The novitiate is the first stage in formation as a Dominican friar and lasts one full year.
In addition to having the responsibility for a parish and a busy church, the community has many other preaching commitments. These include retreats and parish missions, teaching theology and spirituality, promoting and leading the practice of Lectio Divina (a form of prayerful reading of the Scriptures), teaching and academic research in sacred scripture.
The Dominican Biblical Institute, which engages in teaching from undergraduate to doctoral level, was founded by the Irish Dominican province with help from the Dominican community in Limerick. It has institutional links with the University of Limerick and Mary Immaculate College, and its staff members teach also in these colleges. The Biblical Institute has a very significant research library.
Dominican Biblical Institute Website: www.dbil.ie
The founder of the Dominican priory of Limerick is said to have been Donagh Carbreagh O’Brien, then king of Thomond, though there is some doubt about this. He died in 1241 and is buried in St Saviour’s. His tomb was described as ‘magnificent,’ but after Limerick’s sieges nothing remained of this tomb. “It is said that the soldiers of King William broke in pieces the statue of Donagh Carbreagh.” When the Dominican historian de Burgo inspected the site, around 1754, he commented sadly: “Now, as I have seen, only a very few traces remain of this superb building, amidst which the soldiers of the garrison have their barracks.”
The burial of the founder in St Saviour’s started a long tradition of using the priory as a burial ground for the famous. The Geraldines particularly favoured it, as did the chiefs of the MacNamaras. Ten Munster bishops also lie buried there.
Clearly, the early Limerick Dominicans had the favour of state and civil authorities. King Edward I made them generous grants. The king’s belief that his own ancestors, and not Donagh Carbreagh O’Brien, had really been the founders of St Saviour’s in 1227, clearly inspired his generosity. This generosity inspired some jealousy on the part of the Corporation. Old St Saviour’s was built so close to the east side of the city wall that it inevitably suffered severely in the fairly frequent commotions of turbulent times. But royal grants for repair work rarely reached the Dominicans, whose buildings were almost on the front line. In 1377 Edward III had to issue a mandate to the corporation to pay them forty shillings yearly out of the grant. The is probably the devastation caused by their being so close to the city walls that led to the complete re-building of St Saviour’s in 1462.
It is relatively easy to chronicle the famous dead buried in St Saviour’s, but the life lived in the priory is almost unrecorded. Preaching, praying, studying, and collecting their livelihood – or ‘questing’, as it was called – must have been their main activities. Referring to custom throughout the Order the Dominican historian Mandonnet wrote: “Within each conventual district, secondary – not having the rank of convents – might be opened, where for the whole year, or part of a year, religious resided for the purpose of preaching to the people within a given radius.” This may have been how Kilmallock priory came to be founded on 3 October 1291. A chalice from Kilmallock priory is still in use in the present St Saviour’s. Another such establishment was found at Sixmilebridge. O’Heyne stated, “This chapel belongs to the Dominicans of Limerick, but has not been kept up or inhabited for a long time: that is, from about the beginnings of the war in 1641.”
Irish, of course, was the spoken language; and both Franciscans and Dominicans incurred official wrath for their insistence on speaking the language of people in their ordinary preaching. These were early centuries in the colonisation of Ireland, and Anglo-Irish insecurity readily saw any cultural identity as a threat to its political ascendancy. A document about Irish affairs of around 1285 complains that Irishmen were being chosen as bishops to maintain their language, and that the Dominicans were very active in supporting the use of the native language.
However, for over two hundred years the work continued, through all the turbulent events of Irish history, some of which affected Limerick very deeply. The Bruce invasion, the Statutes of Kilkenny, the Geraldine rule, the beginnings of an Irish Parliament: all of these were not without their effect on the religious life in a rarely peaceful country. Provincial Chapters were held in Limerick in 1279, 1294 and 1310.
After the ravages of the terrible plague known as the Black Death, which carried away perhaps a third of the population of Europe, Dominican communities were diminished and demoralised. The process of renewal had to begin. Certain priories were set aside as places of very strict life-style, in keeping with the earliest practices of the Order. There must have been constant danger of division between these strict houses and the less strict; nevertheless the Order held together. Racial, political and cultural divisions in the country exacerbated matters. Cork, Limerick and Youghal were mentioned as being especially keen on renewal. These, along with Coleraine, were known for a time as ‘Blackfriars Observant’.
But this return to strict observance did not save Limerick from the consequences of Henry VIII’s break with the papacy. The official declaration of intent claimed that “the regular clergy and the nuns” were “so addicted, partly to their own superstitions and ceremonies, partly to the worship of idols and to the pestiferous doctrines of the Romish Pontiff, that unless a remedy be promptly provided, not only the weak lower orders, but the whole Irish people may be speedily infected, to their total destruction, by the example of these persons.” Limerick’s turn came in 1541. The prior, Fr Edmond, was seized and the property confiscated. It impossible to determine what precisely happened to the friars; no records exist. But several clues lead us to believe they remained active in the vicinity.
There is reference to three Dominican priests living in community in 1613, and to a community of six priests, under Fr Bernard O’Brien, an uncle of Fr Terence Albert O’Brien who was hanged by Cromwell’s son-in-law in Limerick in 1651. Indeed, it is suggested that – during the period of relative toleration in 1622, while Henry Falkland was Governor of Ireland – the oaken statue of the Virgin and Child, afterwards called ‘Our Lady of Limerick’, was first brought to the city and given to the Dominicans, who have retained it ever since.
The Confederation of Kilkenny brought more than a grudging tolerance. Catholics took possession of their churches again. How much remained of St Saviour’s, it is impossible to estimate. But the Dominicans resettled in the city. During this brief period of open Catholic life and worship there was a plan, at the General Chapter of 1644 “to open in the Province of Ireland five universities or ‘studia generalia’, for the five parts of this Province: the priories, namely, of Dublin, Limerick, Cashel, Athenry and Coleraine.” This ‘studium generale’, or Dominican house of studies, certainly functioned for a time in Limerick, since Fr Gregory O’Farrell is notes as teaching philosophy in Limerick, “where he was also an excellent master of studies.”
Fr Terence Albert O’Brien – beatified along with sixteen other Irish martyrs in 1992 – occupies a broader stage than the history of St Saviour’s priory, Limerick. In 1622 he was sent to Toledo for his studies. On his return to Ireland he was assigned to Limerick, where he was twice prior. He was elected Provincial at the chapter held in the Black Abbey in 1643. As Provincial he attended the General Chapter of 1644 in Rome, which so occupied itself with Irish affairs. Almost immediately afterwards he was appointed bishop of Emly. For his defiance of Ireton in the terrible siege of 1651, and for his martyr’s death, Terence Albert O’Brien is remembered with admiration. His pectoral cross is still to be seen in the Limerick priory.
Ireton’s terrible siege of Limerick has almost been over-shadowed by the more famous Williamite siege. But it claimed other Dominican lives too: some died on the scaffold, some by the plague which inevitable broke out in a walled city, closely beset. The description of the state of Catholic Ireland, after this first of Limerick’s sieges, in the Rinuccini MSS., is well-known: “The whole island, after laying down arms, is groaning in chains, the country dotted over with prisons and gibbets, savage inquisitors and heartless judges... barbarously sentencing so many to death that a great part of the island is saturated with blood... and the whole kingdom is confiscated and partitioned among Cromwell’s followers: a vile horde of robbers, who are the scum of the society of England.” It was at this terrible time that the first St Saviour’s was finally lost to the Dominicans of Limerick. Ferrar’s account of its fate has been simply repeated verbatim by all subsequent writers: “Some remains of the church and walls are now (1787) standing. Part of the ground has been converted into a tanyard... and another part was taken by government for a barrack, on a lease of an hundred years, which expired in 1779, and was converted into a brewery by Henry Rose Esq.”
But the Cromwellian persecutions came to an end. With the Stuart Restoration a toleration – at least connived at by the authorities – allowed some form of religious life to begin again in Limerick. No authority describes where exactly, in Limerick, the Dominicans settled. But community life – under the title of St Saviour’s – was certainly carried on. The records mention several names and describe the work these friars did. Even in this twilight period there were other Limerick Dominicans who were learned men. One was Fr James Arthur, who lectured in Salamanca, and who published two volumes of an intended twelve-volume commentary on St Thomas Aquinas. Other Limerick Dominicans to attain some academic fame were the two Fathers O’Heyne. Cornelius “studied at Rome and taught philosophy and theology at Prague in Bohemia with considerable success.” He was in London around the time of the Titus Oates persecution, which claimed the life of St Oliver Plunkett. He died in London in 1685. His brother Thady “taught for a long time in our college at Lisbon, where he was master of theology, and was also rector there.” Yet another O’Heyne – apparently not a relative, but also named Cornelius – “studied in Portugal and on his return distinguished himself by his zealous and exemplary life.... He died in 1690.” Thomas de Burgo “was a man of great talent, so that – at Louvain – he was proclaimed ‘the Thomist’.
The relaxation of penalties for Catholics under James II allowed the Dominicans to return – very briefly – to St Saviour’s. By this time there can have been little left of the priory or church. However, they were able to erect a chapel in the old abbey grounds. Here, some kind of community life again developed, as long as Limerick remained in Irish and Jacobite hands. The Williamite victory, and the surrender of the city, marked the going down of the sun and the beginning of a Penal night.
The framing of the Penal Code began in 1695. In 1697 and ‘Act banishing all Papists exercising any ecclesiastical jurisdiction and all Regulars of the Popish clergy out of the kingdom’ was passed. Despite this, many remained, at great peril to their lives since there was a bounty on their heads. But some of the Limerick Dominicans did fly with the Wild Geese and lived eventful lives, far from St Saviour’s. We read of one who became a hospital chaplain in Brittany; one who became an army chaplain at Ostend in Belgium; one became master of students, and then regent of studies, in Louvain....
As early as 1710, it is likely that the Dominicans of St Saviour’s, now of course in ruins, began to live again in community. Where, exactly, is a matter of some uncertainty; what is certain is that they had no chapel of their own. In 1766 they were living in Gaol Lane, and it was probably their first foundation in the new order of things. With the growth of toleration, the Dominicans sought a space for a public oratory. Ferrar writes: “The Dominican Friars have a small convenient chapel in Fish Lane, which was open for divine service on 26 October 1780.”
Fish Lane was eventually abandoned in 1815. Up to 1915 the remains were standing and the chapel was used as a store. But the roof fell in, and by 1927 hardly a vestige of the buildings remained. But the persistent seeker can still see, to this day, one wall, with an archway in red brick. It is all that remains of the Penal chapel which served the Dominicans of Limerick for so many years.
The move to the present site in Glentworth Street was inspired by Fr Joseph Harrigan, who was prior of the Fish Lane community in 1814. The foundation stone was laid on 27 March 1815, and the church was opened in the following year.