Saint Mary's Abbey

Saint Mary's Abbey

In Brief

The 8th section of Wandering Rocks takes place in the chapter house of "saint Mary's abbey," the only remaining building of what had once been a large complex housing the wealthiest abbey in Ireland. By 1904 the noble building had descended to serving as a warehouse for a seed business. There, Ned Lambert is giving a historical tour to the Reverend Hugh C. Love, a visitor to Dublin from a town about twenty miles west.

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The chapter house on Meetinghouse Lane was built ca. 1200 as part of what was then a Cistercian abbey, which ceased to exist in the late 1530s with Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. Stones from the abbey buildings were gradually salvaged for other purposes, including the construction of the Essex (now Grattan) Bridge across the Liffey in the 1600s. In 1904 the chapter house building was owned by the Alexander & Co. seed merchants, whose offices were around the corner at 2-5 Mary's Lane. The remains of the abbey were declared a national monument in 1941, and the chapter house can now be visited from mid-June to mid-September.

Gifford quotes from D. A. Chart's The Story of Dublin (London, 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. The upper part of an old window is still visible. In the lower story the ancient architecture is concealed by the brickwork of wine vaults" (276-77).

Chapter houses were spaces where all the members of a monastery (or the clergy of a cathedral) could meet to conduct business. In medieval times it was common for monarchs and other nobles to commandeer them for affairs of state, and this one was no exception. The Reverend Love has come to visit the St. Mary's chapter house because of his interest in the history of the Irish aristocracy, and Ned Lambert proudly describes it as "the most historic spot in all Dublin." It was indeed here that "silken Thomas proclaimed himself a rebel in 1534," renouncing his allegiance to the English crown on the basis of a mistaken report that his father, the 9th Earl of Kildare, had been executed by Henry VIII.

The clergyman plans to make a return trip to photograph the vaulted roof over the room where the grain sacks are stored. Ned Lambert promises to clear some bags away from the windows, and suggests a couple of "points of vantage" where a camera could be set up. Today that task has been admirably accomplished by Andy Sheridan, in the photograph reproduced here.

JH 2018
St. Mary's Abbey in Meetinghouse Lane, photograph by Alain de Garsmeur in McCabe and Garsmeur, James Joyce: Reflections of Ireland (Macmillian, 1993).
The arched stone roof of the chapter house, in a 2008 photo autostitched from 42 smaller photos by Andy Sheridan. The late-added floor to which D. A. Chart refers is still there, but it is not visible in the photograph. Source: