Holy Cross Priory is one of the smaller communities of Dominicans in Ireland. The priory, or “friary” as it is known by the local people, is situated in the centre of Sligo town and much of the preaching of the friars is done in the priory or in the priory church.
Holy Cross is the only church run by religious in the diocese of Elphin. Along with preaching and daily Masses, particular emphasis is placed on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. A confessor is available throughout the whole day.
Many groups meet in the friary. Novenas during the year draws large crowds from the town and surrounding countryside. The community in Sligo is marked by service to the local church through preaching and prayer.
When the Dominicans first came to Ireland in 1224, the country had been under Norman rule for fifty years. They made their first foundations where the Normans were most strongly entrenched: at Dublin and Drogheda in 1224, and then (before 1230) at Kilkenny, Waterford, Limerick and Cork. It made sense for them to head first for the cities, especially in a country where even small cities were few and far between: having come to preach, they settled where there were large numbers of people.
Ten years later, in 1235, the Normans decided to attempt the conquest of Connacht. The lord justice, Maurice Fitzgerald, led 500 mounted knights with their troops across the Shannon. By the standards of the time, it was a mighty host, to which the men of Connacht offered little or no resistance.Although there had never been a town in Sligo before, it was a point of strategic importance o the natural road between Ulster and Connacht, and Fitzgerald built a small castle there and laid out a town of one street, without so much as a proper wall to protect it.
This same ‘conquest of Connacht’ soon led in 1241 to the establishment of the great Dominican priory of Athenry, the first house of the Order in Connacht. In 1252 there followed two more foundations: at Strade, Co. Mayo, and in Sligo itself. In Sligo the chosen site was outside the town, and so it remained ‘near Sligo’ for centuries to come. For friars forbidden by their rule to et meat, it was a great advantage to be able to fish from the end of their own garden. The priory was dedicated to the ‘Holy Cross’.
It would be wrong to imagine these early friars as simply the ‘spiritual wing’ of the Norman conquest.Many of them spoke Norman-French and came from England or France as the Normans did. But there were Irish-born friars too, and Irish rulers who welcomed them like Felim O’Connor, king of Connacht, who founded a friary at Roscommon in 1253, just one year after the Dominicans settled in Sligo. A member of the same royal family, Maurice O’Connor, entered the Order and became bishop of Elphin in 1266.
Parts of the present ruin of Holy Cross, the north and south walls of the choir or sanctuary area, with the sacristy and part of the chapter-room, go back to the 13thcentury.
Shortly before 1300 the Fitzgerald family left Sligo for good, retiring to their richer estates in Kildare and Munster. The political vacuum was filled by O’Conor Sligo and his overlord Richard de Burgo, the Red Earl, virtual ruler of Ulster and Connacht until his death in 1326. These Norman de Burgos very soon changed their name to Burke, adopted Irish speech and dress, and came to rule the whole of Connacht. The Red Earl, who built a fine castle at Ballymote in 1300, restored the smaller castle at Sligo in 1310.
Sligo was a sea-port, and suffered greatly in the Black Death (1347), because the bubonic plague was brought to Ireland by rats on board ships. This plague, which had come to Ireland before and was to return every ten or twenty years up to 1385, undermined the morale even of the religious Orders.They went into decline, not only in Ireland but throughout western Europe, not to recover for almost fifty years.
Under the year 1414, the Annals of Ulster record that “the monastery of Sligo was totally burned by a candle in the spring of this year.” The fire probably gutted the priory and certainly damaged the church. However, the flames must have spared the north wall of the nave and both walls of the chancel, since they are standing to this day. The work of restoration can still be seen: they rebuilt the south wall of the nave, replaced the east window in the chancel, and put a new roof on the whole complex. They also built a tower or belfry, narrower than the church and not particularly high, between nave and chancel. Against the tower, on the western side – facing the people in the nave – they then placed a stone rood-screen. This formed a gallery seven feet deep from one side of the church to the other. Two parallel arcades of three arches, supported by octagonal columns, carried a ribbed vault, on top of which stood the actual ‘rood’ or cross of the Crucifixion, probably in wood.The beautiful cloister so much admired today, and the south aisle and south transept, belong to a later period.
The vitality of the community of Holy Cross, despite all local difficulties, was shown in 1488 when they founded a new community at Cloonymeehan. Shortly before or after 1500, the fabric of Holy Cross was again improved by the addition of the present south aisle and transept, which greatly increased the capacity of the church. The conventual buildings too date largely from this time, particularly the cloister arcades with their delicate carvings, now the most attractive feature of the whole complex. Since these arcades support the room above them, the upper rooms cannot be earlier in date. Among them, the refectory is the most interesting because of the unusual ‘reader’s desk’.This was set into the thickness of the wall, with a triple arcade in front of the reader and an oriel window (supported by an external corbel) at his back to throw light on the page.
The high altar within the church probably belongs to this particular phase of renovation. It is much admired as the only sculptured example from the 15thcentury to survive in any Irish monastic church.
Meanwhile the educational aspect of Dominican work was not being neglected. It is known that theology was being taught there. Some of the young Dominicans probably studied there, while others were sent to Oxford or Paris.
From their first coming to Ireland, the Dominicans constituted only a ‘vicariate’, subject to the provincial of England. In 1484 Ireland became a ‘province’ of the Order in its own right, and in this new Irish province Richard Hart, a member of the Sligo community who had studied in England, played no small part. In 1488 he promoted fifteen young Dominicans to holy orders. In 1491 he sailed to France to attend a general chapter of the Order. There he was named master of theology (a Dominican title given to eminent theologians). But the same chapter declared that the Irish province would have to revert to the status of a vicariate, some legal difficulty having come to light.
While Henry VIII set to work on the suppression of religious houses in Ireland as early as 1537, this royal policy could be implemented only in areas over which he had strong control. Since Gaelic Ireland strongly resisted the new state church and the confiscation of abbeys, Holy Cross in th remote north-west escaped serious interference for another fifty years. Most other Dominican houses in Leinster, Munster and even coastal Ulster were auctioned off by 1541. Yet all unwittingly the king did the Irish Dominicans a good turn. His virtual destruction of the Order in England enabled the Irish friars to assert their independence and achieve the long-sought status of a ‘province’ of the Order in 1536. Whatever problems the future might hold, they would never again be subject to a superior in England nor to any vicar of his in Ireland.
Sligo was to become a house of strict observance, but some concessions were made to human frailty: the friars were allowed to wear linen next to their skin and even to eat meat three times a week. A remarkable figure from that community was Eugene O’Hart, a native of Co. Sligo, who studied in Salamanca and then for eight years in Paris. On his return he became prior of the community. The clergy of Connacht chose him to attend the Council of Trent as their procurator. He was ordained bishop of Achonry, showed great adroitness in dealing with the government, and died in his bed in 1603.
Another prominent Sligo Dominican was Andrew O’Crean, who was prior of Holy Cross in 1562 when he was made bishop of Elphin. On his refusal in 1584 to take the oath of supremacy, he gave up the temporalities of the see but ruled the diocese until 1594. His episcopate spanned the period during which the English authorities, beginning with visits of ‘courtesy’, worked towards the establishment of a garrison in 1581 and the confiscation of monastic property in 1584. Queen Elizabeth spared Holy Cross as a favour to a local family, O’Conor Sligo, because their ancestors were buried there. “The house of the friary of Sligo, wherein the sepulture of his ancestors hath been, shall be so preserved, as the friars there, being converted to secular priests, the same house may remain and continue....” But since she had no army in Connacht to carry out her commands, no one paid any attention.
The establishment of an English garrison at Sligo was soon followed in 1584 by ‘inquisitions’ of Dominican property at Ballindoon, Cloonymeehan and Sligo itself, now judged to be the property of the crown. In 1595 O’Donnell occupied Sligo. To drive him out, Sir Richard Bingham quartered his troops in Holy Cross itself and pulled down the rood-screen. It was probably at this time that the community dispersed.
The end of Gaelic Ireland, signalled by the battle of Kinsale and the Flight of the Earls, left the friars of Sligo to fend for themselves in a largely hostile world. Holy Cross was used as a court-house, and a Fr Macduane was quite alone in Sligo as his life drew to a close in 1608. To those about him he confidently foretold that another Dominican would come to Sligo in time to give him the last sacraments.
Daniel O’Crean, a young man fresh from his studies in Lisbon, arrived unexpectedly to comfort the old priest in his final moments. It was this young man who was to play a large part in the recovery of the Irish province. He was vicar-provincial in 1617, and prior of Holy Cross in 1624 and again in 1627, with a community of about 15. In that year, Dominicans came from every part of Ireland for a provincial chapter – which must mean that they had full possession of church and priory.
The 1630s were a time of bitter persecution. Holy Cross was reduced to ruins, the church was used as a court-house, and the Dominicans hid in caves and woods. They had managed somehow to regain possession by the time of the revolution in 1641.
The uprising is a story of atrocities on both sides. But there were stories of tolerance too. One of the Dominicans, Hugh McMartin, brought a Protestant into the priory for his own safety, but the man went out and was killed. The same happened to a woman, protected in the priory. If the Catholics of Sligo spilt innocent blood they paid for it tenfold in July 1642 when Sir Frederick Hamilton made a dawn-attack on Sligo with horse and foot. This is his own chilling account: “We fell on a great many good houses full of people near the bridge, and burned and destroyed them all. At the end of the town we crossed the river, which brought us close to the friary, burned the superstitious trumperies of the mass and many things given for safety to the friars.... It was thought some of the friars themselves were burnt; two of them running out were killed in their habits. Wearisome our march and hot our service in burning that night the town of Sligo, where it is confessed by themselves we destroyed more than 300 souls by fire, sword and drowning, to God's everlasting honour and glory and our comfort.”
After Hamilton’s raid, the war dragged on with Sligo still in Confederate hands until 1645 when it was taken by Parliamentarian forces under Sir Charles Coote with terrible loss of life. The Confederates recaptured Sligo in 1649 and held out until July 1642, even after Limerick and Galway had finally surrendered to the Cromwellians. After this ten-year struggle there was nothing left of Sligo “but some few bare walls and a company of poor Irish cabins dot distinguish the place where it stood.”
Simply to be a priest, for most of the 1650s, was a capital crime. The Dominican Thaddeus Moriarty of Tralee, for this alone, was hanged in 1653. And yet, surprisingly, there is a list of 60 Dominican priests and 14 brothers still on the mission in 1657, resisting as best they could the full blast of Cromwellian persecution.
The restoration of Charles II to the throne of England in 1660 brought to a close Cromwell’s campaign against the Mass itself and all who celebrated it. While the clergy, and particularly the friars, had still much to suffer from time to time, the worst was over, for the time being; and the task of reorganisation fell to john O’Hart of Sligo, provincial in 1659 and leader of the province for ten years. He opened a house of studies at Athenry, presided at a provincial chapter at Roscommon in 1661. But persecution began to rage again, and from 1664 he was imprisoned for eighteen months in Dublin, partly for moving about the country on visitation and partly for rejecting an anti-papal oath of allegiance. Another son of Holy Cross, Felix O’Connor, died in jail at Sligo in 1679. Under the Catholic King James II, who ruled from 1685 until his defeat at the Boyne in 1690, it became easier for the friars to put their affairs in order.
But after 1690 the surrounding countryside was in a pitiful state, the fields lying waste horses and cattle hardly to be found, the houses of gentry and peasants alike standing roofless and in ruins.Within the town, most of the houses had been demolished and all public buildings destroyed, while food was extremely dear. The Dominicans survived the war – the community numbered nine in 1696 – but the novices and students had gone, as though in preparation for the exile of all the bishops and friars of Ireland in 1698. Despite the decree of banishment, five Dominicans remained.
John Brett, Dominican bishop of Elphin, reported in 1753 that Catholics outnumbered Protestants in Sligo town by three to one, and in the countryside by thirty to one. For the time being it was not in the interests of magistrates and sheriffs to harass friars once they caused no trouble. They worked on Napoleon’s principle that one good priest is more effective than ten policemen and costs a great deal less.
Fr Laurence Connellan was prior of Sligo for most of the period between 1760 and 1790, and devoted much of his energy to finding a place for the friars to live. The community rented a few rooms in Pound St., now Connolly St., to serve as a priory, and “hired a small stable at the back which they fitted up as a chapel.” A builder names Thomas Corcoran began to use Holy Cross as a quarry until stopped by Fr Connellan. Taking advantage in 1783 of the greater freedom granted to Catholics, Fr Connellan took a lease on their poor chapel. Thomas Brennan, prior from 1795, began to make serious repairs and improvements. Even today three walls of the chapel survive. He also attended to the old priory where with the help of Catholic and Protestant friends he repaired the surrounding wall and erected an iron gate. He died in 1814 after a ministry of some thirty years in Sligo.
For the next thirty years the people of Sligo suffered great poverty and hardship, partly because of the steep rise in the population. Continuous rain in 1817 led to the failure of the potato and oats crops, causing famine, while typhus and even cholera spread across much of the country. In 1822 there was another and even more severe famine, while in 1832 a cholera epidemic forced 15,000 people to abandon Sligo for some months and claimed 600 lives. It was a period of declining numbers in the Order, during which many houses, having held out for centuries, finally disappeared. Sligo, however, survived.
Fr Thomas Hibbets, who came to Sligo in 1834 and remained till his death in 1891, was the driving force in the building of a new church and priory on High Street. The work began in June 1845. No one could have foreseen the terrible famine that was to devastate the country. Funds were solicited from other houses and from abroad. All the work was done by local people. On 6 January 1848 the church was opened and dedicated. The community continued to live in Pound St. for another 20 years. A new priory was built adjoining the church in 1865. The church was considerably enlarged in 1900.
Even so, by 1955 the church was proving too small for the number of worshippers attending it. Besides, the roof, damaged by a great storm in 1961, infested with woodworm and leaking in many places, was considered highly dangerous. The walls, too, were unsound. It was decided to build a new church on the same location. The final Mass was celebrated in the old church on 12 May 1971. The former apse with its mosaics was left standing in nostalgic remembrance of the old church. The new church was opened and dedicated on 13 May 1973.