St James's former Protestant Church and Graveyard, James's Street, Dublin, with monument to Sir Toby Butler,
and tower of nearby Catholic St James's Church in centre background (photograph Sean J Murphy)
What is the connection between St James's Church in Dublin and Archbishop Thomas Becket? And with the pilgrimage to Compostela in Spain? About how many people are buried in St James's Graveyard? Who was Sir Toby Butler? Why were Catholics buried in a Protestant Graveyard? How do you establish if any of your relatives are buried there? What is St James's Church currently used for? Read on if you wish to find out.
Foundation of St James's Church
The story of St James’s Church in Dublin’s Liberties district begins with the murder of Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, carried out by four knights of King Henry II in 1170. As part of his penance, Henry founded an abbey dedicated to St Thomas the Martyr in Dublin in 1177, from which Thomas Street derives its name. About 1190 St James’s Church was built on land donated by Henry Tyrrell and with its sister church of St Catherine, St James’s was attached to St Thomas’s Abbey.
Dublin's St James’s Church was also associated with the great pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Compostela is the reputed burial place of St James the Apostle and hence a great draw for religious travellers. As in other European cities, intending pilgrims would have visited St James's Church in James's Street in Dublin before embarking for Compostela, a custom which has been revived at St James's Catholic Church in modern times (http://stjamesparish.ie).
In the course of the Reformation of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century St Thomas’s Abbey was dissolved and St James’s became a Protestant church under the newly established Church of Ireland. The present St James’s Church was designed by the architect Joseph Welland and opened in 1860. Having occupied various locations, the current Catholic St James’s Church was opened in 1854, on the other side of James’s Street to the its Protestant counterpart, and remains in religious use. Both churches are Gothic in style, reflecting the influence of Pugin, the ‘apostle of the Gothic Revival’ in the nineteenth century.
The Penal Era
A feature of the era of the Penal Laws was that Catholics, while allowed to have chapels, were not permitted to maintain their own graveyards. Reflecting a situation which existed in other city parishes, the large graveyard behind the Protestant St James’s Church was used by Catholics also. Indeed as Dublin ceased to be a city with a Protestant majority in the eighteenth century, Catholic burials began to outnumber Protestant ones, and a majority of burials in St James's Graveyard are in fact of Catholics.
A fair was formerly held in James’s Street around St James’s Day on 25 July, when relatives decorated the graves of deceased family members. To this day the local community remembers the custom of carrying a coffin three times around the James’s Street Fountain before entering the graveyard. It has plausibly been suggested that the origin of this custom lay in the fact that Catholic clergy were refused entry to the graveyard during burials and took the opportunity to say prayers for the deceased while circling the Fountain.
Burials in St James's Graveyard
St James’s Graveyard also remained in use much longer than other city burial places, the last interment being as recent as 1989. In the course of its long history of use from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries, St James's Graveyard received about 100,000 burials. This is an approximate figure calculated by the writer from surviving burial registers and extrapolation, but is certainly more accurate than other totals offered, ranging from 30,000 to 300,000. Notable individuals buried in the graveyard include Sir Toby Butler, the courtesan Margaret (Peg) Leeson, Mother Mary Bellew, the founder of Power’s Distillery James Power, Sergeant-Major John Lucas VC, the 1916 casualty Volunteer John J O’Grady and Guinness Managing Director Sir William Haldane Porter (for further information see publications listed below).
St James's Church and James's Street, Rocque's Map of Dublin, 1756
Closure of St James's Church and Graveyard
Due to decline in numbers of the Protestant congregation, St James’s Church was closed as a place of worship in 1963. Thereafter the church was cleared of its furniture and fittings and used for commercial purposes, first as a cash-and-carry and then by Lighting World, which ceased business in 2009. In 1987-88 a state-sponsored community project, of whose committee the writer had the honour to serve as chairman, tidied up the graveyard and recorded its inscriptions (see first two publications listed below). Thereafter St James's Graveyard fell back into a state of neglect until acquired in 2010 by Dublin City Council, which is currently engaged in a programme of conservation works with a view hopefully to re-opening the site to public access.
St James's Church, now housing the Pearse Lyons Distillery, with
replacement glass spire lit at night (photograph Sean J Murphy)
Pearse Lyons Distillery
In 2013 St James's Church was acquired by Dr Pearse Lyons of Alltech. Dr Lyons and his wife Deirdre Lyons oversaw a meticulous restoration of St James's Church and converted the building into the Pearse Lyons Distillery, which opened in 2017 (https://www.pearselyonsdistillery.com). Two notable features of the restored St James's Church are a replacement glass spire which is lit at night and a stained glass window representing the Santiago pilgirmage.
Dr Lyons's family has strong connections with the Liberties district and the writer confirmed that his grandfather, John Hubert Lyons (died 1948), and eight other members of the family are buried in St James's Graveyard. It has further been established that John Hubert Lyons was baptised in the nearby Catholic St James’s Church in 1887, at which time the Lyons family was resident at 1 Echlin Street Buildings, across the road from Catholic St James and around the corner from Protestant St James. Again, it should be noted that the custom of Catholics being buried in Protestant graveyards has continued even in modern times.
The writer has been engaged in research relating to St James's Church and Graveyard for a period of over thirty years and also carried out commissioned work for Dr Pearse Lyons, before his death in 2018. While currently I have no formal involvement with St James's Church or Graveyard, I continue voluntary work and hope to see published a book dealing with the history of the parish. I have published a number of carefully researched and sourced historical articles on St James's Church, Graveyard and associations which are linked below.
The official St James's Graveyard Conservation Project website, maintained by Dublin City Council, is at https://www.stjamesgraveyard.ie. While the site is well illustrated and contains useful information, it is marred by poor quality text, frequently copied verbatim from other sources, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not. History is a deceptively easy discipline, but in order to be conducted properly it requires training in research methods and composition and certainly needs more than mere duplication of other people's work. A number of instances of inaccuracy and unacknowledged copying on the St James's website were corrected following my intervention, but problems persist, such as the following account which is copied without acknowledgement from a Guinness Storehouse fact sheet entitled 'Camino de Santiago and St James's Gate':
Reproduced from https://www.stjamesgraveyard.ie/camino-de-santiago
Checking Burials in St James's Graveyard
How does one find out if an individual is buried in St James's Graveyard? Bearing in mind that only a small minority of burial places are marked with permanent memorials, firstly check the transcription of inscriptions from St James's Graveyard (first item in publications list below). St James's Graveyard burial registers survive from 1742 and can be searched online from that date until 1883 at https://www.irishgenealogy.ie ('Church Records'). From 1884 until the last burial in St James's Graveyard in 1989, the original burial registers can be searched at the Representative Church Body Library, Braemor Park, Churchtown, Dublin (https://www.ireland.anglican.org/about/rcb-library). Unfortunately there is no plot register to show where graves without memorials are located and the burial registers generally give date of burial, name and address only, in the later period providing age and religion also. Relatives of those buried there and others who need to access St James's Graveyard should apply to the Parks Department of Dublin City Council (http://www.dublincity.ie/main-menu-services-recreation-culture/dublin-city-parks). General advice on tracing Irish ancestors can be found in the author's Primer in Irish Genealogy (free download at http://homepage.eircom.net/~seanjmurphy/epubs, 9th item).
In conclusion, those who wish to contact the author with queries or to offer information concerning St James's Church and Graveyard can reach me at the email or postal address listed at the end of this page.
Sean J Murphy
25 November 2019, last revised 6 April 2020
St James-related publications and articles which can be downloaded freely in PDF format or read online:
St James's Graveyard Project, Memorial Inscriptions from St James's Graveyard Dublin, Dublin 1988,
(a full listing of the inscriptions with location map, as compiled by the project team 1987-88,
amended and digitised by the present writer, 2012, with a further update in progress).
Same, St James's Graveyard Project, St James's Graveyard, Dublin: History and Associations, Dublin 1988,
(the project booklet compiled by the supervisor and the present writer, note that this is now out of date).
Sean J Murphy, 'Burying Poor and Gentry: St James's Church and Graveyard, Dublin, Twelfth to Twenty-First Centuries', 2018
(this is the most up to date article on the history of the church and graveyard).
Same, 'St James and Irish Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela', 2018.
Same, '1916 Rebel John J O'Grady Buried in St James's Graveyard, Dublin', 2016.
Same, 'Rediscovery of Memorial to Victoria Cross Holder Sergeant-Major John Lucas in St James’s Graveyard, Dublin', 2017.
Same, 'The Story of St James's Fair', 2019.
Same, 'Sir Toby Butler', 2020.
This is an independent webpage maintained by Sean J Murphy, who can be contacted by email at sjbmurphy1951ATgmail.com (replace 'AT' with '@').
Copyright © 2012-20 Sean J Murphy, Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies, Carraig, Cliff Road, Windgates, Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland. This work may be freely stored on library systems for reader use and reproduced offline for fair personal and educational use, with proper acknowledgement.