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Connecting past and present

Michael Staunton is a medieval historian, specializing in historical and hagiographical writing, intellectual life and the relationship between religion and politics in the middle ages. He is Associate Professor of History at University College Dublin and the author of Thomas Becket and His Biographers (Boydell and Brewer, 2006), and The Lives of Thomas Becket (Manchester University Press, 2001), a selection of translated sources. His most recent book is The Historians of Angevin England (Oxford University Press, 2017).

In October 2017, Staunton gave a paper at a Dublin City Council symposium on the history of The Abbey of St. Thomas the Martyr. The abbey was dedicated to Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been murdered in his cathedral by Henry II’s knights in 1170. Becket was canonised in 1173, and the abbey in Dublin was founded shortly afterwards as an act of restitution by the king. The abbey gave Thomas Street its name, and had a major influence on life in Dublin until its dissolution in 1539.

The symposium on The Abbey of St. Thomas the Martyr brought together a number of historians and archaeologists for a day of papers and discussions, and podcasts from the event are now available on History Hub.

In his paper – Thomas Becket and the Invasion of Ireland – Staunton shows how Henry II’s invasion of Ireland in 1171 ultimately led to his reconciliation with the martyr, and the founding of an abbey in Becket’s honour in 1177.


The Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr owes its existence to two events: the murder of Thomas Becket in December 1170, and King Henry II’s subsequent incursion into Ireland less than a year later. But in what way, if any, were these events connected?

While a direct connection might seem unlikely, that is exactly what a number of twelfth century writers alleged: that the main motivation behind the king’s visit to Ireland, and his establishment of English rule there, was his desire to escape the widespread outrage over the murder of his archbishop. These and other writers went further, and claimed that English troops in Ireland faced an unexpected enemy in the form of the martyred archbishop himself, who miraculously struck down those who had dared to attack the Irish without cause.

In his paper, Staunton shows how Thomas Becket’s posthumous intervention in Irish affairs was presented, and how Henry II’s invasion of Ireland ultimately led to his reconciliation with Becket, and the founding of an abbey in his honour in Dublin.

History of the abbey

The Abbey of St. Thomas the Martyr was founded in the 12th century and played a pivotal role in the religious and political affairs of Dublin city for four centuries.

While no trace of the abbey remains, Dublin City Council’s South Central Area office and Dublin City Archaeologist Dr Ruth Johnson have been working to unravel the mysteries of the abbey and bring it back to life. A weekend of events celebrating the abbey took place in October 2017. As part of the celebrations, a symposium on the history of the abbey took place in St Catherine’s Church, Thomas Street, on 14 October. Podcasts from the event were produced by Real Smart Media and are now available on History Hub.

Speakers who gave presentations at the symposium included:

  • Michael Staunton (UCD). Thomas Becket and the Invasion of Ireland.
  • Paul Duffy (IAC Archaeology). The Sacred and the Profane: preliminary results of archaeological excavations at 30 and 32-36, Thomas Street.
  • Marie Therese Flanagan (QUB). The foundation and early history of the Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr.
  • Tadhg O’Keeffe (UCD). St Thomas’ Abbey and the chronology of Early English Gothic in Ireland.
  • Colmán Ó Clabaigh (Glenstal). For the Love of God and Neighbour: lifestyle of the Canons of St Thomas’ Abbey.
  • Aine Foley. St Thomas’ Abbey and the City of Dublin in the late medieval period.
  • Roger Stalley (TCD). The Augustinians and their architecture.
  • Edel Bhreathnach (Discovery Programme). Old and new monastic communities in Dublin in the twelfth century.
  • Catherine Scuffil. Summation.

Click here for more information on the symposium.


Listen to the podcasts on Soundcloud or download them on iTunes. Please note that many of the speakers reference slides in their presentations and these slides are available to view here.

Photos from the symposium by Real Smart Media.

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