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  • Southside

Story of a forgotten abbey is recalled in the Liberties

Wednesday, 25th October, 2017 1:00pm
Story of a forgotten abbey    is recalled in the Liberties

Mia Byrne and Nikol Mary get into the spirit of things in the Liberties. PHOTO: Marc O’Sullivan

Story of a forgotten abbey    is recalled in the Liberties

Mia Byrne and Nikol Mary get into the spirit of things in the Liberties. PHOTO: Marc O’Sullivan

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THE LARGELY forgotten story of a major medieval abbey on the Southside of the city was recalled this month.

The history of the Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr, which lay outside the medieval city walls in the area now known as the Liberties, was marked with a medieval pageant, a day-long symposium and the publication of a new book on the history of the abbey.

The Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr was founded in 1177, under the orders of King Henry II, and is unique in that it was the only royal ecclesiastical foundation in medieval Ireland. It is recorded that King Henry II expressed frustration at the perceived meddling of Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury, who, instead of behaving like a loyal servant to the king, was more concerned with upholding the rights of the Church.

Four of the king’s knights took it upon themselves to murder Thomas Becket. Following the growth in his popularity after his death, King Henry founded the abbey, dedicated to Thomas Becket, to distance himself from the murder.

The abbey controlled two thirds of the water supply and was partly responsible for the maintenance of the system for the city – which was a bone of contention between the abbey and the citizens of Dublin. So much so, in fact, that violence erupted in 1392 when citizens attacked the abbey.

The abbey’s holdings were very industrious and over its lifetime it acquired 2,300 acres of land. By the time of the abbey’s dissolution in 1539, it had become one of the wealthiest institutions in Ireland.

Earlier this month. dozens of local schoolchildren from the Liberties and surrounding areas paraded through the streets of Dublin 8 in medieval clothing, brandishing wooden shields, swords and banners on wooden hobby horses. The parade was led by two knights on horseback in full medieval costume and armour.

A day-long conference on the history of the abbey was also held in St Catherine’s Church on Thomas Street. 

Commenting on the foundation of the abbey, Ruth Johnson, Dublin City Archaeologist, said: “Over the years there had been a number of archaeological discoveries in the area around Thomas Street, which led me to delve further into the history of the royal abbey. I discovered that the last major piece of research on the abbey had been done in the 19th century, so there was a huge gap in our knowledge.”

Bruce Phillips, Area Manager of Dublin City Council’s South Central Area, added: “The discovery of the fascinating history of the abbey is an exciting development in the narrative of the Liberties. Long before Arthur Guinness made his mark, brewing was carried out in the Liberties area on both a personal and industrial scale. As well as brewing, industries that sprung up during the time of the abbey included food production, glass-making and pottery.

A book written by Dr Áine Foley about the history of the abbey has been published by Dublin City Council and will be officially launched in the Liberties next month.

Further information on the Abbey can be found at

Knight Ciaran Hanlon pictured during the event. PHOTO: Marc O’Sullivan

Read the digital editions of the Dublin People Northside East, Northside West & Southside here