Saint Mary's Abbey

Saint Mary's Abbey

In Brief

New space-time. Section 8 of Wandering Rocks moves to a new part of town: nearly half a mile west of the previous three locations and just north of the river. Although the location is identifiable it is obscure: the one remaining building of a large monastery once called Saint Mary's Abbey, found down a blind alley and undistinguished by any signage or noble entrance, with an interior that is dark and choked with grain dust. The narrative confuses matters further by using "Mary's abbey" to refer both to the building and to a nearby street. Inside, three people meet, for reasons not immediately clear, and they discuss arcana of medieval Irish history and the changing Dublin cityscape. Two interpolations interrupt the narrative, both implying connections to the present text that are ingeniously inconspicuous. This section takes the confusions of the chapter to a new level.

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The Benedictine roots of Mary's Abbey go back to the 9th century. In the 12th century it became a Cistercian monastery, and until Henry VIII's abolition of monasteries in 1539 it was one of the largest and wealthiest in Ireland. The Chapter House, called "the historic council chamber" in this section and later "the old chapterhouse," was built in about 1200 as a place to hold meetings. It survived the fires, pillagings, and demolitions that destroyed the rest of the abbey––stones from some structures were used to build the Essex Bridge over the Liffey (now the Grattan Bridge)––but at some point in time the grand space was split into two stories. Gifford quotes from D. A. Chart's The Story of Dublin (1907): "The Chapter House, which must have been a lofty and splendid room, has been divided into two stories by the building of a floor half way up its walls. In the upper chamber, a loft used for storing sacks, the beautifully groined stone roof remains intact, looking very incongruous amidst its surroundings" (276).

In 1904 a business listed in Thom's as "Alexander & Co., seed merchants" was using the upper story to store sacks of grain. This is the scene in which Ned Lambert, an employee of the business, shows the historic structure to a visiting clergyman named Hugh Love. The air is so dusky that Love lights a match to see, and so dusty that Lambert suffers a fit of violent sneezing after he leaves. Love plans to come back with a camera the next time he is in Dublin, prompting Lambert to promise that he will clear grain sacks away from the windows and to suggest spots from which the scene could be effectively photographed. Today that task has been admirably accomplished by Andy Sheridan in the photograph reproduced here.

Chapter houses were buildings where all the members of a monastery (or the clergy of a cathedral) could meet to conduct business. Noblemen, in this case the council that ruled medieval Dublin, often commandeered them for affairs of state. Love has come to visit St. Mary's because of his interest in the aristocrats of his County Kildare, and Ned Lambert tells him that here "silken Thomas proclaimed himself a rebel in 1534. This is the most historic spot in all Dublin." Silken Thomas, the son of the 9th Earl of Kildare, renounced his allegiance to the English crown on the basis of a mistaken report that his father had been executed by Henry VIII. According to some historical records he rode out of the mansion of the earls of Kildare in Thomas Court, the main street of medieval Dublin ("The mansion of the Kildares was in Thomas court," recalls Love), leading a large force of armed horsemen to Dame's Gate ("He rode down through Dame walk") and thence to St. Mary's Abbey where he broke into the council of English barons and proclaimed himself a rebel.

Lambert adds that "The old bank of Ireland was over the way till the time of the union and the original jews' temple was here too before they built their synagogue over in Adelaide road." In the 18th century the Bank of Ireland was indeed, Gifford notes, "located in what nineteenth-century guidebooks agree were 'miserable premesis' in St. Mary's Abbey, a street just north of the Liffey." The dissoution of the Irish Parliament in 1800 gave them an opportunity to purchase, in 1803, their grand headquarters on College Green. The "original jews' temple" was not here. At some time in the 17th century Dublin's Jewish community founded a synagogue in Crane Lane, nearby but across the river, and synagogues were subsequently founded in other places. But in 1836 the congregation purchased a former Presbyterian chapel at number 12 Mary's Abbey, which had given to the alley its present name of Meetinghouse Lane. This synagogue closed in 1892 and was replaced by a new, purpose-built synagogue on Adelaide Road.

Readers struggling to assimilate all this information will find their attention further diverted by two interpolations. Partway through section 8 comes an anticipation of the third sentence of section 16, in which John Howard Parnell is seen playing chess in the D.B.C: "From a long face a beard and gaze hung on a chessboard." The interpolation seems to be prompted by what was happening in the previous sentence, when Ned Lambert poked around the council chamber looking for spots to set up a camera: "In the still faint light he moved about, tapping with his lath the piled seedbags and points of vantage on the floor." The piled bags blocking movement in various directions resemble chess pieces positioned around the board, and "points of vantage" aptly describes the way chess players think, looking for places from which their pieces can mount effective attacks. In addition to the chess analogy, Clive Hart notes a linkage between Charles Stewart Parnell and the 16th century rebellion of Silken Thomas (Critical Essays, 206). Desires for independence from the English crown have been bubbling for five centuries.

A bit later comes a second interpolation, repeating nearly verbatim a sentence from the end of section 1: "The young woman with slow care detached from her light skirt a clinging twig." Here one must look even more carefully for the implied connections. In the previous paragraph Ned Lambert was reading to J. J. O'Molloy from the card that the Protestant minister gave him: "The reverend Hugh C. Love, Rathcoffey. Present address: Saint Michael's, Sallins. Nice young chap he is. He's writing a book about the Fitzgeralds he told me. He's well up in history, faith." Hugh Love is from Rathcoffey in County Kildare. When Father Conmee was walking along the road to Malahide in section 1 he "watched a flock of muttoning clouds over Rathcoffey" and thought of his Clongowes rectorship in County Kildare. There is more: Hart notes that "There is an ironic association here with the idea of love," because after watching the clouds over Rathcoffey Conmee sees two irreverend fornicators emerging from the bushes.

Readers who successfully navigate all these bewildering twists and turns may yet find themselves briefly stymied when Lambert follows Love "to the outlet" and comes "forth slowly into Mary's abbey where draymen were loading floats with sacks of carob and palmnut meal." Wait... Weren't the men leaving Mary's Abbey? And why would workmen be loading grain sacks onto wagons on an upstairs floor? The seeming absurdities stem from the fact that Mary's Abbey (not to be confused with Mary Lane, Mary Street, or Abbey Street) is the name of the street from which Meetinghouse Lane departs. Alexander & Co. had its offices at 2-5 Mary's Abbey.

There are no time markers in section 8, but in section 19 Reverend Love sees the viceregal cavalcade passing by "From Cahill's corner." Gifford's inference that this refers to the Cahill & Co. printers at 35-36 Strand Street, close to where Capel Street meets the quays and just north of the Grattan Bridge, seems clearly preferable to Slote's identification of Timothy Cahill's pub at 8 Lower Liffey Street, since the cavalcade crosses the Liffey at Grattan Bridge and would not be seen further east on the north side of the river. Since the former Cahill's is only two blocks away from the Chapter House, it would seem that very little time has passed since the conversations represented there. Perhaps their timing can therefore be inferred from the movements of the cavalcade.

John Hunt 2023

the former synagogue at Mary’s Abbey in Dublin." Source:

Detail of 1900 Bartholomew map of Dublin with added blue circles showing Mary Lane, Mary Street, Abbey Street Upper, and Mary's Abbey (Meetinghouse Lane is unmarked on the map), and red arrow pointing to the intersection of Capel Street and Strand Street. Source: Pierce, James Joyce's Ireland.