What lies beneath
Modern Dublin sits on a rich seam of Church history, writes Paul Keenan

Like generals plotting a campaign, The Irish Catholic and Dr Maurice Curtis pore over a map of old Dublin, identifying relevant sites, tracing routes of access.

The activity is not very far removed from that of military strategists, for the intention here is to ‘re-seize’ the capital, at least from popular preconceptions, and to restore something of the old order to the city.

In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, it is a worthy enterprise, for what underpins this cartographic exercise is re-locating and identifying the very many religious houses and churches that were the ‘soul’ of old Dublin but, through the vicissitudes of history, have all but been wiped clean from everyday imagination and memory.

“People tend to look at Dublin as a purely Viking city,” Dr Curtis offers of modern perceptions as the tracings continue along the southern bank of the Liffey and between sites rising and falling across the key years of 1170, with the ascent of the Normans at the expense of Viking inhabitants, and 1829, the year of Catholic Emancipation.


As author of 2016’s Temple Bar: A History, Dr Curtis is the expert guide needed for this bringing up of the city’s past through the tarmac and tram lines 

And that past is distinctly religious in character.

Utilising the Ordinance Survey’s map, Dublin c.840-1540: The Medieval Town in the Modern City, it very quickly becomes clear that the Viking story of Dublin is far from the only one to be told. Here at Trinity College, for example, a cross indicating a major religious house, another further west, and a another just to the south, all lying on the great tract of land east of Dublin’s medieval walls and encompassing what is today the major cultural, business and tourist hub of the city.

Dr Curtis interprets the findings.

“Overall,” he says, “three religious orders occupied more than half of the lands that now make up Dame Street and Temple Bar. The lands of the Augustinians and the nuns of St Mary de Hogges would subsequently be the basis for the newer, developed part of Temple Bar stretching from Parliament Street to Westmoreland Street. There was also an order of nuns on the lands presently occupied by Trinity College Dublin.”

Temple Bar? That locale associated with the pursuits of modern bawdry a place of worship along medieval cloisters? 

Further investigation reveals history’s truth.

 “On the eve of the mid-16th Century Reformation,” Dr Curtis writes, “the area now known as Temple Bar was sufficiently populous, albeit barely, to be served by a church, St Andrew’s. In addition to this church…St Mary de Hogges Abbey [Arroasian nuns] was on the site of the present-day Bank of Ireland and the Augustinian Holy Trinity Friary was halfway between this and the walls of the medieval city.”

In addition, All Saints Priory (Augustinians) sits on the land now occupied by Trinity College – the priory having been set aside on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I in 1592 for the establishment of a Protestant university (coinciding with orders that the cathedrals of St Patrick and Christ Church be converted to Protestant use). The modern bell tower within Trinity’s quad marks the site of the original priory building.

Of all these, only St Andrew’s church exists in any complete form for the modern eye. Deconsecrated and now in use by Tourism Ireland, externally the towering church edifice still dominates the junctions of Church, St Andrew and Suffolk Streets and, for the duration of the city’s Luas works, towers over Molly Malone’s statue which sits on the junction. 

For the eager history hunter, meanwhile, part of the Holy Trinity Friary, which was founded in 1282 is still visible within an apartment complex in Temple Bar proper, appropriately named ‘The Friary’. 

This location puts Holy Trinity at the very heart of modern Temple Bar, with the old Dublin map situating a marker cross just to the west of Meeting House Square and the famed Merchant’s Arch.

In his book, Dr Curtis adds: “The site has been partially excavated [and] these excavations revealed around 70 burials from between the late 12th Century to the 14th Century, remains of the friary…and, in 1996, excavations exposed a section of wall with a relieving arch and a corner tower.”

Slightly further afield, meanwhile, at a point where the grand thoroughfare of Dame St meets City Hall, and on that same site, Dr Curtis locates the former church of St Marie del Dam (sitting just inside the old city walls). Built around 1385 and demolished in the 17th Century – this church was seized during the Reformation and subsequently purchased by Richard Boyle, First Earl of Cork and father to famed scientist Richard Boyle. 

Dr Curtis offers more.

“The [church’s] location was at a crossing point of the River Poddle, where there was a dam (hence the name of the church)…[Dame] street was originally a path linking the various monastic settlements in the area.” Indeed, recourse to the map shows Dame Street exiting the main eastern gate of the city and crossing the now hidden Poddle to cleave a path eastward between the religious houses of old. One dares suddenly to envisage Dame Street as an early pilgrim path.

Medieval Dublin

North of the river Liffey, meanwhile, two great ecclesial sites dominate the view from the northern walls of medieval Dublin.

Sitting on the site of today’s Four Courts site and dominating the northern riverbank east to at least as far as Capel St was the Dominican St Saviour’s Priory, while, neighbouring this on the eastern flank, and located now beneath the land beside the Smithfield Fruit and Vegetable Market is the site of the Cistercian St Mary’s Abbey, dating to 1139 – its name recalled today in the naming of the Upper, Middle and Lower Abbey Streets.

As a side note, both sites neighbour the small medieval St Michan’s church (famed for its crypt mummies), which is recorded as being one of the oldest parish churches still existing in Dublin.

In relation to the long vanished St Mary’s, one significant element remains as a hidden gem. Between bustling warehouses of the Smithfield market, and within metres of the trundling Luas line, an entrance to the chapter house of St Mary’s is still to be found, incorporated today in St Mary’s Abbey Exhibition Centre. It was here in 1534 that Silken Thomas Fitzgerald launched his unsuccessful rebellion. (See www.heritageireland.ie.)

Dublin, as a vibrant Christian centre, encouraged by the rising fortunes of the Norman settlers, was to give way by the mid-16th Century to the era of turbulence marked by the monarchy of Henry VIII and that of his daughter Elizabeth I.

Ground zero

‘Ground Zero’ for Dublin (and Ireland) in this is to be found in Temple Bar.

The district itself is named for Sir William Temple (1555-1627), whose connections with Ireland began in the late 16th Century when he arrived as part of the entourage of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who had been dispatched by Queen Elizabeth to deal with troublesome Irish rebels. 

By 1599, Temple was acting for the Lord Deputy, rising ultimately to be named as provost of Trinity College Dublin and Master Chancery of Ireland.

Choosing for himself a home near to the seats of political power and his post in education, Temple built a house and gardens in the zone now bearing his name.

Dr Curtis adds an interesting detail: “The site included some reclaimed land, which had formed part of the riverbank (‘barr’) of the Liffey estuary. In the 17th Century, ‘barr’ (later shortened to ‘bar’) usually meant a raised estuary sandbank often used for walking on.”

Building on Temple Bar, and indeed extensions to the reclaimed land, continued during the lifetime of Temple’s son, John, further subsuming the monastic lands.

Great detail

In the wake of the Reformation, Temple Bar had become the very centre of Protestant life and the administration of Ireland. This is reflected not alone in the name of the site for William Temple, but in modern street names reflecting figures such as William Crow, Sir Maurice Eustace, Arthur Annesley, Earl of Angelsea, and Arthur Capel, first Earl of Essex and William Fownes.

Dr Curtis’s book expands in great detail on these figures and their impact on Ireland.

For example, in the story of William Crow, we focus in on one catastrophic episode for Ireland and its people which began within the mansion he built in Temple Bar, subsequently known as ‘the Crow’s Nest’ (on modern Crow St).

Working here, between 1654 and 1655, Dr William Petty, acting on the orders of Oliver Cromwell, undertook his major survey of Irish lands (the Down Survey) with the aim of identifying tracts Cromwell could seize as payment to those investors who had backed his suppression of the country. 

“Cromwell had borrowed huge sums of money from London merchants when he was planning the re-conquest of the country,” Dr Curtis writes. “[He] had to repay his enormous loans and pay his soldiers…Cromwell’s solution was to pass anti-Catholic Penal Laws against the vast majority of the population and, most importantly, confiscate huge tracts of their land.” All co-ordinated from Temple Bar.

What began in Temple Bar was to end there also, however, as Dr Curtis points out.

Drawing attention to the western fringes of the district (and a stone’s throw from the site of the first performance of George Frederick Handel’s religiously inspired Messiah in Fishamble St – with the assistance of choirs from St Patrick’s and Christ Church), he indicates the famed  Smock Alley Theatre.  

Opened in 1662, it closed its doors to theatre-goers in 1787 and later became the church of Ss Michael and John. It gained fame and notoriety in equal measure in 1811 when it was the location of the first Catholic bell-ringing in Dublin in 300 years, a noisome breach of the Penal Laws. 

As a consequence, criminal proceedings were brought against PP Fr Michael Blake, who was successfully defended by one Daniel O’Connell, who would go on to be Liberator of more than just this Catholic priest.

According to Dr Curtis: “Legend has it that O’Connell rang the bell of Ss Michael and John to celebrate Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and in the process cracked the bell, causing damage which remains visible today. The bell is regarded as Dublin’s and Ireland’s great emancipation ‘freedom bell’.”

And here the cartographic journey of mere inches and more than a thousand years of history ends. Hard by the modern blocks of marble and glass that long ago covered the Viking settlement of Wood Quay that was the beginning of Dublin, the story has figuratively come full circle, encompassing within the great hidden narrative of the capital’s Christian roots.