THE DOMINICAN FRIARY AT DONORE
Co-ordinates: – North:- 53.29.680; West:- 006.56.752
The survival of Catholicism and origins of the parishes of Ballivor, Longwood, Killyon and Kildalkey in the area of what is now the south west of County Meath has predominantly resulted from the activities of the Dominican community, especially those who ministered from the Friary at Donore. The following summary of the origins of, and demise of, this community is based on many articles especially those of the Dominican historian Fr Hugh Fenning O.P.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DOMINICANS.
The Dominican Order was founded by Domingo de Guzmán a Catholic Priest from the region of Castile and León in North West Spain. When travelling abroad with his Bishop in 1203 Father Dominic became aware of the threat to the church of the Albigensian heretics (who believed that the world is evil and that basic human activities such as eating, drinking, possession of worldly goods and even life itself should be denounced) in southern France, as it was becoming a popular religion. Dominic believed that the Albigensian heretics would only return to Christianity if they were preached to by preachers who had similar austerity to their own. This was the beginning of Dominic’s “evangelical preaching.” He founded a convent at Prouille in 1206, for converts from the heresy which was served by a community of preachers. From this developed the conception of an institute of preachers to convert the Albigensians, Subsequently the Dominican Order became known as the Order of Preachers. Members of the order generally carry the letters O.P. (Order of Preachers) after their names. The Dominicans are also referred to as Black Friars because of the black cloak which they wear over their white habits. Dominic gave his followers a rule of life based on that of St. Augustine and made his first settlement at Toulouse; on December 22nd, 1216. By placing two of his principal houses near the universities of Paris and Bologna this signalled the important role that the Dominicans were to play in studies at universities. Many eminent scholars such as Thomas Aquinas became Dominicans. Unlike other religious orders the Dominican order became an “army” of priests. An individual belonged to the order, not to any one house, and could be sent anywhere as needs arose. The order depends directly on the charity of people for their livelihood. In principle, they do not own property, either individually or collectively. Membership in the Order includes Friars (priests and brothers who work among laypeople and are supported by donations or other charitable support) contemplative nuns, apostolic sisters, and lay persons affiliated with the order. (See St Dominic; and Encyclopaedia Britannica Article).
THE DOMINICANS IN IRELAND
Three years after the death of St Dominic in 1224 the Dominicans arrived in Ireland and founded two communities – one at Drogheda and the other in Dublin. Twenty four communities were founded by the Dominicans in the 1200’s. Much of the eastern part of Ireland was under Anglo Norman control at that time. Initially the Dominicans stayed within the Anglo Norman areas to make their foundations. They moved to the Gaelic parts of the country later. A community was founded at Mullingar in 1237 and at Trim in 1263. (See O Clabaigh, 2012)
THE DOMINICAN FRIARY IN TRIM.
Secular and religious positions were intertwined in medieval Europe. In order to form a balance of power with Strongbow – Earl of Leinster – King Henry II overlooked claimants to the kingship of Meath and appointed one of the Norman Knights that landed with him in Ireland in 1171 – Hugh de Lacey – as independent overlord of the then kingdom of Meath. The extensive rights and powers of the hereditary grant that the King delegated to Hugh de Lacy were unusual in Ireland. Hugh’s son and heir – Walter – did not endear himself to a later the English king (John) and had to pay heavy fines. Due to the deaths of Walter’s children his granddaughters Matilda and Margaret became his co-heiresses. The lands of Meath were split between the two ladies with most of the eastern parts centred at Trim being held by Matilda and her husband Peter de Geneve (although Trim Castle was to remain in the ownership of the king, as a result of fines on Walter). After the death of her husband, Peter, in 1249 Matilda married Geoffrey de Geneville – a companion of Henry 111. The rights, and privileges granted to Hugh de Lacy in 1172 and the castle were eventually restored to Matilda and her husband in 1254. It is believed that Geoffrey founded the Dominican Community in Trim in 1263. After handing over his lands to his 15 year old granddaughter Joan and her husband Roger Mortimer (aged 14) in 1308 Geoffrey retired to spend the rest of his life at the Dominican Priory at Trim where he died and was buried in 1314. Other members of the de Geneville family were buried there subsequently. The Priory in Trim was associated with a number of important events. In September 1291 a meeting of Irish Bishops is recorded as having being held in the Dominican Priory. Chapters of the Irish Branch of the Dominicans were held at Trim in 1285, 1300 and 1315. Parliments were held in the friary in 1446, 1484, 1487 and 1491. However the initial importance of the Friary at Trim waned over the centuries. Apparently the Dominican community in Trim was dwindling in the 15th century and later suffered as a result of the Act of Supremacy passed in 1534. This act gave Henry VIII the power to disband monasteries, friaries and convents. As a result a 21 year lease to the friary was given to a soldier (David Floyd) from Dublin and houses and buildings of the friary were sold by the king’s commissioners to the Bishop of Meath. In 1541 an Exchequer Inquisition recorded that the convent and church at the site were described as ruinous but a dormitory, three chambers, a kitchen, gardens, an orchard and other buildings were described as being on the site. There were three cottages within the boundary wall of the Friary which enclosed about 4 acres. The site of the Friary was near the Athboy gate outside the northern walls of Trim (behind the current SuperValue store). Archaeological excavations have been taking place recently on the site (Fig 1.). The Order also possessed about 70 acres north of Trim (at Friarspark/Tullyard) – a large “farm” for the Dominican Order. In 1542 the house, site and precinct of the Dominican Friary were granted forever to Sir Thomas Cusack who purchased other sites belonging to friaries. (See Fenning, (1963); Potterton, 2005).
POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS INFLUENCES ON CATHOLICISM.
Changes in religious tolerance associated with the 16th and 17th century rulers of England [notably – Henry VIII (1509–1547); Edward VI (1547–1553); Mary I (1553–1558); Elizabeth I (1558–1603); Oliver Cromwell (1653–1658); James II (1685–1688); William III (1689–1702); Anne (1702–1714) ] had enormous impact on Catholics in Ireland in general and particularly religious orders. The English Reformation initiated by Henry VIII, the subsequent establishment of the Anglican Church under Elizabeth I and associated legislation resulted in the suppression of the Dominican Friary at Trim in 1540. It was revived about 1630 only to lapse during the English Civil Wars (1648; 1650-51) and revive before 1664 (when the community was resident at Kilcock). The accession of King James II (a catholic) to the throne (1685-1688) was associated with the growth of the community in Trim from four to seven or eight persons. However, the defeat of James II army by that of William III about 50 Km downriver from Trim at Oldbridge in 1690 and subsequent departure of Irish soldiers to the continent after the treaty of Limerick meant that Catholic Ireland was defenceless against Protestant dominance (Fenning, 1961).
THE DOMINICANS AT DONORE.
Despite Catholicism being oppressed, the Dominicans remained true to the aims of their founder St Dominic and gradually returned to resume their ministerial and preaching life in south Meath in the early 1700’s. After William of Orange’s victory over James II in 1691 a series of laws was devised to eliminate Catholicism and impose civil restrictions on Catholics. These laws underpinned fines and imprisonment for taking part in Catholic worship. Severe penalties (including death) were also stipulated for Catholic priests who practiced their ministry. Other laws banned Catholics from voting, owning land, holding public office etc.. For instance in 1697 a decree was passed that required all members of religious orders and secular clergy exercising papal jurisdiction to leave the country before May 1698. If not, they would be arrested and transported. By the end of 1698 over 400 members of various religious orders were captured and transported. Another decree enacted in 1704 required that all secular priests should be registered. This made it easy to track them and record if they complied with a decree of 1709 which required them to take a heretical oath. As aspirants to the priesthood could not travel abroad to be educated the number of licensed priests would eventually die out. Priest hunting was also encouraged by the offer of a bounty. Despite these threats Friars that scattered after 1698 continued to work secretly in areas close to the religious houses from where they were driven. (see Moran, 1961).
The then Bishop of Meath (Dr Fagan, 1713-1729) sponsored four houses for religious orders in the Meath Dioceses. Two were for Dominicans, one was located at Donore in south Meath. A farm was set to the community by a Mr Ashe, a Protestant gentleman. It was to this site (between the R161 roadway and the Boyne, about 100 meters upriver from Donore Castle and about 5.5 km from Ballivor i.e. approximately half way to Longwood ) that the Dominican community of Trim moved to in about 1713. They remained at the site for approximately 100 years. The size of the community in 1738 – six priests – remained reasonably constant until the end of the century. The Dominican Provincial’s report of that year on the friary notes that it is “well regulated”; also it is recorded that the friary received novices prior to 1751. There were issues regarding taking novices into Dominican priories in Ireland, this was forbidden by a decree of 1751. However in 1773 this decree was modified so that each of the four Dominican provinces could take in a novice. Donore was chosen to take in a novice for the province of Leinster. The friars said Mass, heard Confessions and preached from fixed points in the neighbourhood and collected alms. There were obviously close links with the friary at Mullingar and it is recorded that members of the community at Donore sought alms on behalf of the priory at Mullingar in the mid 18th century.
Although there is evidence that Friars from Mullingar made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in North west Spain, the likelihood that members of the Dominican community at Donore did likewise is low, due to the small size of the community there. (Fr Hugh Fenning OP, personal communication 2011)
The Prior of the Dominican community was parish priest of the locality. At that time the parish of Killyon appears to have included what are now the parishes of Ballivor, Kildalkey and Longwood. Other members of the Donore community were parish priests of neighbouring parishes such as Rathmoylon, Galtrim and Nobber, while others acted as private chaplains to wealthy local families. As there were very few diocesan clergy in the early 18th century and parishes tended to be larger than is currently the case, the friars made a major contribution to the running of the Diocese of Meath. However, because of this, the Dominican order suffered in the long term. Their friaries were understaffed because the friars were serving parishes and due to understaffing many of the rural houses became unsustainable, for example because novices could not be engaged. Poverty among the friars and widespread emigration from rural areas added to the problem. Also with the founding of colleges to train priests e.g. at Maynooth the friars were no longer needed in parishes and were replaced by Secular Clergy.
While the Friars at Donore were allowed to train aspirants to the Dominican order in the latter part of the 1700s, by 1789 novices were no longer numerous. An Academy for Boys was initiated. Such a school could provide an income for the Friary and educate boys who might become Dominicans. The advertisement for the opening of the Friary in 1789 indicated that the subjects of English , Latin, French, Greek, Italian, Arithmetic, Book-Keeping, Mathematics, Geography, History and the use of Globes would be taught for a fee of twenty guineas a year for board and tuition. There is a commemorative slab in the old church at Killyon on which the names of six members of the community for the years 1737 -1789 are recorded. Included in this list is the name of Fr Francis Lynagh who joined the community at Donore in about 1720, and was master of novices and Prior of the community before he died and was buried at the Friary in 1750. (A letter written by Fr Lynagh to a depressed friend has been reviewed. See O’Hainle, 2005).
There are records of three Friars being at Donore in 1800. It is not definite when the Friary closed.
While Larkin’s map of Meath of 1812 grossly indicates a term “Old Friary” at the site (Fig 2), there is no reference to Donore Castle which was nearby on the same map!
However, the later 1837 Ordnance Survey map of the area details two buildings at right angles to one another on the site named Friary and Chapel (Fig. 3). Licence No. MNE 0000112.
It is likely that the Friary closed during the first half of the 19th century.
Two members of the Dominican community of Donore became Parish Priests of the local parishes close to the end of the eighteenth century. Longwood was formed into a separate parish taking in parts of Castlerickard, Rathcore and Clonard. Fr Thomas Hitchcock was placed in charge of this newly formed parish in 1793 where he remained until he died in 1831.
Fr Laurence Shaw was put in charge of the newly formed union of Ballivor and Kildalkey parishes in 1793. As Donore was at the southern end of the parish he built a small thatched chapel about 50 perches (i.e. about 300 meters) from Ballivor (as it is to-day) which he used until he built another in 1821. He died in 1833 as the last Dominican to live in the area. (see Fenning, 1962).
It is clear that the buildings at Donore decayed since 1837. The base of the convent wall and Fr Lynagh’s tombstone were visible when Fr Hugh Fenning O.P. visited the site in 1955. A small number of apple trees remained in the field close to the site of the priory up until the late 1960’s when the field was called “The Orchard” locally. The Boyne drainage scheme of the early 1970’s and associated earthworks posed considerable risk to the remains of the priory. Fortunately local people salvaged Fr Lynagh’s tombstone so that it is now located in the precincts of the church of St Columbanus in Ballivor.
At present, the remains of only one of at least 8 walls present in 1837 is visible beside a heap of rubble in which ash and whitethorn trees grow at the time of writing (Fig. 4).
The group of trees can be seen upriver in the next field to the right of Donore castle from the air (Fig. 5).
It is clear from the information above that the Dominican Friary at Donore played a pivotal role in the maintenance of religious services to Catholics in the south of Meath. However many gaps in information about the individuals involved and their activities, unfortunately remain.
Fenning, H. (1961). The Dominicans of Trim 1683-1710. Riocht na Midhe, Vol 11, 3; P 3 -8;
Fenning, H. (1962). The Dominicans of Trim 1713-1833. Riocht na Midhe, Vol 11, 4; P 21-32;
Fenning, H. (1963). The Dominicans of Trim 1263-1682. Riocht na Midhe, Vol 111, 1; P 15-23.
Moran, W. (1961). Friarstown “House of Refuge”. Riocht na Midhe, Vol 11, 3; P 9 -15.
O’Clabaigh, C. (2012). The Friars in Ireland 1224-1540. Four Courts Press, Dublin.
O’Hainle C.G (2005). Fr Francis Leynagh’s Letter. Riocht na Midhe, Vol XVI, P 59-68
Potterton, M. (2005). Medieval Trim; History and Archaeology , Four Courts Press, Dublin.
ORDNANCE SURVEY LICENCE
©Ordnance Survey Ireland/Government of Ireland; Licence No. MNE 0000112