Geography

Esker, the Monastery that Refused to Die

by

Tony Galvin of The Tuam Herald (1994)

Esker Monastery, one of the great survival stories in Irish ecclesiastical history, is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Consecration of its church, St. Patrick’s, this week, August 15th.  Esker has survived wars, persecutions, poverty and famine over its long history but is now confidently looking forward to the 21st century with optimism and purpose. An estimated 12,000 visitors to the Esker Retreat House last year is testimony to the life and vigour of the monastery and the growing appreciation among the general public of the wide range of services on offer there.

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Esker Monastery. Photo: Donal Taheny

The monastery is situated about three miles from Athenry.   Surrounded by lush farmland, it is an oasis of peace and tranquility which more and more people are discovering is the ideal escape from the hectic pace of modern life, a place where people can commune with God and take stock of their lives. The retreat house programme bears the legend “Life to the Full” (John 10:10) and this is the underlying theme running through all activities at Esker; to encourage people, religious and laity, to live their lives to the full, in harmony with God, as God intended us all to live.

The Rector of Esker Monastery, Fr. Eamon Hoey, said that Esker has been a holy place for centuries and he was sure that the people would keep this tradition up for a long time to come.  “Celebrating the 150th anniversary of St. Patrick’s Church is just one way of keeping the tradition alive and we hope there will be others here celebrating in the centuries to come,” he said.

Many traditions

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St. Dominic’s Well, Esker. Photo: Donal Taheny

Fr. Hoey explained that there were many traditions associated with Esker such as people coming to do pilgrimages in the grounds, often with bare feet.  Another interesting tradition he pointed to was the blessing of St. Dominick’s Well on the 5th and 6th of January when people throng to Esker and collect blessed holy water which is then taken home and sprinkled on the land and crops to ensure a productive harvest. Fr. Johnny Doherty, Director of the Retreat House, said that the idea behind the celebration of the anniversary was to acknowledge the generations of people who came to Esker and helped establish it as a place of worship. ‘From our own point of view the celebrations serve as an opportunity to look ahead, to renew our own commitment to the people of the area: we see this as much more important than celebrating the past,’ he said.

Fr. Doherty feels it is important to show the confidence they have in the future of Esker Monastery, especially at a time when so many religious houses are closing their doors.  The message from Esker is that the monastery is here to stay, not just existing but pushing forward and offering a wide range of services to those who wish to heal their lives and get closer to God. Today there are about 30 full-time members in the community, mostly Brothers, quite a number of whom have retired from other duties and now play an important role in the running of the monastery.   Esker is also the home base for a very active group of priests who are well known for their parish mission work all over the West of Ireland.

Celebratory Mass

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Dominican Priory of Saints Peter and Paul, Athenry. Photo: Gerry Ahern

At a celebratory Mass held earlier in the summer a sermon given by Fr. Vincent Kavanagh raised a few eyebrows when he told the congregation that Esker is the only monastery in the world which owes its foundation to Oliver Cromwell.   Fr. Kavanagh, like many a Redemptorist, is not above a little exaggeration to get his message across, and in this case he certainly got the undivided attention of all present.   He did go on to admit that Oliver didn’t exactly provide funding for the establishment of the monastery, or even go as far as giving it his blessing. What he was referring to was that the reign of terror during the Cromwellian period finally forced the abandonment t of the Dominican monastery in Athenry for the last time.  The monks fled to the bogs and woods of Esker for safety and protection and this is how the centuries old tradition of monastic activity in Esker was established.

From bad to worse

This was a remarkable period of history.  The fugitive friars lived in great poverty; unable to live openly, they used the cover of what was then a wild and wooded area to carry on their religious lives. Even more remarkably the friars founded a school in 1662, which soon had a student population of 300, which had to carry out its activities in secret. After Aughrim and the Treaty of Limerick things went from bad to worse.  In 1698 all friars were banished from the country on pain of dearth.  But still the Dominicans carried on in their secluded foothold near Athenry. In 1715 the friars settled at their present site and more permanent structures were built to accommodate the community.  Life was still difficult in those years and at one point it is reported that they had to pawn the sacred vessels to survive.  But it can’t have been all bad, for the famous poet Raftery was impressed by the hospitality to be found at Esker and wrote:

‘The cup was ready and the cock in the barrel,

The glass on the table and the bean an ti serving,

We never noticed, the entertainment was so pleasant,

‘Til the day broke and the sun came out.’

 After Emancipation

Photo: Donal Taheny

Photo: Donal Taheny

Things began to look up for the monastery in the 19th century after Catholic Emancipation was won in 1829.  Within a decade the Dominicans at Esker had 600 children in their school and were feeding 50 of them every day. When St. Patrick’s was opened 150 years ago the famous temperance preacher Fr. Matthew was the preacher on the day.  Those attending the first Mass were asked to contribute five shillings, a week’s wages for a skilled worker, towards the building of a new college; the training of 26 boys in trade; the clothing of 50 poor children and the feeding of 100 paupers at the monastery daily.

The new college was to provide a broad classical education for better-off Catholics, with special emphasis on agricultural matters.  But the venture was ill fated, opening its doors at the height of the famine in 1847, and only functioned for a decade.  The closure of the college marked the beginning of the end for the Dominicans in Esker.  The order moved out in 1893 after 650 years serving the people of the area. Esker became the Clonfert diocesan seminary for a brief period before being taken over by the Redemptorists in 1901 who carried out major reconstruction work and established a seminary there.

Courses

Today Esker Monastery is once again a thriving community, attracting ever growing numbers through an extensive programme of courses, retreats and seminars on offer. On the last weekend of every month there is a course designed for engaged couples to prepare them for marriage.  There is also a course on offer called ‘Cana’ which is a special weekend for married couples designed to allow participants take a new look at marriage and gain a fresh perspective on love.

A course for parents on sexuality is aimed at teaching parents how to educate and protect their children from sexual abuse, and introduce them to the healing process needed for children who have suffered such abuse. Yet another programme deals with the problems experienced by people who have lost partners through separation or death, providing an opportunity for them to understand and work through their grief in a caring, healing atmosphere. Under the heading of personal development there are self awareness weekends, courses on stress management, effectiveness training and releasing the artist within, on offer.

Esker is well known throughout the country as a retreat house and offers an array of retreats catering for religious and laity, with specially adapted retreats designed to suit young people. There are plans to provide accommodation suitable for young people so more can come and enjoy what Esker has to offer.

Moving with the times

The list of all that is available at Esker is far too comprehensive to cover thoroughly here, suffice to say that the monastery is moving with the times while still retaining the qualities which ensured its survival for so long and guarantee its continuation as a place of worship and spiritual healing for generations to come.