For almost 400 years (c.1174 to 1540) the Knights of St John of Jerusalem kept a priory with a headquarters in Kilmainham. This monastic house, which lay approximately two kilometres west of the medieval city, was the main residence in Ireland of the Knights Hospitaller, who came to Ireland at the time of the Anglo-Norman Invasion. The priory’s early history and topography are shrouded in mystery, but a fourteenth-century source provides valuable evidence of the impressive structure, architecture and layout of the monastery at its economic peak. The priory and headquarters were ruined during the reformation and finally demolished at the end of the seventeenth century to build the Royal Hospital (which now houses IMMA – Irish Museum of Modern Art). Nothing survives of priory above ground, so that most visitors to IMMA are unaware of its existence.
During the COVID 19 pandemic, the grounds of IMMA at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham were a much used green space. As a lockdown project, a group of historians and archaeologists led by Dublin City Council worked together online with artist Stephen Conlin to create a reconstruction drawing of St John’s Priory Kilmainham, showing how it might have looked at its height in the mid-fourteenth century c.1340.
The reconstruction of the priory was largely based on recent historical analysis by Tadhg O’Keeffe and Paolo Virtuani of the Register of Kilmainham (Registrum de Kilmainham, Bodl. Lib. Rawlinson MS B 501), a primary manuscript source that contains evidence for the architectural layout and day-to-day social life in the priory. The details of the wider landscape, such as the holy well dedicated to St John, the course of the Rivers Liffey and Camac, their mills and surrounding land use, are informed by archaeological evidence, early maps and other historical sources. Architectural details were determined through reference to the surviving medieval priory of St John in Clerkenwell, London and from upstanding Irish monastic houses of the same period. The drawing went through a series of carefully considered design stages, stimulating lively discussion and learning between experts of different disciplines.
Dr Ruth Johnson, Dublin City Council’s City Archaeologist said, ‘it’s incredible to think that the crusader knights had an HQ at Kilmainham for four almost hundred years. The reconstruction has been like detective work as there is nothing to show for it above the ground. Dublin City Council funded the reconstruction and we worked in partnership with IMMA, the OPW and the team of expert volunteers to share knowledge and learn about this hidden aspect of Dublin’s heritage. Stephen Conlin’s attention to historical detail is exceptional, and his artistic observations are superb – you can even see the tracks of the horses in the yard. The team is really looking forward to seeing how Stephen’s beautiful reconstruction drawing is received by visitors to the site.’
A geophysical survey of the meadow undertaken in 2012 (licence number 12R125) showed tantalising evidence for features that have yet to be ‘ground truthed’ by an archaeological dig. The collaboration to recreate St John’s Priory sparked IMMA to commission a second geophysical survey in March 2022, at the graveyard of Bully’s Acre, to assess whether any traces of the monastery survive there. The interpretation of the results by an archaeological geophysics company, Earthsound Ltd., indicates that a large ditch enclosure, of early medieval or later medieval date, was here before the land was utilised as a burial ground.
The project was commissioned and co-ordinated by Dublin City Council Archaeology Section and steered by a group composed of experts from the Irish Museum of Modern Art, University College Dublin, the Royal Irish Academy’s Historic Towns Atlas, the Office of Public Works, and Historic England along with a number of independent archaeologists and volunteer researchers. This is the second such image of a medieval Dublin monastic house produced by the City Council and partners working together with artist Stephen Conlin. In 2017 a multi-disciplinary team of medieval experts worked together to reconstruct the abbey of St Thomas the Martyr, which was located at Thomas Street in the Liberties.
IMMA visitor services has commissioned a series of history podcasts to celebrate the history of the site and are planning future events to highlight the history of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, including the launch of Ireland and the Crusades. The priory was recently the subject of discussion with historian Paolo Virtuani at a Military Orders conference on 16 September (https://ntu.wavecast.io/military-orders-viii).