The medieval royal abbey of St Thomas the Martyr was founded in 1171 in the western environs of the then-walled city of Dublin. Established on the orders of King Henry II of England, the abbey was one of a number of religious houses set up to atone for the murder, by soldiers of the king, of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Beckett.
The abbey stood for another 400 years, amassing land and wealth and driving much of the development of the area we now know as The Liberties. Its controlled the main western approach into Dublin, a route that in time became St Thomas Street – the main thoroughfare of the area we know today. Most importantly the Abbey controlled the water supply into the city, via a diversion of the River Poddle. The river and its tributaries in turn powered mill wheels and drove industries such as brewing, milling, weaving and tanning.
In 1536, King Henry VIII of England abolished religious houses in England and Ireland as part of the Reformation and St Thomas’s Abbey and its lands were given over to a courtier of the king’s called Sir William Brabazon, an ancestor of the Earls of Meath who dominated The Liberties for the next 400 years. The Abbey morphed over time into a residence of the Brabazons and then gradually disappeared.
Nothing remains above ground of the famous abbey, but archaeology in the area offers us tantalising glimpses of how it may have looked.
A recent project by Dublin City Council to rediscover the Abbey culminated in a events last Friday and Saturday. This included a spectacular medieval pageant through the streets of The Liberties. Led by two knights on horseback, the procession involved children from many of the schools in the area, decked out in medieval finery. Colourful banners, flags and shields added to the sense of occasion. The procession led to St Catherine’s Church on Meath Street, where local historians and musicians gave a flavour of life in the medieval abbey and highlighted the importance of the Abbey to heritage of The Liberties.
The pageant was a huge combined effort of staff and pupils of the various schools involved, Dublin City Council Community Staff and a number of specialist artists and historians who gave their time to bring a fascinating chapter of the history of the area to life.