It is with immense regret and after lengthy consideration that we must announce a decision to bring our mission at Esker Monastery to a close. The Redemptorists first came to Esker in 1901 and since then have experienced and valued immense support from the people of the locality and beyond.
We appointed independent consultants to examine the future direction of the Esker Monastery in 2019, after a decision was taken at a Chapter of the Dublin Province ‘to investigate the pastoral, legal, planning, contractual and all other relevant issues with a view to deciding the future of the Esker site by the end of April 2021.
The final outcome of this consultation process was that we could no longer maintain a presence at Esker, leading to this most difficult announcement.
We have informed our staff of the decision and we take this opportunity to thank them and all who have gone before for their commitment to our mission, as well as their friendship and support over so many decades.
We have informed all those who have supported our ministry here at Esker of our decision in recent days and we thank them for contributing in various ways to making Esker such a special place.
We Redemptorists take such fond memories from Esker, of wonderful times in such a special place, but we regretfully must face the realities of the present day and plan accordingly for the future.
We plan to withdraw from Esker by the end of November 2022 and we will make final decisions on how we will dispose of the property in the coming months.
The 17th century
Esker has been a monastic settlement since the late seventeenth century when Dominican friars settled there following their ‘eviction’ from Athenry. The friars ran a hedge school at Brusk (500m from the present Redemptorist lands at Esker) up until the early 1690s. The school was attended by over 300 students from all parts of the country and they, and the friars, lived in huts in the woods. The school was closed in 1691. In 1698 all friars were banished from Ireland, but it appears that two of the Dominicans, on account of their advanced years, were exempted from the general exile.
The 18th century
The Dominican community in Ireland was bolstered by the return of three Dominican fathers from Spain in 1707 and, a few years later, from Louvain. The friars were able to rent a solitary spot in Esker, where they built a small cabin in a place now known as ‘The (Hazel)nut Field’. In 1715, an accidental fire having destroyed their dwelling, they moved to Esker na pay (of the cows), the site of the current Redemptorist Monastery, where they built a house.
The 19th century and Famine links
The links between Esker and the Irish famine of the 1840s are both direct and strong. The Rev. Dr. Peter Smyth OP became sub-Prior in Esker from 1824 and, two years later, he opened a ‘free school’, eventually attended by 600 poor children. He was Prior of Esker from 1843-53. He was largely responsible for a new church and convent at Esker on which work began about 1838.
The year 1847 was the worst year of the Great Famine. Father Smyth’s most ambitious school was the ‘College of St Dominick’ which opened in
1847 to teach both agriculture and letters and to generally provide advanced education for better-off Catholics. Fr. Smyth died at Esker on 6 June 1861.
The Arrival of the Redemptorists
The first Redemptorists to Ireland arrived in Limerick in 1851 in the direct aftermath of the Great Famine.
Fr. Patrick O’Donnell’s informative booklet, entitled ‘The Story of Esker’, describes the period from 1857 (the closure of St. Dominic’s College) to 1893 when the last Dominican, Fr. Eustace “left the convent of Esker and with him the last Dominican was removed from that monastic building”. The principal reason given in the text was that “Esker had been a heavy financial burden [to the Dominicans] for a number of years.” The Dominican Convent (as it was called) was given to Clonfert Diocese in August 1893.
In 1901, Clonfert Diocese sold Esker to the Redemptorists, and in 1901-03 the main house was demolished, and the new Monastery was built.
The 20th century
When Esker was acquired by the Redemptorists in 1901. Its main apostolate was as to act as a centre for Parish Mission in the West of Ireland and as a house of Formation. The Redemptorist students left Esker in 1940 for Cluain Mhuire, the newly built house of studies in Galway and Esker was designated as the Novitiate for the Irish Province, In 1949, an extension was built to what is now the Retreat House to facilitate the growing numbers entering the Congregation. In 1970 the Esker novitiate was closed and the building converted for use as a Retreat Centre which was in regular use until recently.
A major initiative was taken at Esker in the early 1990s in relation to the unused farm buildings. As recounted in a book by Fr Brendan Mc Convery C.Ss.R., “Esker converted some buildings in its disused farmyard into a ‘Youth village’ with accommodation for school groups during term time and for other groups of young people including those from abroad, during the summer holidays”. This development of Youth Village 2000 was a fruitful enterprise, and led to the development of a very successful Youth Ministry led by a specialist team. The covid pandemic impacted seriously on the Retreat and youth ministries in Esker.