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Column: How has a major medieval abbey in the centre of Dublin been forgotten?

The Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr was founded in 1177, under the orders of King Henry II, writes Dr Ruth Johnson.

Dr Ruth Johnson City archaeologist for Dublin City Council

ANYONE WHO WENT to an Irish primary school is familiar with the tales of Viking raids and Strongbow’s invasion. Ireland’s medieval history is well documented, and hundreds of schools take a trip to Dublinia each year.

Countless historians have dedicated their lives to Irish medieval history and there are vast quantities of academic research, journals and books on the topic.

How then, has the story of a major medieval abbey which lay close to the centre of Dublin been virtually forgotten?

The Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr 

The Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr was founded in 1177, under the orders of King Henry II, and lay outside the medieval city walls in the area now known as the Liberties.
King Henry ordered an abbey be founded and dedicated to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, who had been brutally murdered.

It’s likely the only reason he dedicated the abbey to Thomas Becket was to distance himself from the murder, which he had been responsible for. Although his exact words have been lost, it’s been recorded that King Henry had expressed his frustration at the perceived meddling of the Archbishop, his former close ally, who, instead of behaving like a loyal servant to the king, was more concerned with upholding the rights of the Church.

On a cold December evening in 1170, four of the King’s knights took it upon themselves to storm the Cathedral of Canterbury and hack Thomas Becket to death. His death sent tremors throughout medieval Europe, and resulted in his martyrdom and canonisation.

Seven years later, the abbey was founded in Dublin, and went on to play a major role in the city. By the time of the Abbey’s dissolution in 1539, it had become one of the wealthiest institutions in Ireland.

So, what happened to the abbey, and why is so little known about it?

Following King Henry VIII’s rise to power, the lands of the abbey were given to William Brabazon. Functional buildings were retained, and all religious buildings were either reutilised or demolished, and tales of the abbey eventually slipped from living memory. No trace of the abbey remains above ground today.

In the 1990s, a number of archaeological discoveries of medieval burials, structures and boundary ditches were made in the area around Thomas Street. These discoveries lead me to delve into the literature on the royal abbey and ask questions about the location and scale of it.

I found that the last major piece of primary research on the medieval abbey had been done in the 19th century; it contained gaps and needed updating.

For the past two and a half years, Dublin City Council’s Archaeology Section, and a team lead by Bruce Phillips of the South Central Area Office, has been working together with medieval historian Áine Foley to research the story and bring the history of the abbey to life.

Urban archaeology today takes place on construction sites, often under extreme pressure

The nature of most urban archaeology today is that it takes place on construction sites, often under extreme pressure and behind secure hoarding for health and safety reasons. This means that only a lucky few, like me, get to see the sites under excavation and get a real sense of it as it was. But the tangible remains of the abbey are of great interest to the local and wider community.

The abbey was made up of much more than just religious buildings – its holdings included the church and cloisters, the king’s lodgings, a court, graveyard and parish church as well as mills, a brewery and orchards. Long before Arthur Guinness made his mark in locality, brewing was carried out in the area on both a personal and industrial scale.

In 1996, the elaborate tiled floor of the Abbey Church was uncovered by archaeologists. The site has been declared a national monument and is now preserved under the allotments at Earl Street South. It is my hope that in the future we will be in a position to undertake a research excavation to uncover the church and to preserve and make it accessible to the public.

Until then, a stunning reconstruction drawing of the abbey by artist Stephen Conlin and a digital model have been developed; the latter will be integrated into Dublinia’s website for use by schools and tourists alike.

Dr Ruth Johnson is the city archaeologist for Dublin City Council, where she plays a strategic role in the protection, management and promotion of the city’s archaeological heritage. She is the author of Viking Age Dublin, co-author of Dublinia, the Story of Medieval Dublin and joint-editor of The Vikings in Ireland and Beyond: Before and after the battle of Clontarf.

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About the author:

Dr Ruth Johnson  / City archaeologist for Dublin City Council

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