Dominican Priory History

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Dominican Priory History

The Athenry Dominican Priory by Dr. Jim McKeon

The Dominican Priory of Saints Peter and Paul was founded c.1241, principally by Meiler de Bermingham, but also by a number of Anglo-Norman and Irish noblemen and women. Meiler donated the lands and built the church, Felim O’Conor built the refectory, Eugene O’Heyne the dormitory and Cornelius O’Kelly the chapter house; several other benefactors patronised the building of the cloister, the infirmary, the great guest house, a hospital, and also contributed to a number of other works. A house for scholars was also built at the priory. Gifts donated to the priory during the 13th and 14th centuries included wine jars, horses, gold and silver and English cloth, in addition to land and money for construction work and provisions. We know much about the priory due to the survival of a near-contemporary Latin manuscript—Regestum Monasterii Fratrum Praedicatorum De Athenry: Register of the priory of Athenry—that records some of its early history, patrons, building works and those buried there. Towards the mid 1600s the priory briefly enjoyed university status until it was sacked and desecrated by Cromwell’s troops c.1652.

Today only the ruined church building survives, comprising a nave and chancel, a north aisle and transept and a sacristy to the south. The structural and architectural evidence indicates three main phases of medieval construction broadly in accordance with that indicated in the Latin Register. The initial phase dates to the mid 13th century, beginning c.1241, and consisted of a long rectangular nave and chancel building. The second phase occurred during the late 13th or early 14th century, at which time rebuilding work was carried out on the west gable, and an aisle and transept were added on the north side of the church. A third major building phase occurred during the 15th century, which included the erection of a crossing-tower, the replacement of a number of windows, the blocking of doors, and the reduction of the aisle arcade. Apart from the collapse of the tower in 1845 and the resulting damage, and the disappearance of conventual buildings, the ruined priory we see today is essentially that which stood after the third phase of construction in the 15th century.

Dominican priory athenry

The church contains both plain lancet windows and those with elaborate tracery, and includes numerous examples of finely carved stonework. Among these are four ornately carved tomb niches in the nave that—like the castle—include architectural elements of the Transitional period between Romanesque and Gothic, such as foliage, nail-head, chevron and cable designs. Many of those motifs also occur at ecclesiastical foundations west of the river Shannon, including Killaloe and Corcomroe in Co. Clare; Ballintober in Co. Mayo; Kilmacduagh and Clonfert in Co. Galway; and Boyle Abbey, in Co. Roscommon. The occurrence of these ‘School of the West’ motifs in the tomb-niches at Athenry dates those monuments and the nave to the initial construction phase of the priory around 1241, and may represent the architectural expression of Gaelic benefactors, many of who are named in the Register. As such, they indicate co-operation, and perhaps even assimilation, between the Anglo-Norman and Gaelic aristocracy at that time.

The priory church and graveyard also include a large number of beautifully decorated grave-slabs and mausoleums dating from the 13th to the 19th century. The earlier, medieval grave-slabs are coffin-shaped and undated, and most display carved crosses and fleur-de-lis motifs. Many of the post-medieval and later slabs display interesting and elaborate iconography, including religious and vocational symbols (e.g. anvils, shears, hammers, etc.) and heraldic devices.

The magnificent architectural and monumental remains of the Dominican priory reveal a dynamic and heavily patronised building which enjoyed three main periods of construction during the medieval period that broadly comply with the historical evidence contained in the Priory Register. One of the most significant aspects of the priory was the apparent cooperation between the Anglo-Norman and Irish aristocracy with regard to its building and continued support. Athenry was very much an Anglo-Norman town, yet Gaelic names rank high among the benefactors of the priory and their influence can also be seen in the fabric of the church. The contribution that women made to the priory is also well documented in the Register, though architectural evidence of this remains elusive. Despite the political and cultural divisions of the Anglo-Norman and Gaelic lords, the Dominican order at Athenry clearly benefited from cooperation, or perhaps competition, between the two communities, revealing that the frontier society of south Connacht was not as polarised as might be expected.

Stages in the building of the church in the Dominican Priory of SS Peter and Paul, Athenry, Co. Galway

Church Stages


The Dominican Priory by Prof. Etienne Rynne 

In 1324 William de Burgh (Burke) and his wife Fionnula gave 100 marks towards building the front of the church (the west end, now largely destroyed by a handball alley built into it about the turn of the century) and also lengthened the choir of the then rectangular building by extending it eastwards by 20 feet. The north aisle and transept were probably built about the same time; worthy of note is the transept's fine north window, with its tracery of curved-sided triangles, best paralleled at Merton College, Oxford, in the Bishop's House and Chapter House at Wells, Somerset, and In the Great Hall of The Desmond Castle, Newcastle West, Co. Limerick.

In 1400 Pope Boniface IX granted a Bull of Indulgence to those who visited the priory on certain festival days and who contributed alms towards its upkeep. In 1423 the priory was, accidentally burnt and Pope Martin V granted another Bull of Indulgence to those who contributed to its repair, an Indulgence which was renewed in 1445 by Pope Eugenius, there being about thirty friars there at the time. Alterations made during this lengthy period of rebuilding included reduction of the size of the east window, replacing Its ornamental cusped tracery by the more severe switch-line variety, the insertion of an altar-alcove into the north wall of the choir, the replacement/insertion of the north doorway into the transept, and the heightening of the roof of the cloistral ambulatory. The major change, however, was the construction of a large central tower, which necessitated strengthening the aisle's columns and reducing Its arches; under the tower was erected a roodscreen, of which there are only three other examples in Ireland.

The priory escaped suppression in the Dissolution of Henry VIII, thanks to the Intervention of Deputy Anthony Sentleger who in a letter dated the 7th of July 1541 stated that as it "is situated amongst the Irishry ... our saide sovereign lord shoulde have lyttle or no profit", despite which the custos of the friary Adam Copynger, and his fellow-friars had to agree to change "their habit and wedes of a ffriar into a secular habit". In 1574, however, Queen Elizabeth 1 granted the friary buildings and lands to the provost and burgesses of Athenry for 26/6 (£1.35) yearly.

In 1627 Charles I granted the priory to four Galway merchants as assignees of Sir James Craig (a Scotsman associated with the Plantation of Ulster) to hold it for the king. These merchants, however, were well-disposed towards the friars and the Dominicans were therefore able to re-establish themselves in Athenry in 1638. There followed a brief period of restoration work, the sacristy and perhaps the hagioscope/'leper squint'/ penitent's cell' in the south wall of the nave apparently being additions dating from then. In 1644, during the period of the Confederation of Kilkenny, the priory of Athenry was erected into a University for the Dominican Order by the decree of a General Chapter held in Rome.

Disaster befell the monastery in 1652 when Cromwellian soldiers wrecked the buildings, a record of which is to be found on a carved stone plaque dated 1682, now mounted in the north wall of the church.
In the mid-18th century the cloistral buildings were demolished and a barracks for a regiment of English soldiers built there. These soldiers are recorded as having broken or defaced nearly all the tombs and other carved stones in the priory. About 1850 the soldiers moved to the new barracks built in Cross Street, and about 40 years later the abandoned barracks was demolished and the houses of Abbey Row built.

An illustration of 1793 shows the church roofless but with its central tower intact. The tower, however, fell in 1845, the best evidence remaining for its former existence being its spiral staircase which can best be seen from the outside.

Grave slabs and tomb

Quite apart from the interesting architectural remains, the priory is also noteworthy for many fine grave-slabs and for two fine tombs. The grave-slabs include a long, low, house-shaped one with a cross carved in relief at either end which is most probably the grave-marker for Meiler de Bermingham, founder of the priory. Most of the other grave-slabs are of 17th century date. These include a fine one dated 1627 for John Burke and his wife Katren which is not only carved with intricate cross and animal figures but also has interlaced patterns carved along some of its beveled edges. Many of the slabs show the tools associated with the person buried, in most cases farm workers whose grave slabs were marked with a plough-soc and a coulter; only one, dated 1697 and for William Boyne (?Royne), has a complete plough carved on it. Worthy of note also is the grave-slab mounted against the wall against the wall inside the present entrance which is dated 1631 and not only has a triketra knot carved on it but also a large woodworker's axe head, an anvil, and other tools. The finest such grave-slab, however, is that of Blacksmith called Tannian. It is dated 1682 and carved with a cross on either side of which are two bellows, an anvil, a horse-shoe, a claw-headed hammer, a pincers and an augur.

Grave slab detail - athenry dominican priory
Grave slab detail

The two large tombs are noteworthy, particularly the larger one, centrally placed in the choir. It was erected for Lady Mathilda Birmingham who died aged 20 years and 10 months in 1788, fourth daughter of Thomas Earl of Louth, Baron of Athenry and premier baron of Ireland - the last of his line. The tomb is now sadly damaged, apparently by British soldiers searching for treasure before they left Athenry forever in 1922, but is still of special importance for its stucco decoration: one panel mentions Coade of London and the date 1790 while the urn atop the monument shows portrait-heads of Lady Mathilda and is inscribed "Coade Lambeth 1791"; Coade was a Londoner who became famous for his invention of a stone like material known as Coadestone, the secret of its manufacture dying with him.

The other tomb is in the extreme south-east corner of the church. Its importance lies not in itself but in that it belonged to the De Burgh family and was "repaired" by one of them, Ulick John Marquis of Clanricarde, in 1835. The family motto UN ROY, UNE FOY, UNE LOY (one king, one faith, one law) is carved on the coat of arms.

The earliest funerary monument is the long, low, house-shaped one with a cross carved in relief at either end. Unique in Ireland, this is, presumably that of Meiler de Bermingham who died In 1252. The next earliest is inscribed with a cross of apparently late 15th century date, but bears neither date nor name. The earliest named grave slab is that of Lady Mariota de Burgo which has a fine cross and is dated 1615, but easily the finest is that of John Burke, his ancestors, and Katren Burke, his wife which is dated the 12th of 80ber [October] 1627; it is decorated with an intricate double-ended cross, some animals, and Late Medieval 'Celtic' interlace on all but one of its beveled sides. A grave slab bearing a cross and the date 1631 also has 'Celtic' ornament in the form of a triquetra knot. This slab also has some implements carved on it, including a large woodsman's axe head, and is thus the earliest of the many 17th century grave slabs in the Priory which indicate the occupation of the deceased. Several of these bear the coulter and soc (share) of a plough, and one, dated 1697, a complete plough. The finest of these occupational grave slabs is that of a blacksmith called Thomas Tanian who died in 1682; it shows two large bellows, an anvil, a horseshoe, a claw headed hammer, a pincers and an augur.

The most interesting of the wall-plaques Is that dated 1682, which is inscribed in English, French and Latin, and with one word apparently in Irish; it records. inter alia, the destruction wrought by the Cromwellians some thirty years earlier.

The larger of the two tombs is that of "the Rt. Honble Lady Mathilda Birmingham, fourth daughter of Thomas Earl of Louth, Baron of Athenry and premier baron of Ireland". She died on the 31st of May 1788. Her father was the first and the last Baron of Athenry to inherit also the Earldom of Louth, and with his death both titles died out. The tomb is notable for its now sadly damaged but fine stucco-work, one panel of which is signed Coade, London, 1790, while the urn on top, which shows Lady Mathildas head twice in profile, is signed Coade, Lambeth, 1791. The other tomb, in the south-east corner of the Priory, is an 1835 "repair" (replacement) of the tomb of the Clanricarde Burkes, a peerage dating from 1543.


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Athenry Heritage Centre.

St. Mary's,The Square,
Co. Galway,
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