The mendicant religious orders came to Dublin, and to Ireland generally, essentially under the sponsorship of the Norman barons who came across from England as conquerors in the mid-thirteenth century. The barons favoured the English-speaking mendicant friars over the Gaelic-speaking local clergy, particularly with the education of their sons in mind, for the friars taught in English and had connections with the first universities that were then growing in England.
The first Augustinian site in Dublin was donated by one such family, the Talbot family. The year 1259 is the date when approval was given for a foundation of the Order of Saint Augustine in Dublin, but there is no historical evidence of their actual presence earlier than a reference to them in a last will and testament signed in 1282. There is no doubt, therefore, that the Augustinians arrived at some time between 1259 and 1282; to narrow the time frame any further is moving into the realm of conjecture.
It is known that in 1282 William de Stafford before his departure for the Holy Land left legacies to various churches in Dublin, including ten shillings to the Order of St Augustine and two shillings to the Sack Friars. The Staffords were great friends of the Augustinians, and founded or rebuilt the houses of the Austin Friars at Atherstone, Stafford and Shrewsbury (all in England) and Newport (Wales). On 5th June 1284 the Augustinians received permission from King Edward I to buy up to one acre of land adjoining their current property in Dublin.
The Talbot family, ancestors of the dukes of Tyroconnell, gave the Augustinians four acres (under three hectares) of land beside the Poddle, a tributary of the River Liffey. Some of the property was land reclaimed from the river, and was subject to flooding. It was open country outside the city walls, just east of Dublin – then probably a city of 8,000 inhabitants. The Augustinian priory (convento) was situated on the southern bank of the Liffey, on a site that in recent years was occupied by Cecilia Street and the northern part of Crowe street.
Dublin had ten religious houses (including those of the Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites and Sack Friars before the arrival of the Augustinians), and many parish churches. No specific details of the Augustinian priory (convento) exist, but it is presumed it adopted the pattern of an English Augustinian monastery, with separate buildings around a cloister (courtyard). It has been suggested that the priory was dedicated to the Holy Trinity.
After some difficulty with the mayor, the Augustinians succeeded in June 1284 to purchase an adjoining acre of land. This may have been with accommodation in mind for candidates to the Order, although no direct historical reference to a house of Augustinian students in Dublin appears before 1359. Indeed, on two occasions in 1348 the Augustinians at Dublin petitioned the king in England for financial assistance to send six of their candidates to study liberal arts and theology in England because they had no way of undertaking the expected necessary studies in Ireland.
Photos (at right): Three images of the exterior facade of the Augustinian Church, St John's Lane (actually fronting Thomas Street), Dublin. Although the Augustinian communities in Ireland were part of the English Augustinian Province, at some stage the practice began of having a Vicar Provincial for Ireland, so that less important matters no longer had to be referred to England. (For a map of the locations of Pre-Reformation Augustinian priories in Ireland, click here.)
The first record of a Vicar Provincial is in the year 1360, although it is not known if this particular Augustinian, John Dale, was the first to hold this position.As admissions to the Order in England dwindled and native Irish were accepted in the Dublin Priory, the Augustinian house there experienced the political tension that existed in the surrounding community. The problem of integrating Augustinians from the two cultures was a real one; there was the difference in language (English and Gaelic) and in political allegiance (to the English King or to the traditional Irish chieftains), etc. In 1455 the Augustinians and the other mendicant orders in Dublin were summoned before the (Norman-English) mayor and council of Dublin and for political reasons ordered to expel any community members with Gaelic surnames.
If carried out at all, the edict was certainly not enduring. Extant records from soon after 1500 show Dublin Augustinians with surnames such as O’Connery, MacLeary and O’Cullen. (Patrick O’Cullen was Prior there in 1507, and recommended by the king in his appointment as Bishop of Clogher in 1515.) The community gained a high reputation for learning, and a number of its members became bishops. One Dublin Augustinian, Geoffrey Shale (an Irish name, variously Schale, O’Sheil and O’Scahill) was the most distinguished Irish theologian of the Order.
He preached at Council of Constance (1414-1418), the council that drew the Great Western Schism to a close. He had a master’s degree from Cambridge, was regent of studies at the Augustinian convento in Dublin in 1421, and was still serving there as late as 1433. As the conflict of Henry VIII with the Catholic Church reached its crescendo, George Browne, the ex-Augustinian who had been Provincial in England in 1532, was appointed by King Henry VIII as the first Anglican Archbishop of Dublin from 1536 to 1553. Replacing a Roman Catholic bishop who had been murdered, Browne was barely accepted in that position, but one person who accepted him was Richard Nangle, an Augustinian who was then Prior of the Augustinian house in Dublin and who previously had been appointed as the Augustinian Vicar Provincial of Ireland in 1518.
Henry VIII rewarded Nangle with the appointment as Bishop of Clonfert in 1536, but the Pope had already appointed another candidate, and Nagle was expelled by the people. Browne then made him one of his Anglican suffragan bishops in Dublin. Browne's first duty in Dublin had been to proclaim the Act of Supremacy (i.e., that Henry VIII was the sole head of the Church in his kingdom), and force it through the Irish Parliament. The progressive suppression of the monasteries then followed, including the Augustinian Priory in Dublin. The confiscated Augustinian Priory was in 1540 sold to Richard Nangle, the former Prior there who had become an Anglican suffragan bishop of Dublin. The land was subdivided in the centuries that followed, and was used for many purposes. A building erected there in 1836 was later purchased by the Catholic University of Ireland. It was then used as a medical school.
Between 1540 and 1840, Augustinians served in Dublin in spite of governmental restrictions, enjoying no sense of security. Illegally using small chapels hidden in back streets and themselves living in relative secrecy, they risked imprisonment or expulsion during times of particular anti-clerical purges. In 1685 it is known that the Augustinian chapel in Hammond Lane, off Arran Quay, was discovered and demolished. It lay outside the confines of Dublin City. It seems that their next venue was a warehouse in John’s Lane, proximate to the present Augustinian church and priory (behind which is the present thoroughfare named John’s Lane). Augustinian ministry in Dublin between 1540 and 1840 focussed successively on these two venues.
In the meantime, Augustinians in Dublin were living under any guise that allowed them to escape detection. An address to parliament in 1703 reported that "regulars (i.e., members of religious orders) concealed themselves under the guise of physicians and other professions. They easily obtain leave to teach as schoolmen." One ingenious Augustinian in Dublin was the colourful character, Edmund Byrne O.S.A.. By day he was disguised as a soldier and known as the swashbuckling 'Colonel Byrne,' and by night he was a priest offering Mass and the sacraments. An official Anti-Popery Report of 1731 reported that there were three Mass-houses or Popish chapels in the vicinity of John’s Lane, one supplied by eight “fryars Augustines” (i.e. Augustinian friars).
It was Edmund Byrne O.S.A. who first rented the John's Lane Mass site in 1700 (not the whole of the present Augustinian property, but only a fraction of it), and who was the Irish Augustinian Provincial from 1717 to 1724. The site was previously a stable on the western side of St John's Tower, a surviving fragment of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (which the name St John’s Lane recalls). In about 1740, on the site of part of the Hospital, was erected a small church 60 feet (18.3 m) by 24 feet (7.3 m), which was considerably extended 40 years later.
The area used by the Augustinians in John’s Lane was enlarged three times by the purchase of adjoining property between 1700 and 1862; this happened about the years 1748 and 1781. Before 1781 there was no Priory at all; some Augustinians lived in the sacristy, and others were quartered in private houses in the vicinity. The present expanse occupied by the church and priory began to be acquired in 1854, when a famous cardiac surgeon who was an Augustinian benefactor began purchasing the required lots once he knew the building hopes of the Augustinians.
In 1862, which being subsequent to Catholic Emancipation meant that the Church no longer had to hide its presence, the present magnificent and highly visible Augustinian church at Saint John's Lane (it actually faces the more important Thomas Street, in the opposite direction) was designed. It was given its fourteenth-century French-Gothic style by Edward Welby Pugin of Ramsgate (son of the famed architect, Augustus Welby Pugin) and his brother-in-law, George Ashlin of Dublin. From 1859 until 1870 Pugin and Ashlin worked together on about twenty-five architectural tasks in Ireland. Ashlin was originally articled to Pugin from 1856 to 1860, and wed Mary, Pugin’s sister in 1870. This church is one of the most successful and famous designs of Pugin and Ashlin.
The church’s frontage on Thomas Street measures 93 feet (31metres), and its length to John’s Lane of 165 feet (55 metres). The site drops off towards the river, so that while the entrance is at street level the nave and chancel are raised considerably above the surrounding streets, a dramatic effect that is enhanced by the church’s soaring and distinctive Flemish chisel-shaped spire. The original plan envisaged a church of greater length so as to have aisles around the chancel, but the church plans had to be shortened by two bays when the unavailability of other land at the time required the (“old”) Priory to be built immediately behind the church, facing John’s Lane.
John Ruskin, a great admirer of Pugin, described the Church of St John the Baptist and St Augustine (“John’s Lane”) as a "poem in stone". Construction of the church began at Easter 1862 under the leadership of Fr. Martin Crane O.S.A., who was later appointed as the Bishop of Sandhurst in Victoria, Australia. Construction took thirty-three years. One problem was that the foreman and many of the workmen were Fenians, who got in trouble with the authorities in 1865 and afterwards - for this reason the church was sometimes described as "The Fenian Church". Although the church took from 1862 to 1895 to build, it was sufficiently completed to be used for worship from 1874 onwards, by which time the spire and the roof were completed.
The interior was completed in all its details by 1911. It is impressive, with its tall, profusely decorated French-style interior,its apsidal chancel (which took three decades to complete), its very beautiful stained glass windows (for example, the great windows over the entrance and the apse are both by Mayers of Munich) its rich mosaics and especially perhaps its wonderfully pinnacled reredos by Edmund Sharp. A statue of Christ (see image at top-right of this page) was placed over the main door of the church. The church was blessed and formally dedicated in honour of Saints Augustine of Hippo and St John the Baptist in 1895.
A debt of ten thousand pounds sterling remained, out of an estimated total expenditure of 60,000 pounds, although permanent altars had not then been installed or the interior decoration completed. A magnificent main altar of white Carrara marble was later installed. The church also features some magnificent leadlight windows, which come from the Harry Clarke studio and depict the life of St Augustine. The additional portions of the church site itself cost over 3,000 pounds.
Money for the church building fund had been raised not only throughout Ireland, but from Irish emigrants overseas in the United States, Canada and Australia. Sent to Australia for this purpose, Fr Edward Mooney O.S.A. collected 6,000 pounds in six years. Fr Henry Allen O.S.A., an Irish Augustinians who had volunteered to minister in Australia for life, gathered another 3,000 pounds there. Likewise funds were raised by visiting Irish Augustinians canvassing in the United States and Canada. In Dublin itself, Brothers Stanislaus McCarthy O.S.A. and Nicholas O’Neill O.S.A. made regular door-to-door collections in Dublin, and raised 6,000 pounds.
The tower of the Church of St John the Baptist and St Augustine (“John’s Lane”) rises 223 feet (74 metres) into the heavens, and is a Dublin landmark that looks over the Liberties area of Dublin. It is the tallest church spire in Dublin. The twelve statues of the Apostles in the niches on the tower are the work of James Pearse, father of the poet Patrick Pearse and his brother, Willie Pearse. Surprisingly, this tower was not designed to hold any bells, hence there was never any reason to provide access to what is now the ringing chamber. As a result an open spiral staircase had to be added later to fill this need.
One bellringer at John's Lane described the journey to the church's belfry thus: "You start off your journey by going round three turns of an enclosed spiral staircase. Then you enter a gallery, where there's the entrance to a wrought iron open spiral staircase. The gaps between the railings are quite big. When you have climbed to the top of the staircase you have to turn to climb a straight ladder.""The scary bit is that you can see the full length of this large church as you climb, and it looks as if there's nothing underneath you. Once you overcome your fear, you're in the belfry. Then all you've got to worry about is getting down again afterwards! It's worth the visit if you're not scared of heights."
The cost of the original eight bells was donated to the church by Stanislaus Byre of Booterstown in 1872. They were cast in 1872 by Murphy's foundry of Dublin, and dedicated on Saint Patrick's Day, 17th March 1873. In 1898, to celebrate the silver jubilee of the bells, two new bells were added. The complete peal of ten bells was first rung on Christmas Eve 1898. Further celebrations were recorded in 1973 for the occasion of the centenary of the first eight bells and in 1998 for the centenary of the ten bells. The ringers in John's Lane and other neighbouring towers also formed the first group of Irish ringers to visit Rome in August 2000.
As well as the parish around John's Lane, at present the Order of Saint Augustine conducts three other parishes in Dublin.
John’s Lane Church, Dublin. A specialist web site on the church’s stained glass windows.
This so-called "Great Window" behind the altar (and pictured above) is the work of Mayers of Munich and is best seen as a complete unit. There are two rows of saints represented. In the upper row are Saints Catherine, William, Clare of Montefalco, Augustine and John the Baptist titulars of the church, Monica, Thomas of Villanova and Rita of Cascia. The lower row depicts Saints Gelasius, Limbonia, Lucy, Nicholas of Tolentine, Juliana, Patrick, Brigid and John the Apostle. The arch overhead is aflutter with angels' wings... We have to remember that in ancient times, stained glass windows were called "the poor man's Bible". People who could not read used sit in front of them and by looking, could absorb the whole Christian story. http://www.johnslane.ie/stained-glass
The Victorian Web. On a web site dealing with many aspects of the Victorian Age (19th century), some pages cover the work of the architect, E. W. Pugin, on St John’s Lane Church in Dublin. http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/puginew/2.html
John’s Lane, Dublin. The famed Augustinian church in central Dublin. “A poem in stone.” (You Tube: 11 minutes 14 seconds) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBmecqXk1vw
John's Lane: A History of the Augustinian friars in Dublin, 1280-1980. By Thomas Butler O.S.A. Published by St John's Priory, Dublin in 1983. 220 pages.
The Irish Augustinian Friaries in pre-Reformation Ireland. By F. X. Martin O.S.A. Augustiniana (6), April 1956: Augustinian Historical Institute of Louvain. pp 346-384.
A History of the Abbeys, Convents and Churches, and other Religious Houses of the Order… in Ireland. By W. J. Battersby. Dublin: G.P, Warren, 1856.