This week The Kilkenny Observer, in association with Cois Céim and The Kilkenny Saturday Walkers group, take a look at the history of Saint John’s Priory .
The Priory’s history is an interesting one. By 1200 the Augustinians had a hospital at St Mauls dedicated to John the Evangelist.
In1202 Bishop Felix O’Dullany granted one tenth of the provisions of Kilkenny Castle to the Brethern of the Hospital of St. John. It had been a long standing custom that one tenth of all provisions going to the household of the King of Ossory, went to the widows and orphans. The Earl Marshall honoured the old custom which had been instituted in 974 by Donnachadh Mac Ceallaigh, the King of Ossory.
In 1211, William Marshall the elder, Earl of Pembroke granted a site to build a house of religion in honour of God and St, John.
The building of the new priory included a church, the Lady Chapel, cloister rooms and refectory. Due to the number of windows the Lady Chapel was known as the Lantern of Ireland. According to the annals of the priory, mass was first celebrated on the high altar of St. Johns in 1220 and in the Lady Chapel in 1290.
Before moving on to further history of the priory, some notes on the Knights of St John and their association with Kilkenny.
The Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem The Priory in John Street has always been associated with the Knights of St John. The Knights grew out of a group of pious Italians who founded a hostel in Jerusalem for poor pilgrims sometime before 1100. In turn the Knights took on a military role to protect pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. They built large hospitals in Jerusalem, Cyprus and Rhodes. When the Crusaders lost control of Jerusalem, the Knights also had to leave. In time the Turks drove them from Cyprus and in 1522 from Rhodes. Charles V of Spain in1530 gave the island of Malta to the Knights Hospitallers and henceforth they were known as the Knights of Malta.
The Knights in training in Kilkenny. The headquarters of the knights in Ireland was in Kilmainham in Dublin. St. Johns Priory was one of the principal locations for the accommodation of trainee knights. Various accounts have been written about the knights in Kilkenny, of their skills in arms, archery and horsemanship. A trumpeter proceeded the mounted knights through the city to herald their coming, that the city gates be opened as they went to the Butts Green for archery practise and returning to the Priory after practise.
There were early trials and tribulations. The bell tower fell in 1329, and two years later Antony de Lacy, Lord Justice of Ireland, came to Kilkenny and imprisoned the prior and community. No reason is known for his imprisonment. Between the years 1361 and 1405 Walter Wals prior of St Johns was excommunicated and the prior placed under interdict by John, Bishop of Ossory.
With the suppression of the monasteries in 1540 Prior Richard Cantwell surrendered the priory. It was granted to the Mayor and citizens of Kilkenny. During the following century the buildings fell into decay. In 1645 Thomas Rothe, a secular priest was appointed prior and granted the priory to the Jesuits for a college or seminary.
After the capture of Kilkenny by Cromwell in 1650, the Jesuits were expelled from the priory but they stayed on in Kilkenny where they administered to the faithful. During the reign of James 11, the Jesuits applied to have part of the church and parts of the grounds returned to them. The Corporation members, mostly Catholics were agreeable but the Capuchins had taken over part of the area. The dispute was not resolved as the corporation was removed from office in 1691. With the Williamite confiscations both the Jesuits and Capuchins were banished from the city in 1698. The buildings remained in ruins for many years. Around the year 1780 the tower of the church fell and was pulled down by Mr. Colles when building the infantry barracks.
It was decided in 1800 to restore the old church for use as a place of worship. William Roberson was selected as architect and sent in plans, but these were rejected due to cost. The Lady Chapel was reroofed in 1817for use as a Protestant parish church. William Robertson was involved in much work in the city, including the re building of the Court House early in the 19th Century. According to Parliamentary Papers of 1808 he was paid £28- 14s -4d for work on the new Kilkenny Gaol. On December 12th 1832 he bought part of the old priory known as Priors Orchard. He died in May 1850 and was buried in St Mary’s graveyard. His altar tomb bears an incomplete inscription. The few details gleaned were his name and that he was Mayor of Kilkenny, 1831- 1832. William’s wife survived him by over twenty years. She died on 26th January 1872 aged 86 years.
Two houses on St. Johns Quay: The deeds of Priors Orchard make interesting reading: 1639, Letters patent of Charles 1st a quotation from the document reads “we do give grant bargain sell release and confirm to the Mayor and citizens of the City of Kilkenny and to their successors for ever the whole site circuit ambut precinct lands tenements, rent reversion, and services of the late Priory Monastery House or Hospital of St. John the Evangelist near the city and county of Kilkenny.” In 1832, A quotation from the lease granted to William Robertson reads: “Whereas by an indenture of lease dated 7th May 1832 and made between the Mayor and citizens of Kilkenny of the one part and William Robertson of the other part, the said Mayor and Citizens of Kilkenny did demise unto the said William Robertson the Old Bride well and Prior’s Orchard to hold the same unto the said William Robertson this Executors Administrators and Assigns for the term of ninety nine years.” This included the land on which the two houses nos5 & 6 known as Priors Orchard were built. At this time Thomas Hart was given a lease of the adjoining ground at Cormick’s Island otherwise known as the Lake Ground. This would suggest that the area was known to flood and indicates the origin of the name for the Lake School.
The next document for 1877 is a conveyance by the administrator of the estate for Catherine Robertson to Patrick Dillon. “Consideration of the sum of five hundred and thirty pounds by Patrick Dillon of the City of Kilkenny Insurance Agent paid into the account of the said court and to the credit of the estate of the Administrator of Catherine Robertson Owner and Petitioner.” Transaction also included Cormick’s Island. The present owner had an archaeological boring carried out in the 1980’s by Kilkenny Archaeologist Historian John Bradley in the old garden area. It was discovered that there was no earlier building on the site. In the book ‘Kilkenny It’s Architecture and History’, the houses are described as ‘3 storey, 4 bay Georgian buildings with an excellent portico to the two entrance doors flanked by railing with cast iron spear headed tops. The pedimented portico with three pilasters, with a band of fluting on each is probably the work of the Colles family.’
Old Kilkenny Review 2000
A historical survey of St. John’s Parish. 1989.
Irish town atlas no.10 Kilkenny Kilkenny, Its Architecture and History. 1977