The Franciscans have lived and worked on the south side of Dublin’s River Liffey since 1232. A presence of more than 780 years has seen many changes. The Friars lived among the people and they have been affected by many social, religious and political upheavals through the centuries.
In 1348, the Black Death swept through Dublin and among the thousands who died were 24 Franciscans. During the Reformation in 1540 the Friary at Francis Street, at the site of the present church of St. Nicholas of Myra, was confiscated and the community dispersed.
Adam and Eve Church
In the following century, the Friars worked secretly in the Cook Street area. At that time they said Mass in the Adam and Eve Tavern, hence the popular name of the present day Church. Following Catholic Emancipation the Friars were able to build a new church at Merchants Quay, and the foundation stone was laid in 1834. For over a century the main work of the Friars was in the church services offered to the people of Dublin. Merchants Quay was a popular place for confessions, Mass was readily available, a thriving Third Order developed and devotion to St. Anthony was cultivated. Until the 1960’s, Merchants Quay was one of the most popular and well-attended churches in Dublin City.
The 1960’s saw profound changes in Ireland and in the Church. People began to move out of the city centre, tenements were torn down and communities dispersed to new estates in the suburbs. Following the Second Vatican Council, the Church began to take a greater interest in matters of social justice. The Franciscans could no longer ignore the poverty and the social problems on their own doorstep and as a result, some of the Friars became involved in justice activities. The first Simon Community was set up on the Friar’s property on Winetavern Street in 1969.
The Tea Rooms
St Francis Food Centre for the poor and homeless (the Tea Rooms) was opened by the Friars the same year. It all started with two Franciscan friars and a cup of tea. Brother Salvador Kenny, the tailor who made the friary habits, and sacristan Brother Sebastian Tighe began serving tea and sandwiches to homeless men who took refuge in the church during the day.
Drugs invade Dublin
By the early 1980’s, the need for help became more diverse, as the European drugs explosion hit Ireland. “There would have been a huge increase in heroin use” recalls CEO of Merchants Quay Ireland, Tony Geoghegan. “And there’d always been a kind of informal support network around the friary, a lot of drug users who were HIV positive were coming in for help because they were excluded from treatment.” So in 1989, the friars gave Father Sean Cassin two rooms at the front of the friary to set up a counselling and drop-in centre. Merchants Quay Project was born and demand was instant.
Merchants Quay Project
In 1991 Merchants Quay project was granted charitable status, offering care and treatment to drug users and their families – and opening the country’s first NGO needle exchange. Prior to this point, all help had been voluntary, and there was no state funding. But it was time to “formalise our response” recounts Geoghegan. “I was the first paid staff member. I came on in 1991 and I’ve been here ever since.”
Growth & Change
By the mid-1990’s Merchants Quay service included a formal 16-week drug-free rehabilitation programme in High Park, day programmes and counselling at the converted Friday garage on Wintavern Street, and the meals service still run on Cook Street by Brother Sebastian. But Br. Sebastian was getting on in years and things were changing, remembers Brother Gabriel, who now helps provide pastoral care across MQI facilities. “It had grown so much from a cup of tea and a warm place to dry your clothes.”
Echoes Brother Philip, “In a sense, we’ve been doing it for 800 years – no one would ever be turned away.” But the time had come for the friars to step away from the coal face and into a pastoral care level. “I’d see the young people waiting inside for breakfast, looking so desperate. The whole scene had changed. It needed professional people.”
In 2001, the now homeless and drugs services operating at Merchants Quay were brought together under one management structure and became Merchants Quay Ireland.
In 2012 we moved into the newly refurbished Riverbank Open Access Centre on Merchants Quay. This allowed us to bring all crisis services under one roof giving us the space to meet increasing demand, particularly for our meal service.
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