Early Christian Navan

In the area which forms the present parish of Navan – it is a union of the medieval parishes of Navan, Ardsallagh, Balreask, Donaghmore, Dunmoe and Athlumney – there were at least two churches which had their origin in the first years of Christianity in our country, one at Donaghmore and the other at Ardsallagh.

Of the first church and monastery at Donaghmore, Tierchan, a monk of Ardbraccan, who lived about the year 700 and wrote a life of St. Patrick, mentions that Patrick gave the church at Donaghmore to a priest, Cassan, stating that his establishment on earth would not be a great one;  strangely enough the church got its name from its size, the Great Church, and a minor monastery survived there until the coming of the Normans.   It was minor we know because in spite of the round tower which still survives, the monastery is  mentioned only twice in the annals or history of events in Ireland edited by the Four Masters:  once in 845 when it was reported that Robhartach Mac Flainn died abbot of Donaghmore and again in 854 when it was plundered by the Vikings.

In one of the deeds preserved in the Book of Kells, it is stated that the monks of Kells bought, for twenty ounces of gold, the lands of one O Riaman in Donaghmore.   The deed is witnessed by O Dunan Bishop of the northern half of Ireland, the King of Tara and O Fiachiach, erenagh or custodian of Donaghmore.   It is dated just before 1094 when we know Bishop O Dunan died.

The monastery, of course, like all of the early Christian monasteries was not exactly like a monastery of today.   It was a collection of wooden huts surrounded by one, two or three lines of circular ditches with, perhaps, a stone church and round tower and stone crosses, like those of Kells, at the entrances.   It was inhabited at first by a celibate clergy, but gradually there grew up at the monastery, a community of married clergy and laymen, called Mainig, who formed together a Christian Community which owed more to the style of life of the Celtic people than it did to the eastern monasteries on whose rule was modeled the first rules of Irish monastic life.

The early Christian monastery of Ardsallagh has its foundations attributed to St. Finian [died 552], founder of Clonard, patron of the diocese of Meath and the man largely responsible for the monastic character the Irish Church adopted after the death of Patrick.   The monastery dedicated to St. Brigid must have been small, not to have been mentioned in the Annals.   It is a fair assumption as it did not endure the honour of a Viking raid worthy of note in the Annals; it had neither wealth nor size nor contemporary importance to recommend it.   No trace of its monastery remains.

Navan Abbey

The third pre-Norman religious house in the parish was the Abbey of Navan itself.   There are only shadowy references to Christian presence in Navan in the early years.  A story has been preserved that St. Fechin, legendary founder of the great Monastery at Fore, got a cool reception from one Faelanus at Navan when he proposed founding a monastery there.   Again at a place called Nua Chongbhail or Navan the Annals tell us a St. Fachtna, whose feast is on January 19, founded a monastery but again like the establishment of Ardsallagh, there is no further reference in the Annals.   We do know, however, that before the Normans came to Ireland there was a monastery at Navan.  By the twelfth century, many of the celtic monasteries had fallen into decay and were often Christian communities whose life-style was little different from that of their non-monastic neighbours.

St. Malachy of Armagh introduced into any celtic monastery where organized religious life had survived, a rule which from 1050 on, had been transforming monastic life in Europe.   It was based on the rule which St Augustine had drawn up to regulate the life of the priests who, with him, formed the Cathedral clergy of his bishopric Hippo.  A more special and severe form of this rule, discovered by St. Malachy in a monastery at Arrouaise in Artois [north west France], and based partly on the Cistercian rule approved of by St. Bernard of Clairaux, was introduced into many monasteries in Ireland including the Abbey of Navan.

Whether it was a new monastery or the remains of an old monastery at Navan or a new dwelling for the monastery at Ardbraccan, which was to disappear from the records after 1170, we do not know, but we do know that O’Rourke of Breffney, who had partitioned Meath which its overlord O’Connor of Connaught in 1169 [he was the man who drove Dermot MacMurragh to bring in the Normans], gave to it lands some of which, at Grange and Faughan Hill, it was to hold for 400 years; the rest were lands from the confluence of the Boyne and Blackwater – from Leighsbrook at Navan – to the Gowra river which enters the Boyne at Dowdstown.

Though for the 700 years after St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, there are only faint traces of specific churches at Navan, yet there is enough evidence to indicate that the Mass and sacraments and Christian living were there to shape the lives of the Celtic people who lived in the area.

By 1180, a new and conquering race had come to Navan and its environs.   As the poem, written in celebration of the Norman triumph, has it:

A Gillibert de Nangle enfin

Donat tut Makerigalen

A Jocelyn donat le Navan

E la terra de Ardbrechan.

In 1171 Hugh de Lacy got the province of Meath in ‘as full and ample a manner as it was possessed by Murchaid O Melaghlin’, and by 1176 a castle was erected – perhaps on the moat of Navan – by the new owner of Navan, Jocelyn de Anglo or Nangle, Baron of Navan, who, by 1187, was ‘confirming to God and the Church of St. Maire of Navan and the Canons regular serving there all the land which they held of the gift of the Irish before the coming of the English into Ireland’.

At this time too, it is reasonable to assume, the mediaeval town of Navan had its origin, receiving from the overlord, De Lacy, a charter which in later time was replaced by a charter from the king himself.   The abbey church became the parish church of Navan, though it was outside the town walls – on the corner of the Abbey Road, where the old Brothers School replaced the Cavalry Barracks, to be itself replaced  by Castle Clothing factory which is now demolished.

For the next four hundred years it was the Abbey of Navan which was at the centre of Christian worship in the town.   The town was inhabited by the descendants of the Norman invaders with the descendants of the former inhabitants who has been assimilated to the new way of life.   The names of the Abbots have come down to us, all Norman, like Heyne, Devenish, Whyte, Cantwell, Nagle, Manne, Danyell, and Wafre. Some of the Abbots were English born.

One of them, John Bole, was elected in 1450 procurator in Parliament of the clergy of Armagh, who lived in the Norman area of Louth.   He became Archbishop of Armagh in 1457 and when he died in 1470, he was buried at his monastery of Navan.   His desecrated tomb survives; the table with his effigy in a wall in the Slane demesne and the sides with the carved figures of the apostles in St. Erc’s Hermitage in Slane.   It was he, who, in 1450 procured a Bull from Pope Nicholas V, stating that pilgrims to the legendary statue of the Blessed Virgin at the Abbey, who said the prescribed prayers at the shrine, and gave money to ‘repair or beautify the fabric of the said monastery’, would gain an indulgence.   He was also responsible, one assumes, for the Letters Patent of the king in 1454 ‘taking into protection all people, whether rebels or otherwise who shall go on pilgrimage to the Monastery of the Blessed Virgin at Navan’.

Little enough survives of the Church at Navan, but what does is interesting.   There is a copy in the Kew Archives of the Charter of the Monastery made, because of the fragility of the original, in a room below the great hall in the Bishop of Meath’s residence at Ardbraccan in 1498, which document alone tells us of the existence of the pre-Norman monastery at Navan.

In Oxford there is a thirteenth-century Martyrology or Calendar of the feast days of the martyrs of the early Church, which was read after the principal meal of the day in the monastery.   Only seventeen and a half pages survive, but in the margins of the pages was written at the appropriate date, the names of benefactors and abbots of the monastery, to be prayed for on the anniversary of their death.

On the site of the monastery apart from a few carved stones which were at the Castle Clothing which used the buildings of the Cavalry Barracks, built c.1711, there was a holy water font at the entrance of a room used as an oratory by the De La Salle Brothers when they lived there.   It was part of a private house,now demolished.

By this time Donaghmore had become a parish church, the thirteenth-century ruins of which are beside the round tower; and it was the Abbey of St. Thomas in Dublin which had the right to nominate its parish priest.   The names of two of them only have survived from the middle ages, both Norman names Fr. Hugo Gardeyn in 1366, and Fr. Nicholas Symonds in 1409.

The parish of Dunmoe is first mentioned when, between 1194 and 1214, the power of nominating the pastor was given by Simon Rochfort, first Norman Bishop of Meath, to the same Abbey of St. Thomas in Dublin.   In 1446, James Cosyn was rector of the Church of St Laurence at Dunmoe.   In 1504, William Hore was rector and in 1538, Robert Beane, an Irishman, was appointed rector without obligation of residence there.   The last of the mediaeval pastors we have record of is Thomas Robeyns, sued in 1552 for not keeping a school in his parish as the law required.

The middle ages came to an end in Navan with a double disaster.   In 1539, O’Neill and O Domhnall plundered as far as Teamhair.  “And the Gael mustered not against the foreigners any army by which more of the property of Midhe was destroyed than this army, or which had more prodigious spoils of gold, and silver and copper and iron and of all other goods besides; and particularly the Umama [Navan] and the town of Ardee were completely pillaged by them both of treasure, apparel and all other goods besides.”   That was the first disaster which left the town in ruins.   The second which was inevitable, was the visit of the King’s Commissioners on 19 July 1539 to suppress the monastery and seize whatever of its goods had survived the Northern raid.  The value of these goods and chattels was £48.19s.1d.   One monk, John Betagh, was allowed to stay as parish priest of Navan and the Abbey Church was to continue as the parish church of the town.

The next 250 years were the years of persecution in Navan.  Until 1650 the persecution was mild enough and the public practice of religion continued.  The evidence we have is from hostile sources but it is easy enough to be behind the surviving documents to the continuing parochial life.   Navan was a typical old English town.  The descendants of the Navan settlers still owned the land and controlled the Local Government, providing a protective umbrella beneath which the Mass and Sacraments were made available regularly to the people.

Sir Hugh Sydney, writing to Queen Elizabeth in the 1570s mentioned the sorry state of those parishes in Meath formerly served by the suppressed monasteries:  “No parson or vicar resident upon any of them and a very simple curate appointed to serve them, among which number of curates only 18 were found able to speak English.   The rest Irish priests, or rather Irish rogues, having very little latin, less learning or civility.  These live upon the bare altarages [as they call them] which God knoweth are very small and were wont to live upon the gain of Masses, Dirges, shrivings and such like trumphery, goodly abolished by your Majesty; no one house standing for any of them to dwell in; in many places the very walls of the Churches down, very few chancels covered, windows and doors ruined or spoiled.”

Behind this judgement on the Diocese of Meath one can see that these curates, not, perhaps, quite as simple as Sydney claims, were, in fact, the ministers of the old religion, going about their business under the protection of the local population.  Bishop Brady, the Anglican bishop, writing to Sydney in 1577, claimed:  “Masses be rife, little less than openly said, friars show themselves openly, two of them being here at the Navan of late, were apprehended by some of my men, but quickly rescued, and my men put in hazard of their lives; this was done by no worse than  the Portrief [or Mayor] of the town and some of his brethren.”

In 1603, a Government agent “at the market cross at Navan, among sundry seditious persons and pretended priests, spied two friars in their habits openly going from house to house, the one a young tall strip, the other a lusty old fellow”.  The friars denied the authority of King James and the mob, speaking Irish, sided with them.  The agent, one Sotherne, on protesting, was forced to take to his heels.

Again, in 1622, another spy reported: “Patrick Duff, priest of the Navan, keeps a house there and intertaynes preests and Jesuits, and keeps a stable and horses there. The people of this town are grown so arrogant by this preest means they carry a cross openly in the streets before the dead being carried to burial”

By 1654, however, the old English, landowners of the area and burgesses of the town for 500 years, preserves in truth of the old Faith itself, were themselves condemned to destruction and were swept finally from their positions of power to be replaced by the new English Cromwellian, puritan and very anti-Catholic; a new era in the history of the Faith in Navan had begun.

By 1680, times had become normal enough, Fr. Patrick Flanagan appeared in the Anglican Dr. Dopping’s report on his diocese as parish priest of Ardsallagh, Balreask, Navan, Donaghmore and Dunmoe.  Athlumney, not yet linked to Navan by the Boyne Bridge, was joined with Kilcarn and Dowdstown as a parish under Fr. Michael White.  There were even Catholic schools at Dunmoe and Navan.   In 1685, when the sun seemed to be coming out again – a Catholic, James ll had become King of England – the Catholics of Navan opened and equipped a Chapel but after the battle of the Boyne, Bishop Dopping reported [1693] that the abbey church being in ruins, the Anglican community took over and used for their services the lately repaired Mass house at Navan.

Fr. Garret Darcy [perhaps from the family which formerly owned the lands at Dunmoe] became parish priest of Navan, Ardsallagh, Bective and Donaghmore, when Dr. George Plunkett died in 1704.  On his death, Bishop Luke Fagan became parish priest of Navan, leaving Donaghmore and Dunmoe a separate parish in the hands of the Franciscan friars who lived in Flower Hill and served the parish until the last of them, Fr. Teeling, died about 1780.   Donaghmore and Dunmoe then became once again part of the parish of Navan which they have been to this day.

Tradition has it that the next Mass house of Navan was at Leighsbrook, opened as such in the reign of Queen Anne [1701-14].  It was a mud walled cabin which was closed from time to time by more rigorous enforcement of the Penal Laws, forcing the priests to celebrate Mass, as Dean Cogan put it, “by stealth – on the lonely rocks which line the Boyne below Blackcastle”.   When Bishop Fagan was transferred to Dublin in 1729, he was succeeded in the bishopric and in the parochial care of Navan by Stephen Mac Egan. op, who was succeeded in Navan [1756] by his Vicar-General, Fr. Christopher Fleming.

The only shadowy glimpse we have of the liturgy at Leighsbrook is in a story of a blind and roguish harper, Thady Elliot, who, engaged to play the harp at the Christmas Masses in the 1750s, for a bet played ‘Planxty Connor’ in the middle of Mass and when the good celebrant tapped his foot with displeasure, remarked, one presumes under his breath:  “Ta an sagart ag rinnce.”.   For what it is worth, the incident – Thady, one presumes, was not asked to perform again – shows a normal parochial life at Navan and poses an interesting question about the type of sacred music a harper would play in church in the mid-eighteenth century.   Perhaps, too, it indicates the presence of a Navan tradition of music, sacred and profane, which has lasted to the present day.

This church fell down on Christmas night in 1772, and for a while the faithful of Navan had to endure the elements at Mass for, according to tradition, it was said in the yard of a Mrs. Vaughan’s bakery near the Preston School.   Soon a small house was built on the present chapel grounds which was improved and enlarged when Dr. Plunkett came as Bishop of Meath and parish priest of Navan, c 1780.   His secretary, Fr. Peter O’Reilly, directed the building of a new chapel, opened about 1792.   It was a sign that the centuries of persecution were over, that the citizens of Navan could commission, in 1792, as an altar piece for their new chapel, the finest crucifix made in Ireland in its century, carved in wood by Edward Smyth, the leading sculptor of the day [the riverine effigies he carved in stone for the Custom House, Dublin, still adorn the back of the old Irish banknotes].  That crucifix, newly-restored [1976], is still over the altar in the parish church at Navan.

In the previous 250 years, the Church in Navan was concerned purely with the survival of the faith, with making constantly available to the people access to the Mass and the Sacraments.  Now, from 1790 onward, new areas of church involvement in the life of the town were opened.  The Church, the sole surviving institution to which the people gave their loyalty, was to involve herself in the social and political life of the community, retaining and deepening the loyalty of the people.

This involvement in Navan is associated principally with the life work of Fr. Eugene O’Reilly, who worked in Navan as curate founder, and President of the Seminary of St. Finian, and finally as parish priest from 1795 to 1852.  Until 1782, the only Catholic school in the parish was at Donaghmore.   After that, private schools catering for Catholic were opened.

In 1802 Bishop Plunkett founded, in Navan, the only Catholic secondary school in the northern half of the county which gave its name to Academy Street in the town.  Soon a church connected free school for young children was opened in Bakery Lane, which was transferred to the present Banba Hall building in 1851.

Fr. O’Reilly, parish priest since 1827, brought the Loreto nuns to Navan in 1833, to work in free and fee-paying schools for girls.  He invited the Order of Mercy to come to Navan to work for the poor which they did a year after his death in 1853, from a house in Academy Street presented to them in his will.

In 1836-39 he built the present Church at Navan, traditionally inspired by the Cercle Metropolitain in Paris; his reasoning was that for a very large building, where everyone should hear a speaker at the altar, what better model could be adopted than the opera house in Paris.   Under his guidance, too, co-operative workshops were set up to employ, gainfully, poor girls of the town ‘making lace and weaving cloth for gingham gowns’ [1850].

After his death [he was succeeded as parish priest by Bishop Cantwell and since then, successive bishops have been parish priests of Navan], the same social and political involvement of the church continued.

The post-primary schools of the town were all church built and staffed until the Vocational School was opened in 1931-St. Anne’s, St. Michael’s, by the Loreto nuns; St. Joseph’s, Convent of Mercy, St. Finian’s [1802-1908], and St. Patrick’s Classical School founded in 1930.   Primary education, too, was given to the girls of the parish by the Loreto and Mercy nuns, and the boys’ school managed by the priest of the parish from 1851 to date, was staffed for almost sixty years De La Salle Brothers [1917-76].   An orphanage and House of Mercy was opened in Athlumney in the 1870s.   These buildings house today, not only the Generalate of the Mercy Order in Meath, but also, carrying on the involvement of the Church and the social life of the town, the crèche and school for the severely retarded children of the area.

As early as 1850, mass meetings were held in Navan, organized by the local curates to bring industry to the area, which had a large population but no adequate or worthwhile employment.   Unfortunately, the meetings had very little effect.

In politics, too, the church was involved, to deeply would claim some outside observers, like Cardinal Cullen of Dublin, who mentioned, in 1854, that “in Navan nearly every Sunday there is a lecture in tenant right or independent opposition.   This is a disgrace to religion.   The people are dissatisified, but some foolish young priests think they are working wonders”.

It was in the time of repeal and Tenant Right [1840-60] that most clerical involvement in politics took place encouraged by Dr. Cantwell, the Bishop and parish priest of Navan.   It was at clerical meetings at Navan that the popular candidates for election were choosen, a custom which survived into the episcopacy of Dr. Nulty, 1866-99, who advocated - unique in his time – the nationalisation of the land.

When Archbishop Persico came to Ireland in 1887 on his ill-starred mission it was to Navan he came to interview Bishop Nulty.  The citizenry, while given the first Papal emissary for 250 years a tremendous reception, left the good Archbishop in no doubt as to where they stood on the questions of the day, the most pressing of which was the Plan of Campaign.   While referring to their delight in receiving him, they hung out green laurel branches from their windows and banners with the message:  ‘God bless our patriot bishop’ – referring to Dr. Nulty, a bluff and capable man, who, at a reception in the church where the Papal envoy was received with wild applause, mentioned: “the exertions made by the British government to enlist the support of His Holiness against the National movement – exertions which, however, proved fruitless”.  Afterwards, at a meal in St. Anne’s, part of the room decoration was a portrait of Dr. Nulty faced by one of the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell – it would, perhaps, have been a little pointed to have had Dr. Persico facing a picture of Charles Stewart Parnell on the wall.   A point has been made however.

The Archbishop noted all but kept his counsel and, alas, was responsible for Pope Leo’s letter of 1888 condemning the Plan of Campaign.  But the days of active clerical involvement in politics were nearly over.  Soon came the disastrous Parnellite split and thirty years afterwards the achieving of national independence.

Church involvement in social works in the town still continues to the present day.  The harnessing of public goodwill in providing for public need allows a community to realize itself as a living vital familial force.  It is still the privilege of the believing community, which is the Church at Navan, to do so.

Athlumney became part of Navan parish in 1876, giving the parish modern boundaries.   From 1800-1960, the population of the parish did not change appreciably.  Since 1960, however, Navan has experienced a building boom which, if it continues, gave the town a population of up to 30,000 by 2015.  One practical consequence so far is the building of the church of St. Oliver Plunkett at Blackcastle, as a second centre of worship for the Catholic community of Navan, the first church there since 1836.  It is fittingly dedicated to St. Oliver Plunkett.  In Oliver Plunkett, the church was recognizing and saluting the achievement of the race from which it sprung – the old English or Normans of Meath and Navan itself.  The generation of today recognises the achievement of Norman abbots, monks, people of mediaeval Navan, the rectors of Donaghmore, Dunmoe and Ardsallagh and the the burgess and portreeves of Navan.


Note: The pre Norman font, with its Romanesque design, mentioned in the text above, was donated by the O'Connor Family to St. Patrick's Classical School, where today it can be found in the Oratory of the School.