Dublin mayors and Dominicans: A rich history

Dublin mayors and Dominicans: A rich history Lord Mayor of Dublin Alison Gilliland

On Sunday last, the feast of Christ the King, I had the honour of celebrating the annual Mass for deceased members of the Dublin Fire Brigade. It was a pleasure also to welcome Dublin’s Lord Mayor, Alison Gilliland, to our church for the occasion, but it was far from the first encounter between the mayor of Dublin and the Dominicans of Dublin.

The long list of Dublin’s mayors – 353 of them! – goes all the way back to 1229, but the history of our priory, St Saviour’s, goes back just a little further, to 1224, when we took up residence on the north bank of the Liffey, where the Four Courts stand now.


We were outside the walls of the city, but certainly not beyond the care and attention of the citizens. Already within the first few decades of our presence in Dublin, the mayor and citizens granted us a great privilege: a perpetual share in the city’s water supply. Many of these citizens were merchants, so it’s no surprise to find the privilege phrased very carefully, in case later generations of friars should take liberties: the pipe into the priory was to be no thicker than a man’s little finger.

The city’s water system was modernised by a fourteenth-century mayor, John le Decer, a man elected to lead the city on no less than four occasions. He was especially friendly to the Dominican friars. He paid for the repair of a pillar in our church, and for a new high altar, with all its ornaments. Every Friday he had two of the brethren dine at his table. (This practice was known throughout medieval Ireland: an act of charity by the host, and an opportunity to be edified and entertained – so it was hoped – by the conversation of the friars).

On one occasion, when the Dominicans ran out of food, Mayor le Decer provided us with twenty barrels of corn. In gratitude, the friars of St Saviour’s added a line to the nightly litany, inviting all the saints to pray “for the well-being of the mayor, bailiffs, and corporation of Dublin, the best of benefactors of our order, now and in the hour of their deaths”.


Kenrick Sherman, a few decades later, actually died in St Saviour’s after retiring as mayor. He left a great deal of money to St Saviour’s in his will, but this was simply the completion of a lifetime of almsgiving. As the annals of a contemporary prior of St Saviour’s recall, Sherman had paid for many of our windows, for the roof of the church, and for the building of the bell-tower under which he was eventually buried.

Sometimes the kindness of mayors took the form of defending the friars’ rights against aggressors. In the later 15th Century, the powerful Knights Hospitaller stole the hay from a field that had been granted to the Dominican friars. The field, known as Helen Hore’s Meadow (now part of the Phoenix Park), was far closer to the knights’ headquarters in Kilmainham than to our priory. What could the poor friars do? They turned to the mayor, who assembled a large group of citizens, marched down to Kilmainham, and brought the friars’ hay triumphantly to St Saviour’s.

The relationship between our priory and the mayors of Dublin broke down, naturally enough, at the Reformation, and even today I’m not sure we should expect major grants or privileges from the city council, but there remains among the citizens of Dublin and her officials a warm-hearted affection for the friars of St Saviour’s, an ancient community at the heart of an ancient city.


Duties of civic leaders

Apart from our relationships with individual mayors, there was an institutional relationship too. When a newly elected mayor of Dublin took office in the Middle Ages, one of his first tasks was to gather his officers, and to march in procession across the Liffey to the Dominican priory, there to hear a sermon on the duties of civic leaders, and the importance of their work. None of these sermons survive, but we can imagine them drawing on the rich teaching of the Dominican theologian, St Thomas Aquinas concerning the common good, social justice, the purpose of politics, and the virtues proper to political leadership. That teaching is perennially relevant, and made more accessible in recent years thanks to the publication of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. It’s ideal reading for our troubled times.