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The church of St James with its adjacent grave yard, is situated on sloping ground, some 53 feet over sea-level, on the north east side of the Main Street (named Middle St. in the 19th century) of Dingle town, in the town-land of The Grove, and civil parish of Dingle. The present structure was erected in the early 19th century.


Its predecessor is described as follows by Charles Smith, The Antient and Present State of the County of Kerry (1756), p. 177: “The parish church dedicated to St James, is said to have been formerly built at the charge of the Spaniards.


It was originally very large, but most of the old structure is gone to ruin, a part only of which is kept in repair for divine service, and is called St. Mary’s chapel; in which is an handsome monument, consisting of a panel of black marble, with the following inscription, in gold letters, placed between two Ionic pillars, adorned with cherubims, and capitals of Italian alabaster. [This commemorates in Latin the Knight of Kerry ‘Johannes Fitz-Gerald’ … who died immaturely of fever A.D. 1741 … erected by his wife, Margaret.’ This memorial was later damaged by vandals, and restored to the present side-chapel only after it had lain in the yard of nearby Grove House for many years.] Smith, p.178, states, ‘On an old grave-stone in the church-yard is the following epitaph: “Stephen Rice lies here, late Knight of Parliament, … His loyal wife Ellen Trant, … MDCXXII (=1622).” ‘ The Fitzgeralds, Rices and Trants were the leading Norman families in Dingle and its neighbourhood since the 13th century.

Many commentators in recent times have taken Smith’s expression ‘at the charge of the Spaniards’ to mean ‘built by the Spaniards’ and this seems to be influenced by his remarks on the architecture of the town: “Several of the houses were built in the Spanish fashion, with ranges of stone balcony windows, this place being formerly much frequented by ships of that nation, who traded with the inhabitants, and came to fish on this coast; most of them are of stone, with marble door, and window frames: on one is an inscription, signifying, that the house was built by one RICE, anno 1563; … Many of them have dates on them as old as Q. Elizabeth’s time, and some earlier …”

However, the above interpretation of Smith’s statement about Spanish influence may be seen to be exaggerated by his comment on p. 92, on the 12th century romanesque church of Kilmalkedar, some 4 miles NW of Dingle: “This parish, and the church, is named Kilmelchedor, i.e. Melchedor’s church, and is said to have been built by the Spaniards, who formerly erected many other churches hereabouts. Several Spanish merchants resided at Dingle, before Q. Elizabeth’s time, who traded with the natives for fish and other kinds of provision … ” While Spanish fishermen are known to have fished extensively on the SW coast of Ireland from about 1400 onwards, there is no question of Spanish influence on Kilmalkedar church, or on any of the many churches of the Early Christian period in the neighbourhood, which seem to be referred to by Smith. In this context, one must recall the centuries-old inclination to attribute remarkable earthworks throughout Ireland to the ‘Danes’, as Smith himself does on p. 180. Exotic origins seem to fascinate the imagination!

There is archaeological evidence for the importation of wine to southern Ireland from Europe from the early Christian period on, and it is likely that this trade became more focused on Spain after England lost control of Bordeaux in 1453. There is documentary evidence for a brisk export and import trade through the port of Dingle from the second half of the 13th century, and dues on all wines and other customs on imports were the prerogative of the Earl of Desmond from the 14th century on. It is worthy of notice that the earliest known portolan chart – produced by mediterranean mariners for the Portuguese -- of the west and south coasts of Ireland dates from 1325. The importance of the port of Dingle in the affairs of the Earl of Desmond, may be gauged from the fact that in 1529 the Treaty of Dingle was signed by him and representatives of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, whereby the Earl transferred his allegiance from Henry VIII to the Emperor.


The only strong indication we have that Dingle church was dedicated to St James before Smith’s time is the fact that James I, in his charter of incorporation to the town in the 4th year of his reign (1605), specifies that the sovereign was to be elected ‘yearly, on St James’s day, to enter on his office on the michaelmas following.’ That the election of the sovereign on St James’ day is of special significance is apparent from the fact that James I’s charter of incorporation of the town of Tralee in 1612 specifies “The provost to be elected annually … on St. John’s day, to enter on his office on Michaelmas.”  There is a strong case for presuming that, as the churches in these two towns are found to be dedicated to St James and StJohn respectively at a later date, the selection of their feastdays for the election of provost is due to the fact that they were patrons of both churches by the early 17th century at least. That the cult of St James was prominent in Kerry is clear from the grant in 1627 by Sir Edward Denny “to the provost and burgesses of Tralee … of the tolls and customs … taken at St James’s fair …”.

That this cult may have been influenced by pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is demonstrated by Fionnbarr Moore, Ardfert Cathedral: summary of excavation results (2007) p. 102: “In the nave area an unusually narrow subrectangular tomb was found. It was more like a stone lined grave than a formal tomb. It contained the articulated remains of two individuals, protected by pillow stones and laid directly over each other within the tomb. A 15th century pewter composite pilgrim’s badge (111, 112) in the shape of a scallop shell was found in the north wall of this tomb. The shell bears the gilded figure of St James of Compostela, complete with pilgrim’s hat, scrip (satchel or wallet) and bordone (staff). The figure of St James is soldered to the remains of the pewter scallop shell. It had a loop above, which originally attached the now separate annular buckle with pin and broken silver wire. The figure on the front curve of the scallop shell faces forward and bears a pilgrim’s hat. His right hand rests on the strap of a satchel, which is worn diagonally over his left shoulder, and his left holds a pilgrim staff.” On a recent visit to Compostela the author observed a close resemblance between the above described figures and two figures in the vicinity of the high altar in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. As Dingle was the nearest international port to Ardfert (the Chancellor of which held Kilmalkedar near Dingle as prebend since the 13th century), it is conceivable that the two individuals in the above grave travelled via Dingle, attired in the manner deemed appropriate for pilgrims to Compostela, with distinctive scallop shell attached.


While it is not likely to have influenced the dedication of the church of Dingle to St James it is worth mentioning a tradition, according to which the noble families of Ireland, ‘The Milesians’, Clanna Míleadh, reached the SW coast of Ireland from the neighbourhood of the modern port of A Corunna, some 45 miles from Santiago de Compostela, in prehistoric times. This tradition reached its final shape in ‘The Book of Invasions’ Leabhar Gabhála Éireann, in the 11th century, and was motivated by the desire to link the Irish by prolonged wanderings to the scattering of the races in the Old Testament. A more genuine link between Spain and the south of Ireland is evidenced by the fact that the writings of the great 7th century Spanish author, Isidore of Seville, are believed to have been disseminated throughout Europe through Ireland -- most likely through the monastery of Lismore, founded by the Kerryman, Mochuda. These facts are mentioned only as an indication that NW Spain occupied a privileged position in the imagination of the Irish for much more than a thousand years. They predate the 9th century legend of the arrival of the body of St James in Galicia from Jerusalem, and the 12th century establishment of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela on a par with those to Jerusalem and Rome.



We have an interesting account of the conduct of the service in Dingle Church in 1589, when George Earl of Cumberland came ashore in Ventry on his way to the Azores. He attended  Sunday service in Dingle: “They have the same form of common prayer word for word that we have only that it is in Latin. On Sunday the Sovereign goeth to Church having his Sergeant before him and accompanied by the Sherriff and others of the town. They then kneel down everyone making his prayers privately by himself; they then rise up and goe out of the church again, to drink. After this they return again to church and the Minister makes prayers. Their manner of baptising differs somewhat from ours, part of the Service belonging to it being put in Latin and part in Irish. The Minister takes the child in his hands, dipping it first backwards and then forwards over head and ears in the cold water even in the midst of winter. They had neither bell, drum or trumpet to call the parishioners together.” 


The following description of the church is found in Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland I (1837), p. 461: “The old church, which was dedicated to St. James, is said to have been built by the Spaniards; it was originally a very large structure. A part of it called St. Mary’s Chapel, was kept in repair until the erection of the present parish church, on the site of the ancient edifice, in 1807: the latter was built by a gift of £1100 from the late Board of First Fruits; it is a plain structure, and, having become too small for the increasing congregation, is about to be enlarged and thoroughly repaired; for which purpose a grant of £317. 17. 4. has been recently made by the Ecclesiastical Board.’ Lewis also states, “ The living is an impropriate cure, in the diocese of Ardfert and Aghadoe, and in the patronage of Lord Ventry, in whom the rectory is impropriate: the tithes amount to £315, payable to the impropriator, who allows the curate £50 per annum (late currency), and has allotted him vicarial tithes, amounting to £75, of the neighbouring parish, of which his Lordship has the nomination. Lord Ventry also maintains a chaplain, at a salary of £150 per annum, who is resident in the town, and assists in the performance of the clerical duties.”


Some further detail is added to this account in Mrs. D. P. Thompson, A Brief Account of the Rise and Progress of the Change in Religious Opinion now Taking  Place in Dingle, and the West of the County of Kerry, Ireland (1846) pp. 1-2: “Forty years ago the Church of Dingle had fallen into such ruin as to be disused. The Protestant worshippers met for divine service in a room in the town – they were few and careless.  … In 1804, however, a small parish Church was erected on a former site in the ancient Church-yard, and more regular ministrations of the usual services afforded to those who attended.” Lewis, writing in 1837, mentions that the church is about to be enlarged again, and this was due to the large number of conversions to the Church of Ireland in the 1830s and 1840s as a result of a very effective proselytising campaign, which led to very violent relations between the two religious communities.

The congregation decreased gradually in the course of the 19th century with the result that the church was allowed to deteriorate as the 20th century progressed. Renovation took place in 1974, when the tower was demolished as being in a precarious condition. The following text on a plaque attached to the interior wall of the church commemorates this occasion: “In commemoration of the re-opening of St. James Parish Church (after extensive renovation and decoration) on the 12 July 1974 by President Erskine Childers a joint blessing was given by The Rt. Rev. Donald Caird and the Most Rev. Eamonn Casey during the ministry of The Rev. Trevor Sullivan”. 


The earliest reference to a church in Dingle is in the Papal Taxation of 1317, of which a copy is preserved in the National Archives, London. The names of the churches of this deanery are scarcely legible, but the progression of names by geographical location enables one to identify the church of Dingle as valued at 26s. 8d., which is the same value assigned to the churches of Kilmalkedar, and Garfinny, which lies immediately east of Dingle. This may be compared to 28s. for Ventry and 13s. 4d. for Kildrum. The other churches are valued at much less, except for the anomolous Dunquin, which is valued at 4l. These are the churches of the new parishes established as a result of the transformation of the Irish ecclesiastical system in the 12th century. The advowson of the church of Dingle was conferred on the Priory of Canons Regular of St. Augustine of Killaha (‘de Bello Loco’) near Killorglin, founded by Geoffrey de Marisco, who was for a time Justiciar of Ireland in the early 13th century. The revenue of Dingle parish was paid to Killaha, and the prior appointed a vicar to serve the local faithful. There is no evidence for an early christian church in Dingle itself, in spite of the density of such structures sat the western end of the peninsula. Indications of the presence of clergy in the townland of Kilnaglearagh, Cill na gCléireach (church of the clerics) just east of the town may indicate where the clergy appointed by Killaha resided. The Ordnance Survey Name Books of 1841 recorded the site of a deserted burial ground on the shore at the SW corner ot this townland – fairly close to the ring-fort (demolished in the mid 1950s) in the GAA grounds of Páirc an Aghasaigh, from which Dingle, Daingean Uí Chúis, is likely to have got its name. The names ‘Glebe of Kilnaglearagh’ and ‘Vicarsfield’  are said to be applied to the location in the same Name Books (‘glebe’ being land attached to a church). In the neighbouring townland of Lough immediately to the east of this in the parish of Garfinny, the Name Books supply the names in local usage ‘Glebe of Lough’ and ‘Gort na mbraher, The Friars Garden. … It is said to have belonged to the Abbey of Tralee formerly.”  Confirmation that a church stood in this area in the later medieval period (13—15 centuries) is indicated by the finding in recent years of the narrow-arched moulded top of a Gothic window in a stone field-wall just east of Lough. This is likely to have been the original church of Dingle, and is likely to be the entity to which C. Smith (1756) 177, refers: “There was formerly an ancient monastery in this town, which was a cell of the abbey of Killagh, near Castlemaine. As it is known that a number of churches were built in Kerry in the early to mid 15th century (precise evidence for Templenoe), it is possible that a new church was built on the present site off the Main Street about this time, given the growing prosperity of the port of Dingle. The statement in Jack McKenna, Dingle [1982 ?] 48: “The Dominican priory of Tralee .. held property also near Kilnagleragh, though they had no pastoral duties in the parish.” is likely to be due to misunderstanding. The Ordnance Survey Memoranda of 1846 quote a communication of Mr. Wm. Denny of Tralee to the effect that the site in Lough known as ‘Garrinabraher’ ‘is not Glebe, but merely a detached portion of the lands of Tralee Abbey, which was formerly granted to the ancestors of the present proprietor’. Denny is almost certainly confusing land confiscated from Killaha with that of the Dominican priory beside the Denny residence in Tralee, which would occupy a more dominant place in his recollection. The evidence of Papal documents of the 14th and early 15th centuries support this view.

The last resident rector was Francis Joseph Roycroft, appointed in 1935.

O Cíobháin, Breandán (2019) 

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