The French Revolution

One of the effects of the French Revolution was the loss to Ireland of innumerable seminaries on the Continent, particularly in France where these colleges were most numerous and the largest of all was at Paris itself. The Irish Dominicans lost their largest college at Louvain in 1794, while those at Rome and Lisbon practically ceased to receive students until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. This was a serious setback for recruitment and training. The diocesan clergy managed better, thanks to the foundation of Maynooth (1795) and the existence of slightly earlier colleges at Kilkenny and Carlow. Nonetheless, even the bishops found it hard to staff parishes for a period of 20 years and turned to the religious Orders for pastors and curates. This was a further blow to isolated country priories whose few surviving members were drawn into parishes while their ‘convents’, such as they were, disappeared forever. That is why, in Connacht, only the houses of Sligo and Galway survive today.

James Thomas French, already prior at the Claddagh in 1777, built a new priory in 1792 and a new church in 1800 to replace the “thatched chapel” which may have been the one St Oliver Plunkett so much admired in 1674. The ‘French’ church survived until 1891.

The Famine

In 1846, during the Famine, Fr Thomas Rush built the ‘Claddagh National Piscatory School’ where over the years, six hundred children learned the arts of making nets and lace. This later became an ordinary national School, which was entrusted to the diocesan clergy in 1892.

By the time of the Famine, the total number of Dominicans in Ireland had dropped to about 50, but this was soon to change with the building of a novitiate-house at Tallaght, Co. Dublin, in 1856. It was the first proper novitiate and house of studies, which the Irish Dominicans ever had on home soul, and the first master of novices was Fr Tom Burke, the famous preacher. Fr Burke was from Galway, and his statue now stands in his native city not far from the present church and priory.

Damian Louis Byrne, OP

Fr Damian was elected Master of The Order and 83rd successor of St Dominic in September 1983. Only one other Irishman, Fr Michael Browne, later Cardinal, held this office.

Louis Byrne was born at 2, Prospect Hill, Galway, son of Louis and Mary Byrne. Later the family moved briefly to Abbeygate St, and then to Beattystown. He entered the Dominican Order in 1949 and was ordained priest in 1955. After completing his studies he spent some years in Newbridge College and in Tallaght. In 1963 he returned to his native city as prior of the Claddagh community. In 1965, before the end of his term of office, he was one of a small group who went to Argentina to open a Dominican house in Recreo, Catamarca. In preparation for this work the small band of missionaries spent spent some time studying Spanish and South American culture in a school for missionaries in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The Director was Ivan Illich.

This was the beginning of many years at work on the missions. From Argentina he went to Trinidad, where he was Vicar-Provincial, and then, an unusual appointment for an Irishman, to the Mexican province as Prior Provincial. From Mexico he returned to Ireland where he was elected Provincial. In September 1983 he was elected Master of the Order. He held this office for the full nine-year term, visiting more than eighty countries, including Eastern Europe and Russia, areas from which his predecessors had been barred for many decades. In 1991 Dominican Publications published Pilgrimage of Faith, a collection of letters written to the Dominican Order since his election as Master.

In the five centuries since the Dominicans from Athenry took possession of the church of St Mary on the Hill, many Galway Dominicans were well known nationally and internationally. We think, for example, of Edmund French who became bishop of Kilmacduagh and Kilfenora, Fr Tom Burke, the ‘prince of preachers’, who worked on the continent and preached  not only in Ireland and England but throughout the US, and Fr Dominic Fahy, apostle of Irish emigrants in Argentina. No Galway Dominican, however, has exercised a wider apostolate than Damian Byrne