Newswire » Local History » St James’s Parish: Two Churches, One Graveyard

St James’s Parish: Two Churches, One Graveyard

St James’s Parish: Two Churches, One Graveyard – Another excellent snippet from Sean J Murphy’s excellent A History of St James’s Church and Graveyard, Dublin, From the 12th to 21st Centuries

It will be a well-known fact to inhabitants of the area that while St James’s Parish has had two churches, one Protestant and the other Catholic, there is only one graveyard. St James’s Graveyard is located behind the old Protestant church in James’s Street, now converted to the Pearse Lyons Distillery. Although a Protestant Graveyard, St James’s has been used historically to bury Catholics as well as Protestants. The graveyard was acquired by Dublin City Council in 2010 and following completion of restoration work will hopefully be rendered more accessible to those with relatives buried there and to the public.

The first St James’s Church was founded in the twelfth century and a copy of the foundation charter has survived fortuitously in the Register of the Abbey of St Thomas. This abbey, later also known as Thomas Court, was established in 1177 as part of King Henry II’s penance for the murder

of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. In the charter in question, dated between 1189-92, Henry Tyrrell granted land to the clergy of St Thomas’s Abbey for the creation of a church and cemetery (ecclesiam et cimiterium) dedicated to St James the Apostle.

St James the Apostle or ‘Santiago’ is the patron saint of Spain who legend has it was buried at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. As a result Compostela became a famous pilgrimage centre and continues to attract thousands of visitors, particularly around St James’s feast day on 25 July. A direct medieval link between St James’s Church in Dublin and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is entirely plausible and current intending pilgrims can have passports stamped at the Camino Information Centre in St James’s Catholic Church in James’s Street.

A feature of the Protestant Reformation of Henry VIII was the dissolution of the great

monasteries and St Thomas’s Abbey was surrendered to the state by its Abbot Henry Duff in 1539. In 1544 the Abbey of Thomas Court and its possessions were granted to Sir William Brabazon, whose descendants the Earls of Meath held a right of appointing ministers to St James’s and St Catherine’s churches from 1660 until the disestablishment of the Protestant Church of Ireland in 1871.

The Reformation in the sixteenth century resulted in the creation of two rival Christian church organisations in Ireland and other European countries. In 1546 Dublin’s Protestant St James’s Church was united with the churches of St Catherine and St John in Kilmainham. St James’s and St Catherine’s again became separate parishes by act of parliament in 1707, while in 1761 St James’s Church collapsed and was rebuilt. The present church building was constructed to the design of Joseph Welland during the years 1859-60. The church was meticulously restored during its conversion into the Pearse Lyons Distillery, which opened in 2017. The distillery founder, the late Dr Pearse Lyons, had close family connections with St James’s Parish and was himself born in Inchicore. In the 1940s St James’s spire had to be removed when found to be in a dangerous condition and was replaced in 2016 with a striking glass spire designed by Mrs Deirdre Lyons.

Although repressed by Protestants during the Penal Era, Irish Catholics struggled to maintain a separate organisation, with their own parishes and churches. Following the example of its Protestant counterpart, Catholic St James’s Parish was detached from St Catherine’s in 1724 and became a distinct parish once again. Having had places of worship in various locations, St James’s Parish came to rest in a chapel at James’s Gate which was in use until 1854. In that year the present church building in James’s Street was opened, having been designed by Patrick Byrne and its foundation stone laid by Daniel O’Connell in 1844.

During the Penal era such Catholic churches as there were in Dublin were not permitted to have graveyards attached like their Protestant counterparts. Even when better appointed structures were permitted from the early nineteenth century onwards, the Catholic churches of Dublin city, including St James’s, are notable for the fact that they do not have burial grounds attached. Hence Dublin Catholics tended to bury in Protestant graveyards, although they also used old country graveyards and former monastic sites such as Bully’s Acre.

The Catholic associations of the graveyard attached to the Protestant St James’s Church were underlined in 1612, when the executed Bishop of Down and Connor, Conor O’Devany, and a priest, Patrick O’Loghran, were buried there, both being perceived as martyrs. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries St James’s had the status of a ‘great Catholic burial-place’ and indeed was the ‘chief burial ground of the Catholic aristocracy of Ireland’. Notables buried there include Dr Thady Fitzpatrick of the Ossory family of the name, in 1674, and Sir Stephen Rice, a supporter of the deposed King James II, in 1714.

The most famous individual buried in St James’s Graveyard is Sir Theobald (Toby) Butler, born in 1650 and died in 1721, whose tomb survives and is the most striking in the cemetery. Sir Toby served as Solicitor-General under King James II in 1689-90. After the victory of the forces of King William of Orange, Butler was closely involved in the drafting of the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. Sir Toby’s tomb, probably the most substantial surviving Jacobite monument in Dublin, has been repaired several times over the centuries, most recently by Dublin City Council contractors.

The feast-day of St James, 25 July, was the occasion of ceremonies in St James’s Graveyard and a fair in the street outside. It was an old Catholic custom in Ireland to hold ‘Pattern Day’ celebrations on the feast day of a patron saint, or in modern times on the nearest ‘Pattern Sunday’ (from Gaelic pátrún, ‘patron’). These events involved assembly at an old church or holy well and tended to include drinking, dancing and music as well as spiritual devotions.

A striking obelisk fountain stands nearly opposite St James’s Church, reputed to mark the site of the holy well dedicated to the saint, which was designed by the architect Francis Sandys, erected in 1790 and restored in the 1990s. An interesting funeral custom, which is still well-remembered locally, consisted of carrying the coffin three times around the fountain before burial in the graveyard. This custom is said to have been designed to allow the Catholic clergy time to say prayers as the Protestant church authorities refused to allow them enter the graveyard with the cortege in Penal times.

Surviving burial registers from 1742 and extrapolation before that date indicate that an estimated 100,000 people lie buried in St James’s Graveyard, a majority of them Catholics. Just over 700 tombstones survive in St James’s Graveyard, of which about 500 have legible inscriptions ranging in date from the early seventeenth to the late twentieth centuries. As is the case in most graveyards before the twentieth century, only the wealthier deceased are commemorated with permanent memorials in St James’s, and the vast majority of those buried there would have been too poor to afford anything other than impermanent grave markers.

Other notable St James’s burials include Alderman Mark Rainsford (1709), Kilmainham Gaol architect Sir John Trail (1801), Power’s Distillery founder James Power (1817), Victoria Cross holder Sergeant-Major John Lucas (1892), 1916 Rising Volunteer John J O’Grady, Guinness assistant managing director Sir William H Porter (1944) and nine members of Dr Pearse Lyons’s family. All in all there is so much fascinating history associated with St James’s Parish, with its two church buildings and a graveyard shared by Protestants and Catholics.


For details of the author’s new book published by Kilmainham Tales Teo, A History of St James’s Church and Graveyard, Dublin, From the 12th to 21st Centuries, and advice on searching for records of people buried in St James’s Graveyard, see

Leave a Reply

© 1991-2014 Fountain Resource Group Ltd. · Registered Company Number: 193051C · RSS · Website designed by Solid Website Design