Monument to Murder – An Irishman’s Diary about Dublin’s forgotten Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr

No overground trace of the abbey now remains, except in local place names

No overground trace of the abbey now remains, except in local place names

 

History has a bad habit of not being as quotable as we like to think. Take, for example, the question King Henry II is once and famously supposed to have asked his followers: “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”  

Alas, it seems, this was yet was another case of oral tradition improving the original, which was an equally menacing but much less pithy: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their Lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”

Or at least that was the version recorded by a man called Edward Grim, and he ought to have known. His expertise on the matter dated from a fateful visit to Canterbury Cathedral on December 29th, 1170, when a group of knights, acting on the king’s heavy hint, arrived to arrest the priest in question, Thomas Becket.

After the latter resisted, they hacked him to death, as the well-named Grim watched in horror. In trying to defend the cleric, he himself nearly lost an arm. But surviving that, he went on to write a book on the life of the martyred archbishop, which included the longer version of the king’s question.

The shorter, more dramatic form has long since acquired a life of its own, as shorthand for a Machiavellian leadership technique whereby a direction to underlings is disguised beneath an expression of exasperated impotence.  

When the unspoken order is carried out, the authority figure can claim to have been misinterpreted. This is what Henry II did.  

He had certainly been enraged by Becket, an old friend who was expected to be more politically amenable as Archbishop of Canterbury but who instead stubbornly insisted on such principles as having errant clerics tried under church rather than secular law. Unfortunately for those involved in the killing, the archbishop became more popular in death than he had been in life. So the king had to distance himself from the murder, which had horrified Rome, while making no attempt to pursue the killers.

Among his excuses was that he was soon busy conquering Ireland, in line with an earlier papal directive. That project had been inaugurated in 1169 by a group of Welsh-Norman mercenaries under Strongbow.

But in 1171, Henry himself sailed from Wales with a large army to get the invasion under way in earnest. By then, the cult of the martyred archbishop was well established too.  And Henry II became an enthusiastic member. One of the results of his Irish conquest was the establishment of a great abbey in Dublin, named in Thomas the Martyr’s honour, which would stand for nearly four centuries just outside the city walls. No overground trace of it now remains, except in local place names. The most obvious of these are Thomas Street and Thomas Court, which further, if accidentally, commemorate the victim of the murder in the cathedral by forming a large letter “T” in the heart of Dublin’s Liberties.

This coming weekend, the area’s links with those turbulent events will be remembered in two contrasting ways. In fact, arguably, the commemorations started earlier this week in Cardiff, when a modern Irish knight-errant, Sir James McClean, avenged the Welsh-Norman invasion and resultant 800 years of Oppression with a mighty blow from what witnesses described as his “right peg”.

But officially, the programme begins this Friday, with students from local schools parading in a medieval-style pageant through the Liberties, led by armour-plated knights on horseback, with chants and banners commemorating the dark deed done at Canterbury and the foundation of the abbey in 1177.

Then on Saturday, the focus switches from the dramatic to the intellectual, via a day-long conference in St Catherine’s Church, which stands at the junction of the aforementioned “T”. As Bruce Phillips, Dublin City Council’s area manager, points out, the Abbey of St Thomas was “one of the most important ecclesiastical foundations in medieval Ireland” and had a major influence on the city. Yet its existence had been forgotten until recently, submerged beneath other layers of history in an over-storied part of Dublin that includes two cathedrals, Guinness’s Brewery, and the site of Robert Emmet’s rebellion and execution.

Saturday’s conference will be an attempt to resurrect the building, at least in words and images. The titles of talks include “Thomas Becket and the Invasion of Ireland”, “The Early History of the Abbey” and “Delving into Archaeological Finds at Thomas Street”. All events are free. More details are at libertiesdublin.ie

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