Situated on the north east side of Dingle's main street within the medieval walled town is the site of the 13th century parish church which was appropriated to the Augustinian priory of St Mary's Killagh, near Milltown. This larger medieval parish church was believed to have been built by Spaniards. Some of the original masonry, including a number of chamfered quoins, was used to build the current structure.
There are historic connections between Dingle and Spain. Dingle port, along with the ports of Dublin, Drogheda, Galway, New Ross, and Waterford, was a point of embarkation for medieval pilgrimages to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, via La Coruna.
St James’ Church was where The Treaty of Dingle was signed on 28 April 1529, by the Earl of Desmond, James Fitzgerald and the envoy of the holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, King of Spain. This treaty incorporated most of southwest Ireland into the Habsburg Monarchy, and gave Irish people citizenship rights in Habsburg Spain, Austria and the Netherlands.
The church passed into Protestant hands at the time of the Reformation.
Over the years, most of the original church became a ruin, apart from St Mary’s side chapel which was kept in repair for divine service. A wall plaque in this chapel, consisting of a black marble tablet with a Latin inscription in gold letters, commemorates John Fitzgerald, Knight of Kerry, who died in 1741. The present church, incorporating St Mary’s chapel, was built in 1807 through a gift of £1,100 from the Board of First Fruits. Enlargements and repairs in 1840 were funded by the Ecclesiastical Board.
The church was extensively renovated and somewhat altered in appearance in 1974. In 2004, the Georgian Society funded the repair and restoration of the church’s ten lancet windows, including the elaborate chancel window with timber tracery.
There are at least four tombstones of interest in the adjacent graveyard. One marks the burial place of one of the Fitzgeralds. Broken and weather-worn, it bears the date 1504, and an almost obliterated carving of the Desmond arms; there is an inscription around its margins in an abbreviated form of mixed Latin and Irish.
About 20 years ago, both to facilitate greater use by the local community and to help raise funds for ongoing maintenance, it was decided to adapt the church building and introduce concerts, lectures, and special events. As well as continuing to offer Church of Ireland services, the church of St James' is now a venue for folk concerts featuring local musicians, and plays a prominent part in many Dingle Festivals and events during the year. One such event, which has brought St James’ Church worldwide acclaim, is the internationally famous 'Other Voices’ music series in December, recorded by RTE.
The Friends of St James’ Dingle was formally established in January 2019. It is a charitable organization whose main objective is to raise funds to preserve this historic church and to enhance and secure its use in the 21st century as a shared cultural & spiritual space and a valuable community resource.