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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”.

1916 and the Parish of St James.

One of the main signatories of the proclamation Eamon Ceannt was married in this church in 1905, to Áine ni Braonáin, of Clonliffe Road (Frances Mary) whom he met in the Gaelic League.
Ned O Keeffe the clerk of James’ St recorded the events of the involvement of the clergy of this parish after the surrender in Easter week of 1916.
He writes ‘Fr Eugene McCarthy officially attended at each execution, being taken from bed each morning at four o clock. The prisoner having been placed against the wall and the firing party having fired, his duty was to anoint the body where it fell. On the morning of Joseph Mary Plunkett’s execution he was taken away earlier than usual and told he was to perform the marriage ceremony of the prisoner and Grace Gifford prior to the execution, which ceremony he performed in the dark prison cell in the cold of early morning.(witnessed by Eugene McCarthy, John Smith and John Carberry) Mrs Plunkett afterwards visited him at the Presbytery, during which time the place was raided by the military.
In giving a description of Connolly’s execution Fr McCarthy told me that the prisoner, who was in a bad condition, elected to stand like the rest, but failed. he was then tied to a chair but slumped so much that he overbalanced. Finally, he was strapped on a stretcher and placed in reclining position against the wall. In this manner he passed into the ranks of Ireland’s roll of honoured martyrs’.

The Marriages of Joseph Plunkett and Eamon Ceannt are registered in the parish of St James. We are proud to have a small Chalice and Ciborium used during the celebration of Mass in the Kilmainham jail in our church. A reminder if we need it for the sacrifices made by so many for our country.


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)