Holy Cross Priory is home to a small community of Dominican friars who have an active ministry to the local Catholic community.

The pastoral ministry of the friars is visible not only in the church, but also in the busy ‘hall door’ apostolate.


Founded 1243; reestablished 1861

Tralee Dominicans : survival and service

Fr Myles Nolan OP

In his definitive Discovering Kerry, T.J. Barrington adverts to what he calls ‘a most interesting antiquity in Tralee’: the ruins of a little church in Rath Cemetery. He comments: “It lost all claim to eminence when the Geraldines established the Dominicans in Tralee in 1243 and chose that priory as their burying place. Nonetheless, it survives even as a ruin when all traces of the Desmonds and their foundation have disappeared from Tralee.” Op. cit., pt. 3, n. 224.

The author is certainly correct about the almost complete disappearance of the original Holy Cross Priory. Writing around 1760, de Burgo, who wrote an authoritative history of Irish Dominican priories, describes his own inspection of the site: “Although the church and priory have been completely levelled, still on the site, or in streets nearby, there are still to be seen several burial stones…”; a few of which he then describes briefly. Some of these carved stones are now in the garden of the present Holy Cross Priory.

Although several sketches of long vanished Dominican priories in Ireland may be found in Speed’s Theatre of the Empire (1611), Tralee is not among them. Bt as late as 11946 it was claimed that fifteen arch-frames of the old Holy Cross cloisters were visible around Abbey St. Cf. Hayward R.: In the Kingdom of Kerry, pp. 264 sqq.; which contain a sketch of the arches then visible. Whether or not such ruins really were of the long-vanished Dominican Priory, all traces have since disappeared.

More than one observer has commented on the complete disappearance of the first Holy Cross; very few other Dominican foundations in Ireland have been so ruthlessly destroyed. One may surmise that the complete destruction was a deliberate attempt to blot out all memory of the Dominicans and their Geraldine protectors, as the reformation and the anglicisation of Ireland proceeded.

The link between the Geraldines and the Dominicans is clearly stated in one of the earliest accounts of the Dominican priories: “In county Kerry is a sea-port called Tralee, where a Dominican abbey was founded in 1243k, by John the son of Thomas Fitzgerald, both of whom are buried in the abbey church. From these have sprung the earls of Desmond….” O’Heyne, Irish Dominicans, Louvain, 1706.

Both the founding Fitzgerald and his son Maurice were killed in fighting the McCarthys; they were buried in the first Holy Cross. Full references are found in de Burgo and also in Coleman, A.: The Ancient Dominican Foundations in Ireland, Dundalk, 1902, op. cit., p. 65.

It is a measure of the paucity of records concerning Holy Cross, that de Burgo devotes so much space rather to the Geraldines. But ‘the records of this abbey are very scant’. Coleman, op. cit., p 65.

As in many Norman religious foundations, there may have, initially, been some tension between the first Dominican arrivals in Tralee and the Irish, who later sought admittance. All the more so, since the precise juridical position of Dominicans in Ireland, and the degree of independence which they enjoyed, is difficult to disentangle. (For a popular precis of such problems, cf. Pochin-mould, D.: The Irish Dominicans, pp. 18 sqq.). However, tension eased with the gradual assimilation of the Desmonds by the Irish. One of the de jure Earls of Desmond, John, died a Dominican in this abbey, a short time before the Christmas of 1536, and was buried there. Cf. Coleman, op. cit., p. 65.

There are no records of the work carried on by Tralee Dominicans during their centuries under Geraldine protection. But it is a reasonable assumption that life followed the general Dominican pattern: prayer in common in a large Dominican church whose characteristic feature must have been suitability for preaching; with decoration a distinctly secondary consideration.

Since Dominicans tended to work from relatively large centres of population, and since Tralee, during those centuries, can hardly be so described, one must suppose that members of the community travelled through the surrounding countryside to preach, instruct, and celebrate Mass.

It is perhaps sad that beautiful stories of Dominicans preaching the rosary, which afterwards became so linked with their Order, must be treated as no more than stories. Not until 1598 does there appear the fir5st record of a ‘Rosary Confraternity’ in Ireland: when the Dominican bishop of Clonfert – which had its own Kerry connections through Saint Brendan – established the confraternity in his diocese. But the history of the rosary as a prayer pattern, of especial importance in Irish practice, is a complex study…. It as certainly not preached from Holy Cross during its early centuries.

Holy Cross Priory provided two bishops of what is now called ‘the Diocese of Kerry’; but which was then sometimes named ‘the Diocese of Ardfert’. De Burgo records them as ‘Christianus’ about 1256, and Edmund of Caermarthen, about 1341. The last named shows clearly the Norman-Welsh origin of at least some of the Holy Cross Dominicans.

With the suppression of the monasteries, doubt immediately arises as to how long the Dominicans were allowed to retain possession. The State Papers of the time give no record of the priory or its possessions. But it is clear that by the 1580s the abbey buildings were in the possession of Sir Edward Denny, as partial reward for his work at the massacre of Smerwick Harbour. It seems to have been the fate of many religious houses in Munster, then devastated by the Desmond Rebellion, to become a military barracks. Thus on 29 March 1580 it was reported to the ‘Lords and Council in England’: “All the country between the earl’s house and Tralee as burnt by the rebels, and all the houses in Tralee burnt and the castles razed, saving the abbey. Finding the abbey a very convenient place for a garrison… I determined to have one band of horsemen and 300 foot, under Sir William Stantle.”Carew Papers: quoted Coleman, op. cit., p. 65.

As the to fate of the community during these years, one can only conjecture that the community ceased to exist, with individual Dominicans surviving as best they could. Barrington states, op. cit., III, n. 224, that ‘the friars were back in 1622. In 1633 there were twelve Dominicans in Kerry, presumably based in Tralee: they ran a school there at the time.’ The ‘presumably’ is important.There is no mention of a community in Tralee in the Irish Dominican Provincials’ accounts of 1622 and of 1629. As for 1633, a letter to Rome does speak of twelve Dominicans in the united Dioceses of Ardfert and Aghadoe, with one – unidentified – priory. However, there is mention in contemporary records of a statue of the Blessed Virgin, which was greatly venerated by the people.

The final destruction of Holy Cross came with Cromwell in 1652. The account of the arrest of Father Thaddeus Moriarty at the Mass rock in Kilcrohane Wood and his subsequent execution in Killarney on 15 October 1653, is well known. So it is mildly surprising to read in Barriington, op. cit., that the martyr’s arrest and execution were only ‘according to the story’….

Amongst the many Dominicans now scattered from Tralee, was a Father Thomas O’Quirke: ‘who was so learned and eminent a preacher’ that he was appointed preacher-in-ordinary to the Confederation of Kilkenny, ‘amongst whom he glorified God and brought honour to his own Order.’O’Heyne, op. cit., p. 113. Father Daniel – sometimes called Dominic – O’Daly founded the Irish Dominican communities in Lisbon and served in the Portuguese diplomatic service. He was born near Tralee, from a famous bardic family, a background which greatly inspired him in his history of the Desmond Geraldines. On this, presumably, de Burgo relies for his extensive notes on that family.

In O’Heyne’s time, the Dominicans of Tralee were widely dispersed. But later there seems to have been some attempt to form a community near Killarney. In the Lords’ Committee Returns of 1731 they are described as ‘doing much mischief…. For they confirm the papists in their superstitions and errors….’ Coleman, op. cit., p. 65

Catholic Emancipation brought no restoration of community life to the Dominicans in Tralee. But an invitation to return to the town from the then bishop, Dr David Moriarty, was accepted on 5 April 1861. The only two Tralee Dominicans mentioned by de Burgo acted as curates in the diocese. Cf. de Burgo, op. cit., p. 240. It is claimed that a Dominican, Father Shine, died in 1827 while parish priest of Brosna, but no authority is given for the claim. Cf. Barrington, op. cit., III, p. 224.

The Dominicans returned to a house in Day Place where a room was fitted up to serve as a chapel.Clearly some sort of school was opened, since in the then Tralee and Killarney Chronicle, of Tuesday, 4 November 1862, there is a long account of the opening of a temporary chapel, which included ‘a procession of the younger students of the Seminary under the care of the Dominican Fathers. The reporter marvels at how a one-time slaughter-house could have been so rapidly transformed into a chapel ‘capable of containing a thousand persons’.

Later, a church was begun, of which the corner stone was laid by Dr Moriarty on 15 August 1866. There exists a copy of a diary made by Robert O’Kelly, in which he records the efforts made by himself and other collectors, ‘and the spontaneous ways in which people gave their pennies’.

The present author can find no confirmation of the assertion made that the foundation stone ‘was laid by Edward Mulchinock, brother of the author of the “Rose of Tralee”. Cf. Hayward’s In the Kingdom of Kerry, p. 260. The design is by George Ashlin, who in partnership with the famous Pugin, built many of Kerry’s finest churches. This present Holy Cross was opened for Mass on 14 September 1871, the Feast of the Holy Cross.

Thus the Dominican priory of Holy Cross in Tralee reflects the history of the times: from Geraldine foundation, through Cromwellian destruction, to Catholic restoration, through the ‘pennies of the poor’. Its records from its earliest centuries are sparse after so turbulent a history. But survival and service are a true measure of success. In such ways have the Dominicans of Holy Cross, Tralee, despite long periods of decline and relative inertia, which seem to threaten final extinction, succeeded.

Fr Dominic O’Daly

Augustin Valkenburg, OP

Born at Kilsarkan in 1593, Donal O’Daly was known in the Order as Father Dominic of the Rosary, on the continent as Frey Domingo, to English diplomats as a meddlesome friar and a dangerous Irishman.

He came from a background of bardic culture. He compiled in Latin a history of the Desmond Geraldines who had been generous patrons of the Tralee Dominicans, and for whom the O’Dalys had made poetry for centuries. Doubtless, it was from the bards with their sense of d Holy Cross

rama that he inherited his adventurous spirit and the panache with which he carried out his diplomatic missions.

Dominic was professed at Lugo in Galicia, studied at Burgos and for a time after ordination taught theology in Bordeaux. On his return to Kerry he laboured zealously as a missioner, but was quick to perceive the dire shortage of priests in Ireland. He was appointed superior of the newly-founded Dominican College in Louvain. In 1634 he was in Lisbon engaged in helping to found a similar college in that city; at the time Belgium and Portugal were ruled by Spain. In recompense for generous help from the Spanish crown in founding the College of Corpo Santo at Lisbon, Dominic undertook a discreet diplomatic mission to England on behalf of Philip IV.

It suited both England and Spain to maintain an uneasy peace. Charles I was not interested in enforcing penal laws and Henrietta Maria, his Catholic queen, protected priests.

Dominic was in and out of the country before the story broke. Writing to the English ambassador at Madrid on 29 December 1637, an infuriated minister of state relates the news: “There was here last summer one Daly, an Irish friar, disguised and in the habit of a captain who came from Spain. It seems he is a very dangerous person and did practise much while lurked here.”

The ambassador was instructed to protest and demand to have the culprit punished.

Three years later Dominic ventured to land in England again. On this occasion the English ambassador was more in touch. He forwarded a description, a pen-picture in one sentence: “Hodal (Ó Dálaigh) is a very tall black man and speaks very big.” So the watch were on the lookout for very tall black men, and O’Daly was arrested shortly after landing. But all that was found on him were ‘letters to the ambassador of his Catholic Majesty at this court, concerned with the erection of a monastery of nuns in Flanders’.

This time it was the turn of the Spanish ambassador to protest. O’Daly was released from prison but ordered out of England.

At Lisbon, Dominic did not forget his own people. He interested the queen and several wealthy Portuguese ladies in the project of founding a convent for Irish girls who felt called to be nuns. The Dominican ‘Convento do Bom Successo’ was founded and exists to the present day.

In 1640 Portugal threw off Spanish rule. It was almost inevitable that a man of such immense ability and energy as Dominic, who never hid his sympathy with Portugal, should now be called upon. The new king, John IV, appointed him the ambassador of Portugal to the court of Louis XIV of France.

The ease with which he moved in the court circles of Europe and his ability in conducting delicate diplomatic negotiations never hindered him from being a good religious. He lived quietly in the Dominican priory but at the same time maintained his official position, even to the extent of giving Paris a firework display to mark the new king’s coronation.

In these years what deeply distressed him was the worsening news from Ireland: deaths, defeats, Cromwellian excesses. The pain and the pride come through in hisGeraldines. “Our empire was once bounded by the ocean, our fame by the stars, but now to be a Catholic is to be called a traitor, and to be a native, a rebel.

The General Chapter of the Order, held in Rome in 1650, with friars attending from the whole Catholic world, was greatly perturbed by the persecution of the Church in Ireland. Sensing their concern, Dominic added a valuable appendix toGeraldines: accounts based on contemporary evidence of nineteen Irish Dominicans who had recently died for the faith.

With refugees pouring in from Ireland, he negotiated, in 1659, the foundation of a much larger College of Corpo Santo. With the idea of financing it he accepted the bishopric of Coimbra, though he had always declined ecclesiastical preferment. But in the end there was no problem. He died 30 June 1662, before he could be ordained bishop. These are the concluding words of the Latin inscription on Dominic’s last resting place in Lisbon: “Successful in the royal legations he undertook, he was conspicuous for prudence, learning and piety.”


Fr Thaddeus (Tadhg) Moriarty OP

He was born in Castledrum in the parish of Milltown about 1603. His younger brother, Thomas, also became a Dominican. These two boys, and many others, were greatly influenced by Fr Dominic O’Daly, who during his years at home as a young priest, held school in secret.

Tadhg went overseas to prepare for the priesthood, studying in Toledo and later at the Dominican College in Lisbon, founded by Fr O’Daly to supply priests for the Irish mission. Indeed so many of its priests died for the faith in Ireland that the college became known as the ‘the seminary of martyrs’.The founder remembered Tadhg as a student: remarkable for humility and patience, one who never seemed to lose his good temper.

After ordination Tadhg returned to his native Kerry. In 1636 he is numbered among the Dominicans ministering in the diocese, and became one of the four professors in the short-lived seminary founded in Tralee by Bishop Rickard O’Connell. This was during the halcyon days of the Confederation of Kilkenny when Ireland was assured civil and religious liberty.

Disunity, defeat and the arrival of Cromwell put an end to the dream. In July 1652 Ross Castle and island, the last stronghold of the Irish in Kerry, surrendered to the Cromwellians. Ireland was now divided into fourteen ‘precincts’, each under a military commander. Brigadier John Nelson was in command of the ‘counties of Kerry and Desmond’. From 1652 to 1658 he wielded absolute power and exercised ruthless cruelty.

On 6 January 1653 the four parliamentary commissioners for the affairs of Ireland issued from Dublin a decree banishing Catholic priests. Within twenty days of that date all priests were to present themselves to the authorities to express their willingness to be transported overseas at the earliest opportunity. Failure to comply rendered a priest guilty of high treason, the penalty for which was death.

Many old and sick priests obeyed and were transported, others ignored the decree and went into hiding, others still were taken and executed. Deaf to all pleas, the commissioners reaffirmed the decree on June 10 of the same year. By this time the remaining Dominicans with their prior, Fr Moriarty, had left Tralee and withdrawn to Castlemaine, Moriarty country. There they posed as merchants. The only safe place to celebrate Mass, and it was not that safe, was at ‘Poll an Aifrinn’ in Kilclohane Wood. It has been said that at this time the Mass Rock there became the parish church of Milltown.

At dawn on 15 August 1653, while celebrating Mass there, Fr Tadhg Moriarty was taken by soldiers who probably came from Castlemaine Castle. They walked him all the way to Killarney, to Ross Castle, where Nelson had his Headquarters. For two months he was held there and grossly ill-treated.When stripped and flogged, he did not complain. His replies, when he was being interrogated, were so unfailingly truthful, simple and direct, that his opponents said he was a man who knew not how to lie.When asked by nelson why he did not obey the law of the country, Tadhg replied he was bound rather to obey the law of God and those who for him represented God and commanded him to exercise his priesthood.

He welcomed sincerely the news that he was condemned to death, and gave the messenger and the jailers the few coins he possessed. Availing of the condemned man’s privilege, he addressed the crowd from the scaffold at Martyrs’ Hill in Killarney. He spoke briefly from the faith, of the Catholic Church, of the brevity and uncertainty of life, and of martyrdom as the surest way to God.

His face, emaciated after months of semi-starvation and bearing the signs of torture, seemed to change and become transformed after death. This greatly consoled the Catholics present. Even the Cromwellians were forced into admiration. One of them remarked: “If ever a papist were a martyr, he certainly should be accounted one.” It was the 15 October 1653.

Address Holy Cross, Tralee

Address: Dominican community, Holy Cross, Tralee, Co. Kerry.

Tel.: (066) 71 21 135 (from outside Ireland: 00 353 66 71 21 135)

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Website: www.tralee.dominicans.ie

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Holy Cross, Tralee, Co. Kerry