The Dominican community of St Eustace has as its primary ministry the welfare of the students in its secondary school, Newbridge College. The friars are teachers, chaplains, and administrators in the college. They also have a liturgical and sacramental apostolate in the priory church, in the local parish, and to the Lay Dominicans. Some are involved in wider apostolates including Dominican Publications and the Priory Institute.
Founded at Naas 1356; transferred 1829
The Dominican priory of Naas, founded in 1356, was the twenty-eighth foundation of the Dominican Order in Ireland. Earlier foundations included Dublin and Drogheda (1224), Kilkenny (1225), Waterford (1226), Limerick (1227), Cork (1229) and Athy (1257). The Naas priory was founded by the Normal family of FitzEustace and was, as a result, dedicated to Saint Eustace. The legend of Saint Eustace recounts how the saint was converted to Christ when the stag he was hunting stood at bay before him with a crucifix between its antlers. This motif appears on the college coat of arms.
The priory was suppressed in 1540, and between that date and 1640 few records survive, even though it is known that the friars remained in the area. There was a Dominican presence in Naas in 1641 – as we know from the story of Blessed Peter O’Higgins. Even after the Cromwellian occupation had begun and conditions had become precarious, the Dominicans did not leave, at least not until the general exile of 1698 when all bishops and religious were banished under pain of death.
The Penal Laws were enacted in 1690 and were rigorously enforced for some fifty years. However, by 1750 the friars began to work more or less openly again. While there may have been some small communities of friars in the cities, in the country the friars lived alone. In 1782 the Penal Laws were officially revoked, but it was stipulated that there should be no new friars.
In the mid-18th century there was no town of Newbridge, the area being part of the Barony of Connell. In 1780 a bridge was built across the river Liffey a short distance upstream from the existing bridge. In 1816 a large cavalry barracks which accommodated 1800 horse was constructed nearby. This was needed in order extend security outside Dublin after the rebellion of 1798, and again during the Napoleonic wars. The town, now known as Droichead Nua or Newbridge, grew up around this complex.
The Dominicans came to Newbridge in 1756, and the foundation of Naas was officially transferred to there in 1769 or 1777. Fr John Daly was the first prior of the transferred house, and he wrote, “Fr Hugh Reynolds lived permanently in the Naas district, the others being scattered throughout various parts of the [Irish Dominican] Province.... When some of the more prominent inhabitants of the village of Newbridge, following popular demand, invited him thither, he built a small cabin on the commons, at a place called Cluin in Irish, taking in from the commons, about three acres of land.” The present-day priory, church and college gradually developed from this cabin.
The present church of St Eustace, Newbridge, is the third church on this site, having been preceded by one built in 1870, which itself replaced the original church dating from 1819. It was blessed by Cardinal Michael Browne OP in 1966.
Blessed Peter O’Higgins OP (1602 – 1642)
Peter O’Higgins was born in Dublin about 1602 during the severe persecution under James I. He was educated secretly in Ireland and later in Spain. With the accession of Charles I in 1625, a limited tolerance obtained, and Peter came back to Dublin and was sent to re-open the Dominican house in Naas. Naas was within the Pale where English law was in force, even though most of the big landowners were still Catholic. While Peter had to be careful, he still managed to have a Mass-house of sorts.
At this time William Pilsworth was Church of Ireland Vicar of Donadea. He was the son of the Anglican Bishop of Kildare who was a tolerant man. The Vicar was an exact contemporary of Peter’s and their paths were later to cross. Another, more famous, contemporary was Lord Deputy Wentworth who had close connections with Naas at this time and whose great house at Jigginstown nearby as then nearing completion. Wentworth spent much of his time there. According to the historian Richard Cox, author of Hibernia Anglicana: “Wentworth was exposed to the hatred of the Puritans... by allowing public Mass-houses at Naas, so near his own house, and by permitting friars to dwell in a house of his own which he had built for other purposes.”
Then came the 1641 rebellion – an inevitable explosion resulting from the plantations, evictions and persecutions of the period. Eleven years of bitter warfare followed during which conflicting interests crossed and criss-crossed: Irish versus Old English; both versus New English; Catholic versus Protestant; Puritan versus Anglican, etc. In County Kildare the immediate consequence was the total collapse of law and order. While there is no record of actual bloodshed, plunder became a daily occurrence. The property of landowners, Protestant and Catholic, know to be government supporters, was looted and their cattle and horses driven off. The terrified owners fled to Dublin.
William Pilsworth, Rector of Donadea, was late in escaping to Dublin, and when he was stopped by rebel soldiers he was found to be carrying a letter from his brother-in-law asking him to help in bringing the head of a rebel leader to Dublin. Arrested immediately, he was offered his life if he agreed to attend Mass; but this he refused to do. He wrote later that, when he was on the gallows, “a priest whom I never saw before, made a long speech on my behalf saying that this... was a blood inhuman act that would... draw God's vengeance on them. Whereupon I was brought down and released.” The priest was Peter O’Higgins.
These cruel days were the setting in which Peter O’Higgins showed heroic charity. While the opposing parties were trying to provoke a war of religion, he took his stand as a true minister of religion in the genuine sense of the word. Making no distinction of race or creed, he sheltered the homeless and restrained the violent.
The government was moving to take charge of the situation in the Naas area. A certain Robert Bysse, who worked in the court of chancery in Dublin, wrote to his brother: “Our army marched to Naas and found no fortification or enemy. Very many of the inhabitants of worth had fled. There was taken on Father Heggin, a prior there, and Thomas and Walter Ashe of that town. These were taken to Dublin.” Peter could probably have escaped before the advancing army had arrived, but he remained, since he had committed no offence.
As Peter had voluntarily surrendered to Ormonde’s army, Ormonde himself was accused some ten years later of having unjustly shed the priest’s blood. At this time, Ormonde was trying to enlist foreign help to restore Charles II to the English throne, and since the charges were serious, he had to defend himself. In 1653 the defence of Ormonde was taken up by Richard Bellings, who wrote: “Ormonde gave Peter Higgins in charge of Sir Thomas Armstrong, who commanded the cavalry. Coote [governor of Dublin and the villain of this story] who had received from the Lords Justices power of life and death over priests and Irishmen of low degree, happened to be in Naas at the time and claimed the Dominican as his by right. On his return to Dublin, Ormonde presented petitions from at least twenty Protestants that the priest’s life might be spared. All of these owed their lives and their property to him, and most of them drew up their petitions at the suggestion of Ormonde himself. The latter expected that the priest would soon be released. He was amazed when a servant of his, who happened to be crossing the Green on the morning of the execution, told him he had seen the dead body ‘hanging from the gallows.’”
The earliest account of Peter’s harsh imprisonment and death was published together with the decisions of the Dominican General Chapter held in Rome in 1644. The Irish prior Provincial, Fr Terence Albert O’Brien – who would himself be hanged in 1651 – spoke to the gathering about the sufferings of the Irish Church and related the story of Peter O’Higgins. The Justices were prepared to grant the prisoner his freedom provided he publicly renounced his Catholic faith. He requested that their offer be put in writing and handed to him on the gallows.
The gallows stood on the west side of the open area corresponding to the present Stephen’s Green. Though it was early morning, a crowd had gathered to witness the execution. Some looked forward to hearing a priest deny his faith. When it came to the turn of Fr O’Higgins, a document was handed to him as he stood on the scaffold. The substance of what he then said was recalled years afterwards in Paris by an eye-witness of the scene: “See here the condition on which I am granted my life. They want me to deny my religion. I spurn their offer. I die a Catholic and a Dominican priest. I forgive from my heart all who have conspired to bring about my death.”
He then threw the document to a friend in the crowd, and nodded to the hangman. With the words “Deo gratias”, he died. It was 23rd March 1642. Among the crowd at the foot of the scaffold was a Protestant clergyman who wept openly and shouted out: “This man is innocent. He saved my life.” William Pilsworth, rector of Donadea, was ;snot wanting in courage, but his words fell on deaf ears.
Seventeen Irish martyrs were beatified in 1991. Two Dominicans were included in the list: Terence Albert O’Brien and Peter Higgins. Blessed Peter’s feast is celebrated on 23 March.
The work of Fr Henry Flanagan OP (1918 – 1992)
“Essentially I am a preacher. When people die their words are forgotten. But I hope when I die my statues and paintings will continue to preach.”
“Henry Flanagan was in himself a remarkable man, even apart from his achievement as a sculptor. He was pedagogue, cleric, musician, trainer of the young, enthusiast in various fields – in short, an inspirational personality who somehow also found the time and energy to be an artist in a particularly demanding field.”
So begins Brian Fallon in his essay on this highly respected and influential artist. Born in Dublin in 1918, Henry Flanagan joined the Dominican Order in 1936. It appears he had some training as a sculptor, but was largely self-taught. He used to describe himself as more a preacher in stone than an artist in the conventional sense. Fallon makes analogies between his approach to art and mediaeval stoneworkers. Fr Flanagan’s other great interest was music, which he was passionate about. “Music is in my blood,” he said, “it’s my first love.”
As well as working as a sculptor, he taught in Newbridge College. He was also involved in many extra-curricular activities, organising the Arts and Crafts Club, the school choir, and an adult group called the Aquinas Singers. With this range of endeavour, it is easy to see how his influence as an artist and as a man of culture touched so many people.
One of his past pupils, the writer and journalist James Downey, paid a moving tribute to him shortly after his death at the age of 73. He recalled a man with “an imposing bearing, more aristocratic than aesthetic,” who denounced the narrowness of the educational curriculum, tried to pass on to his students his love of art and architecture and Haydn and Italian opera, and was “a preacher who combined piety with elegance.” Downey summed up: “I have never known anybody quite like him.... Politicians and educational theories come and go, but the tradition represented by Henry Flanagan will live on.”
Riverbank Arts Centre organised a retrospective exhibition of his work in 2002, and published a handsome book entitled Henry Flanagan OP: Preacher in Stone in 2003. The exhibition presented a cross-section from his very large body of work (over 400 pieces) over a forty- year period, including both religious and secular works. It illustrated his talent for working in various media, especially stone and wood.
Notable public sculptures by him include the statue in Kilkenny limestone of St Colman in Newry cathedral, the touching figure of Mary (also in limestone) in the grounds of St Clare’s church in Graiguecullen, Co Carlow, various pieces in Newbridge College chapel, including a fine Madonna and Child in polished limestone, and Stations of the Cross in bog yew. Another well-known work in Newbridge is the statue of Peter O’Higgins, Dominican martyr of the Cromwellian wars. The large St Killian in Mullagh, Co. Cavan, was one of his favourite creations, and epitomises his style at its best – sincere, monumental, dignified, with a lack of fussiness, and only the most salient details included. Over busy, productive decades he mastered a range of techniques and materials – wood and stone, concrete and metal, clay and plaster, copper and bronze, even enamels – and had a thoroughly professional and self-critical approach to his work. His large commissioned works include some of the most convincing public sculptures created in Ireland over the past half-century. The big, genial artist-teacher-musician of Newbridge – to use a sculptural metaphor – carved his own niche in the Irish pantheon.