The last years of Catholic Dublin

The last years of Catholic Dublin The Church of St Mary, Howth, Co. Dublin
Late medieval Dublin had a thriving religious life, Greg Daly is told


With a dearth of men in formation for the priesthood in modern Ireland, and with the national seminary having made national headlines in recent years for decidedly undesirable reasons, it is perhaps unsurprising that different models of priestly formation are being pondered in the Church here.

One model that’s had a lot of attention is the so-called ‘Paris model’, where would-be clerics would live in parishes, learning on the pastoral coalface and from the example of older priests while attending classes in theology and philosophy elsewhere. Curiously enough, this isn’t a million miles away from how clergy were formed before the 16th-Century Reformation.

“It was apprenticeship – the young lads served an apprenticeship with a priest, so it all depended then on the quality of the lad and the quality of the priest,” says Peadar Slattery, author of the newly-published Social Life in Pre-Reformation Dublin, 1450-1540.

“They served an apprenticeship and they mightn’t have been good at Latin, but they imitated the Latin of the priest, and they imitated the gestures and learned how to bless, and to cover the wine and the bread and so on,” Peadar continues. “I think they probably helped out too – they would have washed dishes and so on. They got a house training and a religious training and eventually became a priest.”

Now 75, Peadar might not seem the most obvious author of what is sure to become an indispensable book on what it was like to be a Catholic in Dublin in the late medieval period. A secondary teacher by profession, he taught History, English and especially Geography, writing a PhD thesis on the side over eight years on 19th-Century Irish photography – his family owned, after all, the much missed Slattery’s camera shop on O’Connell Street.

After retiring, he got interested in medieval history, however, and began writing about medieval timber and wood, before becoming fascinated by Margaret Murphy and Michael Potterton’s 2010 tome The Dublin Region in the Middle Ages: Settlement, Land-use, and Economy.

“It’s a huge book, and I love it, but when I went through it I saw there was nothing of Dublin in it,” he says. “It was about the Dublin region and how food and various things were fed into Dublin. The authors said we’re not going to deal with Dublin, and I began to wonder just a little bit about medieval Dublin.”


About three and a half years ago he began researching and writing in earnest, and now thinks his end result can open up a part of the city’s history to which most people are oblivious. “It’s not Viking Dublin, it’s not Norman Dublin, it’s not the Reformation, it’s not Georgian Dublin,” he says. “It’s a Dublin that has not been written about.”

The sources for the period are diverse, he explains, pointing to wills, the minutes of Dublin City Council, and even the Kalendarium of Christchurch Cathedral. “There’s property records, people renting houses and having to keep them in good order, but there’s also liturgical material there once you go looking for it,” he says.


Chester, curiously, proved a very valuable place for learning us what medieval Dublin must have been like, with one published book, The Chester Customs Account being already out there and giving helpful evidence for trade between the two cities.

“You go to Chester and you find there ships coming from Dublin, Howth, Malahide, Baldoyle, and Drogheda coming into Chester in one year, 1467-1468,” he says, adding that he was able to build on this with the help of the late Jane Laughton, author of Life in a Late Medieval City: Chester, 1275-1520.

“She gave me one year’s notes she had taken on a year’s customs for a different year, 1476-1477, and that was absolutely fantastic and amazing,” Peadar says. “In both of the two years, you don’t know what the cargos are. All you know is that there are merchants going over. One man is going over and he has four horseloads – a horseload is one-eighth of a tonne or two-and -a-half-hundredweight, or else he’s going over with a cartload, which is a tonne, but the merchants went over and we have no idea what was in them.

“But in 1525 there is material available,” he adds. “Sometimes it’s only 121 yards of blankets were sent over, or something like that, but in 1525-26, chequered cloth, like gingham, is sent over, 3,200 yards. Linen was brought over, all told 1,000 yards. Woollen yarn went over, 9,164 pounds or over four tonnes of woolen thread, and wool went over, almost two tonnes of it.

“So in 1525 you begin to get a look at what was in the sacks and the cartloads and whatever – you would generally know that what was going over was skin, hides, fish, and textiles, but in 1525 you get tremendous detail on the textiles.”

Details on trade help point to a picture of a bustling city, at least by medieval standards, and it’s striking how central religious Faith was to Dublin at the time. Despite a population of just 6-8,000, there were 27 formal places of worship in the city: the two cathedrals of Christ Church and St Patrick’s, fifteen churches, and ten religious buildings – abbeys, priories, friaries and a chapel – linked with religious orders.


These seem to have been busy churches, at least to judge by accounts from St Werburgh’s Church.

“You get an impression from the accounts that they’re buying candles, buying wax, repairing vestments, repairing the roof, repairing ropes on the bell. It sounds like a busy place,” Peadar says, marvelling at the good fortune of having such an important historical source as the proctor’s accounts from a Catholic parish church before the Reformation.

“There’s indulgence money – what they call Pardon Money – and people were buying candles and lighting candles,” he says, adding “there are Marian priests there saying Masses with anything they could find to link it with Our Lady”. Devotion to Mary was especially important in Dublin from the mid-13th Century onwards, he says, noting how there were Lady chapels in both St Patrick’s and Christ Church, and that Marian vestments grew common after that point.


While orders such as the Dominicans would have had their own rite for celebrating Mass, Peadar explains that the main form of Mass in late medieval Dublin was the so-called ‘Sarum’ rite, named after Salisbury in the south of England. Dublin was at this point, after all, an essentially English city, while in 1172 the Irish bishops at Cashel had agreed to formally accept and use the practices of the English Church.

“The consecration was a huge thing,” Peadar says, although it was a mysterious affair for most Massgoers. “People did not see the consecration because there was a wooden screen, a huge thing across the church and people didn’t actually see the consecration though they could peep through holes in the screen,” he says, adding that belief in the Eucharist was utterly central to Dublin’s Catholics even if their relationship with it was rather remote by today’s standards.

“You couldn’t see that moment of the consecration, and people only went to communion either once a year or when they died,” he explains.

People did not see the consecration because there was a wooden screen, a huge thing across the church”

Even though the late medieval Irish Church had a distinctly English flavour, its was hardly devoid of Irishness, to judge by the saints to whom there was a devotion in Dublin, Peadar explains. “From what I’ve read in liturgies, St Patrick, St Brigid – our own St Brigid – St Audoen, St Werburgh, but other saints as well, St Mobhi, St Canice – St Canice of Kilkenny and also St Canice of Finglas,” he says. “There’s a huge Irish element in it. The people in Dublin had no problem with what we would call ‘Irish saints’.”

While the liturgical year was a lively affair, with 182 feast days and a rainbow of liturgical vestments being deployed, religious practice wasn’t always so formal, and a key piece of evidence for private devotion relates to one Ismaia Fitzwilliam of Dundrum Manor, a married mother of two who had volume binding together four booklets of religious material.

“She was practicing a thing called affective piety, where you don’t ask for anything, you say things like ‘O Jesus, you suffered for me, you were lashed, you were scourged, the flesh came off you and the blood dripped from you, you suffered for me,” Peadar says, adding: “It’s a thing you’d want guidance on if you were practicing it.”

Admitting that it’s rare to be able to get into the mind of medieval people, Peadar points to how Ismaia’s book, transcribed in Dublin by one Nicholas Bellewe, included a meditation on the Our Father, prayers with litanies to Irish saints, a meditation on the Eucharist, a confession built around the seven deadly sins and the Ten Commandments, and a meditation on the Eucharist.

“Away from the cathedrals and away from the parish churches people were practicing their own prayer, as Ismaia Fitzwilliam was,” he says. “It’s very seldom you get into the mind, but it’s one of the things there. Another devotion was the 15 Oes of St Bridget – O Jesus and so on – that was copied out and Maya Fitzwilliam was reading that,” he says, pointing out that unlike affective piety, these were pleas for Christ’s mercy,

Where monasteries were taken over, secular people were only interested in the farm buildings”

“It’s only time really that we’re able to get into the mind of somebody – according to Eamon Duffy, who wrote The Stripping of the Altars, the cross that crucified Christ became central to the late medieval Catholic, and we have somebody here practicing it.”

Speculating that prayer books like this with a strong emphasis on affective piety could have been used by religious communities, particularly communities of nuns, Peadar says: “The most likely candidates would have been Grace Dieu monastery up near Lusk and the nuns at the top of Trinity Lane. On the site of what used to be St Andrew›s Church, the nuns of what would have been St Mary de Hogges monastery where you had to be 30 years of age to enter. There were mature women there, and all we can say is that they may have practiced it.”


Meanwhile, Dublin’s Catholic identity was clear from the city’s civic life, not least because of the guild system where the various professions – and over half of the city’s 1,425 or so citizens were tradesmen in guilds – had religious patrons, while individuals could also set up chantries to fund regular Masses.

“At St Doulagh’s, still intact on the Malahide Road,” he says, “a man named John Burnell set up a piece of property with eight quid a year, and said to a priest, I want you to say Mass forever. The forever worked out as when the priest was dying, he made sure to transfer the arrangements on to someone else, and the money came from rent coming off a property.”

Mystery, miracle, and morality plays were staples of Dublin life too, he says, describing how “Dublin City Council organised the mystery plays – they were on pageant wagons that moved through the city and we know what streets they moved along,” noting how there is a record of the 16 presentations involved in the 1498 Corpus Christi procession.

“The guilds put it on,” he says. “The carpenters, the weavers, and the brewers were each assigned a particular show to put on and if they didn’t do it, they could be fined. Certainly in Chester if somebody didn’t turn up or turned up and didn’t speak their lines properly they were.

“It was a secular-cum-religious event, the city putting on a show a bit like the St Patrick’s Day parade, except that all the shows were religious,” he says.

While some think that the plays were silent, with the actors simply moving to relate Biblical anecdotes in what might seem a strange forerunner of Dublin’s Moving Crib, Peadar thinks this probably wasn’t the case, given what’s known about Chester with which the city was so closely linked. “There was no proof that they spoke, but actors were talking about 1430 in Chester so it’s inconceivable that 60 years later in Dublin they were silent,” he says.

“There was Moses, Abraham and Adam and Eve on various wagons that would come to a particular spot and act out something in front of the people who were waiting there,” he continues. “And there’s some evidence that people travelled to Dublin, stayed in Dublin maybe for three days, coming from well, well outside the city. It was a holiday event.”

The vibrant Catholic life of late medieval Dublin was destined not to last, of course. Even if Henry VIII’s own Reformation didn’t have a huge impact on Ireland little details make clear how radical its agenda was.

“Liturgical books were changed,” Peadar says. “There’s one where it said St Clement, Pope, and the word Pope was rubbed out because there was a new Pope now, Henry VIII. St Linus, Pope, Pope was wiped out, because Henry VIII was the new Pope.”

Things got more intense under Henry’s son Edward, with Catholicism getting state support once more when the short-lived Edward was succeeded by Henry’s first child, Mary, only for the Protestant Reformation to get fresh energy under Mary’s successor and half-sister Elizabeth.

“Where monasteries were taken over, secular people were only interested in the farm buildings and they weren’t interested in the church, so where the church building was attached to a monastery it was stripped of its roofing tiles, timber, glass and iron, and sold off,” Peadar says.

Actors were talking about 1430 in Chester so it’s inconceivable that 60 years later in Dublin they were silent”

“At other times they were occupied – at St Mary’s Abbey the church was turned into a storehouse for artillery, the Dominican priory around about where the Four Courts are was kept good and was occupied by lawyers and judges, and was known as the King’s Inns, and St Mary de Hoggeth, where those 30-year-old nuns were, was wrecked. In 1560 somebody set up looms there and it became an industrial site.”

At a time where Dublin congregations are in decline, and the prospect of churches closing looms ever closer, it’s in a way a gloomy thought that we have, in a sense, been here before. Even then, though, it’s worth remembering that the Church in Dublin survived the Reformation. It’s a robust city – and if the past teaches us anything, it’s that there’s hope for the future.

Social Life in Pre-Reformation Dublin, 1450-1540 by Peadar Slattery is published by Four Courts Press.