Dominicans in Ireland — History of the Order

Galway Observer, May 11th 1940

An Interesting Publication

We have received from the author a copy of a most interesting publication. Compiled by Rev. A. Coleman, O.P., and entitled "The Dominican Order in Ireland," the book traces the history of this famous Order from the time they "first set foot in Ireland just seven centuries ago."

Extracts dealing with County Galway in this publication are: We can judge from the rapidity of the first foundations — six following one another within six years — how eagerly the Friars preachers were welcomed in the principal cities of the country. After an interval of eight years, which was, we may suppose, necessary for the recruitment of new candidates for the Order, the rapid multiplication of foundations began again. Mullingar was founded in 1237, Athenry in 1241, both Cashel and Tralee in 1243, both Newtownards and Coleraine in 1244, Sligo and Strade in 1253, Tim in 1263, Arklow in 1264, Rosbereon in 1267, Youghal in 1268, Lorrah in 1269, Rathfram (County Mayo) and Derry in 1274. Thus we see that twenty—three houses were erected, principally in cities and towns, within the short space of fifty years.

Archbishop O'Flynn of Tuam is said to have built a "Domus Scholarum" or hostel for clerical students in connection with the Friary at Athenry

Great activity was shown in the fifteenth century by the Mendicant Orders in the building of churches and friaries and the rebuilding of others that had been destroyed by fire or become dilapidated in the former period. The abbeys (so—called) of Sligo, Moyne, Athenry, Muckross, Adare and many others, are a testimony to the healthy activity of the Mendicant Orders at this period.

Athenry Chapter

It is recorded that at a Chapter held at Athenry in 1482 there 280 friars present ; at another held in the same place in 1524 there were 360 present.

They took a prominent part in that vindication of the right of Public Catholic Worship and suffered for it accordingly under the Cromwellian regime. In the unfortunate disputes that took place among the Catholics, they, with only one exception, took the part of the Nuncio Rinuecini and the Old Irish Party. They were able for the first time after a hundred years to go about publicly in the habit of the Order. It was during this short period of liberty, barely stretching over eight years, that the Dominican Nuns of Galway were founded. Galway is thus the mother house of all the communities of Dominican Nuns in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and many in South Africa.

The Order could count three hundred and sixty members in the time of James II. The Dominican Nuns had returned from exile and had a flourishing community in Galway again.

But the Battle of the Boyne, which again crushed the hopes of Irish Catholics, brought in its train renewed sufferings to the Mendicant Friars.

Sailed from Galway

Four hundred and forty—four Friars embarked in ships from Galway, Dublin, Waterford and Cork. They were landed in the ports of France, Spain and Portugal and sought refuge in the colleges of their respective Orders abroad and in the convents belonging to other Provinces. Many did not obey the law but remained in hiding. O'Heyne gives a pathetic account of the breaking in by officials of the convent of the Dominican Nuns in Galway and the dispersal of the nuns among their friends. Two fathers managed to remain in Galway, viz., Father Gregory French and Father Nicholas Blake. Some were thrown into prison immediately for not obeying the law. Father Nicholas Blake has left some interesting verses in Latin, describing his desolation, of which we subjoin the following translation :—

"Lament of a Friar Left Alone by the Imprisonment of His Brethren."
"Along I live, alone my days I spend ;
The heavens receive my lone and fearsome sighs.
The lonely sparrow on the roof am I,
Like to the lonesome dove of mate deprived,
Sadly my plaint I make with heaving breast.
O Guardian Angel, look upon thy charge,
And, midst the heavenly chants, my sighs regard.
Take heart, my soul, and gaze upon the stars,
Whose placid light should bring new hopes to thee.
Here, if I bear, with adverse fortune, can I doubt
That heavenly joys will be my sure reward?
Let trouble bring new life to me ; these storms
Are but the prelude to the gates of bliss."

Claret for Sheriffs

In 1730 the Government expressed alarm at the "further increase of Popery," and ordered the Protestant bishops to make inquiry as to the "number of Popish chapels and mass—houses and the number of priests and friars and the number of Popish schools." The report sent in the following year is a valuable record of the condition of the Church at the time. A detailed report was made by the sheriffs in Galway about the Dominicans. They state that "they also searched the friary in the west suburbs, called the Dominican Friary, wherein is a large chapel with a gallery, some forms, and an altar—piece defaced ; in which said reputed friary there are ten chambers and eight beds, wherein, they believe, the friars belonging to the said friary usually lay, but could find none of them. That it is a very old friary but some repairs lately made in it."

Walter Taylor, the Mayor, was voted special thanks in the House for his zeal in searching out Popery, but the following item, taken from the account books of the Galway Dominicans, throws a strange light on the difficulty the sheriffs experienced in finding the Friars : — "For claret to treat ye Sheriffs in their search, ye 11th — 25, 2d." In only one instance have the Dominicans succeeded in getting back their ancient churches. In Sligo, Athenry and Ballindoon, however, the ravages of time and man have spared a good deal.


During the times of persecution, when Catholic education was surrounded by enormous difficulties, the fathers tried to supply it as far as their means and opportunities allowed. Their efforts were naturally on a small scale and records are wanting. But in one place, Esker, near Athenry, their efforts were crowned with great success. In 1678 they opened a school in a wood adjoining their friary which became so famous in a short time that it drew students from every part of the Kingdom. Several of these afterwards became bishops or occupied various other ecclesiastical positions, and many made a mark in the professions of the law and of medicine. The students were scattered here and there in the wood and adjoining district, divided into small batches, each batch living under the direction of a tutor in little wooden or wattle huts constructed by themselves, their food and clothing being sent to them regularly by their friends. In the morning they all came together in an open space in the wood for lessons and dispersal again to their huts when the work of the day was over. The school was begun and ended with prayer, the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin being always recited before the students dispersed in the evening.

The school was broken up for a few years, during persecutions, but was resumed in 1683, the year in which the author of this account received the habit of the Order in this very place.

He tells us that there were at least a hundred of his name — Burke — in the school at the time, but it had to be closed in 1691, owing to the Jacobite war in Ireland and the eviction of the fathers from their place of refuge.

The Galway School

The fathers erected what was called at the time the "Claddagh National Piscatorial School," capable of accommodating six hundred children. The principal idea of founding this school was the teaching of the children of the fishermen, whose dwellings stretch alongside the church, industries connected with their calling, such as net—making and spinning. Before long, however, the industrial teaching was given up and the national Board of Education took the school under its wing with the Prior of the house as manager. Poor schools, capable of accommodating 300 children, were built in 1826 and taken by the fathers there.

The Dominican nuns founded in Galway have had a very chequered career owing to persecution. Almost all the members of the first community, founded in 1644, died in exile in Spain. A new community, founded some years later, was driven forth from the cloister in 1698. Banished from the town more than once, the majority of them went to Dublin and new foundations were made in that city and in Drogheda.

The original Galway community of nuns has kept up with the times and has built a spacious college in accordance with modern requirements where the work of secondary education is carried on with energy and success.

Father Burke, the great preacher, commenced the building of the present beautiful church at Tallaght, but died in 1883, before it was half finished. After his death it was brought to completion as a memorial to him, and his remains were transferred to a memorial chapel erected in it.

One of the Priests

In the Fifties of the last century the modern system of parochial missions and retreats was introduced into the country by some of the new preaching Congregations.

Father Burke, one of the greatest orators of modern times, was a member of the first band of missionaries sent out.

The author concludes : —
There are now fourteen houses of Dominicans in Ireland. Attached to them are churches in which in almost every instance the Order may well take a pride, for the structures which have replaced the older buildings are architecturally beautiful and richly furnished with all the requisities of Catholic worship.

The Province has thus been well reconstructed internally as well as externally. Let us here express the hope that this reconstruction will be the prelude of some further centuries of normal life. As the seed has been sown in tears, let us pray that the harvest may be reaped in joy. It may be that the structure so carefully reared may be destroyed again, for we are living in an era of great cataclysms in human affairs, an era of swift revolution. So we must place all our trust in God Who draws good out of evil. The records of Ireland's sufferings for the Faith certainly show a wonderful intervention of God's Providence.