The Dominicans in Athenry, Bresk and Esker

Source: Notes by Donal Taheny

Athenry 1241-1698

The Dominican Order was founded by St. Dominic. The first Irish foundations were made in Dublin and Drogheda 1224. The first foundation inConnacht was in Athenry in 1241 by the Norman, Meyler de Bermingham and dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul.

The town of Athenry was built by the Normans circa 1235 A.D. It is the oldest walled-town in Connacht and had a Mayor and Corporation before many of our modern cities were heard of. When de Bermingham brought the friars to Athenry he bestowed 1500 acres of land on them and abundant tithes. This new abbey became a flourishing foundation. Its growth was due to the generous support of Irish and Norman chieftains and of the people of the surrounding district.

Athenry Abbey

This became the burial place of many of the traditional families around about: The Burkes of Clanrickarde and the de Berminghams, including the founder who died in 1252.

Several important meetings of the Irish friars took place at Athenry including one in 1482 when 280 friars met to discuss the problems of setting up a separate Irish province. This was finally done in 1536 by Pope Paul 111. There were at least 36 houses in the new Province but before the end of the 16th century only a few were left.

Athenry escaped the onslaughts of King Henry VII but not of Queen Elizabeth 1st. It was suppressed in 1574 when the Abbey and its lands were granted to the Mayor and Burgesses of Athenry.

Bresk in the 17th Century

Although a few friars remained behind in Athenry and lived as outlaws in the woods near the town, the main body of the community was forced into exile after the confiscation of the Abbey. The Abbey of Holy Cross, Louvain, offered hospitality to more than 30 members of the Athenry Friary.  It was there that Fr. John Heyne, who was professed near Esker in 1666, wrote his invaluable record “The Irish Dominicans of the 17th Century”.

The 17th Century

This century was marked by recurring periods of persecution. During times of peace, the Dominicans who did not go into exile re-occupied the old Abbey. But when persecution came, they sought refuge in the townland of Coillascail where they obtained a site from Lord Ulick Burke, Earl of Clanrickarde. The name Coillascail means “Wood of the Shade”.

Fr. Edmund Burke, known as Old Burke and a native of Craughwell, published a book called “Laques Contritus” printed in Lyon, identified Coillascail with Bresk. A succession of young men came here, made their novitiate and then continued their studies abroad.

The Cromwellian Period

During this time even Bresk seems to have been abandoned by the friars. However, with the Restoration of Charles 11 in 1660 they returned, having obtained from the successor of Lord Ulick Burke a re-grant of their former site on condition that three Masses be said annually for his family.

During the reign of Charles 11 the friars conducted a school at Bresk. O’Heyne gives interesting information about it. Writing as an eye witness in 1665 he says it was attended by 300 scholars of all ages, who came from all over Ireland. They studied in openings in the woods where huts were constructed for shelter. Classes began with a prayer to the Holy Spirit. Secular as well as religious studies were pursued at this College. As soon as the students became lawyers or doctors or entered other such professions, many of the students joined the Dominican order. We know the names of 42 students who were professed here between 1666-1698. One of these was John O’Heyne already referred to. 

In 1691 the school had to be closed owing to the Jacobite war in Ireland. The Williamite confiscation of the Clanrickarde property was followed by the eviction of the Fathers from their land of refuge.

Penal Laws

In 1698 the Penal Laws expelled all the friars and forbade their return under pain of death. For the Dominicans of Athenry it seemed as if the end had come after 450 years. Providence decreed otherwise.

Esker 1707-1893

In 1698 two of the friars were, on account of their advanced years, exempted from the general exile and soon died. Fr. Anthony McHugh and a lay brother stayed concealed in the woods and were the only representatives of the Community until 1707 when three priests returned from Spain. After a short time some other Fathers returned from Louvain and the Community was again formed and the friars were able, after a long search, to rent a solitary spot in Esker, between two lakes, from Mr. Denis Daly of Carnakelly where they built a small dwelling. Some novices were received here. In 1715 after a fire destroyed their dwelling they moved to Esker- na-pay, afterwards called Eiscir na mBrathar, three miles from the old abbey where they built a better house.

The place is not far from the earlier site at Bresk. There are still traces of a village or group of houses, which sprang up later at this place and stood at the time of the famine.

Denis Daly, who granted the site, was a judge during the reign of James 11 and was a Catholic. At the Williamite confiscation he succeeded in saving his property and also succeeded in gaining for himself a considerable portion of the confiscated land of Earl of Clanrickarde, including Bresk and Esker. He died in Dublin in 1720 and the ruins of his house at Carnakelly are still to be seen.

The first houses of the Esker Dominicans were built of timber or mud and wattles and thatched with rushes.

During their residence at Coillbeag, a mere 8 years, 11 novices were received. As the Penal Code was still in force these young men were received under the guise of employing them as servants or apprentices.

The Newer site of 1715 on which the present Esker Monastery is built was higher up in the wood and on drier ground. It too was granted by Denis Daly.

Life in Esker in the 18th Century

In the new Priory a novitiate was begun and 22 men received the habit between 1716-1748. When they had finished they continued their studies abroad, mostly in Spain and the Low Countries. The life of the friars was one of seclusion and poverty. Their chief Apostolic Works were Preaching, Baptising and teaching Catechism.

Account Books

The Account Books of Esker are extant from 1721-1893.The friars had no means of livelihood except questing, Mass offerings, which were usually 1 shilling, occasional gifts and the Sunday collection, which averaged about two shillings and sixpence.

The following receipt entries in the account book show some of the sources of income,

1727      May 3rd —For a heifer      £1.13.0

                                For a bullock   £1.8.0

1728     Oct 18th —-A stone of wool £1.6.3

             Oct 20th       15 sheep    £1.6.3

1729      June 2nd   for a cow’s hide   2s 0

That the friars were often in dire poverty is evident. In 1723 things were so bad that they had to pawn 8 of their chalices.

In 1735 things had improved and they bought:

                18 bottles of claret for 16/6

                  6 bottles of Mountain for 6/2

                  1 gallon of brandy for 4/0

But these happy days were the exception as they had no revenue except the alms of the faithful. During the Penal Days no habits were worn.

Wages Were Low

In 1749 a Kate Burke, a servant at Esker, was paid £3 per year. In 1722 a Sarah Burke was paid £1.0½ for 6 years wages.

The recipient of a letter, and not a sender, paid the cost. July 8th 1724 in the account book it reads: 

Paid old Burke 2 shillings for a letter he got from Flanders for an affair of the house.

The friars had to pay taxes, rents and tithes. The tithes had to be paid in person to the Protestant parson who collected them yearly. In1755 tithes, rent and hearth money was paid.

18th Century Dominicans

Despite the Penal laws there were a large number of priests in Ireland in early 18th century. Not all were exemplary in their lives and there were not a few perversions. In 1751 propaganda forbade the reception of novices by Irish Religious Congregations in Ireland. It closed down all novitiates.

There was a grave scarcity of priests after 1760. This closed down the Esker Novitiate house until 1880. A great number of friars in the Irish province in the early 19th century were from Co. Galway, especially from the Loughrea District.

Fr Anthony Fahy professed in Esker 1828, became a famous missionary in the Argentine. In 1843 he was abbot of Black Abbey, Kilkenny and was sent as chaplain to the Irish emigrants in Argentina. For 27 years he laboured there.

Fr Edmund French, an Esker novice ordained in Lisbon, was elected Catholic Warden of Galway. He introduced the Presentation nuns and Patrician Brothers and built the Parish Church of St Nicholas. He was appointed Bishop of Kilmacduagh. He died in 1852.


Before the National School system of 1831 there had been no small progress in the field of education. This was partly due to the rise of Religious Congregations devoted wholly or partly to Education: French Ursulines, Presentations, Brigidines, Charity Sisters, Christian and Patrician Brothers.Several diocesan seminaries had been open: the first being St. Kieran’s, Kilkenny in 1782.

In Esker the Dominicans provided Education during the 19th century, not only basic 3 “Rs” but in classical, agricultural, scientific and technical subjects, not only for poor classes but also for the better-off and professional classes.

The driving force behind this was Fr Damien Smith, a native of Galway, Provincial of Irish Province 1832-1836 and also Prior of Esker. His first effort was to provide for the children of the neighbourhood of Esker. The Persse Family at Moyode Castle were using a school to undermine the Faith of local children. This school conducted by Mr. Persse existed as late as 1852. Fr. Smith went to England to collect funds for the erection of a school to cater exclusively for the poor.

In these parishes there are upwards of 600 children of both sexes, who from the poverty of their parents and general misery that exists in this part of Ireland, are destitute of the means to secure that intellectual improvement necessary to discharge the duties if social life”-letter given to Fr Smith who went collecting funds.

In this part of Connacht the catholic population is poor and wretched beyond measure. Their Protestant neighbours are inclined to tamper with the miseryof the people for the purpose  of subverting  their faith. To frustrate thir machinations more effectively Fr Smith and his brethern have determined to erect a poor school sufficient to accommodate 500-600 children. 

– Dictionary 1837

There is in Esker a school of about 600 children, 50 of whom are clothed and fed. There is also a private school in which about 120 pupils are educated. There is also a Sunday school.

In the 1880’s a Trade School existed in Esker. The proceeds of the collection taken at the dedication of Esker Church in 1844 was to be applied for the building of the agricultural school, and the providing of trades for 26 boys. Boys were taught cobbling and carpentry and girls knitting.

During the Famine years 1845-1850 the Agricultural College ceased to exist and the literary school became a National School.

The national school continued in the same building until 1895 when it was transferred to another part of the Convent buildings and remained there until 1907. In 1852-1853, there were 55 boys & 70 girls on roll.

The College of St Dominic, Esker

The college opened in 1847 as a college for the sons of the well-to-do. In the first year there were 43 boarders and 1 dayboy. The numbers declined because the Famine impoverished the gentry; no state grant, the lands poor and the College could not maintain itself financially. The school closed in 1857. It was destroyed by fire in June 1889 and was re-roofed by Dr Healy, Bishop of Clonfert and used as a Diocesan Seminary.

St Dominic’s Well at Esker

It is a powerful spring at the foot of the 200 foot high Dominic’s Hill. At mid-day on the Vigil of the Epiphany, a stone trough beside the well is filled with water from the well and blessed with the ordinary formula from the ‘Ritual for the Blessing of Holy Water’. During the evening of the Vigil and all day during January 6th people come in great numbers for the blessed water to sprinkle on their cattle and lands. No prayer or pilgrimage to the well itself, the devotion is to the water baled out and blessed.

Origin of This Devotion (Dr. Pochin) “Irish Dominicans” p. 132:

When the Cromwellians came to Athenry the friars in the old priory fled in haste to Esker where there had earlier established themselves. In the haste of their flight a pet dog was left behind lying hidden at Coillascail. They were rejoiced next day to see the dog coming to rejoin them. He carried a Ritual, open at a page giving the blessing on Holy Water, in his mouth. They took this as a sign to bless the water taken from the Well”. The practice of blessing the water was in existence before the Famine.

This Epiphany blessing is unique in Ireland but well known in the East, where in the early Church, Epiphany was a baptismal feast and on its eve, rivers and springs were blessed and water drawn from them and kept for baptisms during the year. The Christians of the Greek Church have still a solemn blessing of Holy Water at Epiphany, including a procession to a convenient river or stream.

Dominic’s Well supplies domestic water for the Esker monastery, it’s a never failing supply.

The Great Famine

The friars of Esker played their part in alleviating the misery of the people. In 1852 Indian meal costing £25 was purchased for feeding the poor of the House of Industry.

£8/6/3 was paid for half a ton of oatmeal

Aug 1850 —-Relief money of £20 received from Board of Works

Oct 1852—- Relief money of £76 received from the Board of Works

Feb 1852—- Relief money of £66 received from the Board of Works

Oct 1852 —-Relief Money of £80 received from the Board of Works to the friars, for farm offices and £60 for drainage.

The friars sold a great amount of livestock to get money to feed the hungry poor:

8 heifers were sold at Athenry fair for £67

30 were ewes sold at Athenry fair @ £1/9/0 each

31 lambs were sold at Athenry fair @ £17/1/0

In March 1846 they sold 257 stones of oats in Galway for £10/16/0 and 114 stones of oats in Loughrea for £5/3/10

Also sold were wool, barley, tallow, sheep-skins, bog deal, pigs, bonhams and calves. With the money thus received they fed daily at the monastery door a large number of the poor and and provided clothes for many of the poor children.

On August 30th 1893 the Dominicans left Esker where they had been  for  652 years associated with Athenry. Esker was donated to Dr Healy, Bishop of Clonfert.A Diocesan seminary dedicated to St. Joseph was set up there. It was sold to the Reemptorists in August 1901.