The Story of St James’s Church

flag_webPeters’ “Dublin Fragments” tells us that the origin of the dedication to last James was about 1220. A hospital was founded on Lazar’s Hill for pilgrims intending to embark for the shrine of St James of Campostella, the Patron of Lepers. This hospital tradition it says, stood on the site of the Theatre Royal. So along the oldest main road into Dublin, through St James Gate, the pilgrims pasted through on their way to Spain.

Outside St James Gate the pilgrims shrine was built, at the junction of Thomas St and Watling St. This became the parish of St Catherine inside the gate and the Parish of St James outside the gate around 1170, under Archbishop Laurence O Toole, who attached the parishes to the Abbey of St Thomas á Beckett (who gave his name to Thomas St).

At the suppression of the monasteries in 1539 the people were driven away from their church and went to hear Mass, in secret, in back lanes.

The first priest we hear of in St James Parish is Fr William Donagh, in 1616, who had a Mass chamber over the house of Mr Carroll a victualler on Thomas St.
They only went to the old grave yard on James St (now in the hands of Dublin City Council) to bury the dead.Tradition tells of an old custom of circling the Fountain in James Street three times, in order to recite the burial service.

After the restoration (Cromwell) a chapel appears in Dirty Lane, a dark cul-de-sac of Thomas St and now Bridgefoot St, and remained in use use until 1782, when it was replaced by the old Church in Meath St.

In 1724 the chapel of St James was built in Jennets yard with Dolphins Barn attached. In 1745 while Mass was being celebrated in a house on Cook St, the beam supporting the floor gave way and the priest and several of the congregation were killed. After this a Fr. Richard Fitzsimons acquired a site near St James Gate at the east corner of Watling St, and built a chapel that served until the present church was built. (The site of this chapel is now the waiting room/reception of Guinness).

The large Crucifix in our present church in from this chapel and has been venerated every Good Friday ever since this time (1742).
Fr Canavan as PP of James Street in 1842, started the building of the present church of St James. Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator laid the first blessed stone on April 4th 1844, and donated £25 towards its erection.

As the work progressed the famine followed as did a cholera epidemic which played havoc with the people and struck the city. Work had to be abandoned and neither Fr Canavan or O Connell saw it finished. However their work is remembered by the corbel heads, sculptured over the front door of the church. Fr John Smyth completed the church in 1852 but without the planned clocktower and spire. Even so, the church of St James was acclaimed as”the first of purely ecclesiastical style to adorn the city of Dublin”.

The Surrounding Area

Opposite this church is the former Church of Ireland—now the Pearse Lyons Distillery- building established in 1707, although it is extremely likely that an earlier version of the church existed on the same site; the current incarnation was constructed in 1859. However, its steeple was removed in 1949 after being struck by lightning.

The cemetery behind the former Church of Ireland building is reputed to have over 40,000 people interred there. Excavations in the 1980s found some medieval coins and brooches as well as ornaments associated with the pilgrimage to Compostella. During the Fair of Saint James, garlands and flowers were adorned over some of the gravestones.

In the centre of the cemetery is a monument to Sir Toby Butler, the Solicitor General for Ireland (1689-1690). Across the road from this church, in the middle of the road, is the ‘Fountain’, an obelisk with 4 sundials with a drinking fountain at its base, built in 1790 by the Duke of Rutland, the Lord Lieutenant. It was an old cutom that funeral processions passing the Fountain would circle three times before carrying on to the cemetery. In recent years, the obelisk has been restored.

James’s Street is also renowned as the headquarters and birthplace of the Guinness Empire. Despite the front gate of the main Guinness building showing the date 1759, records show that Arthur’s first sales of porter were not listed till 1778.

The Parish contains Saint Patrick’s Hospital. It was founded in 1747 with money bequeathed by Jonathan Swift following his death in 1745. He was keen that his hospital should be situated close to a general hospital because of the links between physical and mental ill-health, so Saint Patrick’s was built beside Dr. Steeven’s’ Hospital—now headquarters for the Department of Health.

The Parish also includes Saint James’ Hospital which was originally the South Dublin Union and then Saint Kevin’s.  Interestingly the logo for Saint James’s Hospital includes the Shell associated with Pilgrimage.  The Royal Hospital, which was built for retired soldiers is now the Museum of Modern Art and is a fine example of Jacobean architecture found by the Duke of Ormond.


You can read about the connection’s between St. James’s Church and the events of Easter 1916 here


During the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, the Pontifical High Mass at midnight was celebrated by the Bishop of Raphoe. The church was assigned as centre to Czechoslovakia, and High Mass in the ancient rite of the country was celebrated each morning. Following in this great tradition, during the congress of 2012, St James Church welcomed thousands of pilgrims for the seven church pilgrim walk which was a resounding success.

Camino De Santiago Centre

In 2015 we were happy to open our new Camino Centre with the help of the Camino Society, which welcomes pilgrims and amigos to our Church. We promote the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella which started in this area in the 2nd Millennium.

Let us continue the story…….

(edited from the original by Fr.Maurice Dufficy 1944)